Higher EducationPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Why college?

In Jennifer’s latest pop quiz, she asks which level of teacher, elementary, high school, or college, has the toughest job, using a set of e-cards as her inspiration.  She mentions the joys of dealing with younger children offset by their leakiness, and the woes of surly and hormonal adolescence but at least the leaking has stopped.  Considering I am still recovering from my own virally induced leaking, I too enjoy a less damp population and the surliness has indeed usually passed!

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Let’s ask more from our students, tells me my challenges with this set are lack of interest other than a credential:

Rather than challenge students who come in with limited academic interests and overly narrow ideas about the purpose of college, we too often ask little in terms of commitment and offer little in terms of direction.

Wait – I’m supposed to offer direction?  I was under the impression I teach adults.  (Yes I can offer career advice and mentorship, but I can’t tell people what they should be when they grow up.)

Institutions rarely impress upon students that college is not just about obtaining a credential for a job, but also about accepting adult responsibility and participating in democratic citizenship.

I don’t know of a single liberal arts institution that fails to at least attempt this, generally by requiring students take a core of courses intended to highlight exactly what this quote claims is lacking.

If we are to ask more of our students, we will also have to ask more of ourselves. We have too often responded to accreditors’ demands to demonstrate learning outcomes through half-hearted compliance exercises, which were focused on little more than satisfying visiting evaluation teams and achieving a passing grade that would keep accreditors at bay for another five years.

Huh.  So, you (Arum and Roska) are suggesting that our accrediting bodies are doing exactly the same thing we’re supposedly doing in our classes?  My institution recently went through this process and it certainly was not half-hearted, nor did we merely attempt to satisfy the evaluation team.  The team evaluating us did not simply check off on whether we had a core requirement in this or that, did we assess our program goals, etc.

It is high time for educators to say enough is enough. If we continue to sit on our hands, the public’s faith in higher education will continue to erode, and poorly designed accountability frameworks will likely be imposed upon the system. And we will have ourselves to blame.

I would suggest that faith in higher education is being affected more by a poor job market that essentially requires a college degree for entry level positions and skyrocketing costs for higher education rather than a failure in the actual teaching within that educational system.  If we produce well-rounded graduates who are both deeply in debt and can’t find a job, is that our fault?

My job as a teacher is probably no easier than that of an elementary school teacher who establishes what school is all about and lays the fundament of learning in children, while presumably wiping up after them a bit.  It’s definitely no easier that that of a high school teacher who has to ensure basic competencies in the various subjects an informed citizen should have, among the mood swings and challenges to authority.  I generally teach students who are motivated enough to be there simply because they chose this course, to go to college.  Yes, many are taken aback by core requirements and the courses they think are irrelevant, but most see the value in breadth and exposure to other ideas.  My students are overly busy with work to pay for college and families to care for on top of their homework, but they see the value in the education they are offered and take responsibility for their part in it.  I’m nowhere near as cynical about what I do as the authors of the Chronicle article seem to be.

Here’s my question to you: Have we (college professors) lost our purpose?  What should college be offering that it is not?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the afternoon (ET).

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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.

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