Commencing College

Commencement speakers seem to offer variations on the same themes, at least at all the graduations I’ve attended, and then comes an interminable march of graduates across a stage where they shake hands with administrators and teachers. That is a perfect time to consider why they’re, and we’re, there anyway.

Almost everyone (96%) believes, according to a recent Gallup-Lumina poll, that a postsecondary education is important. At the same time, many believe that it is unaffordable for everyone who needs one (79%) and that it needs to change to meet students’ needs better (80%).

This need is reinforced by other research. Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, for example, report in Academically Adrift (2010) and Aspiring Adults Adrift (2014) that more than one-third (36%) of students at different colleges and universities did not demonstrate any significant improvement in their learning over four years of classes and that many of these still struggled with establishing their independence or forming satisfying relationships after graduation.

Some disagree with ways these researchers defined and measured learning, and yet most can recognize the significance of these issues, especially given that more than 4 in 10 (42%) 18- to 24-year olds, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, are enrolled in postsecondary institutions where approximately 21 million students of all ages attend classes.

A college education certainly is important, and it is sometimes unaffordable and needs to change. At the same time, our expectations for a college education also need to change.

Most (93%) believe, according to that recent poll, that postsecondary certificates or degrees will be as or more important for good jobs, which are important for good lives (78%), and few believe that these good jobs will be available to those who only have a high school diploma (19%).

Part of the problem, however, is that such perspectives presume that the purpose of college is specialized professional training. This presumption is also evident in the debates of prospective students and their parents over the demands of specialized engineering programs, for example, or undergraduate degrees linked to dental programs, which overlook the majority who will change majors or, perhaps worse, never explore other options.

A better perspective, I believe, is that the primary purpose of a college education is general intellectual development, in which, as Fareed Zakaria (2015) explains in his recent book A Defense of a Liberal Education, students learn to read, write, and think.

Too many students seem to think that they’ve done their part by getting admitted, paying tuition, and coming sometimes to class. That, I explain on the first day of every semester, is only the prerequisite, and the challenge — learning — is everything that happens, or doesn’t happen, next.

Teaching, I insist throughout the term, is facilitating learning, and learning, I maintain, is doing. I’m no sage on stage, to use the cliché, but a guide on the side, and on their side. I supply the materials — ideas and concepts, histories and theories, and regular feedback, sometimes as grades — and they must make something.

Given how many resist, I wonder at the end of every semester if my efforts are effective. Such an approach, which foregrounds their learning, requires additional work. Also, it is often inconsistent with evaluation instruments, which presume more teacher-centered classrooms that students expect.

Nothing is easier than preparing series of lectures, even thoughtfully sequenced ones, that can be delivered semester after semester. Students seem to know what is happening when I lecture despite the mixed messages, such as the suggestion that knowledge exists in external repositories only to be accessed by experts. Why configure and comment on class discussion boards, especially when so many will ignore replies from the graduate assistant or me?

In these and other ways, we need to change our expectations for an effective college education, which should suggest that an intellectual life is an engaged endeavor, one that affects everyday experiences beyond classrooms. That would make every college commencement, no matter the speaker or the length, a common cause for community celebration.

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