| June 27, 2017

Narrowing minds

Narrowing minds
Not all of education has to be immediately useful. Some learning should form a foundation for life

While I was teaching in Kathmandu, in the early 2000s, a BA first-year student handed me an assignment with the word "Bachelor" written next to his name at the top of his paper. "Why announce your marital status on your homework?" I quipped. "No, Sir. It means that I am getting the bachelor's degree." When I hear my undergraduate students who are starting to take engineering courses begin their sentences with "As an engineer, I...," they remind me of the "bachelor." But if my student in Kathmandu had stopped using that term when I taught him the word's usage, my "engineers" today don't seem to care even when they learn how the word is practically used.
I don't entirely blame students who call themselves "engineer" prematurely. For one thing, it is not just that (like the other word "scientist") this term can be used in a generic sense, but there is an underlying issue that is affecting higher education seemingly across the world. Instead of helping young people build more flexible and interdisciplinary foundations of knowledge and skills, nations are disinvesting in education and creating narrower tracks. Even as knowledge diversifies and the professions demand broader knowledge and skill sets, they are creating rather than alleviating financial pressures on those who want to build broader foundations. And the seemingly practical response to financial pressures is creating a belief system that makes students increasingly want to avoid foundational courses in language and communication, mathematics and statistics, creative and critical thinking. They try to be whatever they want to be from the get go.

There are yet other reasons why students just want to focus on becoming that one thing quickly and certainly. For instance, teachers and institutions often don't catch up with the times, so available courses are often outdated. Colleges and universities also put a lot on students' plates before they can move on to specialized tracks. At the university I teach, for instance, engineering major undergraduate students are required to take two courses each in college writing and natural sciences and one course each in "interpreting texts in the humanities," mathematical and statistical "reasoning," understanding fine and performing arts, social and behavioral science (such as economics and psychology), American pluralism, expanding perspectives and cultural awareness, and the world beyond European tradition.

In itself, students' desire to start specializing in their major field must be respected. However, when they run to their chosen interest too fast, students do not realize that most people ahead of them did not go where they planned at their age, did not remain there throughout their lives, and needed all the skills that they considered unimportant (or never realized what they could have learned). Just think about all the would-be doctors who simply could not win a spot in the extremely limited seats in medical schools, the English major working in diplomacy, or the engineer turned businesswoman.

The worst argument against learning what doesn't immediately seem relevant is also the most prominent: students who resist learning usually do so on the basis of whether they find the course or task "interesting." They don't ask about the educational value of the course, how the assignments can help them grow as thinkers and writers and leaders, and why the instructor has built rewards for rigor in work and commitment to learning. Asking whether a course is useful requires the ability to assess the utility of the course in the real world (or wherever the question's premise is). If the objective of the course is improving critical thinking skills, for instance, the student should first invest time for improving those skills.

Asking whether a course or task is "interesting" as a primary criterion for course selection is wrong. Things in life and learning that are very important may be boring—and students who use this as a top criterion tend to lack motivation even when they are talented. What is interesting is also a function of the learner's attitude rather than just an inherent quality of the object/issue. Thus, when we say that a book is interesting, we're also talking about our "finding" it interesting. There is no boring book in the world without at least one bored reader, and the problem may not be the book's alone.

Similarly, not all teachers may be able, and or care about, making lessons interesting, while also focusing on other demands of teaching. In fact, depending on the nature of the subject, the approach and personality of the teacher, the time of the day, and other factors, learners and teachers may both need to entertain one another. Teaching and learning will be interesting only if both sides contribute to it.

Most significantly, part of education is to cultivate intellectual and humanistic skills such as patience and curiosity, humility and respect. It is to learn social skills such as how to engage others—and not just wait to be engaged by others. It is to improve one's personality and citizenship in the local, national, and global community of human beings. So a student who can only pay attention when learning is interesting may either be yet to learn such skills or refusing to do so.

Of course, teachers should try to make learning engaging and fun when and where possible and appropriate. Students tend to be engaged when teachers clearly explain what they're being asked to do, how to do it, and why they should do it. In a class last year, after I explained how students could use the interview required by an assignment to talk to a successful person in the profession of their interest, the assignment led some students into being offered internship or jobs. What could be just a piece of information became interesting because it was useful to students.

But the assumption that it is important to be interested, to like everything you learn, can be dangerous. As children often come to like good food after having to eat it a few times, students should be ready to do hard and often boring work in order to learn something; they may need to change their attitude toward learning.

"To be honest," said one of my undergraduate students recently, "I don't like writing and I don't think think learning the skills taught by this assignment have any value to me as an engineer."

I didn't tell him that he should wait to call himself an engineer, but I asked: "How do you know what you like before you really know what it is like?" I had not yet shared the assignment with the student and his class, and he was yet to learn about the rhetorical analysis of texts written in different disciplines. He could choose an engineering text to analyze, or he could have learned something about what economists call "evidence" and how they go about persuading others.

Teachers alone do not owe it to students to make learning fun and to show it to be immediately useful. Many abilities and skills have varied, changing and unforeseeable applications.

The author is an assistant professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University (State University of New York)
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