Friday, August 25, 2006

What is education?

That is the question I'll be tackling this year in my class and more broadly throughout the college community. It is a question I think all of us in the academic world attempt to answer for ourselves and our students every class we teach. We may be teaching literature or writing or math, but we are also always teaching something about what we think education is or should be and how we think our students should pursue it. I think it's fair to say that many of us in higher education resist the notion put forth by "No Child Left Behind" that education is something that is easily testable and that you can say if Johnny passes x exam, he has indeed received an education. I know people with high school diplomas that I would say are extraordinarily educated and I know people with college degrees who are woefully ignorant. The idea of education, too, I think is tied up with issues of class and race and gender. Does education mean the same thing to people in different socioeconomic levels?

In my class, which I wrote about before, we will be exploring college life from many different angles and trying to answer the question what is higher education, what is its purpose? And I want my students to reflect on the reasons they are in college and what they want to get out of it. How does the purpose of college shift depending on your role in the college? A faculty member sees the purpose quite differently from a student. I spent a chunk of my vacation reading my entire reading list and it's really made me think about that question. When I went to college, I wanted it to be an intellectually stimulating place where I could ponder the big life questions. I was disappointed to find that many of my fellow students didn't see it that way. They saw it as a place to be free from parental reign and do all those things they couldn't do in high school: stay out late, get drunk, skip class. But I also found myself struggling against the strictures of the classroom. Though I wanted to learn, I was often overwhelmed by the work and had trouble balancing my social life and my school life. I gravitated toward classes where there was more freedom to explore ideas--literature, philosophy--and was less about learning facts--science. Looking back, however, I see that what I learned in college had as much to do with what went on outside the class than what happened in the classroom. In fact, I think I'd argue that the lessons that stick with me are the ones that could abstractly be called "life lessons." I'm very interested in hearing what my students' expectations of college are. I have a feeling they're very different from me when it comes to what they expect and how they will ultimately engage with college life.

In addition to my class, I'm participating in an initiative that, loosely speaking, seeks to spread the educational mission of the college to all its members, including the staff. What does education mean for a housekeeper? What can someone like me or a faculty member or a student learn from someone who works in facilities? These are tough questions, I think. I'm involved in this initiative in part because of my interest in and knowledge of various technologies. I am chafing against the idea that technology is just a skill to be learned. To me, technology, especially web technologies, can open up a whole new way of learning and interacting with information and people. Certainly there are skills to be learned before that can happen, but the point of learning the skills isn't just to say that you now know those skills. The point is you now have the ability to be learning for yourself--about whatever you want. I think, too, in the background of all of this will be the same question I'm asking of my students, "What is higher education? What is its purpose?" The staff involved in this initiative may come up with very different answers from my students. Maybe, it will turn out, they don't see that higher education owes them anything. Maybe they will feel they aren't contributing to that mission, that they are tangential to it. Maybe they want even more from than the students. Maybe they will see life-changing possibilities. I honestly don't know.

I think this will be an interesting intersection for me, to stand once again on both sides of the fence and examining the relationship between the two sides and trying to discover what each side can learn from the other. I'm not sure I'll come up with a definitive answer to the question about what education is, but I think I'll hear and see a lot of different possibilities.