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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Defining Moments

There is an increasing clamor for the bureaucratization of college education. For many, globalization reemphasizes the demand for technical expertise. To thrive in the current economic mode is to attain the very specific skill sets employers require – to the extent that “a humanities education,” as the New York Times reports, may become “a great luxury that many cannot afford.” The oft-cited resolution is simply to shift the focus of college education to align with global economic patterns.

This approach ignores the fundamental premise of a college education.

Education is the empowerment of minds allied to active emotional maturation. At its essence, learning isn’t merely about the absorption of information. Instead, it is acquiring the ability to understand complexity, to map the details and networks in the grand scheme of order and articulate the resulting conclusions with flourish. It helps one think and reason through ambiguity.

In this respect, a diverse college education expands, not narrows, intellectual horizons. Utilized beneficially, individuals grow. Through an exposure not to a specific technical vocation, one gains the essential analytical skills and appreciative fervor for the canon of established knowledge – from Nietzsche’s existential nihilism to chaos theory to Modigliani-Miller’s powerful model of financial leverage. This diversity provides a perspective of independence.

One prevalent problem with this goal, including at UC Davis, is the tendency for students to skip the personal inquiry step for top grades. At college, one’s understanding is evaluated through the assignment of grades. Grades illustrate one’s ability to thrive in challenging subject materials while balancing the demands of professional growth, healthy emotional lives, personal relationships and continuous leadership opportunities. They indicate one’s ability to multitask under intense time pressure.

But too often students cram at the expense of focused and dedicated learning. Cramming is short-term, instant memorization frequently consequent of poor time management. At times, in the busy, distractive pacing of today’s society, cramming is unavoidable as it is necessary. But the potential for abuse is high, and frequenting this behavior as a general form of study misses the endeavor that goes into actual learning. This prevents active intellectual curiosity.

In this context, one’s focus is on the solutions, not the thought-process. This is a problem that must be resolved.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the second premise of a diverse college education is to help one integrate into institutionalized communal structures. As the New York Times columnist David Brooks describes the situation, “we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us.” Precisely because society is organized around certain requisite norms and commonly agreed behavioral principles, one’s comprehension and practice of certain attitudes are essential. To succeed in society, one must acclimatize to the preset rules and precepts. Certain patterns of actions must be adhered to.

In this sense, college, by its very function of instruction, is responsible to provide a platform for the cultivation of mannerisms, etiquette, ethics and grace. Through a setting for character growth, one develops the ability to emote, to project passion and to express convictions. These skills are what define connections. A diverse education helps one train these soft skills.

A diverse college education, rather than specific technical development, helps one attain the height of human consciousness while adapting to the needs of society. It is to make or bring meaning to what can seem meaningless. The diversity promotes creativity, a willingness to look beyond the obvious, harnesses the power of imagination. In the end, thus, the clamor to design education to train specific technical skills comes at the great expense of many essential life skills.


ZACH HAN thinks college is the best experience … agree at zklhan@ucdavis.edu.


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