I came to college to learn. I’m interested in many subjects and have been fortunate throughout my life to enjoy the benefits of top quality public education. But learning, when done right, is never easy, and is often hindered by varying circumstances, policies and individuals.
Calvin, from the popular comic, Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, lives the woes of modern education and displays intelligent cynicism on the matter — an intelligence distinct from the poor test grades he receives. Calvin and Hobbes can help us understand issues concerning education in a comical way (because I’ll be damned if I make this column another homework assignment).
This column will address the discrepancy between self-education and institutional education. The strip above illustrates the problem in a simple manner: boy feels he’s learned enough, teacher says no, boy sits back down.
Institutional education (which sounds bad, I know) exists in part to provide resources and professional guidance to students. It presupposes that the teachers know more than the student and that the student will benefit from time in their company. Often, teachers do know more. But sometimes, they do not, and these circumstances can be difficult: a professor has spent their lives invested in academia, and you?— you’re a pompous eighteen-year-old, who doesn’t have credentials. Still, the closed-minded professor is no myth.
Compromise has always been the best method for centering two opposites. Discussion forums provide compromise in our higher institutions. An active exchange of ideas benefits everybody, but in primary and secondary education, discussion is often squelched. Participation rates are low and participation grades often have the effect of doling out an easy 10 to 20 percent of a student’s grade. Even the boy as quiet as a mouse in the back corner scrapes up a couple points.
The participation in the classroom only slightly improves in college, a phenomenon which I believe can be explained by the fact that most students find a niche in college and want to talk about what interests them. Still, I’ve been in a 500-student lecture where not one person was brave enough to ask a question (including me — “I had no question”).
The irony here is that smaller classes find more people talking up — at UC Davis, these classes are called discussions. A classroom is cozier than a lecture hall. These classes are often held weekly, taught by a teaching assistant and go on for an hour. Let me ask: Why? I came to college to learn; if the compromise in learning is discussion, why does the institution give us such little time in the tight-knit classroom, when there should really be more?
The solution might be an academic Freaky Friday of sorts, which would involve the professor leading discussion (where their expanded knowledge would be more required than in lecture) and the TA going over the basics in lectures that occur once or twice a week.
The contrast between discussion classes and lectures seems to echo the classic liberal arts college vs. research university argument, which is that professors have more time for students at liberal arts schools. But why should a research university be much different? To account for the large amount of discussion section, perhaps a professor should be required to host a third of discussion sessions, and do a lecture per week.
One could even argue for making office hours on an appointment only basis, given that all the students would be in direct contact with the professor through discussion. This contact, which would be conducive to research, would give the professor a large pool of students for finding potential research assistants. The whole process would be more involved, help mutual learning and would show how being more interactive with students will benefit the professors working at a research university.
I wonder what Calvin would think. He would probably shun any form of enclosed environment, preferring the great outdoors to any inkling of authority. Well, the unruly boy is only six years old; he has a lot of truths to learn. Though I find it hard not to sympathize with him given the stare-down he’s just received from that dastardly teacher.
To tell Eli that he needs an education, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @eliflesch.