When talking about ways to improve the value of education, most debates center on what teachers and institutions can do to improve a student’s experience. Less is said about how students can help themselves. As illustrated above, Calvin seems to be suffering from a lack of intellectual curiosity in the classroom. He vocalizes a certain inevitability in education — that students are ultimately in charge of whether or not they take an interest on a subject.
Engaging students is an uphill battle, but it’s not impossible. Professors can, and often do, interest students in their fields. The best professors are visibly enthusiastic about their fields; they make their teaching inclusive and accessible. This enthusiasm acts as a prerequisite for making a student curious. Without this type of engagement, the entire onus is put on the student.
While students are largely responsible for their own academic interests, some policies and technological trends are making it harder for true engagement. This difficulty starts in lower education. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 established a system in which primary and secondary institutions receive federal funding that is contingent on states administering their own standardized tests and developing their own curriculum.
NCLB can be held partly responsible for stifling curiosity in the classroom. In order to make sure each school performs well, teachers may “teach to the test” or develop their own curriculum to match what will be tested, and only what will be tested. Consequently, students are not exposed to the more imaginative, non-tested facets of their teacher’s knowledge, which leads students to become complacent. This is especially damaging when compounded with the increasing pace of technology and its potential to decrease attention span.
For Calvin, the classroom is his vice. He values a self-taught experience. In one comic, he takes pleasure in reading a book about dinosaurs until an authority figure praises him for it. It’s clear that a large component of intellectual curiosity comes from an individual’s desire to invest their own time.
When students don’t take their own time to appreciate a given topic, the teacher is tasked to fill this responsibility — to make students appreciate. Calvin demonstrates that this is less than ideal for both parties (two packs of cigarettes? — sounds taxing).
Despite all the problems associated with intellectual curiosity, I am more optimistic about potential solutions than pessimistic about the issues. One practical response starts in the classroom. UC Davis offers personalized majors, and many professors will let you create your own essay topics. And while these options are not mandatory, perhaps they should be. They would force students to ask themselves what they find interesting.
This free-range attitude might be most effective in our NCLB school system. I would imagine that an English professor would find more pleasure in reading a diverse set of essays written with more care than dozens written on one stale topic. Each topic would likely have to be approved in advance, and a single rubric would become obsolete, thus making the whole process less efficient. But what should we value more: efficiency or engaged students?
In the long run, education must become a priority for policymakers. Children and young adults follow models. I recently read an article titled “The Cult of Elon Musk,” describing the zealotry of those who follow the Tesla Motors CEO. Education needs its own Musk. The Nobel committee awarding Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi the Nobel Peace Prize shows an increasingly global awareness of the importance of education and curiosity.
Take a look, Calvin: Malala’s only eleven years older than you. You’ve got a standard cut out for yourself.
To share your own interests, you can reach ELI FLESCH at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @eliflesch.
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