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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Edumacation with Calvin and Hobbes: Calvin has Character

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In my 11 years of reading Calvin and Hobbes, I would like to think that I have developed an understanding of Calvin’s character. Not only does the strip provide a poignant commentary on education, but it provides a personality that is remarkably befitting of many stages of life, from childhood to adolescence, and beyond. As such, Calvin displays many of the qualities of a college student. We can analyze his personality to determine why students may struggle or succeed in their educational careers.

The strip above displays a common phenomenon. A student demanding a lot from their institution, but perhaps is unwilling to work hard. Like Calvin, many students today harbor cynical attitudes toward the way they are educated. Part of the reason may be that schooling prior to college is seen largely as a burden, with boring lessons and distasteful structure.

A lot of students may feel marginalized, especially in a large university like UC Davis. And when this marginalization occurs, people tend to look inward. One of Calvin’s most prolific traits is his superiority complex. I would not be surprised to find larger universities harboring a bunch of Calvins to this respect. When connecting with others (faculty, friends, advisors) becomes harder, people naturally act like their own beliefs and opinions are final. Presented with such a mass of people, it can be destabilizing not to think that you are separate in some way from everybody else.

A superiority complex, which is inherently narcissistic, never helps anybody learn. Part of the challenge of higher education is finding a group of peers who will properly criticize your work. One trait of narcissism is wanting success for yourself at the hazard of others. The hazard in education may be improper feedback. It’s a vicious cycle. The narcissist wants approval from others, so he gives shoddy feedback to his peer, and in return, the peer has an inflated sense of how good his own work is.

Calvin’s desire to be handed opportunity and skills for a “tough, global economy” suggests he is aware of the challenges that await him. Today’s college students have a similar awareness, and demand the tools to compete as well. What these tools specifically are is frustratingly ambiguous. In past columns, we’ve discussed how a college degree, in general, can be seen as a necessary tool in the job market, and how high critical thinking skills reflect positive economic signals. These are both tools we expect the institution to foster. But what about Ms. Wormwood’s opinion? What if the greatest tool is the student’s work ethic and attitude?

Many workers in the job market say that the degree they earned in college has hardly affected their occupation. I sometimes joke that my father is a real estate agent because he majored in sociology. These changes can dishearten many people, who envisioned themselves at the top of their field of study. It takes a certain mindset to be able to pivot from your first choice to something you don’t immediately find appeal in.

Students must apply this mindset to their studies. We cannot simultaneously demand skills and not work hard. Most students understand this in theory, but act on it in counterproductive ways. In a society replete with technology, many students are entirely aware of distraction, but fail to do anything about it. Our education is starting to be presented in the same formats as our entertainment, blurring the lines between study and pleasure. A student will read an academic paper on the same device they use to listen to music. The addictive, instantly gratifying qualities of social media are at odds with the slow process of learning. Like Calvin, students begin to feel disillusioned; they feel that they may not in fact be getting their money’s worth (whether they do or not is irrelevant here).

What is important is a sense of self-awareness that accounts for potential traits like narcissism. This type of awareness is one of Calvin’s defining characteristics. It helps to know how we may be contradicting ourselves, so we can make positive changes. Ms. Wormwood expects Calvin to try harder in school, but what she would probably really love is for him to first have his own reason to change. I suspect this reason may be why self-aware people are stereotypically depressed. They know they need to change, but they don’t, and it hurts.

What this discussion amounts to is the need for personality overhauls. Students need to find out what they value, and pursue it in a way that does not compromise their visions and desires. It seems obvious to say, but the most important player in education is the student. If they’re not diligent in the way they pull their end, very little learning will occur.

To diagnose ELI FLESCH’s personality type, you can reach him at ekflesch@ucdavis.edu or tweet him @eliflesch.

Photo by Courtesy

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