I asked my students to read the essay I discuss in this post, and to explain which of Menand’s three “theories” they subscribed to. Their responses were mixed. Then they asked me which theory I believed in, and I was unable to give them a definitive answer. Almost three years later, I’m still not sure. What about you?
This, my eighth-most-shared post of the last seven years, first appeared in 2011.
Every so often, students ask me, “Why do we have to learn this?”
It’s no use telling them that learning is a good thing, period. They’re taking seven or eight classes. Some are doing “part-time” jobs that have them working thirty hours a week. Making out with their boyfriends is a good thing. Playing Mortal Kombat is a good thing. Reading a book or understanding “setting” is … required for some reason.
In an essay called “Live and Learn: Why We Have College,” Louis Menand reports that, soon after he started teaching at a public university, a student asked him, “Why did we have to read this book?” (a question Menand says he never got at his former, Ivy League, teaching job. This surprises me a little.) According to Menand, your answer to this question will depend on your view of university education.
Those who hold one view will say,
You are reading these books because you’re in college, and these are the kinds of books that people in college read.
For such people, a university degree is a signal that one has learned certain things, a useful tag for indicating that you know things that other people don’t, that you’ve read books that non-university people have not.
Those holding another view will say,
You’re reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.
This view holds that
people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.
That is to say: because you’re in college, you have a chance to do things that are valuable, but that won’t necessarily earn you a big salary or help you land a client. So read this book that I say will improve you.
If you believe that college is a threshing machine, separating wheat from chaff (Theory 1), then grades, at least passing ones, are what matters, so that when you graduate, you will be seen as wheat, not chaff, in the larger world. If you believe that college is a place to accumulate knowledge that will serve you in all aspects of your life and self, (Theory 2), then learning is what matters, regardless of the grades attached to it.
These theories are not compatible. Learning requires risks, frustrations, even failures. “Good grades,” more often than not, require a lot of memorization, or at least an understanding of what the teacher wants and a willingness to try to produce it. A desire for good grades can be detrimental to actual learning.
As Menand points out, though, our colleges and universities (and, I would add, our schools, from first grade forward) seem to operate as though BOTH theories were true. We tell our students that learning is what matters, that we are teaching them to think critically, that they will be better, fuller people because they went to college. And then we teach them that a bad grade is, well, bad. Sometimes we even get angry with them because they fail a test or misunderstand an assignment.
To complicate matters, Menand claims that these two theories really only address education of the liberal arts variety. Most college students, on the other hand, are not majoring in humanities of any kind: the most popular major in the US is business, followed by education and the health professions. For these students, Menand writes, university is about neither grades as a sorting tool nor learning for its own sake.
The theory that fits their situation—Theory 3—is that advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation…
Nevertheless, he points out, students in these programs are almost always required to take courses in English and other humanities. This is where many – perhaps most – of the students in my English classes find themselves. Everyone must take four English courses, regardless of their program. There is no literature major at my college; the closest we have are programs in communications (subtitle: art, media, theatre) and in modern languages, along with a very small liberal arts cohort. Most of my students are in science, social science, or professional programs. Science students are usually strong students, and sometimes they care about learning things, but their bent is often toward getting into medical school or engineering programs in university (Theory 1). Social science students, especially those without specialized majors, frequently have no idea what they want to do and had poor high school grades, making them ineligible for more rigorous programs (Theory? What theory?) And students in industrial electronics or office systems technology or nursing are likely to tell me that they can see the point of learning grammar or maybe even how to structure an essay, but reading Death of a Salesman is of no use to them whatever (Theory 3).
And really, are they wrong? The fact is, unless I or another English teacher sparks something in them that gives Death of a Salesman meaning, it might forever remain a dead pile of alphabet on the page for them (or maybe it will forever remain the image of John Malkovich, as Biff, dripping from all his facial orifices as he weeps, a scene students find both disgusting and hilarious.)
Our vision of “college” is hopelessly outdated. Throughout his essay, Menand outlines the same historical trajectory that Alan Jacob does: the broadening of the university student population since the days when a college education was reserved for the upper classes. By the 1980s, universities were full of people of all different cultural, educational, gender and economic backgrounds, many of whom could never have gone to college in the pre-war era.
These students did not regard college as a finishing school or a ticket punch. There was much more at stake for them …. For these groups, college was central to the experience of making it—not only financially but socially and personally. They were finally getting a bite at the apple. College was supposed to be hard. Its difficulty was a token of its transformational powers. This is why “Why did we have to buy this book?” [is] such a great question. The student who asked it was not complaining. He was trying to understand how the magic worked.
Menand is describing a Theory 1 response that he feels has all but disappeared: going to college makes me important and special. I know that some of my students still feel this; they may have recently arrived in Canada from a place where a university education was impossible for them, or they may come from a family where they are the first to have graduated from high school.
Most, however are NOT trying to understand some magic external to themselves. When my students ask, “Why do I have to learn this?”, they are trying to make sense of a system that seems arbitrary, full of hoops to jump through and dead-end labyrinths. They truly do not understand why they have to do all these things we’re asking them to do. What does this have to do with my career, or my life? they ask.
Maybe it’s never been explained to them, but more likely, it’s been explained to them over and over, and they just. Don’t. Buy it. And why not? Because it’s MY theory, MY reasoning, MY agenda, and I have not even taken a second to ask what their agendas are.
Is it possible for us to take the question “Why do I have to learn this?” seriously? Because it is a serious question. We often moan about how students no longer want to learn for the sake of learning, but we need to think about what we’re saying. “Learning for its own sake” is an incredibly privileged activity, one that requires time, money, and the luxury of wandering along a wide, brachiated path into the future. Most students do not have these privileges; they need to see their school and homework hours as useful. If I can’t convince them that the definition of “useful” is bigger than the definition we’ve taught them until now, then a passing grade will be their only incentive.
“Why do I have to read/think about/know this?” is a place at which education can begin, if we answer the question authentically, or, even better, if we ask them to answer it for us. If we show interest in their theories, they might become curious about ours, and together, we might be able to make some learning happen.
Monday: how I saved my teaching career.
Image by Bjorn Snelders