Monday, October 24, 2011

Think About Education, Part 2

Graduate school takes up a lot of time.

That is not a complaint.

(It is, however, an excuse for why I haven't posted in a long while. And, if this post seems a bit simplistic, lopsided, or disjointed, it's only because my brain is taking a break from analyzing and synthesizing sources for a research paper--I've sifted through and skimmed over 50 articles and books in the last three days.)

So, yes, I'm having to work hard to maintain "A's" in my classes, but I love the challenge. In fact, this is how I thought undergrad would be. But, really, the last time I had to work this hard was in high school.

So, what does that mean? Does it mean I went to "easy" colleges (I attended several before graduating)? Does it mean I went to an academically competitive high school? (I didn't.)

Perhaps it just means that my teachers in high school adequately prepared me for the college environment, as teachers should. Granted, I was in "honors" and "college prep" classes. One of my English teachers, in particular, pushed and challenged me for most of my high school career. (Maybe it's no surprise that I'm an English major?)

College is not difficult to get in (depending on the institution, of course; there are always exceptions). But didn't it used to be? Colleges used to have standards. Kids spent weeks fretting over essays; they spent years making sure their names were on the honor roll. For some--at least at my high school--it seemed that they spent 12 years studying, just to get into college.

Online college classes (how I ultimately earned my bachelor's and the way I'm taking my master's classes) work great for me. A student takes the educational reins and, in some ways, teaches herself in an online class--you can learn as much or as little as you want; the instructor merely guides you, gives you deadlines, and grades your papers. I've been able to learn more in an online "classroom" than I ever did listening to a typical college lecture. Now a little over halfway through my first semester of grad school, I've realized that the greater expectations and the higher caliber of student I've encountered this time around is what I always expected--but rarely, if ever, saw--in an undergrad class, online or otherwise.

Which leads me to a question I've thought about many times: is college meant for everyone?

Should colleges "dumb down" their standards and curriculum so that they can let more students in?

In doing research for a paper a couple of months ago, I was reading articles in an online journal called OPEN WORDS: Access and English Studies. The journal is intended for higher education English instructors and, in particular, those who work with students with disabilities. The articles talked about ways instructors can work with/address these students. When I started reading OPEN WORDS, I assumed "disabilities" was referring to learning disabilities. In at least one article, though, the authors stated that the term can refer to a variety of things--it could be a physical handicap or an "invisible" disability--a psychological or mental disorder, for instance. It could be a chronic illness. It could be a language barrier. Anyone who strays from the norm.

Which leads to another question: what is the "norm"?

Not everyone should go to college. Not everyone needs to. But anyone who has the desire to learn should have the opportunity to do so, regardless of any disabilities. (I'm not talking financially here; I'm strictly referring to skill and drive.) Working in a university bookstore, I'm privy to some of the ins and outs of certain students' skills, and I've seen a number of students in college who are there merely because somebody else is paying for them to be there. They are unable (or unwilling?) to string basic sentences together, they are unaware of what is expected of them, and--perhaps, worst of all--they don't care.

While all students who want to attend college should have the opportunity, there still need to be standards of some sort. Students ("disability" or not) may need to consult a tutor or work with the professor out-of-class. Otherwise it can be disruptive for students who have been academically prepared for college to sit alongside other students (whether they're "differently-abled" or not) who cannot follow directions or listen, and who do not care.

I know the United States' public education system is broken. It works for some but not for others. Colleges have to cater to a wide variety of abilities and preparedness in their students. But standards tests are not the answer; it is clear that they do not work as intended.

If the system ever gets mended, perhaps colleges can challenge students in a different way? Maybe the colleges will stand for education and learning once again. Maybe they will stop emphasizing sports over education (maybe, but not likely...). Maybe they will stop following the dollar signs and look to the future of this country. This country--the world, actually--needs thinkers. If they aren't challenged in a meaningful way, students will not think. I've mentioned critical thinking in several posts before, but it can't be emphasized enough.

Many Americans' deep thinking abilities have begun to stagnate. Students should come out of an educational setting raring to think and do--to make a difference. College or not, it doesn't matter.

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