Rethinking College in America
An open letter from a former professor to the students he might have had
There’s so much that is distressing these days. We live in upside-down times. But there is a future, there has to be, one that you can change, one that you can control. And being ready for it likely means an education that you are not used to, not trained for, one in which you take full charge, one that matters more than a midterm exam, a final grade, a piece of paper at the end of the run. And it is certainly not one that follows the ghosts of an essentially unaltered American educational system that has been in place for nearly 200 years.
A month ago I retired from my job as an associate professor, and I’ve had time to think about the work I’ve done for nearly two decades. Mostly importantly, the time I’ve spent in the classroom, the most important part of my tenure. Truth is, I’ve thought about this for a long time, and I’ve come to the clear conclusion that colleges have lost their way, that the American higher-education system needs to be disrupted.
Before you head off to classes this fall, maybe for the first time or the last, I offer some matters to consider, to reconsider, and to rethink before you tumble into or out of what has become an antiquated and rigid system.
It is no secret that in my final years of teaching I had became tired of the American college administrative culture, the over zealous emphasis on academic minutiae. For me, and for many of my teaching colleagues who told me so, there is an over-emphasis on attempts to somehow administrator learning as if the college was a health clinic giving out prescription medication. Do this, take this, you’ll feel better, you’ll be successful, you’ll get that job. Some colleges are heavier on this approach than others, but to some extent they all follow it blindly with only lip service to what really matters — the ability to learn, unlearn, relearn — and to do it quickly — to change the future of what we consider work, success, or fulfillment, and not to be manipulated by arcane thinking and practices. You’ll hear a lot of talk about this at your college, but not much true action. As a student, be aware that there are many — not all, but many administrators — who know how to express what sounds quite appealing, but are clueless to the realities of the learning process and its subtitles, believing that building curricula that can be “sold” to you, like a product, is the measure of academic success. It’s a backwards approach.
Certainly this will sound radical to some, but try your hardest not to focus so much on your grade. You’ve been programmed to do the opposite. Sill, give it your best shot. For many years, I’ve told my students that if I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t give them a grade. You have been manipulated to see the grade as a signature of success. Since your days in elementary school, you’ve have been encouraged to strive for that A, instead of striving for knowledge, skills, and the ability to learn a life skill, or to learn to think. Grades get in the way. I have had many students who plead and sweat over less than a percentage point on a grade because that grade is linked to a scholarship or financial aid, and not at all connected to the real matter at hand — learning. Measure your classes through what you learn, what you can apply, how they feed you mind and soul. Be honest with yourself. The college grading process is a dinosaur, and it’s a disservice to you. Remember, no future employer is ever going to ask you what grade you earned in Greek Philosophy 101. But if you take with you the knowledge of the philosophical approach, then you are on to something far more valuable.
Go to college, but evaluate its meaning every step of the way. Do not move blindly, as if numbed, through your years of education. Sometimes college is not the right answer. Certainly, if you want to be a medical doctor, college is necessary, but if you wish to expand your horizons, become more aware of yourself and your world, backpacking through Europe might be the better option. Continually assess your wants, needs, abilities, finances, dreams, and most importantly, if you know where you want to go with your life, (sometimes you don’t yet, and that’s okay, too) talk to people in the fields that you wish to enter. They are more likely to have better answers than the college administrators or advisors. I was lucky enough to work with instructors at my college, many times, who were practitioners in their industries. That’s not always the case. Beware of the teacher who has spent only minimal time, or has never been active in his field. So much is changing, so fast, that even one year out of an industry can be a lifetime.
Fight tuition increases. Protest them. Yell. Call your college. Send emails. America has lost its way on this when so many other countries have better, more progressive models for educating their people without sending them into debt.
And lastly, and most crucially, check your mental health. Be honest with yourself and keep tabs on others. Much of what I brought up here — grades, finances, fragile dreams — many times, unfortunately, produce unhealthy, unattainable expectations. Again, a systemic breakdown. You cannot fulfill all of what today’s colleges ask of you. But you should know, you don’t have to. It’s simply not possible for everyone to get their dream job, their dream life. But it is possible to learn how to progress, grow, and shift. That is what college should be — helping you to understand and assisting you to develop the skills to make the best effort, take the best shot at your dreams, and to become an informed and educated citizen of the world.
If I could, I would lead the charge to reimagine college in America. It’s desperately needed. But the truth is, the future of those changes is up to you, the student, the one who becomes a serious advocate for real learning and an honest future. Don’t allow the archaic ways of a system that rely on century-old models of education to define your goals through the lens of a tired academic system. This fits only the needs of the institution, not you. Break the rules. Knock down walls. And strive for real learning — the relearning, rethinking, and reinventing of your education.
It’s your life. Own it.