Quote of the Day (Lee Bessette)

“One of my husband’s former professor’s used to tell her students that education is the only thing we’re generally happy getting less of for our money. We’re happy when the professor cancels class. We’re happy with less homework, less requirements, less writing, less reading, less seat time, less, less, less. There are exceptions to this, those who realize that they are paying for the privilege of higher education, a privilege that women, minorities, and lower-classes have fought for throughout history. But the overwhelming message in our society right now is, the quicker, the better, which is interpreted as the lesser, the better. My students don’t seem to see education as an opportunity, but instead as a chore, and by extension, my required class a just one more obstacle standing in their way to degree completion.”

— Lee Bessette, “Attendance, Retention, and College Success” in Inside Higher Ed

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  • Carl W. Conrad

    J.H. Randall, Jr. somewhere cited the opening line of Aristotle’s Metaphysics (“All human beings naturally yearn for knowledge.”) and commented, “Aristotle obviously never encountered the American college student.

  • Gary

    Normal 18-22 year old’s are usually seeking beer, sex, and social encounters (not necessarily in that order), more than education. I hate to say this, but the socially inept students, usually make the best grades. A guy like Dirac is a perfect example. He can’t communicate/relate properly with humans, so he plunges headlong into math and physics as his primary world.

  • Infants and young children love to learn and can’t get enough of learning. There have been enough studies to show that formal schooling all too often has the unfortunate habit of suppressing that innate desire. (There are exceptional schools where the methods and curricula do indeed encourage and maintain pupil interest in and love of learning.)

    How many professors are trained as educators? How many units of adolescent educational psychology courses have they undertaken? How many have been exposed to the research on various methods of teaching and motivating young adults?

    Yet for the around 90% of classes and professors that young people find simply suck there are 10% they do find meaningful.

    As a teacher of many years myself with post grad quals in educational studies I considered it my failure — not the students — if they failed to be motivated by what I had to teach. Formal schooling constraints make motivating difficult but that’s another challenge — but there are fewer constraints on what professors teach at the tertiary level.

  • Let me
    apologize for the length of this in advance (I once wrote 5,000 words about a
    single episode of LOST), and for my seemingly incessant need to use
    parenthetical asides (it’s a conversational writing habit I seem to lean on
    largely because my lack of understanding of proper English grammar is
    borderline tragic). As a not-so-long ago college student myself (class of 2010,
    hey Dr. McGrath!), I would make the point that there can definitely be a
    disconnect between what professors see as a lack of interest in their students
    to learn and simply a lack of interest in what is being taught (of course this
    was never a problem in your classes! Still brown nosing two years later!). I’d
    be the first to tell you that I skipped a lot of classes in college, a lot of
    classes, but it was never because I had the mindset that learning wasn’t
    important (I genuinely believe it is the most important thing a person can do),
    rather it was that I often felt like lectures were a waste of my time.

    I can’t
    tell you how many professors I had who seemed to operate under the assumption
    that their students had not read the material assigned, and so, in what I
    perceived to be an effort to not fail half their class (and thus probably
    garner poor evaluation scores) they would reteach said material as if it were
    fresh knowledge. While I can appreciate that these professors may have had
    sound reasons for doing this (as I’m sure the vast majority of the class did
    not in fact read the material), it also had the consequence of giving those of
    us in the class who did value our education and who did read the material, a
    feeling of being disrespected and overlooked. How is it fair to require our
    attendance (these same professors of course having the power to lower our grade
    if we missed X number of classes regardless of how we did on other performance measurements
    [tests, papers, etc.]) if you are simply going to reteach to us the information
    that we just spent 2 hours learning on our own the night before? I was being
    crushed under the weight of the debt I incurred to go to that institution of
    higher learning, and yet many of my professors seemed content to essentially
    read to me from a text book (an experience I could recreate myself for a small
    fraction of the price by perusing old editions at my local half-price

    I guess my
    ultimate point here is similar to the one that several people have already
    made, and that is that if you (to be clear I am using “you” in the
    collective sense and not suggesting that you, Dr. McGrath, are guilty of this)
    want your students to come to your classes with the passion for learning that
    many professors seem to lament the absence of, you must demonstrate to me that
    you are deserving of it. I understand that you spent many years of hard work to
    garner the knowledge that you are now trying to pass on to me, but you must
    also understand that my time is valuable to me and I am not going to spend it
    relearning the same things that you yourself demanded that I already know. I’m
    giving up a lot to be here (if you’ve had the experience of trying to dig out
    from under $100,000 worth of student loans, especially in this depressed
    economy, then you probably have some understanding of what I mean) so please treat
    my learning with the same level of passion and deliberation that you are
    requesting I do.


  • I follow several economists who have taken to discussing incentives for going to college.  They seem to agree that there are both “human capital” and “signaling” components, though which is more important is a matter of debate. I see this quote as reflecting the “signaling” aspect of higher education: students don’t want the content of the classes, especially those that seem unrelated or tangential to their career or life goals, but they want the achievement of completing a degree in order to get better jobs.

    I hope that higher education becomes more modular. I think the classical university model is not suited to most people, even though demand among employers for college-degreed workers is rising. As long as finishing college is in and of itself a desired trait, students will view uninteresting classes as chores.

  • Thanks, Josh (and everyone) for commenting! It seems to me that, to the extent that classes simply focus on going over reading done for homework, there is indeed a problem. Under such circumstances, I might indeed expect the motivated and passionate to decide to spend class periods reading more rather than simply reviewing.

    But I think the problem Bassette is pointing to is one that is different, and far more common, even if the symptoms may be the same. If a few find that classes are not challenging them as much as they are capable of, I can say from experience that many more simply don’t know why they are being asked to be challenged in classes that do not relate to the profession they hope to pursue. Having taught in several different sections of my university’s core curriculum, there are a minority who embrace the learning offered, whether about philosophy, literature, world cultures, or something else, and a majority who are resentful that they are required to take such courses.

    I suspect that what happens is that some professors (myself included at times) teach in a manner that seeks to address that larger apathetic segment, and in so doing, we probably not only fail to reach most of them, but also alienate in the process the few who understood from the outset why they are there.

    Josh, I would be very interested to know whether what I just wrote rings true from the perspective of your experience. (I’d also be interested to hear from others.)