There was an article in my school’s student newspaper, in which a student who wished to remain anonymous, self-identifying only as an accounting major, said that they sneak out early from required cultural events, and that they have never been to one that they enjoyed. I decided to blog about it, but also to submit most of what I wrote here as a comment on the website.
First, let me say that I am not convinced that the student is being honest. If you cannot find a single musical event on campus, a single debate or discussion, a single movie or other kind of cultural event, that you enjoy, there is something wrong with you, or at least with the way you are approaching things.
But you need not enjoy every cultural event you go to. University education should also be enabling you to appreciate kinds of artistic creation that you may not personally enjoy. Certain musical styles – like country or hip-hop – are not my personal preferences. But I could go to a concert and appreciate the musicianship.
What disturbed me most about what this student said, however, was not the ridiculous claim to be unable to enjoy any cultural event. What disturbed me is that this student does not know why he or she is at university, and is trying to fake their way through.
Students exhibit the same attitudes at times in relation to reading in classes. Their thinking is that, if they can get the gist of a piece of literature from Spark Notes, and it lets them answer questions on a test, then that is good enough.
There is a fundamental misunderstanding at work here too. The point of reading great literature is not to be able to answer questions about plot points. The point of reading great literature is the life-transforming effect that literature has on one’s life.
Sometimes by making the focus on quizzes and testing, we may give the wrong impression about what is important. But in many instances, the reason we are quizzing and testing is to ensure that literature is being read, music is being listened to, and other crucial experiences are being undergone.
These people are going to go out into the working world, and when their employer sends them to a cultural event to schmooze with important clients, and they yawn and say they wish they were somewhere else, and lose the contract, the employer isn’t just going to fire them. They are going to question the value of the education that Butler provides. Students like this cheapen the value of a Butler degree for everyone. And so perhaps we should spend more time trying to get this message across to students, and encourage them to police themselves more?
But the very notion of these being matters to “police” – as though the experiences one has as a student are a chore rather than a privilege – suggests that there is far more work that needs to be done in helping students to understand why they are on campus at all, and why they are at a university with a strong liberal arts foundation rather than at a vocational training college.