What is the value of a college education? I think this question is one that has many answers, depending on the individual being asked. As I’ve learned in recent weeks, the higher education industry is complex. The circumstances of individuals who constitute a higher educational experience vary to a great degree; these differing circumstances inevitably influence their educational attitudes, conduct, and of course, their values.
In my experience, the people who constitute a higher educational institution can be approximately divided into different groups: the main groups are the student body, the faculty, and the administration. If asked “what is the value of a college education?” individuals from each group would likely give radically different answers. In the beginning of Academically Adrift Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa delve into and analyze these differing answers, the conclusions of which seem to point to a deterioration of the important attitudes and values which should ideally be held by the constituents of a higher education. Arum and Roska assert, “In a rapidly changing economy and society, there is widespread agreement that [critical thinking and complex reasoning] are the foundation for effective democratic citizenship and economic productivity.” Yet, the former president of Harvard University Derek Bok says, “Colleges and universities…accomplish far less for their students than they should.”
A certain time ago, I would have reacted to Derek Bok’s assertion skeptically. How can universities and college accomplish “far less than they should” when eventual enrolment in them seems to be the primary objective of everyone around me? However through my own experience of education and a transformation of values, I came to understand much more distinctly the division of attitude between student, faculty, and administration. In Academically Adrift, the authors describe formal and informal “treaties” that sometimes take place between students and teachers. This banausic treaty is described by higher education researcher George Kuh as one that says, “[The professor] won’t make you work too hard so that [the professor] won’t have to grade as many papers or explain why you are not performing well.” Indeed, I have witnessed this treaty in effect first hand. In fact, I have been a participant of this treaty in countless instances and occasionally continue to be (although to my own eventual disdain). I could not have had less of a problem with it, until my values changed and I recognized the importance of education. As Academically Adrift asserts is affecting students today, certain aspects of peer culture influenced me to resent the application of effort into my studies. However, while it is true that these pressures are experienced within peer culture, I do not necessarily think that the source of these pressures is the students and “peers” of peer culture themselves. The change in my own values which helped me understand the value of education seems exemplary of this fact a posteriori. For if the influences which also distracted me from an ideal education were solely the result of my peers, how is it that some of those very same peers were the ones who influenced me in discovering the value of education?
The most interesting part of this experience is that once I discovered and critically understood this value, I was able to recognize those members of the student body, faculty, and administration that also understood the same values as well. This recognition and realization was not a simple platonic shift from one perspective to another, it felt more like an ascent to a higher perspective (similar to the experience of finally understanding a difficult math question). Having experienced both the perspective of the apathetic student and the engaged student, I was not only able to understand the motivation behind each attitude, but also the critical flaws of the first one that render the latter so much more valuable. Even more convincing of the second perspective is that it unifies the attitude, conduct and values of individuals from across the groups of an education. Whether it was student, teacher or administrator, those who had a similar perspective as mine were able to agree with one another. In contrast, the former attitude simply seems to make it increasingly more difficult for student and teacher to understand one another; the degree of alienation between student and teachers’ perspectives seems to cyclically perpetuate the further alienation of their perspectives in a repetitive process. When the reasons for learning a topic were incomprehensible to me, I resented attempting to engage with the subject matter. This resentment to engage in the subject matter rendered the continued and dispassionate recitation by the teacher of further subject matter to be all the more indecipherable, since I was already unable to decipher the essential preceding knowledge that the understanding of the new knowledge required. Thus the chasm between the perspectives, values and motivations of student and teacher grows increasingly larger, cyclically compounding the alienation of their perspectives and the effects of this alienation.
I believe this “disengagement compact” between teacher and student that plagues higher education today is one of the most concerning issues to our society. What is even more worrying is that this “disengagement compact” is not the only phenomenon around which alienation of student and teacher perspectives is occurring. Having gone to school in Hong Kong, I witnessed the prevalence of a perspective which I think could be even more alienating and damaging to the student than the one described by Arum and Roska. There were peers of mine that put an extremely large amount of effort into their academics; yet this conduct was inspired largely out of parental pressure to perform. Whereas the “disengagement compact” allows for students to pursue their own true values and desires (by taking away the necessity to pursue the ones which are desirable), parental pressure to perform not only takes this opportunity away but instead assigns apparent values and desires to the individuals for them. In the cases of some of the peers whose values and desires were not the same as those assigned to them by their parents, I witnessed an alienation that I would argue goes further and deeper than that that occurs as with the “disengagement compact”. Physically they did not appear apathetic, being constantly busy with study and activities; however there is not a more accurate word to describe the emotional and spiritual conditions I saw in many of them (the most telling instance of which I saw in a close friend of mine). While those “engaged in disengagement” are able to pursue true interests (which potentially affords for greater self-fulfillment), those I saw who were compelled to excel by social pressure are forced to continually engage in not only an indecipherable education but an alienating sense of self. One may argue that they are effectively, engaged, competent and active in their education (and thus in society as well), however it is destructive to the individual when this end is reached through alienating means. I believe the alienation of knowledge and values that both the “disengagement compact” and social pressure to perform cause, constitutes the stagnation of not just knowledge and education, but perhaps of all other aspects of human culture as well. The alienation of student and teacher perspectives in education today is a problem that must be addressed. But when I think of the number of people out there who will never have the educational opportunities that I had, I struggle to think what even the first step might be.