The American Squalor
By making technology secondary, students and teachers can render the experience of higher education more worthwhile
The college students of today face a number of concerns:
How will I pay for my education? Will I be accepted to graduate school or a professional program? Will I find employment?
Most students and parents are acutely aware of the recent increases in college tuition, resulting primarily from state budget shortfalls which have been passed on to state-funded colleges after the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008. Now, with student loans approaching the $1 trillion level and in anticipation of a wave of student loan defaults, there is concern that the tuition bubble could lead to yet another financial crisis among students and their families.
Ironically, these financial concerns come at a time when the cost of basic knowledge is lower than ever before. The Internet now provides almost limitless access to information and is completely revolutionizing education - in many ways supplanting the traditional roles of the library and even the textbook. Professors can now routinely call upon web-based materials such as Shakespeare's theater and Newton's "Principia" - translated into most languages. It is difficult to find a subject that is not freshly catalogued by Google, while YouTube provides thousands of lectures on diverse topics.
The open-source generation aims to use Internet resources to make higher learning virtually free to all. This is a well-principled, egalitarian ambition, but what then becomes of our colleges and the rising expense they pass on to students and their families? At what point will students be unwilling or unable to go far into debt to attend an institution that sources most of its course material from the Internet?
I believe that this is a critical time for students and faculty to question why we are here on Mr. Jefferson's Grounds. I believe that it is time for the University to step forward responsibly and refocus on those educational experiences that cannot be downloaded from the Internet. It is time to define and reassert the core values of American higher education.
Students may wonder what they can do now to enhance the value of their college degree. If the first answer is to earn good grades, then I am sorry to report that grade inflation in the United States has created a problem of indistinguishable transcripts. In fact, this problem is so severe that some reasonably argue that we abandon letter grades altogether, in favor of a pass/fail system. I suppose this scheme might work, if it included a third grade option designed to reward high performance - e.g. "pass with distinction." The larger issue, however, as we faculty assess our students' performance, is not the number of bins and labels that we use. The larger issue is how faculty and students can work together to make the education worth more than the paper credential.
Many students seem to believe that declaring multiple majors will increase the return on investment. This strategy is especially common in those areas where high school advanced placement courses are available, permitting students to enter college with enough credits to allow them to devote their time to more advanced coursework. The strategy does indeed gain many students entry into smaller, upper-level courses, but all too often this is at the expense of a thorough introduction during that first year when simply adjusting to the rigors of college is enough of a challenge.
Faculty may wonder what they can do, as individuals, to increase the worth of their students' experiences. Is not good teaching and mentorship enough? The answer is no, and the Internet has changed the role of the instructor so rapidly that many simply may not realize that they must expend far more effort teaching students to think critically about the information at their fingertips.
I believe that a new thesis initiative, if enthusiastically joined by students and faculty alike, would be very successful in setting apart the worth of this University's education. The aim of a thesis is not merely to demonstrate ability to gather information, but also to establish a higher creative challenge. A thesis is a creative synthesis of the ingredients of coursework, research and perhaps internship or community interaction.
The main issue that I see with current research/thesis strategies is that the results can come far too late in a four-year education to affect applications to professional programs or graduate schools. Students typically prepare applications in their third year or even their second. This implies that even if a student undertakes groundbreaking research to cure cancer after completing the requisite coursework, the medical school admissions committee probably would not have a record of that experience when they consider that student's application.
My suggestion is that undergraduate research experiences be encouraged far earlier than is currently the norm: Students should begin their hands-on work in their second year, at the very latest. I can report, from my own experience, that beginning undergraduate research in the first year is very helpful and tends to motivate faster progress through the introductory curriculum.
In closing, it is interesting to consider the wise thoughts of Ralph Waldo Emerson, delivered in a speech titled "The American Scholar" one and three-quarter centuries ago. The context of his oration was the perception that American scholars were merely parroting the earlier efforts of Europeans rather than asserting their own distinct contributions. In "The American Scholar," Emerson speaks of a "great mischief" that arises when recorded experience in the form of books is revered more than new experience itself. Then, "instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm." With the slightest amendment, Emerson's thoughts may be directly adapted to the current context: "[The Internet] is the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst." In the square brackets, Emerson had the word "books." Arguing to de-emphasize the value of books themselves, Emerson pressed his case that colleges exist "to teach elements … not to drill, but to create." He also predicted that if this deeper role is forgotten, "American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year."
I hope that the modern American scholar, and American faculty too, will reflect upon Emerson's admonitions. A visit to Google today is ultimately worth no more than a visit to the great libraries in Emerson's time. Students must not allow colleges simply to collect fees for nothing more than parchment; faculty must not allow students simply to download their degrees. We must act now to redefine the worth of the American education - with unique learning experiences that set the students, as well as their University, apart.
Keith A. Williams is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics.