Philosophy of Teaching Series: Postulate #10

10. That learning is taking place is the essential justification for whatever activity engages the time and energies of learner and teacher. Institutional functions associated with screening and credentialing (grades, degrees, etc.) are subordinate and ancillary to learning, and may even interfere if allowed.

Of all the tasks faced by teachers in the modern college or university, the most difficult is to overcome the mechanical “checklist” mentality encouraged by institutionally-structured degree and course requirements. For decades, Americans have believed that a baccalaureate and more advanced degrees are essential tickets to social advancement and economic opportunity. To secure employment in a good job–a white-collar job–has been the obsession of generations of upwardly-mobile Americans. Other sorts of work–blue-collar work– has been shunted off as undesirable, in part because manual work has wrongly been assumed to be only mindless factory or mill work rather than the skilled work of a welder , a carpenter, or a mechanic. But even these are often seen as dirty, servile, and demeaning jobs, not fit for the children of the Middle Class if they can avoid it.

Avoiding it has been one of the primary social goals of the explosive growth of higher education in the decades since the Second World War. As it has turned out, however, much of the so-called white-collar work available in the modern world has not required the learning of specific subjects or of a particular body of knowledge, but rather the development of what might be called cognitive and personality traits–the ability and, more importantly, the willingness to learn; quickly and mostly autonomously. Business and industrial personnel officials have repeatedly made clear that they are less concerned with what prospective employees learn in college than they are that the prospects submitted themselves to the middle-class discipline that can be readily demonstrated by the successful completion of a college degree.

Many recruiters of entry-level employees say that even transcript grades are of little or no interest to them, that a would-be employer cannot use college grades as a predictor of success in their firms. They assume that just getting through the college or university system is enough of a test, that the wheat has already been separated from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. Each firm will teach and train the recently-graduated and newly-employed workers (yes, workers) themselves in what is to be done. To the dismay of many, such work often turns out to be the white-collar equivalent of the drudgery of the assembly line or the rock pile–work done in cubicles and requiring less intelligence and creativity than would be mandatory for even a mediocre auto mechanic.

This last observation helps bring out a mostly-ignored reality: a lot of college students would rather be doing something else with their lives instead of fulfilling degree requirements so that after college they can take up boring and mentally-stultifying work in “praire dog country”–where people’s heads pop up periodically from their cubicles. Some would rather spend their lives out-of-doors expertly trimming trees or roses, or in the workshop building fine furniture or snow boards, or in the kitchen lovingly cooking food for grateful diners, or any kind of hand-on work that is not mindless or demeaning but instead requires great skill and intelligence. I don’t need to point out that in modern times society as a whole dismisses these kinds of employment as demeaning, and in part for this reason underpays those so employed. The quandary faced by many an adult student, then, is that he may have to pursue work he doesn’t really want to do and for which he is not temperamentally suited so he can have a decent income. In order to do what he really wants to do he will probably have to accept low pay, few benefits, and even less social status and esteem.

But he’ll have accept a number of things first. He’ll have to start checking off the sometimes opaque list of requirements foisted on him by university faculties (who too often believe they offer the gift of the gods, gifts no sane person could refuse). Reared in a modern, task-oriented and mechanical society, and inured with the assumption that “process” will conquer all, students often take, quite naturally, a mechanical approach to their studies. They want all details of their assessment and evaluation spelled out and made contractually explicit. They insist that no work be given for which there will not be afforded the opportunity for “points.” Since their college or university calculates their “grade-point average” to two decimal places, and since decisions regarding scholarships and other resources are sometimes made at the thin edge of one-hundredth of a grade point (2.99 rather than the minimum 3.00), students frequently indulge a similar false precision by demanding a rigorous and niggling accounting of exam and paper scores. It is not unfair to suggest that the maximization and wheedling that characterizes modern economic life is reflected in the mentality of students desperately hopeful the system-at-large will do right by them in the end.

To be practical, no teacher can ignore any of the mechanical realities and obsessions that nearly consume some of his students. What the teacher can do, though, is to push back, subtly and deftly, against the encroachment of such considerations on the real work at hand. He may have to play along with the wheedling and the niggling, lest they take on even greater importance than they already have. In the end, though, he must bring the student back to the real work and help him to take that work as seriously as the student takes his grade points.

[Here is the original article, “My Philosophy of Teaching” (opens in new window).  For all the articles in this series, click on the Teaching Philosophy link below or under Categories to the right.]