Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Loss of Rigor in Higher Education: How Consumerism is Killing College

Higher education is a place where students can realize their potential and find their voices. From a Christian perspective, the goal of education needs to be: “To know God and make him known.” For Christians college can play a major role in showing students how they can contribute to the Kingdom through whatever field they are entering.

Those who apply themselves can achieve academic success. Unfortunately, a large number of students choose to squander their time at university, doing most just enough work to get by (or less). While some are content not to throw themselves into their studies, many expect to be graded like they had.

This culture of entitlement is indicative of numerous societal problems which get magnified by the college campus. However, this is a mindset especially problematic for Christians because the vocation one enters, generally determined by their education, becomes their mission field.

Lutheran theologian Gustaf Wingren once stated, “In his vocation man does works which effect the well-being of others; for so God has made all offices. Through his work in man’s offices, God’s creative work goes forward, and that work is love, a profusion of good gifts. God gives his gifts through the earthly vocations, toward man’s life on earth.” All fields of work are platforms for individual Christians to live out their “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). College is preparation to perpetuate the Body of Christ through one’s calling.

As a whole, college academics used to be much more rigorous than they are today. One recent study indicates that, on average, instructors expect only about 50% of students to participate in class. Another found that somewhere around one-third of students fail to make advances in critical thinking skills after spending four years at a university. That same study also discovered that 35% of students studied only five hours a week at the most. Meanwhile, 50% of students said they had no courses which mandated 20 or more pages of writing.

One of the reasons for this decline in academic rigor is because professors are scrutinized by students in course evaluations and other outlets like Rate My Professor. More significantly, the paradigm for evaluating professors has deviated from its traditional metric. 

In former times, a professor was deemed “good” by their ability to inspire their students and impart wisdom in class. Today, an increasing number of students evaluate based on how difficult a professor is. Students avoid those classes and professors deemed “tough,” opting for easy A’s when possible. During my undergraduate studies, there were multiple times my peers tried to dissuade me from taking certain classes because the professor assigns large papers or expected students to be prepared for class.

All this has been enabled thanks to consumerist modes of logic imported into the educational sphere. To students in today’s colleges and universities, education is not a sacred rite of passage or tool for development. It is a commodity. A degree is seen as good only insofar as it can create revenue for the student in the future. The focus is not on learning or the pursuit of knowledge in hope for developing wisdom but on acquiring a limited skill set which will hopefully make that student a productive economic contributor.

This is all ironic given that the word “student” finds a root in the Latin verb studio which means “am eager, devoted to, to strive after.” Along the same lines, St. Clement observed, “you’re truly educated if you bring everything to bear on the truth.” Being a proper student requires a tenacious mindset, determined to discover the truth and absorb as much knowledge as possible. Not only that, but the fruition of education should be to produce wisdom so students are prepared to apply the knowledge they have learned. Christian students should be fulfilling their vocation in a godly manner.

This is simply not the attitude of a large faction of students anymore. Whether they explicitly think it or not, they see themselves as customers who demand good grades because their potential degree is a “good” offered by the school, making it an entitlement. Unfortunately, even Christian students are often prone to having this mentality.

The most effective solution to remedy this problem is for professors to refuse to play this game. Students should not be at their school because it’s a product they’re purchasing. Dumbing down material and lowering expectations for students doesn’t make them better, it coddles them while perpetuating attitudinal entitlement. When wielded correctly, academic rigor is a tool which can propel students to achieve the goal of their education. So to those in any kind of education, particularly at the college level, use academic rigor to aid students in their journey to wisdom.  

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