This month's E-tip is provided by Dr. Stephanie H. Gonzalez. Stephanie is an Assistant Professor of History at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. Her research interests include politics and public health initiatives in modern Latin America, with particular emphasis on Cuba. She is publishing an article on the history of smallpox vaccination and Cuban identity in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine (release date, Spring 2018) and preparing a book manuscript on the same subject.
Even in college, students can be remarkably disengaged, and part of the problem lies with their own perception of the value and purpose of education. Academic consumerism, or the perception that education and grades are a consumer product and learning is a form of entertainment, is now pervasive in American higher education. The feeling of entitlement becomes obvious towards the end of the semester, with students asking their professors for a more favorable result for their investment.
In offices and classrooms across the country, conversations about grades start with:
“I need an A in this class.”
“Isn’t there extra credit or something?”
and my favorite . . .
“Can’t you just round up my grade?”
In my role as an Assistant Professor at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, this sense of entitlement for a favorable grade is particularly severe in the “fluff” humanities courses that fulfill the basic requirements for an expensive Doctor of Pharmacy degree.
This reaction to the realities of academia is understandable. The expense of education and the necessity of a college degree for most career paths can make people think of education as a requirement on the shelf. It is a product that must ensure some security to the buyer, particularly when the degree you need for professional success comes with a minimum grade point average. But consumerism has its price. This attitude hampers enthusiasm for learning. In draining emotional engagement, it limits the ability of students to learn. Add to the mix the fact that, by the time they reach college, students often lack those tangible and/or quantifiable skills they need to function as professionals! They have difficulty concentrating, lack critical thinking skills, and more and more reach me without the ability to communicate orally or in written form. What’s worse, many young students don’t understand that they need these skills to function in a post-industrial, information-driven economy. From decreased motivation and limited learning to lack of basic skills and narrow understanding of the long-term effects of their skill set, it's no wonder university professors are noticing a cultural shift in classrooms.
Professors compensate for both consumer culture and the skill deficits it exacerbates in different ways. If learning is entertainment, professors put on a show! They break lecture up with visual, musical, and textual material to engage the senses and cater to multiple learning styles. Across disciplines, professors also employ an increasingly large arsenal of “active learning” techniques, which force students out of passivity and charge them with responsibility for some part of the learning process.
This hasn’t been enough to satisfy the appetite of the educational consumer. As academics, an increasing amount of time is wasted defending education that, according to many students, is not relevant to their professional goals. But, as I have to reiterate constantly, seemingly unrelated subjects in higher education do indeed impart skills integral to their careers! I have had this conversation with future pharmacists and, when I taught in The City University of New York (CUNY) system, I had the same conversation with future doctors, nurses, psychologists, teachers, business professionals, etc.
These students must be able to communicate effectively in both oral and written form, be able to find answers through research in an age of information, and be able to think critically and solve the everyday problems that come with professional practice.
Defending education has become an exercise in explicitly tying the skills we practice in communication, research, and problem-solving to their future careers.
Students' narrow view is the lament of many in higher education. Professors wonder why students seem to have lost curiosity about the world, about the great questions/problems of humanity, and about citizenship and responsibility in a democracy. But it comes with a silver lining. The emphasis on skill-building encourages students to think about their own cognitive processing, about how they learn, and the myriad ways that skill-building and personal growth is embedded in the most unpredictable of situations.
Call to action to Parents, Families, and Communities!
Let's recognize the professional as well as personal value of a college education in the liberal arts and sciences to help overcome the passivity and consumerism with which students approach learning.