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Alternatives to “college for everyone”

Last week I wrote about how I thought the question of why our colleges are turning out less-educated people was pretty self-evident: When we create a society in which everyone has to go to college to get a job, we have a lot of people in college who don’t actually want to be learning.

But what is the alternative to this approach? And why would someone like me, who loves learning and who could actually be happy doing consecutive PhD’s for the rest of my life, advocate that not everyone go to college immediately after high school…or ever?

The simple fact of education is that people learn when they want to. I am reading a thought-provoking book called The Book of Learning and Forgetting. So far, the book is a sort of cultural history of learning. What did we used to think learning was? Why did our ideas of learning change? What do we believe learning is now?

The book’s main thesis is that real learning happens in a meaningful context, within a social group, and is inspired by real, concrete goals. I know that this book has had an immediate effect on me: I have been desperately trying to learn Hiragana, the “simplest” of the three writing systems used in Japan. This is the writing system that every schoolkid learns. Yet there I was with my Android app, trying to slam those darn characters into my head. I gave them names. I made up rhymes about them. Yet somehow, testing myself only on the first four rows (way fewer than half the characters), I was stuck at 54%. It was humiliating and demoralizing. I’d always been a good student. Why couldn’t I learn this?

The Book of Learning and Forgetting inspired me to take a second look at what I was doing. Did I have a social group that was integral to my desire to learn this? No. Was I trying to learn the characters in a meaningful context? I would not say the Android app was terribly meaningful, no. Was it inspired by an immediate, concrete goal? Nope, just a nebulous desire to be able to use a Japanese dictionary when we were lost in Kyoto and needed help.

So I retooled my approach. My social group, like it or not, is my kids. A context that is meaningful to them is reading aloud. And I could think of one immediate goal: I’d translate a Japanese children’s book and read it to them. This week, my Japanese tutor came back to find that I had “translated” the first few pages of a classic children’s story, and was recognizing almost all of the basic set of Hiragana characters.

That long digression has a purpose here: When we send students off to college without a strong social group with a shared interest, a meaningful context for what they’re learning, and concrete, immediate goals for their learning, we just can’t expect that they will learn.

How will they learn, then? Here’s my plan to reshape American education: Get rid of all the hoops and let everyone do what inspires them.

Oh, no! Chaos! Anarchy!

Well, not quite. We wouldn’t have to throw everything out the window. We have a meaningful goal as a nation to have a literate population that can do math enough not to get themselves underwater with their mortgages, understand history and social studies well enough to vote with understanding rather than vote for the guy with the flashiest commercials, and think critically about whatever challenges come their way.

Past that, what we have are lots of people with very different personalities, social groups, skills, and goals. Our education bureaucrats seemed hell-bent on the idea that you must force everyone onto the same path. But we know that a one-size-fits-all educational model will never, ever work.

Instead of “college for everyone,” I suggest the goal of “meaningful education for everyone.” There are those people — probably a good, solid core of our population — whose needs are fulfilled by following the standard model. But for all of us whose needs aren’t filled, it can be disastrous.

Instead of college for everyone, let’s have meaningful training programs in high school for those who want to go and work first. Instead of favoring students who took the traditional path, let’s get rid of all the impediments to students who have gotten to their college application in a less standard way. Instead of making a college education a pipe dream for someone who has just realized at the age of thirty what she wants to do, let’s make it a priority to offer educational opportunities to that newly energized student.

As a college English teacher, I had some fine students who took the traditional path. But without fail, my very best students, the most committed, hardest-working students, had come to college because they desperately wanted to. Of course I worked very hard to inspire the other students, but it was my most committed students who inspired me back. Teaching is really hard work, and the inspiration of dedicated students is the payback teachers need.

Instead of college for everyone, let’s have college for everyone who wants to.

ps: And, as the commenter on my last post just pointed out, let’s not forget that education is expensive and our public universities need to be fully funded, but that’s a rant for another day!

Posted in Culture, Education.

5 Responses

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  1. Suki says

    As the 2011 graduation season arrives, many high school students are contemplating what pathway they will choose as they enter the next phase of their lives. The latest edition of Diplomas Count, titled Beyond High School, Before Baccalaureate: Meaningful Alternatives to a Four-Year Degree, explores how understanding the link between learning and a career becomes more critical than ever for high school students preparing to graduate. Diplomas Count reconsiders the “college for all” movement and examines alternative postsecondary options.

  2. Suki says

    Read this piece to see I’m not the only one who sees this as a problem:

  3. Suki says

    I can’t believe I wrote this series four years ago! I guess it’s time to revisit the topic. Lots of people have been doing it in the press recently, so I thought I’d add this link to Robert Reich’s thoughts on this issue, which are similar to mine:

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Education for everyone – Avant Parenting linked to this post on May 25, 2011

    […] [See my follow-up to this piece, Alternatives to "college for everyone".] […]

  2. Are MOOCs going to destroy education as we know it? – Avant Parenting linked to this post on May 20, 2013

    […] I’ve written before, I am not a fan of the “college for everyone” theory that has dominated American educational planning for the last generation. On a policy […]

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