Where’s the value in university education?

September 12, 2014

We’ve been thinking a lot about education here, about where the value is to our students. (Python anyone?) In a similar vein, Steven Pinker writes (lightly edited):

Knowing how our students are selected [in large part for their extra-curricular activities in high school], I should not have been surprised when I discovered how they treat their educational windfall once they get here. A few weeks into every semester, I face a lecture hall that is half-empty, despite the fact that I am repeatedly voted a Harvard Yearbook Favorite Professor, that the lectures are not video-recorded, and that they are the only source of certain material that will be on the exam.

I don’t take it personally; it’s common knowledge that Harvard students stay away from lectures in droves, burning a fifty-dollar bill from their parents’ wallets every time they do. Obviously they’re not slackers; the reason is that they are crazy-busy. Since they’re not punching a clock at Safeway or picking up kids at day-care, what could they be doing that is more important than learning in class? The answer is that they are consumed by the same kinds of extracurricular activities that got them here in the first place.

This anti-intellectualism is … reinforced by the administration, which treats academics as just one option in the college activity list.

I’d say our students are more likely to come to class, but the emphasis on outside activities is familiar. Is that where the value is? Or have we undermined our core mission? What would you like to get out of your education?

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