Sometimes You Have to Teach Yourself

Magazine titles are designed to push buttons. In “Is College Over?,” writer Janelle Nanos addresses many troubling issues at universities today: skyrocketing tuition costs, the burden of increasing student debt, and whether college teachers are adequately qualified to teach.

Yet at best, this cover story in Boston magazine’s September 2011 “Education Issue” is misleading. At worst, the assumption that what students get out of college is akin to a consumer choice—a personal transformation that can be purchased—reflects what’s really wrong in the halls of academe.

As Nanos tells it, when she first got her acceptance letter to Boston College, she was a believer in the “magic” of higher education:

“College was the golden ticket, the payout for slogging through high school’s tedium and testing. I didn’t have much say in where I went to high school—I was a public school kid with public school teachers for parents—but the college decision was mine, and it would catapult me into a future that I could define.”

Now, “more than a decade” out, Nanos returns to her alma mater, dogged by what she calls a “basic question: Was it worth it?

That’s a lot of handwringing from somebody who’s a senior editor at Boston magazine. Her opening paragraphs include hyperventilating phrases like “barrage of studies,” “college as the next bubble,” “most explosively,” and “a match flung onto a pile of gasoline-soaked diplomas.” (This last image is invoked to describe the impact of the 2011 book  Academically Adrift.)

Of course, there really is a conflict between democratic ideals and the current price tag for college. (Nanos says she’s still paying off her student debt.) This May, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran “Crisis of Confidence Threatens Colleges,” based on a survey of college presidents the Boston article also cites. These days, few parents can avoid thinking about whether sending a kid to college will later force them to scramble for Medicaid.

On the other hand, Nanos handles key indicators as if they’re only caveats. For example, MIT economist Michael Greenstone tells her, “People with more education make more money, whether they’re white- or blue-collar…. The data are screaming out that the returns on getting a college degree are very high.”

To which she replies: “Okay, fair enough. College graduates earn more than those without a degree. But does that necessarily mean they got the education they paid for?”

Well, maybe yes and maybe no. People across the socioeconomic spectrum attend college at various ages for a whole slew of reasons. However, it’s safe to say that for many students, earning more money is the point.

In criticizing the lack of quantifiable outcomes, Nanos names the Collegiate Learning Assessment (or the CLA) that some universities now use, framing the bad old days like so:

“Did you take a test measuring your critical-thinking skills, your analytical abilities, or your writing proficiency before you were handed a diploma? If you graduated more than a decade ago, you probably didn’t, because such a test didn’t exist.”

Except that I did take a far more extensive “test” in the late-1970s at Reed College: I had to write a senior thesis, based on a year-long research project, before I graduated. While this was and is an unusual requirement for undergrads, many other small liberal arts colleges also provide a different college experience than the one Nanos conjures.

It’s unexamined notions about who’s responsible for learning that trouble me, and in this, Nanos is mirroring the zeitgeist. Like many politicians and education bureaucrats, she talks about learning as if it’s a passive activity—as something that essentially happens to students. In this formulation, they are customers, waiting for the prof to impress them, to tell them exactly what they need to know, to woo them, to dump a precious worm down their gullets.

We rarely hear about student customers as active participants. I teach in a journalism program, and I’ll testify that if a student doesn’t have a will, there really is no way. I can’t teach writing through a Vulcan mind meld. Teaching and learning are a two-way exchange.

This article and others by more recent grads really seem to be about personal disappointment. Nanos talks about the “myth” of what happens in college, arguing that the wider public believes in—and pays for—something that isn’t real. But she’s confusing this supposed myth with the dreams all teenagers have: for a new life, for new adventures, for new selves.

Disappointed college students are not a fresh trend. Even though tuition rates at the time now seem laughably low, my going to Reed in the ’70s was a financial burden: I attended on a scholarship, and I had to work part-time. I had a horrible sophomore year, in which I tried to switch majors—from Psychology to English—and felt like I’d shoot myself if I heard another reference to Derrida. My best friend left for U.C. Berkeley my junior year.

Still, I figured it out. I ended up back in the psych department, taking classes that sparked me. I got to choose my own thesis topic. That friend is still my friend. And I never assumed anyone else was in charge of how much I learned.

Nanos ends her sad tale by telling the current vice president of student affairs at Boston College that the school let her down:

“I felt like I’d read a lot of really great books and that my writing had gotten stronger, but I didn’t feel like I had certifiable proof of what I’d learned.”

She even gets the guy to nod and agree with her: “You didn’t know what you didn’t know…. [I]f you’re going to spend four years in a place, you want to make sure that you’re covered.”

While I wish I knew in college what I know now—or, okay, what I don’t know now—I’ve never believed my future was a single destination. Realizing that there is no proof, no certainty, no adequate coverage for all that life becomes may be the true beginning of adulthood.

In fact, learning to accept disappointment can be as clarifying as falling in love or a moment of being. That’s what it means to grow up.



2 thoughts on “Sometimes You Have to Teach Yourself

  1. The maddening thing about Nanos’ article is the way it blurs the line between learning (“But does that necessarily mean they got the education they paid for?”) and credentialing (“I didn’t feel like I had certifiable proof of what I’d learned.”) I went to an exceptional high school that had computer programming classes in 1972. I graduated from it already qualified to start my career. But businesses weren’t hiring 18-year-olds to work with their gigantic, expensive machines. I had to spend four years getting the bachelor’s degree that told them they could trust me.

    In that sense, the diploma functioned like a journeyman’s card in one of the skilled trades, assuring employers of some rudimentary level of skills. But people in the skilled trades don’t blame the apprenticeship system when the economy shrinks, when wages fall and jobs disappear. Nanos does blame the university system for the declining economic fortunes of the college-educated middle class. I don’t think she’s “confusing this supposed myth with the dreams all teenagers have.” I think she really believes, as all too many people believe, that the baccalaureate is supposed to be a lifetime guarantee of financial security and a certain better-than-average standard of living, and that if only academia would do its job better, tighten its standards and provide more certifiable proof, employers would open their purses and start hiring more and paying better.

    You and I know that the Sure Thing is like the Free Lunch: there ain’t no such thing. Janelle Nanos speaks for those who don’t agree with us, who think that a college degree ought to be a Sure Thing. They dress up this wishful thinking as idealism and then blame the world when it fails to meet their inflated expectations.

  2. So right, Joan. For her, the myth is the ticket to the Sure Thing–which is a myth,of course–but she’s disappointed for the wrong reasons. And she seems wholly unaware that for those who return to college as adults, often working full-time while they do it, taking night classes at the not-so-prestigious community colleges and state universities, they ask themselves if it’s worth it every day. If they get the diploma, they are certain it is.

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