Saturday, April 21, 2012

University or not?

With one child just about to leave university and another about to start this year, I've spent many months considering the value of a university education, as well as the cost of it.  I'm not even really just thinking about the monetary cost, I'm also thinking of the cost taken before a student even sets foot into a university, the personal cost, the pressure, the hours and hours of study, study, study at a time when surely there should be more in a teenager's life.

A counsellor at my old school in Thailand posted an article this week from Psychology Today called "High School Years:  College Prep or Life Prep?"  The author, Lisa Rivero, writes:
The young people I know and teach ... feel pressured to fulfill their potential ... they have little time for reflection, for imagination and personal discovery, for leisure reading or sleeping or even long family vacations - unless they are used to visit potential schools ... Adolescence is about so much more than preparation for college.  It's about preparation for the rest of life, including moral, personality and social-emotional development.
As someone who spent last summer visiting universities in Scotland with our daughter, and now with just one more week to go before her final exams start, I'm thinking of the emotional cost of the last year.  I'm conscious of the fact that a lot of this study has been done alone in her room and has taken her away from the time spent with family.  I'm asking, is it really worth it?

Our son, who is just about to leave university has had a fantastic time there - as far as his social life is concerned.  He joined clubs, played for the university basketball team, went on expeditions, did an exchange to Hong Kong, made fabulous friends and so on.  He is less than enthusiastic about the actual course and the lecturers who are delivering it, some of whom seem to see teaching students almost as a distraction in their normal academic life, others who seem to feel their job is to simple regurgitate sections of books they have written as the main part of the lectures they give.  It's hard to know before you go to university what the course will really be like, how much support you will get, whether the experience will ultimately lead to a job you love or even to personal happiness.

Seth Godin, in the last sections of Stop Stealing Dreams, is scathing about (American) colleges.  He writes:
A famous college might not deliver an education that's transformative to the student, but if that's not what you're looking for, you might as well purchase a valuable brand name that the alumnus can use for the rest of his life.
The bottom line, according to Seth, is that if that's all college gives you, then the years spent there are "radically overpriced" and with free information available to all these days why are we paying so much for the privilege of being at college in person when some of the best universities in the world are putting their courses online and free for anyone who is willing to spend the time and effort to follow them.

The whole point of Stop Stealing Dreams, of course, is that it is our dreams that are stealing the dreams of our children.  The traditional family dream for their children was for success at school and then maybe at university (this was not seen as such an important dream in my day - not that many people went), a good job, a nice house and a happy family.  In his manifesto Seth is encouraging us to let our children dream their own dreams, to "encourage them to contribute and to push them to do work that matters, to open doors for them that lead to places that are difficult for us to imagine."  His argument is that we "need to get out of the way, shine a light and empower a new generation to teach itself."

As I'm considering what we have taught our children, the last section of Stop Stealing Dreams is particularly poignant.  I reproduce it in full here because I think it raises questions that are so important, and because in fact I don't think that universities do a very good job at teaching any of these things.
When we teach a child to make good decisions, we benefit from a lifetime of good decisions.
When we teach a child to love to learn, the amount of learning will be limitless.
When we teach a child to deal with a changing world, she will never become obsolete.
When we are brave enough to teach a child to question authority, even ours, we insulate ourselves from those who would use their authority to work against each of us.
And when we give students the desire to make things, even choices, we create a world filled with makers.
I'm a teacher, but I'm asking this question as a parent:  have I done these things?  Have I given my children the opportunity to learn how to make decisions, even though I may not like the decisions they have made?  Have I taught them to love learning, or have I simply focused on where the learning will take them?  Have I encouraged them to embrace change or have I tried to protect them from change?  Have I let them ask questions?  Have I given them enough choices?  Have I let them dream their own dreams?

Photo Credit:  Graduation Joy by Robert Crum, 2007 AttributionNoncommercial

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