The physical education teacher at Pip and Polly’s elementary school likes to play a game where he lines up a class of students along the baseline in the gym and then calls out a simple yes or no question. Students who answer ’yes’ run to the other end of the gym and back. Students who answer ’no’ stay on the baseline. The questions are sometimes silly like “Do you like pizza?” and other times stray into how they view themselves. One of his favorites in this second strain of questions is “Will you go to college?” Two days ago Pip was talking about this game at the dinner table and commented that when that question comes along he always runs. “In nine years,” he said, “I’ll be ready to go to college.” My immediate reaction to this statement was that I’d prefer that he not be quite so sure.
In the No-Child-Left-Behind era, everyone is expected to go to college. This is not just a social expectation. It is an economic necessity. Virtually every entry level job requires a college degree as one of the basic credentials. It is a marker of rudimentary educational achievement and an easy way for filtering out the first layer of applications from stack of resumes.
But college was not designed to be like primary and secondary school. Attendance in kindergarten through twelve grade is a legal requirement. As such schooling in those levels is provided free of charge to all children. The quality of this instruction certainly varies and what a student gets out of it depends greatly on how much of themselves they invest in learning the material, but there is no choice involved when it comes to taking part. The legal and structural framework views an elementary or high school student as being too young to make a decision about this for themselves. They are required to go.
At its core, an institution of higher learning, however, presumes just the opposite. The very nature of the college environment assumes that a student who is attending college does so of their own free will. The most prominent indicator of this basic assumption is that all colleges charge tuition. Students are paying for the educational instruction, the skills training, the exposure that colleges provide. Students are not taking part in a grand social project. They are investing their own financial resources – sometimes delayed through the use of loans - in a product. They are buying the services the college provides.
As such it is ultimately the student, as customer, who decides how much of that product he or she is interested in using. They can go to class or not. They can pay attention and take notes or not. They can do the work or not. College instructors have a responsibility to provide quality material and support for students to learn that material but unlike primary and secondary school teachers they do not have a responsibility to get all students to a certain level of competency. In college, the final responsibility for learning things shifts heavily towards the student.
This shift in responsibility for learning – the shift from no will to free will when it comes to one’s education – requires a readiness that goes beyond having the ability to do college level work. This shift requires a student to understand why they are doing the work and what it is supposed to be doing for them. This is a tricky proposition. In my own case, when I entered college I didn’t have particularly strong feelings about what I wanted to do after it was all done. I chose to study electrical engineering because it was a challenge and I figured I could get a good job with that degree. But that wasn’t enough to push me into getting the most out of my college education. I did what people told me I needed to do to get a good grade but I didn’t engage the material on my own terms and for my own purposes. As such I struggled with motivation at various points and rarely pushed myself to do the kind of extra work – reading ahead, exploring a topic on my own, asking questions that branched off from the presented material – that leads to something more than a degree. This did not make my college education a complete waste of money, but it did mean I got much less out of it than I could have.
With Polly and Pip I hope to make the understanding of this shift in responsibility for learning a part of their own evaluation with regards to when and where to attend college. At this point the subtleties of a discussion about free will won’t make sense to them but encouraging them to imagine what they might do when they are older does. I want them to get into the habit of looking beyond college to craft a vision of what they want to do with their lives then figuring out how college can help them do that. I don’t want college to be a default next step in the already programmed slate of education – a thirteenth grade if you will. I want them to see college as a choice they have made for themselves to get them started towards whatever it is they want to achieve.
To accomplish this, I have made it a habit to regularly ask them about what they want to do when they grow up. This seems like a simple and almost childish question on the face of things but it is fundamentally important, not just because it gives me a sense of what they like but because it forces them to repeatedly articulate a vision of their future. The key to making this exercise work is to get them to tell me why they want to do something. For example, Polly has frequently said she wants to be a veterinarian and when I ask her why she tells me that she wants to help sick animals feel better. For me the second part of this vision is vital because there is plenty of boring administrative work that goes into being a veterinarian and without having a strong sense of why that work is important, of why she wants to do it, the administrative aspects can grind her into the ground.
All of which brings me back to Pip. Unlike Polly, Pip doesn’t have a real missionary view of what he wants to do in life. He’s curious about lots of things and enjoys learning for the sake of learning. At various times he’s expressed an interest in designing airplanes and rockets or building robots or experimenting with chemicals. This week when I asked what he wanted to do when he was older he said he might like being a chemist working to develop new medicines. All of these are great ideas, and they indicate certain directions of interest that we can explore. However, none of them yet qualifies as a strong vision for what he wants to do and who he wants to be. This isn’t a problem now but it is something we will have to help him develop before he will be actually ready for college.