Freeing the Fixed Mind

I have just finished 6 months of teaching in the US at the community college level after twelve years of teaching at the undergraduate level overseas. Most of my students are actually still in high school and are attending community college as part of the Running Start Program that funds high school juniors and seniors to attend community and other public colleges for both high school and college credit. I expect the high school students to do exactly the same work with the same level of maturity as any college freshman. Obviously, some flexibility is necessary, and I am particularly aware of the need for faculty to provide what the British call “pastoral” care for undergraduates. High school students, no matter how advanced they might appear through testing, will need more of a helping hand than the usual undergraduate. After twenty years of teaching at the undergraduate level, including that twelve years spent in various locations throughout Asia, I was stunned by some of the issues I ran into. The most stunning was the absolute lack of preparation students had for independent and critical thought.

With few exceptions, these students, supposedly the most advanced, claimed that they were only taught to take the test. Some students just could not adapt. I was criticized by students on their formal evaluations and at an informal site (that allows students to rank a professor’s relative “hotness”) for two main issues: first, I was not sensitive to their Christian beliefs. This came about because I begin American history with the migration of peoples across the Bering Land Bridge at least 13 thousand years ago. This history conflicted with the students’ professed belief in the 6000 year-old age of the Earth. So, in their minds, I am anti-Christian. These complaints prompted some academic advisors to suggest students stay away from my classes because “there have been problems.” This is a public institution.

The second point of criticism was the amount of work I assigned. While this is not an unusual complaint (I’m a tough teacher), the form in which it was expressed was bewildering. Apparently, students were upset because I asked them to write a paper on a topic that we did not cover completely in class; in other words, I asked them to write a research paper for a freshman level college class. I did not give the students a grading rubric because I wanted them to have as much freedom as possible in selecting and researching a topic. I provided general guidelines and (despite being adjunct faculty without an office or being paid for hours spent outside class) willingness to meet with a student at any time to discuss their progress on the their papers. English Composition is a required prerequisite for the class. Yet, some students were unable to generate curiosity about a topic other than one discussed formally in class. Furthermore, some students were unable to complete an essay exam without being given the questions ahead of time. On evaluation complained that a take-home essay exam was in fact an unfair paper assignment because he or she had not known the questions before being handed the exam. To hand out the test questions is what many of my students call a “test review.”

Of course, the fault for this does not lie with the students or the high school teachers. Teaching for the test has become the dominant teaching philosophy in the American system. As a result, even the most advanced students are graduating expecting “fairness” to be having the questions and answers provided to them. Independent and critical thinking is not absent from my classroom. I teach my students how to think critically, to assume that all information is prepackaged by experts and that it is incumbent on the individual to assess the creditworthiness of a source and the spin intended by the seller, especially if that purveyor is an expert of some sort. When they leave high school, however, students are taught to rely exclusively on the authority of the test writers, givers, and graders. When faced with criticizing the question or the source, students react fearfully and offensively, projecting the insecurity of being cast into a cold universe of independent thought onto the one who asks them to have an informed opinion. In this case, that person is I.

There is no better job on this Earth than that of being called to teaching. Encountering the creativity, curiosity, challenge, optimism, and candor of a mind uncluttered with cynicism and unburdened by calcified opinions is a glorious job description. Those encounters are becoming less and less common. Instead of instilling a young mind with wonder at the possibilities of truly independent thought, I am suddenly faced with outrage by children when I dare to destabilize their force fed worldview. In what world does a 16 year-old child, no matter how bright, have all the answers boxed and tied up with a bow? In ours, apparently. Instead of arriving curious and ready to argue about the nature of everything, students are emerging from high schools with minds as fixed as bayonets on an infantry charge, education being a tool—a means to an end—rather than an opportunity to explore the universe in all its mysterious glory.

I am an expert in setting up American-style liberal arts higher education overseas. Having returned to the US after being founding faculty in three international schools, I have to emphasize that the kind of education I have been providing is extinct at all but the most exclusive schools in the U.S. I set up American-style education, as opposed to the current quality, because no one would want to intentionally implement American anti-intellectualism and shortsightedness guaranteed to produce a dependent and uni-dimensional class of non-thinkers. Unfortunately, when I did encounter genuinely open and curious minds, the rigid walls of administrative rules refused to bend to allow students to play with their ideas.

We have already reached the post-apocalypse, and it is conformist, narrow, and potentially civilization ending. Its name is corporatism and it strives for regimented sameness and the absence of creativity and spontaneity in everyday life.

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Filed under Higher Education, Irony

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