At the last high school graduation I attended as faculty member, I sat on the stage, robed and hooded, with the rest of the teachers who served as honor guard for the class. Normally, commencement was held in the football stadium, but a downpour forced us into the auditorium where all graduates and attendees were up close and personal, not to mention damp and uncomfortable.
From my vantage point, I could reach out and touch graduates as they crossed the stage--and see right up the gowns of the young men sitting, splay-legged, in the front row. In spite of the class advisors' admonitions--and, probably, their mothers'--many of the boys were wearing shorts and flip-flops and didn't appear to be duly impressed with the ceremonial aspects of the occasion. I was surprised at how many of them were bearded, or sporting cool-dude facial hair; physically, these were full-grown men.
started thinking about my district's four-option school entry program: students
could enter school via "developmental" kindergarten and/or regular
kindergarten, and those who "needed a little more time" could do a
year in junior first grade, before moving on to regular first grade. Parents tailored
two- or three-year combination plans to get their kids to second grade, and the
large majority of those taking three years were boys. Because of the desire to
give their sons a leg up, back then, many of the young men sitting in front of
me were a hormonal nineteen years old. They'd been driving for four years, and
could easily have been carrying an M-16 in Iraq. In an earlier century, they
would have struck out on their own long before, as farmers, wayfarers or
Today, of course, the conventional wisdom is that their economic goose is cooked unless they seek further education. This week's cover story in Newsweek--"Why College Should Take Only Three Years" (by Lamar Alexander), and a follow-up roundtable with higher ed luminaries discussing "What is College For, Anyway?" don't manage to make an airtight case for the three-year plan. But both pieces shed light on the big questions that we ought be asking about a college education:
- Are high school seniors poorly educated and thus unready for college--or are they merely bored with the low challenge of high school?
- What does anyone need to know and be able to do to make a success in a modern economy? Seriously. Is there a formula for job readiness in non-technical fields?
- Which comes first: a broad, internalized knowledge base, or the skills to analyze and evaluate the surfeit of information and data available to everyone?
- Does technology make it easier and faster to learn--or more challenging to develop focus?
- Is there a one-size-fits-all plan, a general agreement about how much coursework represents a bachelor's degree? And does the new standard for being well-educated now automatically include a second degree, beyond the B.A.--upping the educational ante once again?
No consensus reached. In fact, the various experts did not agree on the primary purpose of pursuing a college degree--is it building workplace skills, developing an educated citizenry in a democracy, or simply the credential needed to the lock the bearer into a higher socioeconomic stratum?
an image from Robert Zemsky, education reformer and professor at the University
of Pennsylvania: College is like a supermarket where we let students freely
choose courses. When they get to the cash register, we tell them they don't
have the right things in their shopping carts, so they must continue shopping,
for five or more less-than-fruitful years. Might it be an intellectually
productive thing, this academic mucking about? Or is it a nationally
embarrassing inefficiency, a waste of time and money?
I'm not sure. At some point, young people need to grow up, spend time working, traveling, living independently, making their own choices. Going to college or trade school should be motivated by a desire to learn something, however, be it plumbing or Shakespearean sonnets. And--you can't put off adulthood and real life forever.
Image: Uhuru1701, Flickr Creative Commons