You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, so the saying goes. But it’s evident that that’s not the case with humans; I’ve taken undergraduate classes with auditing senior citizens, MOOCs are increasingly popular, and education programs extend to PhD level (sometimes tacking on an additional few decades of learning).
Even outside of academic settings, people are always learning. My mom learned to use the PS4 controller to navigate to Netflix and her iPad Air to pay her bills. Last year, I took one whole online class to learn about Google Adwords. And people are still readily adapting to new technologies as they become readily available to the masses.
We humans love to learn about the world, to see things new to us. But if you ask anyone who’s still in school, most would reply that they either hate school or that it’s just “ok”. If we love learning, why do we hate the government institution that’s supposedly structured to enable us to learn?
Susan Blum, author of I Love Learning; I Hate School: An Anthropology of College, gives us some answers. As the title suggests, Blum mainly discusses why the majority of college students don’t seem to care too much about their academics (until grades are involved), despite college being a place of “higher education”. She points to students’ extracurriculars as the culprit of their academic apathy and grade-grubbing hands.
But rather than go on and on about how her students don’t care about learning, she suggests something different (but something any college student can tell you if anyone bothered to ask).
Many college students experience a time of learning and growth, though it’s not necessarily a result of diligently going to classes, poring over books, and doing homework 24/7. Instead, they integrate other aspects into their experiences. They join residence hall governments, clubs, Greek life; get jobs; hang out with like-minded students; and do whatever else they please. But in these extracurriculars, students are able to gather some semblance of real-life experience, of being an “adult”, with all the freedom and without all the responsibilities.
So students want more out of college than just reading through hundreds of pages of text. They want more than someone lecturing at them as they stare mindlessly at the PowerPoint displayed at the front of the room. And Blum says that’s just the way students are these days, and they’re a result of our education system. To these students (myself included when I was studying undergrad), they’re trying to extend their learning experiences outside of the classroom, where they’re stymied by the myriad gen-ed requirements.
To make things worse, students are obsessed with grades. I haven’t had one class during my undergrad years when a student didn’t go up to the professor and ask how they could improve their grade on an assignment. The obsession with getting high or perfect grades has been instilled in us since elementary school. Getting anything less than a high grade (anything less than an “A”) meant you weren’t good enough. In reality, getting a “B” indicates something along the lines of, “understands material well”.
Our education system is, for efficiency’s sake, heavily focused on quick classifications. If you get A’s in math, you get placed in advanced math. If you get B’s in math, placed in the intermediate math class– and so on. This continues on throughout elementary school and especially into high school, when SAT’s and ACT’s become a big deal. Exclusive colleges take into account any additional extracurriculars as well, but grades and SAT/ACT scores become the golden tickets. Just a tenth of a GPA point or a few (hundred) points off under the cutoff, and you’re deemed “not good enough”.
And so we come into college with this mindset: Keep your grades high.
What about extracurriculars though? That’s where the troubles start kicking in. Because college students also tend to focus on other non-academic endeavors, they need to make the choice of prioritizing one or the other. But in many cases, students “want their cake and eat it too”. They want the emotional fulfillment that their extracurriculars provide, but they also want the stellar GPA. They’ll ask the professor how they can improve their grade in the class, if there is any opportunity for extra credit– virtually anything that provides a chance to that top-tier “A” grade.
With this mentality, learning is not the objective in classes. Grades are. You keep a high or perfect GPA, all the while involving yourself in extracurriculars, and job offers will roll in. Supposedly. It’s a really unfortunate system, but students have learned to adapt, for better or for worse.
Even though a lot of what I read in I Love Learning were things I kind of knew, it struck a very deep chord in me. Here’s this professor who’s been teaching for years who seems to finally get the plight of the young college student, or of any student, who is sick of school and sick of the crooked system. Blum is a professor I wish I had, and I can only hope that other educators adopt her way of thinking.
While I Love Learning; I Hate School isn’t really a how-to guide, it certainly gives a lot of great insight to professors who still think college is like the way it was a few decades ago (I don’t mean it in a demeaning way; they likely attended college with other students who love academics). Also, if you’re even mildly interested in the anthropology of education, I’d recommend reading this book.
However, a word of warning: Blum’s writing style isn’t the most fluid. She tends to open new sections with bright, fresh writing, then gets into the nitty gritty of the topic. I figure it’s the nature of the book (it is about academics, after all), so I don’t necessarily fault it overall.
In short, I give this book a 4 out of 5 stars. The writing is okay and the ideas presented aren’t completely new, but the author does some very solid research and shares her personal experiences, both of which were important in solidifying her ideas (with empirical and emotional requirements fulfilled).
Featured image: Photo by Workandapix. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.
Disclaimer: I received access to a digital copy of I Love Learning; I Hate School through Netgalley. I was not required to review this book, and any recommendations are made voluntarily. Any views or opinions express are my own. This disclosure is posted in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”