My heart filled with tenderness for all the parents standing with their kids at bus stops, all the new backpacks carefully placed on tiny, bony shoulders, all the new shoes saved until this morning...all the world starting over, fresh and filled with all the possibilities imaginable, at least this one day a year.
She is the eager girl always raising her hand, always with an answer, always following the rules. A know-it-all, a pleaser, she is the kind of student most other kids can’t stand; she makes them all look bad. And most teachers like her because she does everything she is supposed to do, and then some. Teachers don’t have to cajole and plead and threaten; she does all the work, and she does it with joy.
I invite you to join me in an enterprise I’m calling a Critical Anthropology of Education. This approach to education—helping young folks grow into the kinds of people we and they want—is fully anthropological in every sense. This field is, for each of you, optional. It is not on the test.
Except that for our society as a whole, it is mandatory. And the test is all around us. We aren’t doing too well.
I opened the class thinking that I would get students to design the assignments and evaluations themselves. I began with a discussion of what grades mean. They watched me suspiciously. What does she want? They assumed it was a trap. Then I required a page-long self-assessment. It asked them to spell out their goals and to discuss how they had and had not met them. It asked them to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their paper, in terms of both content and form, and to explain this. And, finally, I asked them to grade themselves.
How High School Prepared You, Our Best Student, for the Wrong Things in College, and How You Can Change Course
Think about high school, if you dare: Every minute scheduled, someone telling you what to do, even having to ask permission to use the bathroom. Every night there were scheduled events, homework, tasks to complete. Why? To get into college, if you were one of the students on track to compete to get into a selective school. For years, your focus was on ferreting out the secret desires of your teachers, and slyly guessing which activities would make you stand out more than your peers. Always with an eye outward, you did what you’re told. Or else!
And now here you are, at long last, at the college of your dreams—or at least one you’ll convince yourself is close enough. The Best Years of Your Life await, right?
Joey and Katie both got A’s in their classes. Joey read about 30 pages, and Katie read about 3,000. Joey took 15 quizzes and a final exam, and wrote a four-page paper. Katie wrote 15 weekly position papers and four more substantial papers, each with two drafts that received comments from both the professor and fellow students, and ended with a 15-page research project. Joey enjoyed the class and learned some important things about how to analyze the role of sport in society. Katie’s life was transformed by the class. Both learned, both succeeded, but there were some substantial differences.
Recent publications about schooling and parenting, such as Amy Chua’s endlessly discussed Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift have given rise to much questioning: What’s wrong with parents? What’s wrong with students?
What has not really been asked is, What’s wrong with school?
The latest change in the higher education world is the arrival of something called MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses, as Harvard and MIT announced something called EdX in May 2012. These have evolved from the Open Courseware begun so generously by MIT a decade or so ago, and build on a growing body of scholarship about the ways online education can be used to make higher education more accessible to large numbers of people, or how to deal with the massification of higher education.
One of the most interesting aspects of it, though, is that when people are finished they earn badges.
For most of the twentieth century, students were revolutionaries. New ideas originated with them, or at least intellectuals spread their ideas to students, who took to the streets. In China this happened in 1919, in 1966, in 1989. In much of the world this happened in 1968.
In 2011 it began to happen in the US, with the many Occupy movements.
Expect more action.
In commencement season, we should acknowledge that college has many meanings and purposes, and sometimes we should listen to what those experiencing it tell us. For them, it is mostly about the people who have created their daily world.
And that’s not, mostly, us.