Saturday, November 8, 2008

What College is For

Just over a month ago, I wrote a long e-mail to a student of mine. He would say, I expect, that he was having trouble coming up with a thesis for an essay. I would say, he wasn't really trying. In my composition courses, I construct my writing assignments so that there are clear guidelines about the type of paper one should write (evaluation, cause & effect, proposal, etc), but I leave the selection of topic open. Everyone announces his or her thesis in class and we refine them as a group and everyone learns from everyone else's trial and error.

Not this student. He wanted me to tell him what to write about. He was unable even to come up with a poor thesis that I could help him refine. Sports. Basketball. That's all the help I could get from him. The essay in question was a comparison/contrast essay with two works of art as topic. It could be two films, two books, two poems, two buildings--you get the picture. I suggested he compare sports films, Remember the Titans and Glory Road, I think. When he sent me an e-mail basically throwing up his hands with regard to how to find the films and what to write about in their stead, my response was probably more than he was bargaining for.

For yucks, we'll call him Jake. I reprint this here, not for what it says about Jake, but for what it says about college, just in case I have any readers out there thinking about college, or who have offspring of an age to think about it. The choice to go to college shouldn't be a mindless one. It should be, rather, a choice. I reprint this here for the little help it may be to some facing that choice, or to others in understanding the true import of a choice they've already made.



You need to decide whether college is for you or not. And I don't mean this in terms of, "It's a cool thing to have a college degree," or "I like to play college sports." Higher education can be just a means to an end, i.e., the degree and a better paying job, but the whole assumption behind the degree being worth a better paying job is that a college graduate's mind will function differently from that of the person who only graduated from high school. Just as there is a similar assumption that the person who sticks with it and graduates from high school has something in their character and intellect that's missing in the dropout. (The fairness of either assumption can be the topic for another debate. For our purpose today, we need only acknowledge that these assumptions/prejudices exist and govern the playing field.)

College is only partially about storing away history, facts, and formulas, Jake. Done right, it's more about learning how to think. That is what you need to decide whether you want or not. Do you want to learn how to think? If what you really want is just to _do_, and to leave the thinking to others, then why drag yourself and your teachers through the next four years?

I'm not suggesting that you should leave. What I'm suggesting is that if you are going to stay, you begin to understand and engage in the process you signed up for by coming here. This letter is part of that process. Not every student needs to be told these things, but you are not the only one who does need to be told.

You say you don't read. Start. If it's difficult, get help. If it's difficult, come see me and I will help you get help. I am happy to participate in your educational journey. I will not, however, carry you. That is not my job.

I give my students flexibility in choosing the topics for their essays because they do a better job on things that interest them. It doesn't work if you rely on me to spoon-feed you. I didn't assign you those films, I suggested them because you were unable to come up with anything on your own. I could spend the time I've spent writing this letter trying to come up with a thesis for you as well, and trying to figure out how you can get access to those films, but, again, that is not why I'm here. That time is better spent writing this letter, inviting you to grow up, grow out, grow beyond the limited expectations you seem to have had for yourself to this point. Take charge of your life, your mind, your education. I will be happy to help you. I cannot do it for you. As Morpheus said to Neo, "I'm trying to free your mind. But I can only show you the door. You're the one who has to walk through it."

You are on your own for locating the movies if you still want to write about them. (I'd start at the library though.) You are on your own for devising a thesis. I will help you refine a thesis. I will not give you one. I refine student's theses. Rarely do I pluck them from thin air. Take the assignment description from your syllabus and go to the Writing and Learning Center. Perhaps they can help. But if you do, go for their help. They are not there to do it for you either, although they may try.

If you are still stumped by the time of our conference on Friday, I will assign you a thesis and we'll see what results. It won't necessarily be on something you'll like writing about, but I'll try to see that it's on something you need to write about.

It's early in the semester for us to be at this point, but better now than after you've wasted weeks in an academic highchair. I want you to come in and sit at the big table. Welcome to college.
He left shortly thereafter to try his luck, I hear, at a community college for a while. Not because of the letter above, so far as I know. Whatever the reason though, I approve of his choice. He needs, I think, a little more time to adjust to the idea of seeking knowledge of any sort for its own sake. A recruited athlete, my sense of him from the little time we shared was that he was here for all the things that being a college grad represented; but, almost wholly unaccustomed to abstract thought, he had little interest in the process underlying his attaining that status. My hope is that in a few years he may return, ready this time for the journey he's signed on to. Paradoxically, he may have demonstrated more maturity in his decision to leave, for now, than a great number of students occupying the chairs of college classrooms show by staying. Either way, I wish him luck.