Thursday, September 23, 2010

One Student's Story

This is very relevant to our discussion on Nussbaum. I have contact with some of my former students. One who has returned to college after a few years in business recently contacted me to discuss the quality of education he feels that he is receiving from one of the top 30 universities/colleges in the country.
In a word - crap!
Here are some of the reasons given:
1) Classes are too large - in many cases over 250 students. Professor shows little enthusiasm for what she is doing, talks in a monotone, and uses only PowerPoints.
2) One of the courses is taught by a graduate student who admits to being ill-prepared and often appears to not adequately understand the material being discussed.
3) Material in course associated with his area of concentration that should deal with real life situations, does not. The teacher admits that much of the material is not relevant to what they will face in actual concrete situations but maintains that she must teach this material, as it is required by the state.
4) Lecture, lecture, and more lecture.
5) In-class discussion section for one of the courses is essentially the students giving the material verbatim from the text without analysis by either the students or the instructor. In short, there is no discussion although the weekly allocated time period is supposed to be dedicated to analysis and discussion.
6) One professor gives materially incorrect information in the areas of his/her area of expertise.
This is a person who returned to school to get his teaching certificate so he could teach in secondary schools and emulate those teachers who he thought instilled in him a love of learning, but who is now questioning his decision because he thinks that he will not be able to teach the way he thinks he should; instilling in his students a love of learning and the ability to critically think about what is being taught and discussed. I wonder how many students we are turning off to learning by having the educational institutions that we presently have.


  1. Are there any Ph.D.-granting programs that don't treat their undergraduates like that? That seems pretty normal to me. If it hasn't always been like that, when did things change?

    It makes me grateful to have gotten my B.A. from a non-Ph.D. state school.

  2. Kevin
    I am sure that you are not suggesting that because this is the way it has always been and is therefore normal, that it is acceptable.

    What I would suggest is that maybe the entire educational system that unfairly discriminates based on what level of the degree one is seeking ought to be re-evaluated and changed. It seems to me that a just democratic system should recognize the inherent value and dignity of each student instead on valuing them solely at the undergraduate level as economic units that determine profit and provide fodder for the economic system as well as upper levels of education.

    It could be that the largeness of an institution is an underlying moral issue that we ought to address as it relates to the ability of people to function as 'citizens' in a democratic setting that values participation and individual worth. If the institution is geared towards treating those that are seeking advanced degrees as somehow more worthy and intrinsically valuable then those that are seeking BA/BS degrees or certifications then are we not simply reinforcing a hierarchical system of valuation that values those at the top more then those at the bottom? If this is the case, then what is the normative difference between Ph.D. programs versus undergraduates and Boards of Directors and different levels of management versus labor?

    As Marx pointed out, the problem is systemic and if we want to change our moral behavior we need to change the systems within which we interact with others.

  3. John, I would certainly never be an apologist for poor or neglectful teaching. However, it's worth keeping in mind that for students with strong ability and preparation, teaching methods may not matter all that much. One of the most consistent findings about learning is that the better you are learning, the less effort, attention, care, etc. others need to provide you in order for you to learn effectively. It's the students with weak abilities or preparation who need carefully crafted, attention-rich learning environment. So again, not to defend bad teaching, butI guess I'm not as worried about some of these observations being made at a top 30 university. The real worry is that this is what education is like at our average colleges and universities!

  4. Mike
    It may very well be the case the the best learners learn regardless of the teaching and environment. That is not the issue. The student I was referencing has always been, and continues to be, a self motivated learner and will learn regardless of the environment he is in - he always has and always will. For him to learn does not require him to be in school. The real issue is that he returned to school (he already had graduated with honers and had been in another profession for the past few years) because wanted to be a teacher in the tradition of those that instilled in him a love of learning, but he does not think that that opportunity will present itself in the public section (where he wanted to teach - he has issues with private/charter schools). He is beginning to think that there is little point in him being in the system because it does not seem to value learning and does not appear to be interested in turning out high quality teachers. He is being turned off, not to learning, but to teaching and that is a tragedy. How many quality people have left the system because the system is a failure, not because it has failed them alone, but that it has failing most everyone.


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