May 12, 2007

Some Lessons are Learned very Early in a Person's Life. Yet, Education Should be an Ongoing Experience.

A Commencement is a new beginning. Luck favors the prepared mind.

As another semester draws to a close, some 50% of American students, who began their studies four to six years ago, are participating in commencement ceremonies. Far too many students aren't graduating, and far too many never enter a higher education institution. The cost of tuition and student loans have become more expensive. As a country we have to re-evaluate whether access to health care and education should be a privilege or a right.

Conversely, I've seen many students squander their opportunities to attend and graduate college. There are many reasons for this--from not being able to afford the financial burden, to balancing work & school, to improper attitude. What pains me is that the latter is something within the control of the student and, thus, it's a self-imposed limitation. I've seen far too many bright kids who fail, because they are not serious enough about undertaking a long project and see it to its completion. They are often resistant to accepting direction and help from faculty. Obviously, these are young people and are entitled to making mistakes, and deserve second chances, but any young adult has to be able to be a quick learner, to adopt to the circumstances, and prevail. The so-called real world often is much harsher and doesn't offer repeated chances to success.

I attended a college of the City University of New York (CUNY) and I was very grateful that I was able to attend, learn, and earn a couple degrees. It was also a commuter college where most of the students had jobs and many did take more than four years to complete their degrees. But, the attitude was different than the attitude I've observed at two colleges [one for profit and one non profit] for several years; I've seen too many students having a rather casual attitude today that I had never seen when I was a student. High school contributes to shaping the character of many students; yet, it prepares them poorly to tackle academic subjects.

There's another issue besides what someone learns by reading and absorbing in the classroom. Proper habits and proper attitude are perhaps more important. Unfortunately, too many young people who enter college lack those skills, and are not quick to revise bad habits. Every time I walk into a classroom, I know that half of my students will not graduate! I tell them so--hoping that they would do whatever they can not to fall into this category. I see it as my mission as well. I spend class time talking about the need for proper attitude: meeting deadlines, being serious, doing more than the bare minimum, being creative, demonstrating that they can work well within a group, elevate the quality of their group by being good contributors, taking a long project and complete it, being able to accept instruction, and see this experience as a good & fun event in their lives. Skills a person develops in college are great skills to take to the professional world out there.

Unfortunately, bad habits sometimes prevail, setting the tone from day one. Why a student can have an adversarial attitude toward the teacher is beyond me--and I know it is not a winning strategy. We faculty are not there to make students miserable or to make them fail. On the contrary. In places I've taught, the vast majority of faculty do take an active interest in the progress of their students. There are other higher education institutions--mostly research universities--where undergrad students rarely see their professors, and many courses are taught by TAs, grad students, or adjuncts. I think this is not right. I have certain views on what being a teacher is about that run contrary to practices in several learning institutions. I believe that contributing to knowledge and expanding the horizons of a particular field is not uni-directional. Both research and transmission of knowledge (including the excitement of learning new things) to students are necessary, and there should be a distinction between a scholar and a teacher. The problem is that many colleges confuse the two.

But, learning how to swim also requires attention, following the instructions, and practicing. I'm happy to see that many students do grab this opportunity to learn, develop the necessary skills, and to elevate themselves into the leaders of tomorrow. We need more of them. We need to re-think our strategy and the mission of what a higher education should be. Harvard University, among many, is now trying to change the way it educates its students, because a great school should not be primarily judged by the number of bright minds on its faculty (who do research but are otherwise inaccessible to the students); nor should it be judged for its ability to find jobs for the students.

It's good for America to produce smarter, truly educated people; it's good for our economy, for our politics, and for the whole world, since the US is a global leader. The earlier we begin to educate our children the better. It begins at home, with the development of proper attitude towards learning, with good study habits, and with parents being true mentors not just disciplinarians! Education--which is more than reading books--should not be an adversarial exercise but a good and desirable objective for every person.