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A school for grown-ups

January 26, 2010, 9:44 am

My 6-year old is in kindergarten and fascinated by school and schoolteachers. Last week she asked me: “Daddy, are you a teacher?” I told her I was. “What’s your school?” I told her I teach at a college. “What’s a college?” I told her: “A college is a school for grown-ups.” And in that off-the-cuff answer, we have an economical way of describing the difference between college and pre-college education, and of encapsulating the hopes and goals of higher education.

College students, even the wide-eyed freshmen who show up every fall, are not kids. They are emerging adults, having worked 12 years for a high school education and who now enter a 4-5 year buffer zone before entering into the world with nothing more than the things they know, the experiences they’ve had, and the people around them. Therefore we college professors aren’t serving students if we treat them like kids, refer to them as “kids”, or in any way give them a reason to conceive of themselves as children. If we do any of these, students will simply model what we do and stay children. Indeed, I hear my own students talk much more frequently about “the other kids in my class” than “the other students” or even “the other people“.

What we hope to do in higher education is not so much to convey academic subject matter but rather, when you boil it all down, we are trying to teach people how to think like grown-ups. Of course we want our students to retain the best aspects of childhood — curiosity, energy, and so on — but we also want them to temper their child-likeness with adult sensibilities. We want them to think about other people besides themselves; to be self-motivating and responsible; to judge information objectively; to trust but verify what they see; to draw freely from a depth and breadth of experiences to make sense of what they encounter; to be able to think and act for themselves.

Since this is what higher education aims for, I’d like to give a good-natured challenge to my colleagues in higher ed, and by extension all those high school teachers who teach “college preparatory” courses. Very simply: From now until the end of classes this spring, don’t refer to your students as “kids”. Think of them instead as adults, “emerging adults” if you like, and refer to them accordingly. And take a look at your course policies and the ways you make decisions about how to deal with and treat students. If these are set up in a way that places grown-up behavior as the basic assumption, or at the very least provides a road map for younger students to ramp up into grown-up behavior, then I’d say that’s on the right track; otherwise think about ways to change.

I did this recently. I was visiting a high school class I had been working with as part of a dual-enrollment course. During my visit, the teacher allowed the students to have some open Q&A time with me, and several of the students asked me about the differences between high school and college. After spelling out some specifics, I told them, “At my college, we’re going to treat you like men and women when you come in. Not like kids. You won’t be kids and you shouldn’t be treated like kids.” Those young men and women got the message immediately — they straightened up in their chairs and more than a few got smiles on their faces. If we college profs all agree to treat students like men and women — daring students to believe in their own adulthood — I think we’ll see the same positive effect.

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