Week One’s essay topic is to read and reflect on Erica Goldson’s Coxsackie-Athens valedictorian speech, “Here I Stand.” It’s an intriguing speech and my mind went in a million directions when I read it. I struggled with this essay because the topic of education is so vast and multi-faceted that it’s impossible to boil down into a few pages. I found myself going off on tangents and trying to discuss too many things. The result is more or less a challenge to one aspect of her speech, but there are many other aspects of the speech that I agree with. There just wasn’t time or space to address them. What is your reaction to her speech?
Is the American educational system broken? That’s a difficult question for me to answer. I, like Erica Goldson, have survived and thrived within the system. I have earned many 4.0’s as a mechanical engineering student. I earned many 4.0’s as an art student, too. Does that mean I’m a genius? Does it mean I’m perfect? That I’ve achieved the pinnacle of knowledge in both the arts and sciences? No. Of course not. Like Erica Goldson, it means that I am “the best at doing what I’m told and working the system.”
Unlike Erica Goldson, however, I’m not entirely disheartened by this system that has worked so well for me. The system, I’ve found, works well for specific types of people. I am lucky, and have been rewarded, for being one of those specific types. I’m an introvert, I learn well from a lecture/notes teaching style, I am adept at teaching myself concepts as well as studying alone, which is an advantage according to Mary Beth Marklein of USA Today, citing research showing that, “students who study in groups tend to have lower gains in learning.”
Lucky is only a half-truth though. Luck implies a lack of control. It implies that what I’ve achieved has been bestowed on me through no fault of my own. It fails to take into account work ethic, drive and determination. In my experience, these three words make up at least 75% of academic success. To some extent it comes down to how badly you want it and how much you’re willing to do to get it. Many students look at a syllabus at the beginning of the semester to decide how little they can do and still achieve a passing grade. I look at a syllabus to decide how I can earn every possible point. Anyone can enter a class with the mindset of learning as much as possible and doing whatever it takes to achieve that, it’s just that many don’t.
If there’s a book to buy, I buy it (and more importantly, read it). If there’s a lecture to attend, I attend it. If there are homework problems to complete (even if they’re only worth 5% of my grade), I do them. If there are practice problems listed that are not required and not graded, I do them anyway. If a topic is confusing to me, I visit the professor to ask about it, or I go online to find alternate explanations, videos and forums that can help. In other words, I take ownership of my education.
I am paying my university for a framework in which to learn various subjects. The university provides me with knowledgeable faculty, suggested reading, homework assignments and subsequent solutions, vast library resources, and a wide variety of lab and workshop facilities. I am not paying the university to implant knowledge into my brain. I am not a passive participant. I want to learn and excel, and I will, and that is as much my responsibility as it is the university’s.
There are many ways to game the system. As shown in frightening detail in The Shadow Scholar by Ed Dante, I could pay someone to write my papers and do my projects. I could copy solutions to homework problems off the internet without working them myself. I could be the “flaky” team member who sits back and does nothing while the other more dedicated members of my team do all the work. I could probably, in some cases, achieve a 4.0 by doing these things. But I don’t, because my education is not about fooling other people into believing I have achieved things. It’s about actually achieving things, for myself, because I want to.
But what about Erica’s assertion that our educational system is meant to condition rather than enlighten? Have I learned nothing through all my hard work and dedication? Have I become a robot with no ability to think creatively or be inspired? I don’t think so. I think I’m a pretty creative person, and it’s not because I have a degree in art. That said, school hasn’t taught me to be creative. It’s taught me some useful knowledge and some junk, but the decision whether or not to think creatively is mine alone. It comes from being interested in a topic, digging deeper and choosing to learn more. Creativity comes from wanting to solve a problem and understanding that creativity is the only way to do something that’s never been done before, or at least has never been done by me.
But what is creativity without the nuts and bolts knowledge needed to put ideas into action? I disagree with Erica’s assertion that we “are not here to get a degree, to then get a job.” Actually, that is why I’m in school. I’m in school to earn a degree so that I have evidence to present to a future employer that I have a specific skill set and can help them solve problems and achieve goals. That skill set is the reason they will hire me and pay me. I’m sure most of us would love to be independently wealthy, to be able to spend our days traveling, painting, playing music or generally tinkering around with things that interest us. But most of us need to earn money to live. We have to buy food, pay our mortgages, and with luck, have something left over for travel and other pursuits.
To earn money, we need skills. We need to know math and science. We need to write and communicate effectively. We need to understand current events, history and politics. Erica notes that some students would “come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs.” To that I say, those students could finish their homework and read about an interest of theirs. Students can create music and write lyrics while also learning to do math.
Getting good grades isn’t everything. I, like Erica, have struggled with placing too much importance on the right answer, the earned points, the final grade. My future employer will not care if I have a 4.0 GPA. They will care if I can think through a problem, consider all the variables and constraints, and come up with an effective solution. For me, gaining the ability to do that means going to class everyday, working problems, reading, asking questions and completing projects. If another student achieves success by dropping out of college, harvesting knowledge from the internet and then starting her own company, bravo to her. We all learn in our own way and ultimately, the drive to achieve our personal definition of success is what propels us forward and inspires us. The key is to find that drive. The educational system doesn’t give us drive. It doesn’t hand out creativity and inspiration. We are not victims. We live in a time of unprecedented access to information. Everything ever known in all of human history is a mouse click away. We can go to class. We can go to the library. We can go online. The key is that we get up, get inspired, and go do it.