Why are You Going to College?

Thoughts from a retired educator

In our first guest post, Prof. Jim Nelson shares his thoughts about student motivations and how they change through life. Jim retired from teaching English to pursue his love of learning as an entomologist, photographer, unpublished novelist, fly fisherman, poet and traveler.

My first year teaching freshman English (Studies in the Short Story) at the University of Denver, I asked my students to turn in a paragraph explaining what they wanted to get out of the class. I was surprised and a bit dismayed that more than half of my 24 students said they wanted an A or at worst, a B. Freshman English, by implication, was for many, simply a required course, something of an inconvenience to be eliminated from the list of graduation pre-requisites.

Of course I had some encouraging responses, albeit in the minority. Some students seemed genuinely eager to learn, loved to read, looked forward to lively discussions. One student had already written a few of her own short stories. Yet even the more sanguine students put a high priority of getting a high grade.

I couldn’t help feeling that something was terribly wrong with our education system if, after 12 or 14 years of school, kindergarten through high school, the majority of my college students wanted to get my class out of the way so they could finally focus on their major. Why should a future attorney or engineer or physician have to take classes in history or philosophy or a foreign language? Or for that matter, why should a future English teacher have to fulfill credits in the sciences?

Of course my first class of students wanted to be stimulated and entertained. They were bright and hard-working and motivated (at least motivated enough to earn a high grade). Of course having fun in my class was a plus. But what really mattered, apparently, was getting through a long academic tunnel, the light at the end being a diploma. Where was the excitement, the enthusiastic willingness to learn, the challenge of thinking, the intrinsic value of each class?

I taught my students with all the enthusiasm and creativity I could muster. I loved those classes, challenging those bright minds. They produced insightful essays and contributed thoughtful comments in class. But something of the shine had dimmed. I knew that many students had no interest in the short story or any other genre of literature.  The class was a requisite stepping stone to something more important. I hope that most of the students found the class surprisingly enjoyable and stimulating. Maybe I made a convert or two to the beauty of exquisite prose, irony, characterization, a wonderfully crafted plot or characterization. I’d like to think that some continued reading Melville and Poe, Thurber and Dahl. I harbored (and still harbor) the naïve idea that learning is a joy.

Half a century later I wonder how a classroom of freshmen would respond to my question, “What do you want to get out of my class?” and to a larger question: “Why are you going to college?” Is the university just a necessary Sisyphean boulder leading to a career at the summit? Is each course an annoying, if necessary barrier to getting a degree and then, at last, the pathway to a dream job? Or is the university campus still a place to celebrate learning that values a liberal arts education?

Former Yale professor William Deresiewicz suggests that we may be going farther down the path of genuflecting to the altar of a high letter grade. He purports in The New Republic that the elite students in Ivy League schools “are obsessed with getting straight A’s” but “have little intellectual curiosity” and “a violent aversion to risk.” These words pierce my educator’s heart.

I understand the terrible pressures that college students face today, far heavier pressures than I faced so many years ago: for many, the prospect of crippling student loans and intense competition for meaningful employment. But it saddens me to think that higher education has become, increasingly, a succession of tasks to overcome like the twelve labors of Hercules.

Recently I have come full circle, returning to teaching at the University of Denver through OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. I have a classroom of students, mostly retired adults, who all eagerly want to learn – no grades, no certification – just a deep love of learning and an open-minded curiosity. The range of offered classes is broad and deep: the trans-continental railroad, history of conservative politics, advanced photography, architecture of cathedrals, global warming, roadside geology of Yellowstone Park, fossil hunting, causes of WWI, neuro-linguistic programming. It’s a genuine joy to teach at OLLI and fills me with a ray of optimism. Students sign up for classes, motivated by curiosity and a deep desire to learn.

I think my next class will be Studies in the Short Story.

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