Monday, March 19, 2007

Zut Alors: The Trouble With University Education

I've become very interested in Abi's posts (at Nanopolitan) about the function of the university experience.

Particularly this post, which cites a Christopher Caldwell article positing that the purpose of a university education is not necessarily to deliver measurable learned output, but instead to mark students as "being capable of future learning" (i.e. in a company or other job).

Sure. Measuring learned output is tricky, and you'll never catch me supporting any form of governmentally-sanctioned standardized testing -- especially at the university level, as has been proposed.

But consider this: I had two years of French coursework at my (rural, underfunded, inefficient) high school and three years of French in undergrad. Both the high school and the university described, in their syllabi, that the purpose of these courses was to teach students "about French."

Not to actually teach the language -- to teach students about the language.

Neither high school nor university presumed that any actual French would be learned (read: mastered). Sure, we would be able to conjugate a few verbs and string together a few basic sentences, but that was not the point of the classes, although ostensibly they were French language courses. The idea, as stated on the syllabus and by the faculty, was that the coursework would expose students to the experience of learning another language; the experience of dipping into another culture. The classes themselves were simply necessities; mandates determined by some state authority as fundamental to a student's liberal education.

After five years, how much French did I retain; how much did I actually learn? Un peu. Perhaps less than that.

Thus I have to argue that the experience of "how to learn," or, as Caldwell states, the idea that an educational institution's primary goal is to prepare students for learning later on, seems circuitous and ineffectual.

I'd rather have left the classroom actually knowing how to speak French.

That, however, would have required a very different course and a different educational mindset. And, possibly, a greater potential for student "failure," as it is far easier to pass a course requiring one to "experience" something than it is to pass a course requiring one to master something.

So... thoughts on this? I suppose the other half of the argument is that had I really wanted to learn French (or anything else), I could have done so on my own regardless of any course... but I'm quite busy enough with Hindi now, thank you. ^__^


Chikki said...

Hi I have a question for you...I'm getting married in Nov in India, and 3 of my non indian friends are coming along...they've never been, and I've only been there a handful of times...what advice and/or what are you doing to prepare? I know it's a broad question, but anything would help!

Chikki said...

Sorry I realize the above comment was not about your post...

Ash said...

Well, perhaps your "experience" of learning a new language i.e. french, was designed so that you could learn other foreign languages e.g. Hindi.

Blue said...

Chikki -- what am I doing to prepare? Um... pretty much everything I'm doing is on the blog. Cooking, watching films, dabbling in Hindi, reading desi-lit. Except it's not exactly about preparing as much as it is about anticipating and having a good time. So I'm not sure what I would tell your friends.

Ash -- actually the class that taught me the most about how to learn a language was a linguistics course (possibly the best course I took as an undergrad; certainly the most fascinating). I got to read Hofstadter's Le Ton Beau De Marot (which is, despite its title, not in French), and it remains one of my favorite books to this day.

(Daniel, you remember this course, don't you? ^__^)

Daniel said...

I remember YOU taking the course...but I never took it! (sadness of all sadnesses!)

I was thinking of dabbling in linguistics again, though...I miss it so!

Do you realize that these past 3 years are the first 3 years of my life that I haven't had any foreign language since kindergarten--second grade

Blue said...

Daniel -- yes, you did. "Language, Logic, and the Scientific Method."


Come on, you ordered an Udmurt dictionary from Ebay! We translated the Bible together!

What was the professor's name? Dr. Smith? Can't remember... older guy, elbow patches, white hair...

Daniel said...

oh my gosh! I totally forgot! UDMURT!

How crazy is it that I forgot about a class I took! Senior year, right? Wowww...

I ended up reading Gödel, Escher, Bach: Eternal Golden Braid...Maybe that's why I got confused...

I loved that class! Gosh! .. what WAS his name? His wife was in the German department... Sanders? I think it was Sanders.

Anyway--yay for Udmurt and such!