Five Minutes or Forty to Life
The students turned in their first portfolio papers last night in the senior capstone. This is the assignment in which they analyze their college education for significance and meaning. They were to have organized all of their courses into categories (core, major, electives) and cross-referenced them on a grid listing various learning methods: lecture, seminar, discussion, journaling, lab/experiment, group project, etc. They also had to select the most significant courses and write a brief narrative about them. Lastly, they had to analyze the grid and narratives for a pattern.
There's a little exercise I like to do before they hand in the paper. I show them two brief videos (shown above). In one, the comedian Don Novello does a routine called the Five Minute University. It's a funny bit. For $20 bucks he can teach you in five minutes about all you will remember ten years after college.
The other video is a news segment about inmates in a maximum security prison studying true liberal arts courses: philosophy, literature, foreign language. One of the inmates--a young guy doing a long stretch--talks about wanting to learn German so he can read Hegel and Kant in the original language.
The first video I label the transaction model of education. You pay some money, jump through some meaningless exercises and here's the diploma, which you can then use to enhance your value in the next transaction: getting a career. The second video is the stumper. Why are these prisoners busting their humps to earn a college degree composed of nothing but philosophy, social science, literature, and history? Even if these were courses the job markets wanted, these guys are never going to be able to cash in their degree. They're locked up for, in many cases, life.
The students throw out some theories. "Maybe they're bored," one said last night.
"Is that what you do when you're bored?" I responded. "Take down a big volume of Hegel?"
"I don't know," he said. "I might if I were locked up."
I label the video on the prisoners a good example of the transformation model of education, one in which growth, changed understanding and development is an end unto itself. Then I ask the class which model better resembles what they have experienced.
It's always about half and half. Some students recognize that a lot of what they have done has been straight transaction. They spit out content in return for a spat back grade and another check mark on their transcript. Others say they have had some truly life-altering experiences as a result of their college education.
Just before they hand the paper in, I ask them to pair up and read to their partner a description of a course they found significant. The listeners have to decide whether they just heard a transaction or a transformation. In almost every instance the students hear narratives studded with words like "change," "helped me realize," "opened me up to," "really got me thinking about..." Even more compelling is the enthusiasm with which students begin to talk about a really good course and what it meant to them.
Later, after class, one of the students hung around to talk to me. He had actually done some time. He said you can't believe what boredom will make you love. He thought it funny yet true that it takes radical incarceration to engender a true love of learning.