A few years back PBS produced a documentary entitled Declining by Degrees. One segment detailed something called The Pact. This was the unspoken agreement in higher education between students and professors to place minimal demands upon one another. Professors reduce their expectations and students agree not to complain about the dumbed down standards. For both parties, the pact is a pretty good deal. Professors have more time to do research or complete their other work, and students get the semblance of an education without having to do much.
I used to show the YouTube clip of The Pact in the capstone of our old core curriculum. This was a course in which students reflected on and evaluated the significance, meaning and purpose of their undergraduate education. I always ended the course with a prosecution of the liberal arts, throwing every argument I could think of into a summation of higher education's shortcomings and sins.
The little segment on The Pact was Exhibit A and it was pretty damning stuff. All I had to do was hit pause, turn to room and say, "I defy any of you to say that a lot of your education has not resembled what you just watched. That's not an education. That's a swindle." This was a nice little rhetorical flourish and I always enjoyed saying it. Even so, I only achieved one conviction in the dozen or so times I prosecuted the liberal arts (and then I think the class was just being ornery).
Lately I've been thinking a lot about the pact and about my own culpability in it. Have I dumbed down my standards and demanded less from students to make my life a little easier? I would like to say no, but I think the answer is yes. The truth is I think we all find ourselves pulled in this direction. Good teaching that leads to deep learning often requires that we provoke our students into questioning their assumptions, something they are not predisposed to do.
We can call it "student engagement" or "arousing student interest," but in reality challenging students to put their assumptions at risk means manufacturing cognitive dissonance. It means not letting them get too comfortable. Also, if you're like me, you find it unpleasant to annoy people. Yet that's often what the job requires. Doing this job well has always been a lot of work and, unfortunately, there are a thousand seductive and readily-available ways to cut corners.
My students have been doing a lot of moaning and backsliding now that we're in the dregs of the semester. Yesterday, for example, I split a class into groups to work on some small projects and one of the groups did nothing. I overheard one student in the group say to the others, "Why should we do it? It's not graded work?" In other words, I was violating the pact by asking them to do a small bit more than what was necessary to earn a grade.
I feel very tired these days. Colleagues are cross, budgets are tight and students are--well--students. I can certainly feel the gravitational pull of the pact.