"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Thursday, December 30, 2010

What's Wrong With Us?

Here is a description of students at the American University in Iraq:
  • Students here come to class wide awake and cheerful. Even those students in the 8 a.m. Mathematics II class show up on time and ready to work; the same applies to the students in the later sections.
  • Students here show up for class without a bunch of electronics. Cell phones are plentiful here, but I've never seen one in class. Last spring, at my university in the United States, I spent countless weeks wrestling with my calculus students over texting in class.
  • In both their dress and demeanor, students here display a positive attitude toward learning. There’s no "slacker" mentality. Students are nicely dressed, most at a business casual level. There are no pajamas, flip-flops, or t-shirts with profane or sexually explicit messages, nor do you see a lot of skin. These kids are dressed to learn.
  • Although my students come from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, I haven’t noticed that they split up into cliques. To some extent, this may just reflect a lack of cultural understanding on my part, but my strong sense is that students work well together across these differences.
  • Students here readily raise their hands to ask or answer questions and to contribute to class discussions. (Again, the slacker mentality is totally absent.)
  • Students here have a great deal of respect for their teachers. There’s no anti-intellectual vibe, no iconoclastic edge to their demeanor. Instead, students here display a deep respect for learning and accomplishment.
  • Finally, and most importantly, the students here are willing to take risks. They readily volunteer answers to complicated questions that come up in class, and they are not afraid to openly explore unfamiliar ideas and concepts, asking numerous questions along the way.
I doubt there is any classroom at any American university or college where this description would be accurate.   What's wrong with us?   One answer springs to mind.... we have far too many children who are going to college, not to learn, but because they are supposed to go to college as a matter of social class structure.   They know it's a cynical game in which their families are exchanging thousands of dollars (often borrowed) for a credential.   It's not surprising that students in America behave cynically about learning under those circumstances.   Most of them want to be somewhere else, doing something else, and ought to be somewhere else, doing something else. 

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