Knowledge vs. Box-Checking

Checklist2Chronicle poster polly_mer recently posted this assessment of the importance of a college education:

This is why our responsibility in Gen Ed and even majors classes is to sell the benefits of knowing things instead of checking the boxes.

For example, I tell my students that being able to fake interest in deathly dull material is a primary job skill.  The person who gets the raise or the invitation to the more interesting projects is the person who is engaged all the time.  Yes, we’re all bored silly as that meeting extends into the second hour.  The person who keeps looking between the speaker and a paper that is being filled with notes is a go-getter, even if the notes are just the nouns from the speaker; those notes look plausible when someone looks over and help prevent drooling and obviously tuning out.  The person who is staring at the ceiling and isn’t even doodling is someone who might be told to not bother to come back tomorrow.  If you are a cog in the wheel, then you can be replaced.  If you are the rising star, even if that’s just perception of being keen, then you are harder to replace.  Fake it and keep that job.

The person who can smooze will also be offered opportunities that someone won’t who can’t even be bothered to take five minutes to skim the morning’s headlines and be ready.  When you end up in the coffee line or on the elevator with a boss, you want to be able to make small talk beyond the weather (although the weather is better than being on your phone texting instead of smoozing).  For that matter, you want to be able to make small talk with anyone you see casually regularly.  That guy who eats lunch in the company cafeteria with you at the same time may need another team member and will think of you if you spent five minutes chatting several times a week.  Those jobs will never be advertised; people get a quiet offer based on gut feeling.  Having a college degree can only make the difference if you have adopted the mannerisms of the worker bee instead of the forgettable cog.

Then, we get to why general education is important in terms of skills.  Everyone who wants a middle-class income needs to be able to write clear, coherent prose.  Your friends will accept texts.  Your elderly colleagues (i.e., practically everyone over 25 who signs the paychecks) expect emails and reports that have excellent grammar, organization, and main points supported by evidence.

Everyone who wants a middle-class income needs to be able to read at a college level, make inferences and connections, and be able to apply critical thinking to come to conclusions that aren’t already explicitly stated in the material.  Merely reiterating what someone else has already written is useless.  The value comes from putting together different sources of material to conclude something new.

Everyone who wants a middle-class income needs to be quantitatively literate at a college level.  That means being able to extract information from all graphs and tabular material.  That means being able to construct the appropriate type of graph to properly present data and analysis as necessary.  That means being able to call muggins on a mismatch between what is claimed in the text and what is evident in the data.

Oh, and then we return to smoozing.  It’s easier to smooze when you have years of material and background reading upon which to draw instead of trying to start from scratch in your first grown-up job.  For example, I ended up traveling to a conference yesterday with the president of my college–hours in her car, on the train, and at the hotel.  That’s face time and we spent almost no time discussing anything in my expertise since my expertise doesn’t match hers.  Instead, it was mostly talk related to general education, the news, and personal stories before we circled back to the purpose of the conference again.

The students are right that grades don’t matter as long as they are passing.  However, we must disabuse the students of the notion that the important thing is the piece of paper instead of the skills and habits the piece of paper is supposed to represent.

I think polly_mer is absolutely right. She (presumably, she) hits on the socialization factor of a university education, which MOOCs can’t even begin to address, as well as the importance of a liberal arts education.

Trying to convince students to take polly_mer’s perspective is another matter, one I struggle with every semester. I think I’m going to start by posting this on my office door.

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