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Saturday, March 17, 2012

"...cabbage with a college education."

It's no secret that I'm chafing at the neck and every other place with regards to the classes I'm taking this semester. I have spent no small amount of soul searching trying to determine if I'm old and set in my ways. Just because I've adopted the annoying habit of using the work "Dude" every now and then doesn't necessarily mean that I'm adaptable.

It's taken me three weeks to figure out what's wrong and to understand why I'm pushing back. A teacher on my Orientation to College class has us blogging about how to do research. Because using Google to find things on line isn't enough. You have to use Google advanced search, because, apparently, we're not capable of reading the list of items that come up and figuring out which one pertains to the subject and that the one that says "Find Leprechaun sex at" probably isn't going to help you much. One has to explain ones thought processes and the steps one took on ones research that led one to eliminate as a source for a definitive social analysis of Leprechaun sex.

The teacher demands proof of search paths, notes taken during the search and, my favorite, a description as to what, exactly, we expect to find as we continue researching our topic, a topic, btw, we were assigned to pull out of our asses. Pick a topic then do a research paper on it. I about the high cost of textbooks?

But that's when it hit me...'WHAT DO YOU EXPECT TO FIND?"

Information isn't specific enough. Knowledge, in and of itself, is considered worthless, it no longer has value because of it's own worth. The journey is of no importance here as long as it takes you to one, and only one place. Let's face it, if I knew what I was going to find, I wouldn't bother going there. Unless it's something like the bathroom tissue aisle at the super market, in which case, knowing what's at the end of your path is, most likely, beneficial to the max.

No...this is something deeper. I call it tunnel vision. It's the way students are being educated today. Pick one thing and learn about it. Know what you will have when you're done. There is one road and only one road, it goes to your goal and no where else. You know how kids (and by kids I mean people under 40, no offense) are always excusing their ignorance to announcing "that was before my time"? As in "This 1942 Academy Award winning Best Picture set in North Africa was originally cast with Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan" and, after standing and drooling for 5 seconds Alex finally says "Casablanca" and someone says "oh, I wasn't born in 1942." Really? That's an acceptable excuse?

Contrary to popular rumor I was NOT in the crowd when Anne Boleyn was beheaded - but I've heard about it.  Actually, there wasn't much of a crowd at all, Anne was gifted a private execution. Some gift. Know why I know this? I read about it. I was curious about something about Anne Boleyn and came across that fact. I also came across the extremely creepy fact that executioners held the heads of beheaded people up to the crowd so that the executed could look upon their accusers because it takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 seconds for the brain to know it's missing everything else. Yeah, I know, it's gross. Just thought I'd share.

Last semester I did a paper about John Steinbeck. I LOVE Steinbeck, always have. Well, the class was a literature class and my idea for the paper would have leaned heavily on the Great Depression. Well, when I was starting to do the research, I asked for (and got) an appointment to spend a morning in the archives at the Steinbeck Center. I was unbelievably stoked. I took vacation and spent money we didn't have. I spent two days in Pacific Grove, where Steinbeck had lived before he discovered he'd rather live in New York. Actually he lived in Pacific Grove because he discovered he would rather live ANYPLACE except Salinas, which makes the Steinbeck Center's location smack in the middle of Salinas a textbook definition of irony.

Anyway, I spend hours with papers in the archives. I spend hours wandering around the streets of Monterey and Pacific Grove, passing places the man passed, the house he lived in, the house his friend Ed Ricketts lived in, walking Cannery Row and going into Salinas, not by the freeway, but by the small, old highway that had been used to link the peninsula to the Central Valley for a hundred years. I wondered how many people wander that area and never think of John Steinbeck and how many people sense his presence every day. I went to the cemetery and visited his grave.

And when I finally sat down to put the paper together, sans any outline but for the compass in my head, I found so many intersections on the road to the Depression. There were turns and side streets and, eventually, as I was writing, I came to a fork and, as many times as I tried to take the road that would lead to my initial destination I finally gave up and followed the one that kept tugging at me, and my paper. I abandoned the Grapes of Wrath (to a degree, one can't do Steinbeck and ignore the book) and went back, years earlier, to a younger Steinbeck and a series of newspapers articles that just seemed to get under my skin.

That paper was some of the hardest work I've even done, my family can attest to my being a raging bitch during the week I wrote it. It was also some of the most rewarding. My professor, apparently, thought so too, out of a possible 200 points I got 199. I typed "of" instead of "to" and didn't catch it, there were a few misplaced commas as well.

The point of all this is that, by insisting papers be mapped out in detail before they are written, by stifling writers voices in favor of a non distinct style, in judging the framework instead of the content, in ignoring the words in favor of the placement of the indentations, in expecting, no demanding that the journey and the destination be mapped out in detail and the path never strayed from, the experience is lost and we're producing graduates with no knowledge of anything except their own field. People are perfectly comfortable defending their ignorance with the airy "that was before my time" excuse.

Years ago, economics majors had to learn history, being an accountant was no excuse to not know that Wellington trounced Napoleon at Waterloo.  A degree in literature did not preclude understanding that an object in motion tends to remain in motion and social science majors read "Twelfth Night"  - but no longer. Our colleges and universities are all just glorified Trade and Tech School, requiring a map for graduation, one set in stone with no stopping by the side of the road to read the historical markers allowed. There are no changed in itinerary allowed, and travel at one's on time can get you an "F" in spite of worth at the end of the journey.

No longer is a student ALLOWED to work at their own pace, they must work at the pace mandated by the classroom, and turn in weekly proof of that pace. I knew, and still know, people who do their best work only when the deadline looms large. This is not acceptable now, adequate work done at a pre-determined pace is preferable by far to brilliant work done during an all nighter. Soon no one will know that poor Anne Boleyn was railroaded, or that she was beheaded by a specially imported French swordsman who distracted her by rustling the hay strewn over the platform.  They will only know how to write software.

One of my favorite quotes is from Plutarch: "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted." Sometimes "lighted" is translated to "kindled" or "ignited." That's the problem with Latin. But I like "lighted" it's the way I first heard it. Schools are now just  filling vessels. Cram stuff in, fill it up and move them out. Where is the room for imagination, excitement, individuality, creativity? No wonder higher education has become a chore - a backbreaking, tedious, exhausting chore.  No wonder we're becoming a country of dull, overworked people.

Education is taking the easy way out. And we are all poorer for it.

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