Saturday, July 09, 2005

How Essential is Undergraduate Learning?

I'm not really into getting presents. Most of them I don't know what to do with. They end up sitting around unopened. This contrasts to my kids, who make a big deal about presents at birthdays and at holidays. And it contrasts with my wife and my sister who think giving presents is a big deal, an important part of family. On Father's Day the kids gave me some things they made at camp - buttons with their pictures on them and greeting cards made out of construction paper. That was fine. I also got some DVDs - The Godfather Trilogy (great films but I've seen them a zillion times) and Schindler's List. I hadn't seen that. It came out when my older son was still an infant and in our sleep deprived existence didn’t relish something so somber. The few times it has been on TV since, it seemed too long and too serious for home viewing. A week or two ago I watched it when the rest of the family was out of the house. I thought I'd find it depressing. (My wife and I had gone to see The Pianist a few years ago. That was depressing although there was some expression of a German's humanity in that movie too and it was an important point, but not the emphasis of the picture.)

Here, of course, Schindler was the focus. The movie depicts him as undergoing a personal transformation. Initially he was out to make lots of money, running a factory staffed with interned Jews who provided slave labor. Somehow the barbarism of the time and the insanity of the situation changed Schindler, at least in Steven Spielberg's version of the story. Saving Jews by having them work in his factory became his raison d'ĂȘtre. Stopping the German war machine was his secondary goal. Making money had been a false idol to worship. The ultimate scene has him break down in front of Itzak Stern, the accountant who ran the business, and others about in the factory, full of remorse that he had earlier spent money as if it was water and thus couldn’t save even more of the Jews when his money ran out.

Whether the story is completely true, the Schindler Juden are real enough but Schindler’s personal odyssey is largely unknowable and hence the book upon which the movie was based is considered a work of fiction, it is nonetheless gripping, at least as much for the idea that dire circumstances can make people reevaluate what in life gives it real meaning and that the human response can be decent and uplifting as it is for the other reality, that Schindler was a member of the Nazi party yet he was a man not a beast.

This type of film is a cause for reflection. In my case, the reflection might have been about my ancestors; on my mother’s side both of my grandparents were killed at Auschwitz. But instead I started to reconsider my current vocation – promoting good teaching and learning at a research university, using technology as a catalyst and an instrument. I’m continuing on with this reflection, especially in light of the recent documentary, Declining by Degrees. (Incidentally, my posts since this past Tuesday can be taken collectively as my explanation of the dual interrelated problems in College education today: the “Disengagement Compact” and the “Hyperinflation in Tuition.”)

I had not asked myself this before, but is it possible that attempts to save the entire system are foolhardy, even vain. Most of the Arizona students who showed up on camera in Declining by Degrees seemed comfortable enough, perhaps even too comfortable. Sure there seems to be a terrible waste in how little they are putting into their own education (and in how little some of their professors are challenging them). But perhaps they should be left to their own devices. Perhaps, instead, the focus should be on only those students and teachers who are eager and ensuring they are done right by how and what we teach. If the rest are, to borrow a phrase from Pink Floyd, comfortably numb, maybe we should leave them there.

The Sloan Foundation, which has been one of the big advocates for online education, has made their issue about access. Declining by Degrees also made access a big issue, but for them access and costs were essentially two sides of the same coin; access is restricted for lower income students who have to pay high tuition. There is nobility in promoting access. But it has never seemed like the right issue here. We have more students at the undergraduate level than we know what to do with.

The news is awash with stories about religion and fundamental belief. Today’s NY Times has an article about a Viennese Cardinal’s view that Darwinian evolution is not the right story and that there must have been Divine intervention. The Sandra Day O’Connor resignation and the jockeying for her replacement has brought out the beliefs of “Original Intent” by folks such as Robert Bork, who can not stomach other Justices like Anthony Kennedy, who has been known to change his mind. And, of course, the London bombing have brought out the faith and resolve of Prime Minister Blair and President Bush.

I am driven by doubt, not faith. All the expression of faith makes it seem to me a world that is crazy, defying reason. So I express my alternative. And with that I have to wonder if what I’ve been putting my efforts into is all that important.

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