I can count the classes that have I actually enjoyed on one hand. For the most part, public school and university courses felt like arduous slogs. Sure, there would be brief moments of inspiration, insight, and reflection, but I mostly focused on completing my assignments as quickly, and with as little effort, as possible. I doubt that I am alone in having treated classes as mostly annoyances on the path to a degree. I hated having to divvy up my curiosity, temporarily pretending to care about whatever it was that my teacher thought that I should be interested in.
Even though I eventually earned a PhD in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and now teach courses in that area, I found being a graduate student to be a largely miserable experience. I only woke up excited to go to my office after I completed my coursework, when I could dedicate most of my time to doing research on my own and sometimes under the guidance of my advisor.
The only class that I did enjoy during my studies involved doing largely self-guided group projects. The professors taught us a few tools and then mostly stepped back, letting student groups find their own way through their research and mathematical modeling projects, and only intervened when asked to and after groups presented their findings.
Maybe I simply forgot all this once I became a professor. Perhaps I wanted to believe that the STS topics that fill my classes would have been different, or were inherently more interesting and engaging. I do treasure the students who actively engage with my course material beyond the minimum expectations, but most do not. And I have largely failed in my attempts to teach my courses more like the one class that I actually enjoyed and less like all the others that I have fortunately forgotten.
Underlying this failure has been the stubborn belief that I can control my students’ learning. If only I properly incentivized them with grades, set up assignments just right, or made class lectures entertaining enough, perhaps I could get most of them to invest in their own education beyond merely fulfilling syllabus requirements. I have a hard time letting go of the belief that I can make them really learn.
Yet my own experiences tell me that this pedagogy of control is destined to be an abysmal failure. I have forgotten most of the mathematics that I learned over the course of a bachelors and masters degree. All that remains is a knack for working through quantitative puzzles, usually after surveying Wikipedia or Wolfram to relearn forgotten techniques.
Even this knack has not been worth much. When I interned as a statistician, my supervisor asked me to help him decide which would be the best algorithm to help categorize some “big data” that he had. “Shit,” I thought, “I don’t know how to do that.” My supervisor wanted judgement and deep understanding from me, but I had spent the bulk of my time in university plugging and chugging through calculations, writing up relatively simple programs for canned (rather than real-world) problem sets, and generally avoiding doing too much learning. And I was even an “A” student.
To scholars of decision making and high performance, none of this is surprising. Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe have written a great deal about phronesis, or “practical wisdom,” and how important, but hard won, it is. People become excellent leaders, doctors, judges, or teachers only by being afforded opportunities to make mistakes, and then being encouraged and enabled to reflect and act upon those errors. They never have a chance to become practically wise when mandatory sentencing requirements preclude exercising judgement, when state-prescribed testing and preparation eats up too much classroom time, or economic incentives prevent doctors from spending the time necessary to talk with and care about patients.
The failure of nuclear energy in the United States, for instance, has been partly caused by the tendency for the American regulatory system legalistically and tediously outline point-by-point design specifications in the effort to enforce safety. The specifications for a nuclear reactor in the US are on the order of several thousand pages, compared to mere tens in other countries. Whatever its benefits, the unintended consequence of a top-down control-oriented system is that American nuclear reactor builders have come to believe that safety is accomplished by following the letter of the law, not by thinking.
Of course, there are reasons why the American regulatory system overprescribes and leaves no room for on-going learning, adaptation, and innovative solutions to safety problems: lack of trust. An antagonistic relationship between industry and government drives our rule-based system, which in turn prevents a more cooperative back-and-forth. Government bureaucrats focus on controlling industry, whom they believe would do nothing right without intense supervision. Industry, in turn, often acts little differently from contemporary college-students: Doing the bare minimum and even subverting the rules when advantageous. Wherever learning is supposed to happen, too much control crowds out initiative.
Recognizing this does mean we should take a “hands off” approach, whether it be in education or industrial regulations. In my mind, the advocates of “permissionless innovation,” which prescribes that governments never proactively attempt to avert or mitigate the unintended negatives consequences of technological change, are complete fanatics. Neither would it be sensible to give students no direction at all with regards to their education, especially given that public schooling has inadvertently trained them to treat learning as a chore to be gotten over with as soon as possible or to think of degrees as merely signaling how hardworking or smart they are. Instructors have good reason not to entrust today’s college students with their own learning.
That leaves those of us involved in higher education in a Catch 22. We cannot begin to trust students without relinquishing control, but it is difficult to relinquish control without broader changes to enable and encourage students to demonstrate their trustworthiness. Teaching at an engineering school, I know that whatever extra time that I give my students usually translates into them spending more time studying for Calc II or other courses that they will invariably describe as their “real classes”—which are, ironically, the ones that they probably hate the most.
Yet continuing with the way things are seems perverse. The prospect of dedicating the rest of my life to an institution that mints degree-holders only at the cost of making people miserable fills me with dread. I wish that I had a good answer regarding how to break a sizable chunk of higher education out of the pedagogy of control, and I hope that I can eventually figure out how to more significantly reduce its presence in my own teaching. What would a university that produces practically wise human beings look like and how could we achieve one?