Cheated of a ‘Real Carolina education’

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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently released the findings of a detailed investigation into “irregular” classes run through the African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department.

For those, like me, who proudly call themselves Tar Heels, the investigation provided plenty of disappointments: Students received credit for courses that never met and papers filled with unoriginal text. Support staff connected to university athletics—evidently aware that certain AFAM classes had inexcusably low standards and offered a way to inflate GPAs—shepherded students to those classes. One email from an academic counselor seemed to express indifference to student plagiarism—an astonishing breach of academic integrity.

Upsetting though these findings are, they are not what saddened me the most. The most disturbing revelation was the number of students who partook in the “paper” classes: at least 3,100.

The number is disturbing because it reflects another way in which we educators are failing our students. In the UNC episode, more than 3,000 of them evidently lacked the good sense to perceive (and therefore object) that they were being cheated out of a real Carolina education. Nobody successfully conveyed to them that, yes, college classes are supposed to daunt and challenge you—and if they don’t, you should ask for your money back.

Of course it’s easy to imagine how a student could come to hold the alternative mind-set, where classes are mere hurdles to jump before gainful employment. Several facets of the college-admissions rat race reward accomplishments that are the easiest to document and characterize. Once students arrive in college, some let extracurriculars take precedence over academics. Varsity athletics, where universities like UNC spend lavishly and where athletes feel enormous pressure to earn the GPAs that maintain their NCAA eligibility, offers students a host of reasons to perceive learning as a secondary priority.

But that mind-set loses sight of what college is for. It is not to indulge hobbies. (There are other opportunities to indulge hobbies.) It is not to come of age. (Students would come of age anyway.) Rather, as Steven Pinker and William Deresiewicz are correct to note (though they agree on little else), it is for students to learn how to think. It is to inculcate—to borrow Pinker’s phrase—the “habits of mind” that are a prerequisite to understand and address the world’s problems. After all, we have a few.

I am certain the problem—students’ misunderstanding what they should demand from their education—is not specific to UNC. But it is especially tragic at UNC, a university that in 2014 turned away 71.5 percent of applicants, and that offers a smorgasbord of opportunities to learn from world-class teachers and researchers in almost any area.

To take the easy road in such an enriching environment is like winning the lottery and not cashing in the ticket. “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”

I suspect colleges can do more to nurture students’ sense of ownership in their education. When it comes to varsity athletics, I am always puzzled by the institution of regimented study hours, which focus on the inputs of an education—time spent—rather than the outputs—skills learned. (Imagine what message it would send if football players had the privilege of attending practice only once they demonstrate an ability to solve a differential equation.) When it comes to guiding students, an instructor is well served to reject any language that emphasizes the instructor’s ego—“Here’s what you need to do to impress me”—over a shared stake in the students’ learning—“Here’s what I think we can accomplish together.”

Of course, college-level instructors need all the help we can get. Students begin to acquire an adversarial mind-set with respect to their education well before they set foot on campus. Educators at all levels, and parents too, should take to heart the fundamental premise that education matters not because it generates a credential, but because it develops skills that we—as individuals and a society—need.

Last week I told a student that her work needed substantial improvement. Reflexively, she apologized. It’s a response I always find puzzling. Like a baseball batter who apologizes to the umpire for not swinging at an obvious strike, the response reflects a misperception of who was injured by the mistake. I responded, as has become my habit, by reminding the student that the person with the deepest vested interest in learning the course material … was she! And that if she thought otherwise, she should take a class that would make the statement true.

It is a sentiment that, in future, I shall try all the harder to convey.

Author Bio: Timothy J. Ryan is an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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