Since I teach in Tennessee, I’ve heard a good deal about Tennessee Promise, the program that provides (with more restrictions than people know) free community college for students in Tennessee. Many people have praised the program, and several have invoked it as a model for any federal program that might come out of the next president’s administration. In our area, I’ve also seen a greater push for students’ taking dual enrollment classes rather than AP courses. I even heard one of my colleagues talking about their child, who will enter college almost at the junior level.
While I can understand some of the benefits of such approaches, there are a couple of serious problems with them that we can’t ignore.
First, let me say that I understand the financial benefits for students and their parents. I was lucky enough to have parents pay my way through college (after I put together a combination of scholarships, work study, and work to lower that cost rather significantly), so I left without any student loan debt. However, by the end of my graduate school career, I ended up with more than $50,000 in loans, and I didn’t pay those off until my forties. Thus, I can see why students and their parents would want the time students are in college (and are paying for college) to be much shorter.
However, that time is important for students to mature, not just emotionally, but also intellectually. Rather than simply checking off boxes to complete requirements and graduate, students need to dwell in subjects for more than a year or two, to let the ideas really become part of them. I’ve seen too many students rush through their course work, especially in the major, only to graduate with a respectable GPA and little real understanding of how the discipline works. Conversely, I’ve watched students mature from their first year in college until their final, only truly understanding major concepts once they are finishing their senior year.
The current trend in conversations about higher education right now is to talk about competency, that students should be able to show that they can do something. Thus, if students can write a competent paper, they move on from a beginning composition class. I’ll skip over the fact that such an idea wouldn’t and couldn’t ever apply to the fine arts, where there’s no way to talk about competency. Instead, I’ll make the argument that that idea also doesn’t really work in any of our classes. We don’t want students to write competently; we want them to write excellently. In order to do so, they need more than basic skills on how to lay out a thesis or structure their essay (as important as those are); they need to be able to think at a level that provides them something to say.
When people ask me about students’ writing, I tell them that, by and large, they don’t have major grammatical issues. That’s true almost every semester. My students can write mostly grammaticaly correct sentences. Many of them can write a basic thesis statement with three points, then hammer those three points home, then restate their thesis and conclude. They could use such an approach to give a business talk or preach a sermon or any other type of public talk, and they could do so as well as most people in the world.
What they can’t do is think at a level that goes beyond what they could do in high school. They write in broad generalities, and they ignore evidence that contradicts their point of view instead of grappling with it. While their writing might be competent for someone starting out in a field, their thinking isn’t. They need time in college to develop that depth of thought, which can’t be measured by certificates and competencies.
I’m obviously arguing from a liberal arts point of view, but the more I hear about the world, the more I believe we need graduates who can do more than simply be competent. We need people who can do more than write competent papers and put forth competent business plans and be competent nurses. We need people who can think in creative ways, drawing on what people have created and thought over the past several thousand years to come up with something new. And that can’t be rushed through in a couple of years.