The new term starts in a week, students and faculty will return from break feeling marginally more relaxed and ready to hit the books once again. The question is, why? Not why do we come back feeling a bit more relxed and ready to go, that should be easy enough to answer. No, the question is why hit the books in the first place? What is the purpse of a college education?
When I ask my students this question, I get a series of answers: from the answer they think that I want to hear - 'to learn, etc., etc.,' (but you know that the one's who cough up this answer really don't mean it, they simply have learned that this is the answer that they know sells better than the rest), to other variations on the theme of 'well, it is simply the next step.' At that point, I ask my students to be honest (which worries them to no end - they have been well trained, they want to give answers that they think the teacher/professor wants to hear, giving an honest answer is exceptionally dangerous - I get this, I know professors who really only want to you to parrot their favorite ideas back to them). After they realize that I am serious about the whole honesty business, they think about the question, and then parrot the University line. Our university tends to highlight the economic advantages of a college degree - graduate and you will get a better job! It is not the worst answer, and it does have the benefit of being more honest, but it is an exceptionally depressing and short-sighted answer.
Do I want my students to graduate? Absolutely. Do I want them to get a better job? Yes! Do I want them to grow 'rich beyond the dreams of avarice'? Certainly. But that shouldn't be why they are embarking on a college degree. The college degree should not be a simple transaction. I know, I am being woefully idealistic, or worse, naive, but if this is all we are about, than we should close our doors. If the university is simply a component in a buisness transaction then we are not doing what we should be doing.
A slight digression - I sometimes wonder if this isn't the fundamental reason that we have been turing our universities into buisnesses. If we are offering a transactional pitch to our students, after a while the administration is going to start thinking in purely transactional terms. The whole university can then be reduced to whatever pleases and enriches the shareholders, whoever they happen to be (not the students or the faculty, I would argue). Of course, this is a vicious circle - if we run the university like a business, we shouldn't be surprised if we want buisness-like results.
But, you see, education isn't a buisness. Not even close. We want to inculcate a love of learning, a joy of discovery, a yearning to spend time with a good book, a delight in art and music, the thrill of mathmatical and scientific discovery. We want students to learn how to think, how to ask good questions, to realize that they don't know everything and that that is okay, especially if it leads the student to seek to find answers to their questions. We want to train students to have open minds, to yearn to find out what is around the corner, to look beyond the possible, to learn how to explore in a scientific manner, to understand history and their place in it - we want them to grow, to think, to thrive, to develop habits in life that will always motivate them to see how the world works and how they fit in to the whole glorious mess that is life. We yearn for them to become something that they aren't right now.
How do you quantify that?
We certainly try. We collect and collate endless bits and pieces of data, not so that we can learn how to get better at our jobs of being eduators, but so that we can generate a report that somebody someday might read showing that we are doing our job in such a way as to produce the required number of graduates within a certain time frame. If we hit our targets we are congratulated for being successful and people pat themselves on the back for a job well done - whether the students have gained anything or not is a question that no one even bothers to ask. The reports have been filed, the administrative beast has been fed, the politicians are happy, therefore all is right with the world.
My goal, as the new semester lurches into motion, is to continually challenge myself to see the larger purpose behind this whole vast enterprise we call 'higher education'. Wonder, a love of learning, a Cusan recognition that the knowledge of our own ignorance is a great place to start, an opportunity to ask questions that might not have answers, a desire to try to answer them anyway, the realization that if we stop growing we are dying, discovery, rational thought, sound methodology - all of these things, this is what we are about. Preparation for wherever life takes us next - that has to be something more than just a transaction.
That is what gets me out of bed in the morning. If, as an educator, I am simply in the business of fufilling a transaction, I would rather do something else. Who wouldn't?