When I attend professional conferences I almost always learn a few things useful for my teaching and research. In fact, that’s my definition of a successful conference–”one in which I learn something useful. Maybe it’s the way my mind works, but more often than not, the insight is somewhat unpredictable” –a speaker in a session or someone outside a session (yes, it may be in a bar), says something which somehow jogs my mind into figuring something out or giving me an idea which is not necessarily directly related to what the speaker said.
It happened yesterday. A couple of years ago, I was interacting with a colleague in the Dean of Students’ staff. He argued that much of what undergraduates learn is learned outside the context of courses and coursework. He revealed something I was unaware of, that the Student Services staff had developed a great deal of programming to promote such learning. He also argued that such learning was possibly more important than what students got out of their academic programs.
Shortly after, I was talking with another colleague from our school of graduate and professional education, which tends to enroll working adults. The culture of their school is quite different from our liberal arts campus, which is understandable given the dramatic difference in life experiences of 18 to 22 year olds compared with older students involved with families and careers. In any case, this colleague argued that what our traditional-aged undergraduates learn outside of coursework is really not relevant to his students. He observed that his students neither need nor want the type of ‘learning to be an independent adult’ stuff that the Student Services staff promotes. The implication was that the school of graduate and professional education is a more cost effective way to provide public higher education, though to be fair, he did not say this. It was clear to me that what we offer in the school of arts and sciences is different from what they provide, but I was unwilling to conclude that our program is a luxury we can no longer afford.
This conversation grew to involve some other participants, and as you can imagine it became quite heated at times, even challenging the rationale for the continued existence of residential, liberal arts colleges. (Why, as one self-described taxpayer said, should the state finance the maturation to adulthood of a cohort of citizens, who otherwise would accomplish this on their own?) I left the conversation thinking that both sides had some valid points, but still feeling that there was a deeper level of meaning involved than we had been able to discover in our discussion. That meaning is what came to me yesterday at the conference. At least, I think so.
Suppose we accept that there at two types of learning occurring in the university. The first, which we can call classroom learning, involves what students do to meet the requirements of specific courses and which ends with a degree. This can be students who put in enough effort to minimally satisfy the requirements with passing grades, or it can be students who work harder to achieve high grades, but for whom the grade is the end in itself. In both of these cases, the degree is a necessary credential for future employment or career advancement. Education here is primarily seen as a means to a vocational end.
The second type of learning goes beyond the classroom. It may be course related or not, but either way it tends to occur outside of the classroom. This learning is where students accept the invitation to participate in the life of the mind, and has the potential to transform one’s view of the world. (Contrast this with the first type of learning, where students need not be engaged, since the objective is merely the grade or the credits.) Being brilliant and achieving the best grades are neither necessary nor sufficient to pursue this path. Rather, what is necessary is a desire to learn for learning’s sake. This involves the type of intellectual inquiry that scholars do as professionals. Students who join this path become engaged in their learning far beyond what is required for a given course or degree. And perhaps the same thing can be said about faculty. (Do we treat our students and their work differently, more casually and less seriously than we do our professional colleagues and their work?) On this path, faculty treat students as serious learners, even colleagues, though with less experience and knowledge.
This second type of learning is what liberal education continues to offer, and it can be equally attractive to adult students as to traditional-aged ones. Adults may no longer need an introduction to adulthood, but it’s never too late to participate in the life of the mind. One colleague describes this distinction as education versus training: education for life not merely training for a job. I think I finally get it.