"Algae specialists, long near the bottom of the biology food chain, are becoming the rock stars."

Bourne, National Geographic, Oct. 2007

Friday, September 9, 2011

Why Go to College?

This summer, Gary Trudeau published this Doonesbury Comic Strip.

Since then, I've been mulling over the thoughts presented in the strip: What does it mean to be a student?  Why go to college?

These are excellent questions.  A friend of mine believes that in the near future, humans will be physically melded with technology.  In other words, you could access the internet just by thinking about it.  I'm a little doubtful, but like the characters in the cartoon strip, we already have a wealth of information right at our fingertips.

Through happy circumstance, in 2006 I happened to observe a classroom at Texas A&M "taught" by award-winning professor, Dr. Hill.  I say "taught" because I left with the distinct impression that Dr. Hill was more guide and less guru.

In what was initially one of the strangest lectures I had seen in my entire life, Dr. Hill presented on the very same issue touched upon in the Doonesbury strip.  Why go to college?  What was really great was not only did he project into the future, but took us through a tour of the past reactions of teachers to new technology.  Believe it or not, based on the quotes shared, issues of ball point pens vs. inkwells and paper vs. slate apparently nearly derailed the education system.

So, what is the point?  While the stereotypical student may agree with the Doonesbury characters, I hope the real student gives this some thought.  Throughout life, we run up against unfamiliar situations all the time.  We are presented with and must sort through mountains of information each and every day.  In college, these mountains may threaten to overwhelm us.  In the end, however, it all comes down to two basic tenets:

How do we think? and What do we think?

The words, "critical thinking skills" get tossed around in education all the time.  Really, what professors are saying is, "I want my students to process and analyze the material in order to gain deeper and more personal understanding of the topic."  The sequence of processing and analyzing is the how we think.  That deeper and more personal understanding eventually becomes the what we think.  College doesn't exist merely to fill your head with facts like some sort of time capsule.  Information is vibrant and ever growing (think of all the researchers just at OU... they generate new information every day); there is no way we can memorize it all.  College exists to help guide students through the thinking process so that by the time a student graduates, he or she has the skill to find, evaluate, process and analyze information to develop his or her own ideas and opinions.

And that, Charlie Brown, is what college is all about.

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