What’s Wrong With University

Disclaimer: I am doing quite well in school. I am not complaining about my teachers, grades, or exams, I’m examining the system here as I see it, with no particular focus on how well I’m doing. I like Queen’s University, and none of this should be taken as a flounce. Also, this is part of a project I’ll be doing for the duration of my time at Queen’s, and is probably not my final opinion on university.


 

Ok. Here it is. The rant that’s been a few months in coming. The one that’s been itching at my insides unbearably since I first set foot on campus on frosh week. The rant that’s had me taking notes in preparation to write it out for the past semester. It’s a two part rant, actually. This (obviously) is part one:

There’s a lot wrong with university. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for higher education. I think university is a wonderful thing for those who choose to pursue it. I love the idea of young people developing themselves as world citizens and human beings. One of the ways we do that is by seeking out experts and dedicating ourselves to a learning experience. Which is great. If I wasn’t into all of that, I wouldn’t have chosen to take online university courses for a couple of years as a teen while traveling. I certainly wouldn’t be majoring in Geography today on campus at one of the best universities in Canada.

However. As a young person who is currently in this system, observing the way it works on a daily basis, I feel like I have a personal responsibility to speak up. I’m irritated. I’m skeptical. I’m wondering why we’re doing things the way we’re doing them. I’m coming to the conclusion that this system is a mess. After watching and participating in it for a while, there’s a few things I’d like to point out.

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Beginning at a fundamental level, is the university system here to help us become well-rounded individuals capable of critical thought, or is it here to mindlessly crank out a new generation of overly-qualified workers?

Because it seems to be confused on this front. In class, I’m told I’ll be expected to think critically, work creatively, and be dedicated to learning. But in the very next session, I’m handed a sheet that tells me exactly what my assignment is, precisely what I’m allowed to do with it, and that I’ll be graded on my ability to follow the rules. Exploring outside the parameters of the assignment is not allowed. Often the assignments are basic, boring, regurgitation of information. Explain to me how, exactly, this promotes critical thought, creativity, or a desire to learn? Even in first year, is this really useful or necessary?

My assignment instructions. These are pretty typical.
My assignment instructions. These are pretty typical.

It’s going to be absolutely impossible for me to explore a topic, truly learn about it, apply it to my own life, and show my professors that I have actually absorbed the material. I can’t. I’ve been told ahead of time exactly what I’m supposed to write, how I’m supposed to write it, and how it should fit in with every other report on the topic. This isn’t learning. This is learning that critical thinking is not necessary, and that if we simply follow pre-set parameters we will do well in life.

Here’s a newsflash:  Life is not determined by pre-set parameters.

The university bubble me and my peers are living in is not an accurate representation of the real world. The rule-following dependency skills we are learning here will do nothing for us except cripple our abilities to think creatively and take charge of our own lives and learning processes. It feels to me a bit like false advertising on the part of the university.

Alright, moving on. It does seem that at one point universities truly were meant to build upon a basic education, providing access to new topics and laying the foundation for a healthy, inquisitive mind. For the most part, that’s how they were marketed and perceived by the general public. However, I don’t think many would argue against the idea that today they are used by the majority of students as a way to earn a golden ticket to a high-paying job. So assuming that this is now their primary function, are they succeeding? No, not really. In fact, we have a surplus of over-qualified workers, and many low wage job spots are going unfilled. Students need to up their games, getting master’s degrees and doctorates before they can really improve their chances of getting the job of their dreams.

In total: Universities are not successfully instilling critical thought or creativity if that is their goal, and they aren’t providing jobs to the masses if that’s their true purpose.

So why the heck are we still using this system?! Is it even useful to us at this point? I don’t have answers to this. I know that in our day and age, not having a bachelor’s degree at least can be crippling. I recognize the value of education. But I’m skeptical about the setup.

Secondly, the actual teaching and testing methods are whack. They’re set up for people who are excellent writers. Everyone else is set up for failure. I’ll typically have to write two or three papers per class, per semester, ranging from one page to nine. The majority of my grade is based on how well I do on the papers. Of course, there are also exams, but even the exams are made for those who do well with writing. At the end of my last semester, two of my exams were three hours of writing (each), and the other was weighted 50% essay question, 50% multiple choice. No other methods are available. How well you do in class is based on your ability to take notes and write, how well you do in exams is based on your ability to bullshit an essay under pressure. Does that seem right to you?

The system isn’t ideal for the teachers, either. After a particularly stressful exam in which I had to write 3,200 words BY HAND in a three hour chunk (ouch), I did the math and realized that the TAs and professor for that class would have to edit over 1,280,000 words, or 3,214 pages over the winter break. Does THAT seem right to you? I won’t even go into how essay question based exams aren’t actually indicative of what you’ve learned from your class. That much seems obvious.

I don’t have the answers. I have no idea where to go from here. But realizing that there is a problem is the first step. These are the issues that I’ve seen during my first semester at Queen’s. We’ll see where it goes from here. I’ve decided to address this in two parts, the second is coming soon. Because it’s not ALL the fault of the university or the system or the professors. The more I’m here, the more I’m coming to believe that my generation is a huge part of the problem. So much so, I couldn’t fit it all into one post. Stay tuned.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on everything I noted here. Let me know what you think!

11 Replies to “What’s Wrong With University”

  1. “I love the idea of young people developing themselves as world citizens and human beings.”

    I am someone that colleges refer to as a nontraditional student. The traditional student being the description above, mostly the “young people” part. I’m 39 and I will be 40 next month. One of the glaring things about being at University for me was that I have never, in four years, been encouraged to think critically about any topic. The times I have, it has resulted in massive arguments with professors. In fact, the end sentence of these arguments is usually something along the lines of: “If you didn’t come here to challenge your own beliefs, then why are you here?” It is generally expected that you will take on the thoughts or beliefs of the professor and not question anything which is taught.

    My very first semester I was in a literature class as part of a general education requirement (that is another issue altogether). We were to do a review of the literature on a particular poem. I read the poem and reread the poem. I wrote my review of the literature. The problem was, my review and interpretation of the literature was not backed by any other review of the literature. It was a scandal when mine was read aloud to the class because it was literally the only one that differed.

    Two semesters ago I had the rather distinct pleasure (please read pleasure sarcastically) of arguing the death penalty in a criminal justice class with my professor, a prosecuting attorney and professor. In his arguments, he quoted “facts” and “statistics” but then left absolutely zero citations on either. For every argument I presented, I had citations to back it up. Trust me when I tell you that you can easily find citations for any facts or statistics regarding the death penalty in the United States and it doesn’t matter what side of the debate you are on. He flat refused to use them, even after I asked. Finally, he got so frustrated with me that he just asked me if I was stuck in my own beliefs and not willing to learn from him, a trusted professional in his field, why was I there?

    Those are just the two that stick out the most. And the answer to his question? To get the magical piece of paper of course. Truth be told, I should already have a doctorate degree in both Psychology and Sociology, but they won’t let you test out here based on knowledge you already have. I have references for my claims if needed. I have to prove I have this knowledge by going through at least four years of university and owning money at the end.

    Critical thinking has never appeared to be a part of the overall plan. Turning out a bunch of politically idealized new students appears to be the largest part of the overall plan.

    1. Excellently put. I have a similar, non traditional student experience. My views and conclusions track with both of yours. Having been to university in both the USA and Europe, I might add that the problem is not contained to North America alone.

  2. Excellent article! I homeschooled my kids for these very reasons. Now that we’re approaching graduation, I’m faced with the same dilemma…how does our current post-secondary education system better my kids for life and employment? It’s a shame to spend the time and money, just for the degree. It’s a shame that employers still let the diploma judge a person’s ability to perform. Fifty years ago, kids were kids, until they graduated and needed the four additional years to mature. This day in age, kids have been victims of grueling schedules since infancy. From the incessant string of Mommy & Me’s and Kinder Musics, to after school sports, extra-curricular activities, and endless homework, our kids have suffered schedules that few adults could keep up with. After all, our work day is only 8-10 hours per day. With the exception of professional degrees, has post-secondary education lost its relevance?

  3. I love reading your blog and going through your mom’s website, too :) I don’t know if I commented before… anyway. Glad you’re doing well in college (not a surprise ;) Thinking back to my time in college, I don’t feel like most of the things you discussed here were generally true in my experience, although I certainly had certain teachers & classes where those things were true. My first semester I had Calculus I, , General Chemistry I, General Physics I, and Yupik (language), oh and a separate lab class for chemistry and another lab for Physics. These of course are less writing-type courses like the ones you mentioned, I had other courses like philosophy later that required essay writing (which, yeah, I would agree essays in required core classes are generally bs), but being an astrophysics major, most of my classes were not essay-writing types. It’s funny to think that philosophy- what should have been the “freest-thinking” class, was actually the most close-minded boring route-learning bs essay writing class! haha However, the majority of my science teachers actively encouraged divergent thinking and were happy and often even excited to entertain crazy theories and projects, like I remember a friend and I doing a little Star Wars side project in an astronomy class when we began to learn about Einstein’s special relativity theory, we realized that one comment Han Solo makes that’s always laughed at by astonomers, actually could make sense taking special relativity into account (although I’m sure George Lucas wasn’t aware of that ;) . Even in my calculus class, I don’t remember if it was that first semester one, but one of the lower level ones, I asked the professor after class for some help on an annoying problem, and he was looking in detail at my work, and I didn’t show all the steps like you’re supposed to, at that time I did a lot of stuff in my head and detested having to write down a lot of simple intermediate steps, and instead of complaining or taking points off like you might think a math professor of a large freshman class would, instead he was impressed and actually offered me a scholarship on the spot. I had very few assignments like the one you posted a pict of, probably mainly due to my major, having more math problem type stuff. I do feel that, in my experience, I was generally, by most teachers (not all of course), but most, encouraged to think differently and critically. I hope your experience improves as you get into higher, smaller classes, and especially as you get done with the bs core requirements ;) I imagine you might post on that next? That is one thing I would totally change about the system. We should be done with “general well-rounding” after high school, college is the time to immerse yourself in your chosen subject, or at least general area, and not have to waste time in English 101 or whatever. Best wishes!

  4. Your assigment instructions are worse than what we have in France. We have all the instructions about size, number of page and so on. I’m a teacher now and really you need to give them if you don’t want to become crazy. Do you know that when you say “write as you want, like” students will ask you question for 1 hour about color, underline and other silly questions ? I know the problem come from earlier. When I teach to kids (foreign lesson), if I say “color in green”, they always ask “felt pen or coloured pencil ?”
    But, back to university, we think in France, that you need in an essay to write 3 main ideas. We have rules about how to write an introduction, that we learn in high-school. But then you do whatever you want. And nobody will ever give you a plan if you passed “college” (before high-school, you leave at 16yo, end of the compulsory education).

    But you’d better share your teacher ideas to get a good mark. You can only do on a different path and think by yourself if your teacher is ready to listen you and if you have something different (understand a specific language, experienced a job, etc). Otherwise, follow the mass.

  5. You’ve got some good points, for sure. One of the things that my kids have seen in high school is that most of the kids aren’t there to learn – they are there because they are forced to be there. By parents, by the district, by society. Because they are forced, they aren’t actively engaged – and that is frustrating to my sons who are there of their own choosing because they want to learn. In fact, Davy wrote about that very thing in one of his essays for applying to university, so we’ll see how well that goes over.

    Overall, I would say simply keep your eye on your goal and deal with the BS as needed. If a college degree will help you get where you want to go, then jump through hoops, but keep going.

    1. I disagree. She doesn’t have to deal with this. I’d say go to another country, like Finland from what I know, that has a better Education system. I’m planning on moving to another as well from the US, because I do not like what’s become of this country, and its WAAAYYYY behind on academics, on purpose, so America can have indentured servitude.

  6. OP, the education system is indeed a mess. Don’t listen to those that say “oh, you have it worse here than in france” or “deal with it” because you surely don’t need or have to. You live your life however “you” want. You go to a place where you will feel most comfortable. I wish you well.

  7. And Finland has a better education system (from what I’ve read online), than any other countries. :)

  8. You have a really interesting perspective coming from an unschooling background. I did my time in traditional schooling, university, and law school, and I totally agree with you. It’s ridiculous that failing to follow strict instructions results in a lower grade. It was also annoying for me that so much of the work was busy work, and that I didn’t have the time I needed to explore the things that interested me. Like you, I still got good grades and all, but I’ve definitely been less than satisfied with the system.

    I think unversities need to pick a side– are they going to be places where people can learn and explore and enrich themselves, or are they going to be places where people can pick up vocational degrees that will plug them right into a field of work? Some degrees are not vocational, like most of the humanities and liberal arts. But when people graduate and can’t get a job that directly pertains to that degree, they’re disappointed in their field of study or in their university. Universities need to be clear that those fields are not vocational, and that they’re mainly for enrichment, with some job-applicable skills on the side. The sciences, teaching, and health fields are far more vocational and less about enrichment and expanding one’s mind. So yeah, I think universities need to overhaul their systems and decide what they’re going for.

  9. I am a teacher at a university in europe (amsterdam). the problems are the same here (not sure in finland) and I agree it is difficult to come up with solutions or change the current status.

    one of the issues is that also in university most students are here, just because… because their parents/society expects it. they never had the time to really think what they want to really pursue (could be circus, could have been plumbing or soccer or natural horsemanship, could also have been med school but missed the grades). Now they are following our economics degree in expectation of a “successful” life… some (and I think it is always around 25% are really into it… and they will do well no matter how good or bad I perform, they have this intrinsic motivation. and 50% do enough/ok. and on the other side of the spectrum is the share who are not into it, no matter how well I perform… it is also discouraging for us.

    even if I try to do things differently (being open to creative assignments for example) most don’t know where to start… and much prefer a prescribed assignment… and the ones that do try (and we agree on something tailored) make my life difficult as it is difficult to evaluate and compare (yes, we are forced to give a grade at the end of the course and that feels very unfair that someone’s learning effort is downgraded to a 7,8 or any other number or letter). so after a few years and some difficult experiences I also became wary of too much freedom or creativity… since if one of the students complains it is difficult to argue how the grade came about if the assignment is unique…

    still one of the biggest challenges is time, like you point out, there are many, many students and teaching is just one of our obligations (a small one compared to the weight put on research and publishing). so it is much more efficient to stay within a controlled environment (standard assignments).

    solutions: smaller classrooms (where we can engage in more one on one discussions or smaller groups, where we can have time to think and discuss alternative assignments). so a number somewhere between 10 and 20… but that would be very expensive.
    another solution: allow motivated teachers to focus on teaching and good researchers to focus on research. the teacher keeps abreast of research and can then invite researchers as guest lectures to share state of the art knowledge for example. the teacher becomes more a mentor or facilitator of knowledge flow and not the source.

    on the student side: make sure that only the students with intrinsic interest join the course (this would lead to smaller classrooms btw).

    if society would not look down to manual labour, we would have a happier and more fulfilled society. so things might have to change first in society and the classroom with follow. or is it a chicken and egg?

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