An assault on education

Robert Showah

Opinion Editor

Three times a week, students attend a class with about three hundred of their fellow classmates. The students that decide to attend walk into the cold lecture hall like lifeless drones, seat themselves and wait for the fifty minutes they will never get back to pass by as the promise every university makes to educate with excellence is shattered and the money parents spend is flushed.

The quality of giant, specifically general education courses at VCU are debasements to the standards higher education institutions intend to uphold, and if any university administrator dared to take the time to sit through a week of these courses, they would surely arrive at the same conclusion.

It is important that we distinguish our arguments here from the familiar characterization of general education courses by students in the past as only being “irrelevant wastes of time,” but more so by the scoffing dismissal of these criticisms by other professors and administrators who believe students are being young, rebellious, lazy whiners. Of course, none of these folks actually know what happens in these lecture halls, and they are even more oblivious to the fact that students who care about their education can make cogent criticisms of a system of courses that is failing students.

The old argument in favor of general education courses is that it gives students “a well-rounded education,” an empty rhetoric at best and an absolute lie at worst. The size of these classes is unsustainable to deliver any sort of valuable educational experience.

Here is why:

First, students learn nothing of substance in these classes even if the material is relevant to them. The problem is that professors are helplessly balancing three elements: instructing hundreds of students, teaching barely relevant material and delivering a quality educational experience.

Seeing as this is virtually impossible, they compensate for their lack of ability to educate a large number of students by blanketing the class with an obscene amount of trivial course material and exam questions because anything more comprehensive would require more time for both the professor to teach and students to understand.

Now, some make attendance optional just like many professors have done, completely decimating any possibility or actual existence of student concern, motivation, or even inspiration to engage in the class.

Second, contrary to the label they have been given, these are not “college-level courses.” They are the quintessential high school classes where you are taught too much to learn, where you are lectured at and then ordered to memorize random facts in preparation for an exam that ultimately tests mere coherence, not comprehension.

Third, and perhaps most shockingly, is that the professors are actually lazier than the students.

These courses further degrade education by administering the assembly line-like, mass-produced, multiple choice scantron, easy-to-grade exams. Turn five of these in, divide by the same number and “Bam!” – final grade. The sad part is that these courses carry equal weight to courses within our major. This sort of manufactured cattle prodding of grades on the transcripts of students is the gravest insult to what education ought to be at this stage in a student’s life.

And then there are the clickers.

Yes, there is something below the rock bottom we have already hit describing the damage done and valuable time wasted by these courses. Clickers are bad for almost all reasons. Professors often use them to compensate for their incompetence by requiring them for attendance purposes but also to combat students who turn the cheek and can ace their class without attending. Others use them to replace the entire educational experience. As long as you can move your fingers, you’re receiving a well-rounded education.

As contradictory as this may sound, professors are not entirely at fault. It is often the department heads pulling the strings. Professors are certainly aware of the difficulties in teaching courses like these. They know that students are disinterested. They are making the best of it. Even some professors agree their classes are bridges to nowhere. They know students largely do not take anything away from their class, but they are held to conducting a required course.

So what do we do about these courses? Something must change. But there are a few probable reasons things do not and unfortunately will not change any time soon.

First, jobs. These courses create plenty of teaching positions and good opportunities for graduate students to find work – eliminating them would kill jobs.

Second, money. Teaching these courses and finding people to teach them is cheaper than, say, replacing them with courses that are relevant to a student’s major which often requires a professor with a higher degree to teach them. About two-thirds of the credits we take here at VCU are irrelevant to our major. For the university to invest in actually teaching us material we paid $25,000 to specialize in would apparently be too expensive.

Finally, there is the more abstract problem: This obsolete 20th century curriculum is so entrenched within the system that nobody wants to be bold enough to change it.

These are courses that ought to be taught in high school, not college. More students, than a cynical faculty member would think, enjoy their classes. While attending a class is sometimes a drag, mandatory attendance gives our education legitimacy but only if we are taught something valuable. We sometimes hate exams, but we like the ones that challenge us, not the ones that cover half a textbook through trivia questions.

All of this is an opportunity to change a large portion of higher education for the better. Places we can look to for replacing these oversized courses include allowing students to choose from a wider selection of electives, or taking cues from the Da Vinci Center, and allowing students to explore different majors in courses that teach innovation and involve the various schools of study at VCU.

Let’s change general education classes for the better by getting students off Facebook and making each of their years at VCU truly worthwhile.

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