This op-ed appears in the Springfield News-Leader in response to Kathleen Parker’s national column from Oct 2, using ACTA studies and findings from _Academically Adrift_ to wag a finger at colleges for failing students.
Kathleen Parker argues that colleges are failing to teach basic skills (critical/complex reasoning, writing and communication). I agree that that these skills are essential, and share her concern that college students are not learning those skills at an acceptable level. Parker’s analysis of the problem (drawing on misleading studies by ACTA) is that schools lack quality general education curricula, and so should create them.
Parker is wrong – in many universities quality curricula already exist. She’s also wrong to think of a curriculum as a conveyor belt that transports students through appropriate subjects until basic skills have been passively assembled. In fact, this passive understanding of education actually helps to create the very problem she is so worried about.
Rather than seeing a college as a factory that passively produces individuals with basic skills, I believe we should view it as an ancient Greek agora or “marketplace of ideas.” A curriculum structures that marketplace of ideas by creating a learning space in which ideas can be encountered, arguments and perspectives exchanged and debated and in which basic academic skills, habits and virtues can be acquired. The success of that marketplace of ideas, however, requires the active efforts of a great number of people.
At the core of the marketplace of ideas is the dynamic interaction between teacher and student. Passionate teachers foster excellence through challenging assignments and readings, by stressing oral discourse and by demanding the highest standards of critical reasoning. In turn, passionate students seek excellence; they demand difficult courses, papers and readings and attack those challenges with vigor. When either side fails to play their exacting and active roles, passivity emerges and the marketplace of ideas dies. Learning stops.
A flourishing marketplace of ideas also requires parents to push their children to seek out what is difficult, to stress learning far more than grades. It depends on trustees and administrators who support institutional practices that encourage quality liberal arts learning, and on a community and society that stress the value of lifelong learning as an excellence. When this support is absent, it is clear why: the conception of education as a factory is unfortunately present. The inevitable result: the marketplace of ideas becomes hollow and ineffectual.
Like Parker, I end with a “provocative charge and a call to arms.” However, I’m not demanding quality curricula – they already exist (at Drury and elsewhere). Instead, I ask that each of us, in our different roles, reflect on what we must actively do to assure that the agora — the marketplace of ideas — comes alive. Only then will the critical skills and academic excellences that both Parker and myself esteem, flourish.
Chris Panza is an associate professor of philosophy at Drury University.