Learning for Learning’s Sake…

It was yet another conference paper on first-generation college students, and yet another lament about how “they  don’t value learning for learning’s sake”.  “They want to know how everything relate to careers”, the presenter said.   “They complain about having to take courses like the history of pop music”, she sighed. I’d long ago stopped making snarky tabulations on my notepad every time she emphatically said “they” when talking about these students.

During the Q and A, I sat on my hands for awhile and then asked what the middle-class students said about learning for learning’s sake.

But the study wasn’t about them.  So no one had asked. The assumption seemed simply to be that if students from working class backgrounds expressed frustration with courses, curriculum, or the relevance of what they were required to do, it was evidence of a flawed values system.

But someone else on the panel then spoke up. “It’s money that they value”, she said.  She cited studies of the value that middle-class kids place on their college education. For them, she said, the intellectual took a backseat to the  earning potential that a degree would confer.

The middle class didn’t value learning for learning’s sake, either.

I haven’t seen those studies, but am still somewhat amazed when Ph.D.s who often are in it for the love of learning are surprised that anyone else isn’t.

And when I see studies like this recently released report on the alarming rates of cheating among high school students, I wonder how anyone can still think that students anywhere are driven primarily by a hunger of the mind.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  Middle class kids know how to intellectualize their complaints, how to feign interest, how to just stay quiet when it’s in their strategic interest to do so.  Working class kids may well wonder often and loudly why the hell they’re borrowing hundreds of dollars for a course on the history of pop music.

But learning what we’re teaching purely for the love of learning?

In my dreams.

Because if we really value learning, we have to value the learners, even when what we’re teaching isn’t self-evidently interesting to them, even if they’ve grown up within cynical times, even when they’re from backgrounds very different from our own.

…even if we have to be willing to look past the surface level differences to see the complicated lives withn which all of our students now contextualize their education.

6 thoughts on “Learning for Learning’s Sake…

  1. vincebates December 2, 2008 / 10:48 am

    I teach music appreciation at a small university in the mid-west. I’m putting together a proposal to teach American Popular Music as a gen ed course instead of the current Western Art Music sections that I teach. Social class is primary among my reasons for a new course. The insistance that poor and rural students ought especially learn about Western Art Music is a culturally imperialistic and classist notion that was originally and still is the impetus for pulic school music courses in the United States. I was surprised, then, at your “pot-shot” regarding a popular music course–something that can be very relevant and engaging for all students. Of course, social class and music preference is a major topic in my courses . . .

  2. janevangalen December 2, 2008 / 12:00 pm

    Thanks everyone for stopping by and commenting.

    J: I’m troubled that there are colleges that exist, in part, to profit from the skepticism that some students bring to their work — by catering to those who first and foremost want a credential whether they learn and grow or not. Too few institutions are targeting students who have to fit college into stressed and busy lives, but I’m concerned that some of these places that do that do are selling their students short. I honestly believe that that the best places are those that accommodate students from all sorts of backgrounds and then take those students places that they never could have anticipated. That was the element that was missing in that presentation that I wrote about: the institution was assumed to be doing its work well. It was the students who just could recognize the inherent value.

    CVT: Thanks for the link to your blog — lots to explore there. Middle school teachers who have no memory of how disengaged everyone else was when they were 12 are a distinctive group, no?

    Vince: So sorry that I’m not more often more clear in my writing. I was quoting a panelist, and I was trying to make a point about her amazement that anyone would even question taking the music class. I asked her if she even knew if that pop music class had any references to class issues in popular music, and she had no idea, which sort of made my point that we often haven’t thought about the relevance of any course for a broad range of students, but instead judge them for not seeing that relevance right out of the gate. I wish that I could put the two of you together…

  3. The Urban Scientist December 2, 2008 / 12:12 pm

    As usual, you bring some great points to the table. As a 1st gen-er from a working class family I can co-sign the frustration. During my fresh and sophmore yrs in colllege, I thought humanities courses were a wasteof time. I’d rather take more apprenticeshiplike classes where I was able to “do”something relevant to my career interests. I didn’t care about the history or caveats, etc.

    I attribute it to the Pragmaticism that comes from being poor and working class. You don’t have time for fluff. Get in, get it done, start earning a living, and in some cases, contributing to the household.
    It was graduate school before I realized and learned there was a culture to college and especially for grad school in the sciences.
    This lack of comprehension and mentoring of working class, 1st gen, and/or minority students contributes to the frustrating recruiment and completion rate of these students for advanced degrees in STEM, I think.

    Even now, I am often hassled by family and friends for pursuing academics for academics sake – Be a doctor, A REAL doctor, or be a teacher they tell me. Utility is important in these communities. Another reason I think minority, 1st gen, working class students interested in science always major in pre-med and overlook phds in science. 1, many of us don’t know about academic/research career options and 2, what’s the use, we need a profession that we can start earning as soon as possible.

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