Amid debates over the costs of higher education, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a student. What kind of citizen are we trying to produce, and what is that transformation worth? Some of the things that universities do are virtually spiritual missions. One core mission is to help students develop an internal sense of authority.
Intellectual authority is not a natural condition. We grow up surrounded by external authorities. As a writing teacher, I see my students struggle to develop a sense of themselves as writers who can voice and defend an opinion that they can call their own, an opinion that they arrived at through independent thought. The achievement of independence involves a struggle with and against the arguments of established writers, but it also depends on resources drawn from the student’s own experience. They’re tempted merely to adopt another writer’s ideas. They want to know the right answer. That’s how most of them were taught in school. They’ve learned to follow and obey external authorities, and to measure everything by letter grades and test scores.
Part of the difficulty is the environment. Students who feel confident voicing strong opinions among friends are at a loss when it comes to formulating arguments in the classroom. The classroom isn’t a comfortable place for them. Academic debate is hard for anyone, but it’s especially difficult for students whose previous educational experience rarely emphasized independent thinking. I was such a student myself. The public schools I attended emphasized getting the right answer. Writing was more about reporting facts than about developing independent insights based on an analysis of facts.
Students who are trained for twelve years to find the correct answer may have learned how to follow procedures, but they have a hard time understanding a college teacher who asks them to identify and frame the problem for themselves and to take up and defend a logical position in relation to other arguments developed by other writers and thinkers. Define the problem and solve it: those are both difficult tasks. The first time I tell my students that they have to discover their own opinions, they don’t believe me. They’re waiting for me to give them the rules and the sure-fire methods. They want to know how many points I’ll deduct for spelling errors and grammatical mistakes. Those are the things they’d like to focus on as an escape from the harder work of thinking. But the answer is, none. Until they can carry out a persuasive formal argument, small flaws of that kind should be the least of their worries.
Many adult problems lack simple solutions. It can be hard merely to identify the problem. We do confront such problems even when we’re young, as when we ask, “Why is Billy so mean to me?” And adults often do help kids to see the complexity of problems for which no easy solution exists. But unless your children attend an elite school, their k-12 experience is likely to be constrained by the testing regime, and no one may help them to develop an inner sense of authority. That authority is the power to weigh their values and desires in relation to the demands of society. More than the skill of analysis, it’s the power of judgment. It helps them to be problem-solvers at work, and it also enables them to defend themselves in the realm of ideas and public policies and laws. In the end, that power is worth everything.
Music: "Imperfection" by Evanescence