On Friday just after noon, I was walking out of my building to meet friends for a "we are finished with the classes -- only finals left to go!" celebratory lunch, and found myself behind a couple of solid young men. They bounded down the stairs ahead of me, one saying to the other "That is it! I never have to go to another class in my life!" On my ten minute meander to the Greek restaurant where my friends were waiting for me I had a discussion within my own head about why and how these boys developed their attitudes toward education and what I wish I could have said to them (not that I would have the opportunity and not that it was any of my business, unless everyone's attitudes toward education are my business, which is a point we can debate some other time). At the most basic level my comment would have been "I hope you someday you don't think that never being in class is a particularly good thing."
Follow me below the orange Mobius fold for why I think being in class IS a particularly good thing.
We always tell our new faculty hires, particularly those who are relatively new out of graduate school, that our students are not like our faculty. The vast majority of our students do not want to be college teachers (which is probably a good thing, in and of itself, as there are not enough jobs for those who already are impeccably qualified). They may want to be artists, archaeologists, journalists, nurses, or athletic trainers. They may want to do research, but many will indeed leave college and never take another class that will lead to a degree.
But most professional jobs, even if there is no licensure involved, involve updating one's skills, and that will probably involve at least workshops, if not full scale multiple-meeting classes. I would like to hire people to work for me or have people take care of me (doctors, accountants, lawyers) or those I will eventually teach (early childcare specialists, counselors, teachers) be up to date in their knowledge and understanding. If this guy is truly desperately anxious to never sit in a classroom again, I hope he is going into a career where he will never have to update his skills. But it seems to me that there is more to education than just this.
I would like to have graduates of my university (and any university, or frankly, any school at all) to have the attitude that what they know now is not all they will ever want to know. One of my mentors when I started here, teaching Art Appreciation, said that our goal in teaching should be that a graduate, when he or she had the choice of entertainment, would choose to go to a museum. And that sounds like a reasonable measure of success, even if it would be hard data to collect (my university is very into assessment). As a result, I count as one of my greatest successes the man who came up to me in the gift shop of the Louvre and asked me if I taught at my university, and told me he had taken my Art Apprec course many years ago and when he had time for a vacation, he and his friends came to Paris and he had been going through the museum telling his friends all my stories. He had never taken another Art course, and was working as a physical therapist, but his choice was to go to one of the great museums of the world to look at art rather than to a beach. (To be honest, there are times when I might have chosen the beach)
We can impact people with our enthusiasm, our love for reading interesting books, our curiosity about the world, our willingness to try something that is hard. Even if the young man who expressed his enthusiasm in front of me yesterday never sits in a classroom again, I hope fervently that he will take from his classes here a curiosity about the world, and an attitude that inquiry never stops. That, I would like to think, is the case, and his main happiness is that he will never have to sit at an uncomfortable desk. But not that he will stop investigating things he doesn't know about. Maybe most of his classes so far have not seemed relevant, but they may be important in the future, whether impressing a prospective partner's family in conversation, or interviewing for a job outside of his original training (which many of us will do in our professional careers).
I know that I was always curious, but I would like our students to graduate with that curiosity. If a former student never actually takes a class again, I hope he or she is still interested in the news, and if one follows the news, that will mean learning new things. Because of the Malaysian Airlines flight 370 disappearance, I have learned a bit more how satellites track planes, and that the bottom of the south Indian Ocean is largely unmapped (I guess I knew this in some corner of my brain, but hadn't processed what that actually meant). Because of trying to understand the news from Oklahoma I have read up on the process of obtaining drugs both within the US and internationally. I have learned more about how various drugs affect the body and more than I wanted to know about how to kill people. But it is something I have felt important to know in order to follow what is going on in the world. I have on my bedside table a book of short stories about mummies, a kindle with a half-read book about an archivist investigating an aristocratic family's history during the First World War, and a hard-cover book on the history of the Mississippi River (combined with a personal narrative). My summer reading plans include Hemingway, Arthur C. Clarke, and All Quiet on the Western Front. I will follow the sports news and root for the hapless KC Royals and sort out what politicians I will donate to in the fall. I try to be interesting to myself, and I hope I am interesting to other people. That involves continually learning new things. And I like to talk to people who are continually exploring the world as well. I hope our students are something like that.
But I am not like my students (or my students are not like me). I just hope when we run into each other twenty years from now, we will both be interesting to each other.