Sheepskin and the Herd: Why Passive Student Consumption of Higher Ed Is Destroying Critical Thought

08/04/2010 04:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Recently, Huffington Post featured Wesleyan University President Michael Roth's article about the aims of a liberal arts education, originally printed in the Chronicle of Higher Education. While Roth's focus is the liberal arts, his argument can be extended to encapsulate the function of higher education as a whole.

Roth envisions a higher education that should provide " enhanced opportunity to experience the world without undue reliance on unquestioned authority while creating an opening through which we can share that experience with others."

But, as a recent liberal arts school graduate, I can say with a measured amount of know-how that our institutions of higher learning have not yet fully developed this rich learning environment that fosters "experiencing the world without undue reliance on unquestioned authority."

There are various reasons for falling short of the mark, and Roth cogently points out some -- the at times unquestioning juggernaut of the academy or narrow-minded views on what subjects should be taught, how they should be taught, and why.

A more pernicious but subtler threat to an education that produces independent thinkers, I believe, is the prevailing student attitude of passive consumption toward post-secondary learning. Many of the students with whom I had studied were indifferent to their education. They saw good grades and the much-coveted diploma as the ultimate goal, the achievement of which would lead to a job with a salary and benefits.

I believe this attitude stems directly from the pervasive cultural notion, instilled in part by parents and eventually internalized by students, that a higher education is not an opportunity to be earned but rather a product to be consumed. A college education is not seen as a period for intellectual growth but rather it is often considered only as an ends to a specific material means, with the added bonus of enjoying a temporarily carefree and enriching social life.

Author Ken Robinson, in a recent TED talk, decries this accepted notion of college-as-consumption, referring to it as "the idea of linearity" in education, that "it starts here, and you go through a track, and if you do everything right, you'll end up set for the rest of your life."

Cast in this light of consumption, the university diploma then signifies something disposable. What, then, gets sacrificed when we re-envision higher education as a product?

Perhaps Hope College professor W.A. Pannapacker put it best in his essay "Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor":

What has been lost, according to Jacoby, is a culture of intellectual effort. We are increasingly ignorant, but we do not know enough to be properly ashamed. If we are determined to get on in life, we believe it will not have anything to do with our ability to reference Machiavelli or Adam Smith at the office Christmas party.

The rejection of the Great Books signifies a declining belief in the value of anything without a direct practical application, combined with the triumph of a passive entertainment ― as anyone who teaches college students can probably affirm.

In this atmosphere of consumption, it's not merely the Western canon that is falling out of fashion; it's a wholesale rejection of critical thought, which, simply put, is the ability to rigorously evaluate ideas without falling victim to others' or our own biases. Pannapacker's next claim, that of the "triumph of a passive entertainment" becomes yet another attack on critical thought that goes hand-in-hand with consuming education.

While spending time recreationally has always been the rightful purview of the college student, we are now, as never before, bombarded by an overwhelming abundance of entertainment products from which to choose, like Facebook, and video games, and page-turners like the Twilight series, or legions of iPhone apps.

If we take Michael Roth's words seriously, a university education means that we should leave with an ability to question every idea that comes our way, even ideas purveyed by academics or authorities in other fields. Going out into the real world without the presence of mind to question others and ourselves stops the wheels of innovation and future development right in its tracks. We cannot possibly progress toward anything substantively better (personally, professionally, socially, or politically) if we cannot properly think.

Unfortunately, the system is not set up such that this ability to question is automatically instilled just by attending classes and fulfilling course requirements. Professors can encourage critical thought, but in the end, we must actively cultivate the capacity ourselves. During our college years, large amounts of free time coupled with an open learning space rife with educational resources creates the perfect environment in which to become a true self-taught questioner.

After all, when we pay for college, we pay for the plot of educational land, but we don't necessarily have to grow anything on it. That responsibility falls squarely in the hands of students. If we don't take advantage of this time, then we'll leave only with a piece of sheepskin and a herd mentality that will be hard to reverse once out in the very busy real world of employment and other responsibilities.

As Emerson so prophetically said in his lecture on the American scholar: "It is for you to know all; it is for you to dare all." As students navigating those precious four years of college, we must place a renewed emphasis on the active, self-aware character of that pronoun -- you.

This guest post is contributed by Lauren Bailey, who writes on the topics of online colleges. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: target="_hplink">blauren99