By Blair Kuykendall
I wish I had time to think.
Rather ironic, no? That's theoretically why we come to college. But college is not designed to develop your critical thinking skills anymore. According to the current model of American higher education, you're here to graduate. To keep pace with other universities, the University of Tennessee Knoxville is focused primarily on making learning efficient.
In the frenzied blur college has become, it's relatively easy to forget the reason we promote university attendance. I think that merits some reflection.
We all take classes, some more than others. But at the absolute most you spend 19 hours in a classroom. Barring a part-time job, the rest of your time is essentially disposable.
I say essentially because we all know that really is laughable. Hours seems to fly by, all dominated by things that should get done. There's the usual laundry list of homework, seeing friends, meetings, projects, papers, organizations and then actual trips to the dry cleaner. I look around me and I know I'm not alone. Everyone seems to be in some sort of frenzied bustle all the time. A simple "How are you?" has a 90 percent return rate of, "Tired."
I honestly believe we've lost the purpose of this entire experience. The years of our lives spent as students are supposed to be aimed at discovery. This is the last chance many of us will ever have to devote ourselves to the unadulterated quest for knowledge, devoid of pressures or quotas.
I hope you caught the sarcasm. There's really nothing about institutional learning anymore that's pressure-free. We are all statistics, our progress tracked to measure our future earning potential and UT's effectiveness as a university. There are swarms of young people all over the world, just like ourselves, striving to make their minds marketable. Almost no one here has the luxury of studying what they choose for the sheer joy of it. Even if you find your major engaging, you would likely approach learning very differently if it weren't the means to achieve a job or graduate admission.
Something can certainly be said for competition as a positive motivator, but somewhere along the way, learning for the sake of personal enrichment has been lost.
There is really no question that as an institution, academia has become far more enamored with GPA and a set of extracurricular activities than the actual development of an independent intellect. A system that promotes only the mere semblance of learning has become embedded in our culture. UT's focus on the Top 25, though a noble goal for improving the university, turns focus toward efficiency. Increasing the four-year graduation rate has become critical. That incentivizes a quasi-plug and chug: come in, meet your requirements and get out.
In all fairness, professors are required to cover a staggering amount of material each semester. Few faculty have the time necessary to expound on any one concept. To keep pace, students have learned to cope by memorizing tag-lined excerpts quickly.
Force-fed education isn't the key to developing independent individuals. In choosing a major, I would venture to say that most students try to prepare for a job they would find least repugnant, with potential for financial stability. That seems so lacking. The selection of a major can determine how an individual spends the rest of his life. Money is nothing if you sit in a place you hate for eight to 10 hours, every single day.
Sometimes, I feel like we're all moving slowly toward the drop-off point. We're all on a conveyor belt with a given set of checkpoints before we are dropped off at our appointed jobs. They may be individualized, but to me they all look the same. Shouldn't we leave here with more than the narrow skill sets our jobs will require?
I don't pretend to have the answers, and will freely admit my hypocrisy. I'm sitting on the belt right along with the rest of you.
To cope, I value minor displays of vitality and candor. Shut your Western Civ book for a second, and pick up Napoleon's biography. Look into something a little deeper than what a class requires. Find something you can be passionate about, even if you have to stay here a little bit longer to find it.
Let's try to graduate with some critical-thinking skills still intact.
Blair Kuykendall is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Beacon and a junior in the College Scholars Program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post was originally published in The Daily Beacon.
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