Over the past two months, millions of teens have headed off to college, and so did President Obama, with a college tour that looks to bring the discourse on education reform to the public eye. While the usual suspects made the speech talking points -- student aid and the need for more scientists and engineers -- it seems clear to me, a college sophomore, that we need to rethink the college model at a more critical level, going above and beyond the general smokescreen of rhetoric that comes with "shaking up higher education."
Don't get me wrong: I'm grateful for the people I've met and the opportunities handed to me over the past year -- but college has left me academically frustrated. I've been told that this rat race for grades and resume-padding is just "the way of the world" -- that "college is college" and that memorizing and cramming through courses is just the road forward. Yet when taking a step back, cliches and tautologies can't explain to me why I've already been asked too many times by the career center what I did with my summer, and heard too many five-step plans on getting into medical school.
I've come to realize that it is here where generations have been taught the nine-to-five, job-loathing lifestyle of middle-class American suburbia -- to obsess ourselves with getting that corner office, all the while burying our passions and turning to vacations and drinking to find happiness. It increasingly resembles the college admissions race that starts progressively earlier by the year, that firmly inculcate this societal mindset long before the days of freshman orientation. This unspoken truth displayed itself perhaps more explicitly than usual at my cousin's high school graduation last summer.
"I want you to be here when you graduate," a father sitting next to me whispered to his 12-year-old son, pointing to the list of students in the commencement program who made one of the many honoraries -- in particular, one for students that scored well on the SAT. A group of parents sitting in front of me quickly counted up the number headed to the Ivy League with the help of an iPhone and a matriculation list -- one fervently pointed at a student finding his seat at the start of the ceremony, apparently a class star "with a 4.3 GPA and eight tassels."
For many, the occasion was bittersweet at best, some parents still reeling from the failure of their children to accomplish the family dream set years ago -- to make it into a top-10 school. Here, the perception of success was simply attending a high-ranking college, and even mentioning Harvard in conversation turned a few heads, parents ready to hear the name of the role model-to-be for their son or daughter just starting the all-consuming process in the fall of their freshman year.
I grew more uncomfortable with the ceremony as it pushed forward with speeches from some of the students, which seemed to all center around the same basic themes -- the all-nighters for AP chem, studying for the SAT, the college process, and the suspiciously superficial heart-to-hearts at the class trip to Disney World just a few weeks before. After 30 minutes, 387 names, and a weak round of applause, the graduation reached a predictably dull conclusion. The crowd filed out of the stadium, many with looks of disappointment.
I struggled to really understand what I saw that night, until a friend described this dynamic remarkably well, using the Greek definitions of time. Too often we've come to think about our lives in terms of chronos -- the time elapsed in, say, 24 hours -- ready to be wasted, killed, bought, and even budgeted. We often forget about kairos -- windows of opportunity that present themselves in the moment, measured qualitatively, instead of with seconds, minutes, and hours.
Our colleges today don't seem to measure time well in terms of kairos. By pushing aside those moments in which we solve problems, discover passions, and define educations, our colleges focus their students intently on a path toward some future. It's those moments of kairos that ultimately prepare us to engage with the rapidly shifting dynamics of the world around us today, and its absence in our chronos-dominated educations leave me with one rather concerning thought -- that the inefficiencies of this crucial stepping stone could lead to a generation of "educated" non-thinkers trained to jump through regimented hoops toward success, who haven't been taught to solve a problem, but instead to just memorize its solution.
It's time for a paradigm shift, and perhaps if our schools took this moment of kairos to truly revamp the college model, we could reverse this quite dangerous trend for the better, and work toward fixing higher education.