Tuesday, September 1, 2009

That's Entertainment! (Are We Talking About College?)

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star (1 September 2009)

“Are we going to have fun today?” A student asked me that question at the beginning of a class this summer. Summer classes are, contrary to popular belief, more intense than regular classes. Indeed, this particular class was a special class that involved class meetings for nearly six hours a day for two weeks, an entire semester’s worth of work in two weeks. I told the students and their parents less than 48 hours before that this would be the most demanding academic challenge any of them had undertaken. The question about having fun was a statement about expectations than anything else.

This student’s question/statement triggered something that has been nagging at me for some time. After attending a high school open house and listening to the principal’s welcome, where again “fun” was a central message, the message finally got through my thick skull…”school” is not fun, but we offer other attractions that are.

In the last three years, I’ve been on college tours with my daughters. At this point, I have toured a dozen or more . There is a rhythm to the presentations the schools make and they follow one of two. Either the rhythm is “fun, fun, fun, academics” or “academics, academics, academics, fun.” I’ve toured both public and private, big and small campuses, and the rhythm isn’t really related to those distinctions. Indeed, the loudest “academics, academics, academics, fun” rhythm was on a large public university. When did learning and fun become mutually exclusive?

The usual college tour is conducted by a current student. Often parents ask questions of the student guide like “why did you choose this school?” or “what has been your favorite class so far?” Inevitably “fun” is part of the answer, even eating in the cafeterias is described as “fun.”

“Fun” is used so much to describe the college experience that it seems to lose its meaning (at least for over-thinking folks like me). Maybe fun means “enjoyable.” So, when the campus is described as “fun” it is enjoyable. It could mean “acceptance.” The students are fun here because I can find people who accept me. It could mean “I’m happy.” The beauty of some of these campuses would make the sourest person happy. One school’s campus was an arboretum.

Nevertheless, I don’t really think that is what “fun” means in these contexts. I think it means “entertaining.” The fun message is really saying, “come here and we’ll entertain you for four years.” Students increasingly expect everything to be entertaining, hence “fun.” One school I recently toured spent an incredible amount of time talking up one of its sports teams. Few people participate in the sport itself, rather, the “fun” is being entertained by the team on its way to another championship. Even the school’s president was described as “fun.”

I’m not bashing students; they reflect our culture. The pursuit of “happiness” is a core value of our society. “Fun” is part of that pursuit. Learning and formal learning (education) has long been a path to pursuing happiness. The US has never been a society where formal learning was a goal in itself, rather it is a means to an end. Colleges are better known today by their role in the entertainment industry (big time college sports) than by accomplishments in their core mission, despite the efforts of public relations and information offices.

The juxtaposition of academic work and fun seems to send a negative message about academic work. When did it become necessary that academics be “fun,” or entertaining? For some students, some classes are fun because it stimulates an interest they have or they discover a talent for a particular subject. For others, learning calculus is a gateway to designing technology to deliver communication signals across a radio spectrum.

Entertainment, especially “spectating,” is a passive activity. Surfing the internet, watching YouTube videos, and even catching up with friends on Facebook are mostly passive entertainment forms. Learning is not. Learning requires effort ; it is not passive. Entertainment is not hard, it is easy, it is something we consume. Education (learning) is something we do, or at least we should be doing. If you follow the “issues” in higher education, one of the bigger issues is “retention,” or keeping first-year students persisting to the second and on to graduation. If part of the retention problem is student expectations of being entertained, no wonder they exit.

Oops. Time to get ready for class. Now, where is my clown suit and ventriloquist dummy?

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