An Op-Ed by Hanan Rimawai
On my first day in college, I was left wide-eyed surprised when my Neuroscience professor said – with the security and privilege conferred on him by a tenured position at a relatively well-regarded University – that he was transitioning his teaching style to better reflect today’s digital and sociopolitical ethos, i.e., the so-called real world. His eventual goal was to allow students to take their exams free to use their lecture notes, textbook, and even the almost-omniscient Google. Because when in our adult lives would we have to sit at a desk, shoulders stooped and nervous energy feverishly flowing, and scrawl down answers as we worked against a ticking clock? But he would take baby steps in this shift, lest he offend some of his more orthodox colleagues.
Questions that had once surfaced but which I knew better than to ask aloud now felt more real and less lonesome. Here was someone with the experiential authority who put into words what I had been feeling for years as I ascended the educational staircase and excelled at what I came to see as a narrow conception of learning. It was hard for me to understand, for example, why hours of precious class time would be spent poring over amino acid structures that were easily accessible with a few taps on a keyboard. But since everyone else followed the biology teacher’s orders, no questions asked or challenges raised, I knew that I better do the same.
As I left high school and reflected on my time there, one thing felt inescapably true for me: I had learned far more in my liberal arts type classes than in my STEM ones. In these latter classes, I enmeshed myself in abstruse equations and tried to commit to memory long and complicated steps of biochemical processes, like the citric acid cycle. I tried maddeningly hard to make connections between my life outside of the science and math classroom and inside to make the learning feel more authentic and worthwhile, and to avoid the memory dumps that followed exams. But my efforts were hopelessly futile. Instead, it felt like I was balancing information on my head in a precariously wobbly fashion until the test came around, after which my staggered steps almost always gave way to a face-first fall where the information bits all came tumbling down. My long-term memory seemed impermeable to this stuff, and my otherwise optimistic attitude sometimes wore thin with feelings of frustration to take its place.
But in my other courses, it was different. In literature, I learned to transcribe elegant thoughts. I read pieces such as the late David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” that even today I revisit occasionally when I need a good cosmic rightsizing. In Socratic-like discussions, I became comfortable anatomizing difficult topics, forming opinions that I could support with well-reasoned arguments, and listening – really listening – to others whose positions on philosophical, ethical, and often controversial questions were as different from my own as the Pacific Ocean is vast. History lessons on the atomic bomb and segregation and other dark times in our history served as cautionary tales and provided me with a solid framework to lean on when I ventured to talk about instances of institutional injustice that seemed long past us but continued insidiously into the present day. Finally, learning Spanish opened up the doors to meaningful relationships, enabling me to start conversations with neighbors that before I could only smile at and wave to from afar.
The uniting thread in the courses I enjoyed is that they were spaces where the free exchange of ideas took place. In them, I learned how to be comfortable with ambiguity, to participate in discussions with peers with whom I fundamentally disagreed sometimes, and to express myself both out loud and on the page. I learned to speak up for myself and for others. Finally, I learned to navigate the faltering first steps of learning a language and to appreciate the beauty of knowing more than one: the ability to form relationships with new people. To put it another way, these courses molded me to be a more critical thinker and a better person.
My worry is that it is only a matter of time before this kind of fluid learning gets chased out of all classrooms in our standardized test and rank-obsessed culture. We need to embrace learning for its own sake and not see it predominantly as a means for ivy-league degrees and financially lucrative careers. What I regretted about many of my STEM-leaning courses is that my peers and I were to passively imbibe the material that our teachers lectured and then spit it right back out on test day. If our educational institutions continue to narrow their focus on the standardized tests that determine school rankings and a sizable slice of college admissions, they will become saturated with this kind of empty learning that, in my opinion, is not really learning at all. Let us protect the arts, humanities, and social sciences and continue to lift them up even if they are not represented on the fill-in-a-bubble standardized tests on which so much today in the world of school rankings and college admissions hinges.
We need to embrace a new kind of education that equips students with the tools they need to think quickly, innovatively, and compassionately; that cultivates in them a tolerance and appreciation for all the various ways of being; that roots them in an international perspective and prioritizes global literacy; that is not entrenched in a neoliberal mindset where employment and material success are the ultimate goals; that affirms the inherent dignity of all people, and demands outrage at human rights abuses; that makes collaboration, not competition, key; that focuses on communicating effectively and listening closely; that stresses the importance of not fouling our only nest that is planet Earth; and, ultimately, that makes growth and improvement the touchstones of learning.
My professor on that day helped me to see that perhaps there is room to rock the educational boat. His baby steps make me hopeful for a future with a reimagined educational landscape. Let us get moving – if in baby steps, then big baby steps.
Sources of Inspiration
Robinson, K. [TED]. (2007, January 6). Do schools kill creativity? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY
Robinson, K. [TED]. (2013, May 10). How to escape education’s death valley [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX78iKhInsc
Rosling, O. [TED]. (2014, September 11). How not to be ignorant about the world [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sm5xF-UYgdg
Heffernan, M. [TED]. (2015, June 16). Why it’s time to forget the pecking order at work [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vyn_xLrtZaY
Bornstein, D. (2017, February 8). Preparing Young Americans for a Complex World. Retrieved from New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/08/opinion/preparing-young-americans-for-a-complex-world.html
Gray, P. (2008, August 20). A brief history of education. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/200808/brief-history-education