10 January 2008


I spent almost a full day last week running around the campus of a local community college trying to enroll my oldest son in two classes: English 101 and French 101.

The advisor we had to meet with included the following explanation of science requirements for various majors. He said that it's vital to be sure not to change majors after taking certain science courses because one wouldn't want to waste time and money taking classes one didn't need. For example, if a student on the communications track takes astronomy and then decides to switch to nursing, the time and money spent on the astronomy track would have been wasted because nurses need to study biology and chemistry, not astronomy.

I bit my tongue (almost in half), after all, this man had to sign off on my son's classes and I didn't want to alienate him. But I found the thought that learning something could be a waste simply because it didn't fit in with a specific vocational direction to be horrifying. What if said nursing major discovered an avocational love of astronomy that could be enjoyed and shared with a spouse and children throughout life? The only way studying something could be considered a waste is if the person so considering viewed classes, not as opportunities to learn but simply as hoops to be jumped through in pursuit of the finished product of a degree.

As we were herded from building to building, and line to line all day, it seemed that the college was nothing more than a degree factory. It was an impersonal industry focused on training and not on education. I felt like a handmade loaf of artisan bread taking a tour of the Wonder Bread factory. The product of this assembly line is vocational training, which is much, much different than education.

One more story that may communicate the different views of this whole process that I have compared to most of the rest of the country: we had to obtain the signatures of the two Department Heads approving my son's classes because he hasn't graduated from high school yet (he's a senior).

As we got to that point in our quest when we had acquired from the Admissions Office the correct pink sheet of paper on which to affix said signatures (which we had to make a separate trip for, even though they knew during our first visit to the sardine can they call an Admissions Office that we would be needing said piece of paper later in the day), I wondered what questions the Department Heads would ask my son as they decided whether or not to approve his class choices. I envisioned a weighty discussion. The stern-faced Department Head (looking much like Prof. Tolkien in my imagination) would seriously address my son and ask such questions as, 'Why do you want to study French?' 'What do you hope to gain from taking English 101?' 'Are you up to the work required?' 'Tell me about your study habits.' After all, education is a solemn business, not to be entered into lightly.

The reality was much, much different than my exalted imaginings. We arrived at the building that housed the offices of the foreign language faculty. The Department Head had already gone home for the day. The student manning the fort in his absence simply looked at my son's perfect placement test scores and signed the paper on the appropriate dotted line. The same thing happened in the English department where we also had to sign a paper acknowledging that after class began the teacher would have absolutely no communication with the parents regarding anything that happens in class (yeah, that's stuck in my craw, too).

This experience has sparked all kinds of thoughts about the nature of education, its scope, its depth, heighth, and breadth. My thoughts are still a jumble and not very developed, but I hope to blog about them as I work through them.

And maybe, while I think about this and mull it over, I need to find a nurse who loves astronomy to remind me how vast the universe is, that my thoughts really aren't that grand in the scheme of things, and that there's much more in this world, Horatio, than is dreamt of in my philosophy.



  1. I've been down that road 2x now. It is kinda depressing. Although, I didn't get the "You don't want to take a class outside your major" speech - sheesh! Do they really think people are that narrow?

  2. This is one of the reasons we don't do CC classes (another is that our CC isn't so hot). And one BIG reason we're only considering colleges that take no federal $$--that way, the colleges can (among other things) still communicate with the parents! That rule is insane.

  3. I read your post with my kids at lunch time (right before today's installment of Huckleberry Finn). Good words for thought (your post) as Lauren and I prepare to embark on a college trip next week.

    We've also discussed the difference between vocational training and education. I think vocational training has been devalued in America but really, good vocational training could be more valuable than, say, something that is called education but really isn't, i.e. my own college "education". And, we shouldn't necessarily make it an either or proposition. The problems is that a degree has come to connote an education. But then, that isn't to say that someone who has received only formal vocational training isn't educated. Good thing that you are doing, going back to exploring the nature of education.