An article in the New York Times this week reported on a study of student expectations that claimed they were a significant factor in grade complaints. Students, it seems, have different expectations about what they should have to do to earn good grades. Some of the students quoted, for example, seemed to think that they should receive good grades based on their effort. One student said, "I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade…. What else is there really than the effort that you put in?” Truly an illuminating comment, I’m sure you’ll agree. To most of us the answer is obvious.
The article mentioned various efforts around the country to deal with these unwarranted expectations about grades. Apparently, at Wisconsin the professors tell students they need to “read for knowledge and write with the goal of exploring ideas.” They have seminars to reinforce this idea and teach students what education is supposed to be about.
This last quote gets at a much more fundamental question about student expectations than whether they should be graded for effort. Namely, what is education for in the first place? What value does it have? What is college for? Many students value education only instrumentally. They think rightly or wrongly that a college education is a means to getting a job. Education in itself is valued only insofar as it leads to gainful employment. As a student once said to me years ago, "I’m going to be a farmer. Why do I need to take classes like this?" (The class in question was introductory rhetoric, in which the student was faring poorly.) Any response I could have given would have been lost on this particular student, because the student had such a drastically different understanding of what the purpose of college is than I did. He was going to get some practical agricultural training and maybe enough accounting skills to run the family farm. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it meant that he denigrated anything that didn’t lead to his instrumental purpose. For him, the purpose of a college "education" was to help him be a farmer.
Students like this must be truly bewildered when they enter almost any traditional college and they’re taught by people for whom knowledge is valued for itself and not for any instrumental purpose. This is true even in fields with practical applications, and not just in the liberal arts. Professors are professors because they like to learn. They are the types Aristotle was talking about when he said that man by nature desires to know. Philosophers by nature desire to know. Farmers desire to know how to run a farm. This is a huge and crucial difference. Students who seek only instrumental learning can’t even understand the love of liberal learning that motivates their teachers. Learning is valued for its own sake, and not for the sake of some practical goal.
This difference appears even more starkly in the humanities, which tend to have no instrumental value. If we study seventeenth-century Dutch trading patterns or ancient philosophy or French poetry, we don’t do so for pragmatic results. The result is understanding or knowledge, but not understanding or knowledge that we can apply to getting a job. Why study rhetoric or poetry or history or philosophy? Ultimately, the only reason can be the desire to know, and in this knowing to participate in a larger culture than we encounter in our daily lives. We may understand more about our world, we may even become more fully human in certain ways, but rarely are we going to be able to take this knowledge and go run a business.
One irony is that such a disinterested pursuit of knowledge can lead to practical results. Consider the study of philosophy. Studying philosophy developed my analytical skills in ways that other study wouldn’t have, and these skills have been useful for many things, including my job, but I wouldn’t have pursued the study and thus developed the skills were I not interested in the subject for itself. Studying history can develop in us an understanding of other people and other cultures and perhaps lead to sympathy with those unlike ourselves which might reduce tensions and increase world peace, but it doesn’t necessarily do this. This would be an unrealistic reason to read a history book.
Another irony is that the mis-expectation of the student quoted above, who believed he should get an ‘A’ for effort, is one expectation that has little to do with learning for its own sake or the non-instrumental value of humanistic study, but is instead an expectation completely at odds with the practical world he will encounter when leaving school. Imagine a performance appraisal for any job where it would be appropriate to ask, "what is there other than the effort you put in?" One of the most realistic and practical portions of higher education is the ultimate expectation of results–just like in the real world. Whether you’re repairing an automobile or preparing a sales presentation, no one cares about the effort you put in. People care about the finished product. The one way in which higher education indisputibly prepares one for the demands of the workaday world is the one this student finds the least understandable.