You see it at the beginning of every school year. In that winding snake of a line at Ulrich’s the Monday before classes, you see freshmen, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, spending exorbitant amounts of money on textbooks they won’t need but were “recommended” in their syllabi. On the other hand, you see upperclassmen, carrying but one folder, two pens, three packets of flashcards and four Diet Cokes.

Eli Cahan

The dichotomy is symbolic: freshmen anticipate adding to their “bookshelf” of knowledge, whereas upperclassmen believe they’ll only need the knowledge the duration of the semester, and then POOF, out it goes with the spring cleaning. It’s not that the freshmen are wrong: in fact, they’re completely right in spirit. But, the upperclassmen know the practical phenomena of the classroom: whereby memory cycles operate on four-week intervals (unless, heaven forbid, the final is cumulative). I don’t think jaded is the right word, but I do believe that this mentality is a product of the system rather than of the “bad apples” (as Zimbardo would put it).

How does this work in practice? Well, we’ve all experienced this at least once, now that the first midterms are already over. Class after class the professor flashes slide after slide up on the board, addressing a lot but explaining little. Concepts are introduced but rarely detailed. Simplifications are made for the “ease of student understanding.” Learning, indeed, is replaced by such “understanding.” Class becomes the reception of information rather than the inception of intuition. Exams, accordingly, often examine regurgitation over application.

As an analogy: the test is to see how long you can hold your breath underwater rather than the demand of swimming laps.

To make this more concrete, I’ll give an example. As a pre-med, I’ve experienced my fair share of “weeder” classes, and I’ll detail one of them, a 200 level, without using names. At one point in this class, we were responsible for memorizing a suite of specifics regarding the photo transmission cascade (by which animals are able to interpret images on their retinas). One of these regarded the “center-surround” mechanism of retinal ganglia (don’t worry about it), a quite complex system to the student who has not seen it before. I recall asking a question about the evolutionary nature of this convoluted system, to which the professor responded “don’t worry about that, that’s beyond the scope of our class. Just remember what the different cells are and what they do.” In that moment, the understanding and appreciation of Nobel Prize-winning physiology had been reduced to a set of flashcards.

A natural question follows: What skills are we gaining by this sort of education, and how will this brand of education culminate? Once you arrive at the career fair, the answers become painfully obvious; in some sense, school has become a professional training facility, the capstone thesis consisting of signing your name on the dotted line.

Frank Bruni and David Brooks of the New York Times wrote much on this in early September. As Brooks puts it, “Instead of being intervals of freedom, (colleges) are breeding grounds for advancement. Students are too busy jumping through the next hurdle in the résumé race to figure out what they really want. They are too frantic tasting everything on the smorgasbord to have life-altering encounters.” Per Bruni, “As we pepper students with contradictory information and competing philosophies about college’s role as an on ramp to professional glory, we should talk as much about the way college can establish patterns of reading, thinking and interacting…” Both agree that, to use the rhetoric of a favorite professor, we students (via the classes we take) are too busy snorkeling on the surface of professional development to undertake a true scuba dive into our interests.

This sort is a superficial, removed, one-size-fits-all education, delivering information at a rapid clip to add to our professional tool belts. It is not the intimate, progressive self-discovery, which college should foster. In that way, I resent the mentality of the upperclassman (which, regrettably, I too have been guilty of at times).

I have observed this disconnect in friends, who amidst recruiting for full-time jobs, readily admit that they have no idea what they want to do. They preface by saying “If I were to do it all over again …” I have too observed this in friends who have discovered what they want to do, yet find themselves defending against confusion as to why they didn’t take the “traditional route.” It is a strange thing to watch.

Now, I have a question, if you’ll indulge me: How much do you actually remember from your freshman Psych class? If you’re drawing a blank, studies show that the accuracy of your response is likely to have just as much to do with your level of interest as with your mental capacity. If you are like me, then it was probably the case that you were disinterested, because the material was unrelateable and foreign, simplified and dull. You were just filling requirements, after all!

Indeed, my favorite class thus far was the one that causes pre-meds everywhere to shudder: Organic Chemistry. It was the only class I have taken which did not use slides — only chalk. No class has been more fruitful, involving or challenging. Sure, I learned about nucleophiles and electrophiles, aromatics rings and lipid chains, but perhaps the most important lesson of all was learning how to learn and how to think. That bit, I promise, I won’t forget.

And neither will you if you give yourself the chance. So open your eyes, your ears and your mind. I really do hope you can find yourself a textbook worth paying for.

Eli Cahan can be reached at emcahan@umich.edu.

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