Education’s Missing Ingredient

In many ways, we are living in the golden age of education.  If even a very poor person wants to learn something, he has the ability to do so more cheaply, easily, and quickly than ever before.  As I engaged in some learning of my own recently, however, I discovered that access may not be the panacea many have believed it will be.  There are significant challenges beyond the question of access which must be addressed.

I recently had the experience of walking around a local public park while listening to classroom lectures on the history of European monarchy from a professor at Yale.  These lectures appeared to be unedited recordings directly from some thrice weekly meeting on campus.  The lack of polished editing and consumer refinement helped me feel as though I were just another student sitting in the section and taking it all in.

As I listened, I realized that I was getting everything.  My appreciation for the material was at a very high level.  I grasped concepts.  Filled in gaps in my own knowledge.  Evaluated the professor for apparent bias.  With virtually every sentence he spoke, I gained something.  Of course, I am a professor who teaches and writes about politics.  I really wanted to know more about this material.

That’s when it hit me.  This very fine experience of learning I have just described is not common among students at any level.  The difference between them, sitting in any number of lectures, and me, walking around a park with earphones in, is the thing that is usually missing in education.  That thing which is missing . . . is desire.

It took me a long time to get where I am now as a learner.  When I had the original chance as a student in primary and secondary schools and then as a college student, I missed out on a great deal.  It was not until my second graduate school experience (which took place in law school) when I began to really synthesize information and to see the great linkages extending wide and deep between ideas, concepts, historical occurrences, and more granular information that follows.  When that happened, when I began to see how much more satisfying it could be to learn, I gained a much greater desire to participate in my own education.

For the most part, students do not have a great desire for learning.  And it should be no great surprise that they don’t possess desire.  We have not trained them to desire true learning.  We have trained them to achieve progression.  They simply look to move forward through the various grades.  Regrettably, they have learned that progression is almost automatic.  One can be distinguished at progressing or not so distinguished, but nearly everyone seems to progress as long as they conform to minimal standards.

As a college professor, I feel at once as though I have discovered something wonderful and yet also as if I have happened upon a giant nothing.  Desire is the secret sauce in learning.  I don’t think there is any question about it.  That is why young men do so well in playing complex video games.  They want to learn how to compete well.  But how do I create desire in my students?  How do I even convince them that they should desire real learning when they have long been trained to settle happily for mere progression?

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3 thoughts on “Education’s Missing Ingredient

  1. My one true goal as a homeschooling mom is to teach my children to love learning.
    It is a complicated struggle and is relational to how much my children are pushed into learning things they are not ready to learn as well as their current moods. If learning is too “hard” they dislike it and will cry and not be willing to push themselves. If it is too “easy” it is boring and they can not sit still. But, I have struck a balance with some topics and their natural curiosity comes out to the point I can no longer answer some questions and we have to seek information. I consider those times a homeschool win!
    There is no convincing them that the desire to learn is something they should seek out. It is something that is cultivated.
    Good luck!

  2. Great post, Hunter. I couldn’t agree more. Although there are other ways to answer your questions, perhaps your observations of millennial generation learning are not so dissimilar to what professors in the old time college noted in their own students. How DOES one create desire in someone else? Well, the old adage “when rhe student is ready the teacher will appear” holds true in many repsects. But what we as teachers are about in life can help their “desire journey” to learn to move along at a more speedy clip. It seems that, among other things, there is a recognition that someone else has something that you don’t (understanding about a specific subject, depth of character, or perhaps a robust worldview). The fact that you see someone else in possession of it “wakes” you up to the very possibility that you too could have it. Of course, this is what it means for faculty to be exemplars of character and intellect to their students, not just inside the classroom, but outside it as well. Whether we like it or not, we have apprentices watching us constantly, and they mimic us, for better or worse. They DESIRE to be like us. Humbling. James 3:1 comes to mind in a very real way when I’m aware of how much they really do watch and mimic. I’m convinced this is one reason why a residential undergraduate college experience is so important. One thing I’ve noticed as I have grown in my own understanding of what it means to be a teacher: students desire to learn often seems directly proportional to the degree to which I am proactive with them. If I wait until they initiate a conversation outside the classroom with me, I may never really get to know them. On the other hand, if I take a more hands on approach (such as sitting down intentionally with a small group at lunch, or even asking them to make an appointment with me), their desire to learn from me goes up exponentially. One last thing I’ve observed: millennials for the most part are not good question askers. There are exceptions of course. When I seek to ask them good questions vs. telling, i.e., making statements, I find that they begin to initiate an increasing number of outside-the-classroom conversations with me—about anything and everything that is meaningful to them.

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