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Responsibility and education

Getting educated is much closer to voting than shopping for a car. Going to class is not really a consumer choice.

I have a question for the student body. I’m sure every student in higher education can relate to it, and I’m sure every student has an opinion on it. Try to answer it before you read on: If professors believe students learn and retain knowledge better when class attendance and participation is required, should they require it?

The question gets at what responsibilities and rights educators and students have in public schools – namely, public universities. Beyond the griping of students, it is not something that is talked about very often, especially not philosophically, and especially not from students’ perspectives.

The reason might be that students tend to view their education solely as a set of choices. What do I major in? What professor should I take? The idea that there is an underlying personal responsibility or ethical imperative in post-secondary education is lost in a lot of students. After all, students are paying for a product – ultimately, a degree – which means their education is their business – and only their business.

This is precisely the mindset that makes some in college curdle at professors who require class attendance and participation. Students who see themselves solely as consumers don’t think they should be told how to learn. If getting an education is analogous to, say, buying a car, students should choose whether they go to class, just as they choose how to study outside the classroom.

But where this line of thought stops is unclear. If students really should have choice when it comes to things like class attendance, why shouldn’t they choose how the rest of their grades are determined? Why shouldn’t they be able to decide what core classes to take, or what classes should make up their major, for that matter?

The obvious answer is scalability and other practical problems. No school could operate efficiently if students had so much choice, not to mention that the meaning of a degree would be seriously confused in such chaos.

The less obvious answer is, even ignoring the practical need for uniformity and professor authority, students should not have – that is, are not entitled to – so much choice in their college education. In fact, getting educated at a public university is not analogous to buying a car. Going to class is not really a consumer choice; it is a potential responsibility dictated by professors – key word being “responsibility.”

Educators at public universities are invested in serving more than student interest, and college kids tend to forget that. For starters, professors are obligated to serve taxpayers who subsidize public schools. Professors have a duty to their colleagues not to turn out students unprepared for higher-level classes. Corporate and individual donors are vested in higher education, and the list goes on.

All this means is educators – whether teaching at a grade school or doctorate program level – have a duty to give stakeholders x, y, and z the greatest return for their investments. And these obligations to society are exclusive to professors. Whether students appreciate it, getting educated is much more like voting than shopping for a car. It is a civic duty to be a competent, responsible citizen in a democracy, and a big part of fulfilling that duty requires years of learning.

So should professors require attendance if they find students’ scores improve because of it? Yes, definitely – if requiring attendance raises scores, professors actually have the responsibility to do so. Even so, professors also have a responsibility to do more than throw the book at students. There is little point in attending classes where textbook examples and lecture slides are immemorially rehashed, however challenging the material. Professors who get away with this are not doing their jobs, and my guess is the more book-repeating professors a student has had, the less that student believes educators should dictate how to learn.

That’s unfortunate, because professors who shirk their full responsibilities (there are plenty of them) only encourage students who shirk theirs (there are plenty of them, too). Professors have the power and right to dictate how students earn points in the classroom, and that right derives from the simple fact that education is not simply a set of choices – it is actually laden with responsibility.

Now go to class.

Darren Bernard Welcomes comments at [email protected].

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