Class Participation: Mandated and Overrated

I think that in one magnanimous but vital way, America’s school system is unfair. I strongly believe that in-class discussions are a useless part of the curriculum, and assigning its consequential child, participation, a slice of the “grade-you-receive-in-a-class” pie speaks of the conformity of our teachers to outdated tradition.

Each of us has been brainwashed to participate from an early age. In elementary and middle school, the hand raising rule we groomed in preschool was still in effect, only we learned to use it not to pander to our physiological urges, but to submit our point of view for the larger “benefit” of the class. Was subjecting our fellow students to our personal opinions, and thus sparking debates, really beneficial to others? Think about this: Have you ever taken a test where you had to outline a debate that occurred in class? Never. Teachers always ask that you develop your own theses or contemplate the logical thinking of famous people, not the unofficial, premature conclusions drawn by your schoolmates.

Discussions have become a completely fake formality. We prepare for discussions by highlighting important points in our texts, researching background material and joining a side, not because we enjoy the wasteful periods of rapid-fire dueling, but because we have to, threatened by the “10+% of your grade” printed so deceptively innocently on your course syllabi. When it comes down to it, what instructors mean by dedicating a portion of your grade to participation is, “Speak or die!” With that ultimatum, there is nothing left to do but start re-reading Nietzche for the tenth time.

Why, then, do our professors and teachers put us through the rigors of discussion time? Sure, it helps us to “expand our minds” and “explore alternate possibilities”, but that’s what we pay teachers to do — educate us in expertly crafted perspectives, not sit back while we waste time feeling our way through the dark. Maybe it is because they want to kill time, or because they get a kick out of hearing the jostling of ascending voices as the conversation gets more and more heated. Practically speaking, there is a very limited number of professions which require one to be an expert in verbal brawling, so the reason why so much emphasis is placed on in-class discussion eludes me. There’s a reason every school in the U.S. has a debate team — to cater to the select number of people who enjoy practicing and perfecting the art of oral jockeying. Heck, if you wanted to do that, why go to school? Get married!

While discussions and participation are as old as time, framing them as life or death situations are, I think, a synthesis of the modern teacher in reaction to the uprising of the technological age. Cell phones, iPods and portable computers have heightened the importance of “alone time”. Think about the time you spend text messaging, listening to music or surfing the web on a daily basis. None of those activities requires direct person-to-person interaction, so we end up devoting a significant majority of our 24-hour cycles to so-called “alone time”. If we lazily substitute a text message for a phone call, an email for an office visit and a Facebook wall post for a walk across the dorm hall, how can a professor honestly expect us to show up for class ready to discuss an affair, which requires more words than any of the aforementioned collaborations and carries little internal value? Consequently, the contemporary school instructor has no choice but to force class discussions and goad them on with the threat of a lower grade.

The most disturbing fact is that participation does not necessarily indicate intelligence. Understanding a selected reading can be reflected in a paper, but blurting words proves nothing. I am willing to bet that the majority of first-year students have already put off, or only half completed prescribed reading at least once. Going into class unprepared is not a sin, it’s just a testament to the large quantity of work college students are expected to complete. Knowing this, I am also willing to bet that almost all of the first year class has been able to contribute to class discussions without having fully understood what is going on — and they’re rewarded for it! It is hard to believe that the vocally trigger-happy can be perceived as smart through the eyes of a teacher’s grading system, when many are loud just because they wish to drown out the screaming of their incompetence.

Finally, when it comes down to it, “participation” is the reason for many of our nation’s international problems. We always want to get in people’s faces, bring modernity to the ignorant and rule the schoolyard with our commanding utterances, all the while either oblivious or ignorant to opposing noises. Who gives us our booming voices, but the American school system? They encourage us to speak our minds, enlighten others and never hold back the word vomit we fail to mull over before ejecting. There are, of course, other factors, but there is a reason so many have heard of us — because we stifle all other participants in the worldwide discussion.

I never made participation a big part of my life, but it did occupy a space in my conscious every time I stepped into class; I had to be sure to speak frequently enough so that the teacher was aware I had a brain, but not enough to overexert myself. This strategy worked for me throughout high school, but it left me feeling as though I was a dog, barking to get an “A”. I am not encouraging you to stop barking — bark your brains out, for all I care — but I hope you are now aware of the idiocy of our nation’s obsession with participation.