My Problem with My Education

Bill Stoklosa

As many people who I care about very much have been upset by my recent article about Martha Nussbaum and my experience at Colgate, I thought I would take the opportunity to clarify what exactly my problems with my liberal arts education have been. To begin with, my commentary piece should not be read as a lambasting of my professors here. All of my professors have been dedicated, intelligent and most importantly, kind people. However, that does not change the fact that I believe their talents are being used in a way that is not all that valuable. I have a few major concerns.

First of all, I feel that my education has made me very wide in my knowledge base, but not particularly deep and this for me has been problematic. I’ve learned lots of things about many different subjects, but I feel like a jack-of-all trades and a master of none. I think that often in class I find myself arguing about ideas that I have had just a little bit of exposure to, perhaps an article on the subject. We’re supposed to give our opinion, but I know deep down I lack the knowledge base from which to give such an opinion.

Furthermore, our courses seem way too focused on the scholarly debate about a topic. Very often I find myself reading an article that I feel I don’t have the foreknowledge to understand or that I’ll have a very good grasp of the scholarly discussion about a country’s history but am ignorant about its basic geography.

I also have issues with much, but certainly not all, of the scholarship I have read here, especially in the domain of history. I read historians who are making claims that simply can’t be proven and asking questions that simply cannot be answered. For instance, in one class we talked about a Freudian interpretation of Andrew Jackson’s presidency which posits that his bad relations with the Indians came from his sense that both were competing for “mother earth.” Never mind that psychoanalysis has been totally discredited, but trying to apply psychology to dead people is ridiculous.

I also have issues about how we do research papers at Colgate. We are required to take a stand and defend our position, but having to write numerous 20-page papers during a semester precludes the kind of attention to research necessary to fully comprehend your topic and argue persuasively. My retention rate from my large projects is also awful. It’s amazing how many big papers I’ve written from which I can remember only the scantest of details.

This brings me to another criticism, giving lots of work seems to be an end in itself here. I remember when I came here during first-year orientation and Rebecca Chopp said that we should contact her if our professors were not giving us enough work. That should have been a red flag for me. I have to say the workload here is ridiculous. I often start off the semester interested in a topic, but soon find myself finding ways to do everything as fast as I can so I can get it all done in time and get a good grade. The grade soon becomes the focus, finishing the work for a course the goal; you’re not really worried about learning anything.

It seems to me that Colgate prides itself on making things difficult, but it is unclear to me that a tougher workload actually enhances learning. In fact, I think I’ve learned the most from courses that assigned manageable amounts of work, and assigned only as much reading as we could actually go over and analyze in class. I think a good example of this was a course I took on Milton. We had a manageable amount of reading, and though we had an assignment in which we looked at scholarly perspectives on Milton, the main substance of the course was to provide a firm basis in the texts that Milton himself wrote.

I think people can reasonably say that I should not have come to a liberal arts school and that I should not have majored in History and Religion. They are probably right, but many of my objections came about very far along the road here at Colgate. However, I still feel that our academics could be changed in such a way that they would both prove manageable and take seriously the idea of providing an education that is useful for people no matter what field they go into. For instance, a course I am taking now on the history of Darfur shows how history is relevant to issues that we should all think about as voters. I think also that if a course endeavors to really shape the way people think, it needs to present varying viewpoints. I thought a course I took on the relationship between church and state in America did a good job of presenting opposing views on constitutional issues and in fact, the course dramatically changed my thinking on issues.

Thinking about classes like these, I think I may have too hasty when I concluded that Colgate has not made me a better thinker, because some classes have indeed changed the way I look at problems.

In short, this school needs to focus more on relevance, presenting various viewpoints, and setting up realistic expectations for workload when designing courses. I also think it needs to focus on providing students with deeper understanding of basic facts, before launching them headlong into the world of scholarly debate.

I acknowledge that many of my concerns are not unique to Colgate or even a liberal arts education in general. I think academia in general probably stifles students’ very real interest in topic by focusing on excessive amounts of reading and grading rather than actually bothering to think about the degree to which students are absorbing knowledge and finding it useful. I firmly believe that one cannot enjoy learning or find learning rewarding when in a pressure cooker.

This university has put an emphasis on being able to critique almost every aspect of our world, but it seems to me not open to a critique of itself. It seems that we should ask the big questions. Is the image that Colgate puts forth in any way representing reality? To what extent has the liberal arts education provided us with important knowledge or made us better people? Is there a serious disconnect between the way students view their education and the way that faculty and administration does? Colgate should take these issues seriously, instead of just assuming that it is providing an invaluable educational experience.

Contact Bill Stoklosa at [email protected].