LectureHop: Under the Looking Glass: Your Ivy League Education

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Surprisingly, some things in education are not what they seem

Reformer-in-disguise Brit Byrd brings back progress notes from yesterday’s lecture with SFER and TRACT.

Last night TRACT and new kids on the block Students for Education Reform (SFER) hosted a discussion with David Hansen, Professor of Philosophy & Education at Teachers College, and Shamus Khan, Assistant Professor of Sociology, as the inaugural event of SFER’s “Education Week.”

The discussion began with the broad and high-minded question: “What is the purpose of higher education?”  The moderator, SFER Vice President Benji de la Piedra, had an easy job as the two professors expounded with pleasure upon a wide variety of subjects—not just the Ivy League.

At the onset, Khan noted that he and Hansen were a nice pairing, due to his own “hard-core” empiricism and Hansen’s decidedly more philosophical approach. The two perspectives combined to provide a dense but insightful discussion, whose full breadth and nuance is limited by brevity.

Hansen opened by expressing a deep concern that “genuine learning” is being replaced by “performing” as students seek to “game the system” in order to justify the extreme costs of an elite education. In Hansen’s argot, the strategic self has become worryingly dominant over the ethical self. Hence, education has strayed from the cosmopolitan ideal of fusing a reflective openness toward new information and a reflective loyalty toward our past. While the language was at times heavy, it clearly resonated with an audience that seemed all too familiar with Hansen’s despair.

Khan did not delve so heavily into philosophy, but he did concur with Hansen’s observation, even noting empirically that it is “almost cruel” that we expect anything else from students when their education costs upwards of $200,000. It is entirely understandable that they seek to justify such exorbitant costs in an environment that values results so highly. Such blamelessness of the individual became a recurring theme throughout the night, as the discussion carried on to more institutional intricacies.

“Schools,” Khan pointed out, “are actually pretty good at what they do. We put tremendous pressure on them to do something about a socioeconomic inequality that they cannot possibly alleviate.” Hansen went even further: “I’m amazed at how well they do, given how shallow the expectations put on them are.” When students from different socioeconomic background are in school, the difference in learning is negligible. In the summer, however, a gap develops between the haves and have-nots. In what soon became a refrain, Hansen noted, “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I find it noteworthy that this very idea of public education is under attack at the same time that the idea of the public is on the run.”

The idiosyncrasies of expectation extend up to the top. Universities, Khan noted, are rather good at moving along with social movements, but not so good with socioeconomic progress. In the last twenty years, Columbia’s black and Latino populations have become roughly proportional to the population at large, but the average Columbia student is twenty thousand dollars richer. Thus, there is a tremendous amount of work yet to be done in order to balance the obligation of elite universities to produce societal “good” and to embody the good societal values of openness and diversity themselves.

As the moderation portion of the lecture ended, a healthy Q&A session began, and not all students had their questions answered. However, after so much introspection into our own education, it seemed fitting to leave with more questions than when entering. After all: the more you learn, the less you know.

Students for Education Reform meet every Monday at 8:15 in 507 Hamilton.

Looking glasses of truth via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. this event  

    was so good. I love Shamus Khan.

  2. yet another shamus fan  

    This is great coverage, Bwog! I was sad I missed this.

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