Thinking at Risk
A short essay responding to Andrew Delbanco's essay "College At Risk."
"I didn't get it," said my eleventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Williams, after reading a short story that I had just turned in for class. After talking to Mrs. Williams about the story for some time, I realized that what she didn't "get," was not a line of dialogue between two side characters, or an encounter that happened in the story's last act, or even why I chose to name the story what I did. In fact, what Mrs. Williams didn't "get," was the story in its entirety. Now, the reason that Mrs. Williams didn't understand the story, is not that I am some genius with a tendency to conjure up statements that are incomprehensible to all those that are not geniuses themselves, or even that I'm some fool, who, even while writing, fails to comprehend the pervasiveness of their own stupidity. The reason that Mrs. Williams didn't understand the story was that prior to reading it, she was taught, and rewarded for, implementing methods of understanding information that can't adjust for minor deviations from an established rubric. Mrs. Williams is an example of someone that does not know how to think. Moreover, I think that the reason that a growing number of students, teachers, and professionals across America seem not to know how to think, is not that Americans are becoming increasingly incapable of thinking, but that the expectation that it is the responsibility of America's universities and high schools to show students "how to think and how to choose,"(6) as Andrew Delbanco puts in his essay College at Risk, is an expectation that can't possibly be fulfilled, and one that is doomed to handicap all those that expect it to be.
From the moment that a student begins preschool, to the moment that they receive their high school or college diploma, students are expected to comply with their peers, and follow instructions as they are given. To most, what comes from following the path laid for them by our educational institutions seem to be tantamount to the beginning of a good life — that being, fair prospects for a decent job, lifelong friendships, and a stable career. But alongside this seemingly benevolent pursuit, follows a sort of short-sightedness that often does not lead to the development of very clear thinkers. For example, when confronted with the fact that over the last century the amount of college-educated people in the United States workforce has skyrocketed, and so has its carbon emissions, ocean levels, and production of toxic waste — it seems reasonable to assume that maybe there might be a negative correlation between educational attainment, and risk management. I'd attribute this short-sightedness, and its correlates, to the fact that throughout pre, primary, and secondary school, students aren't just expected to comply with what predefined structures demand of them, they're expected to excel at them, and that doing so causes little focus to be placed on innovation, which results in the ability to recognize and implement solutions to mistakes — which is intrinsic to it — to become a peripheral concern.
Throughout my life, I've observed this handicap developing first hand. In high school, as my peers grew to become more trusting of those that oversought their decisions — I became more rebellious. By graduation, I had more than a handful of regrets — but I also had a large amount of wisdom, and a great grasp on who I was and how I wanted to behave in the world. Meanwhile, most of my classmates never learned much more than what their assignments required them to. After receiving our diplomas, instead of feeling empowered, and imbued with a sense optimism and freedom — most of my classmates were terrified because they had never known ambiguity. I'd attribute this mainly to the fact that throughout schooling at every level, whether it's on an assignment, midterm, or final, excellence is praised and mistakes are punished. And because mistakes were not encouraged, few of my classmates were capable of recognizing them, and as a result, on graduation day they were forced to confront the fact that they may be fundamentally incapable of recognizing what might be a mistake in advance. So my classmates were handicapped — but not in a physical way. My classmates were handicapped because their faith in our education system caused them to become blind to possibility.
After talking to Mrs. Williams about my short story, I realized that there were only a few possible reasons for why she didn't understand it. The first reason was that my short story was actually terrible, and impossible to understand. The second reason was that it was actually impossible for Mrs. Williams to account for the different possible ways that the assignment format could be interpreted, so when she tried to read my story, what happened in her brain was the equivalent to what happens when a computer tries to render a depiction of a website using a script that it hasn't gotten yet. I didn't understand it at the time, but looking back on it now, I understand the similarities between Mrs. Williams and my former classmates. Like my classmates, Mrs. Williams lived her life as an actor — that is, following scripts. Moreover, the issues with following scripts are many, but the primary one is that to follow a script is to live the story that others have written for you, and that we learned to think so that we could avoid the mistakes that it would be best if our stories didn't include. Furthermore, the issue amongst my teachers, peers, and classmates was simple: they had lived the stories that others had written for them for so long that they could no longer grasp the possibility that they could write their own, or even that someone else could. And here lies my qualms with the core principle of Andrew Delbanco's essay "College at Risk," and of the sentiment of academic institutions in general. For context, the crux of my educational plot goes as follows: through acts of rebellion I learned how to think differently, and through making mistakes I learned how to learn from my actions, and by seeing that it was possible to learn from my choices — I learned that I could think for myself. Separated from these contextualities, and of the experiences therein, I think that "how to think and how to choose"(6) becomes a lesson that could have been learned but never taught, because from my perspective, the only thing separating my story from that of my former peers, classmates, and teachers, is that I never accepted that someone else could write mine for me.
Although the story of my educational experiences is one of many, several of the details of my plot seems to mirror that of a larger narrative. Throughout high schools across the country, the number of students that plan to begin college in the semester following the final months of their senior year seems to be evergrowing. The pursuit of many of these students will likely be the same as many of the students that entered college before them — that being, fair prospects for a decent job, lifelong friendships, and a stable career. But how useful will a college diploma be in the future, as information of all kind will only become more accessible? And how certain is a post-job society, or a homogeneously qualified workforce, in a world where technological progress has allowed for autodidacts, polymaths, and overnight millionaires to become ubiquitous? It seems to me that these questions are ones that many college students are currently ill-prepared to think about. Although a future where jobs are no longer needed, or where qualifications can no longer be distinguished, may seem to be futures that are so distant that they can't be justified in thinking about, it's important to note that as humanity continues to develop rapidly, the rapidity with which humanity can develop will only grow faster — so the futures that may have once seemed distant may likely arrive sooner than we expect. Furthermore, if the continuity between my educational experiences and the unfolding academic narrative is to continue, like my former classmates, students of the near future will graduate from their schooling and arrive in a world that will be changing in ways that they will be ill-suited to address, and like my former teacher, Mrs. Williams, they may even be too committed to the rubrics of yesteryear to comprehend the stories in front of them. Given the magnitude of the changes that academia, and humanity are likely to undergo, it seems best that the implications of these changes not be ones that are only understood in hindsight, or by second-hand instruction. It seems that students of the future may require the sort of premonition that only thinking can develop. For these reasons, I think that maybe it's time that we change the way that we think about education, and evolve the way that we think about thinking, to incorporate the self-educated.

Text Author: Antjuan Finch

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