What is a college education for?

Depending on who you ask, the answer to this question varies.

To some students, college is many things – an opportunity that hopefully leads to a good job, a place to grow and discover and explore, an entry into adulthood, and a time to meet new and interesting people.

To some students’ parents, college may be a way for the next generation to build a better life.

Conversely, some economists might say that college signals to employers that students have essential skills needed for the job.

As professors, we likely hope that our students will enjoy all of the above through their college experiences. But, we also hope for more.

Many professors, including myself, have another ambitious vision for a college education: college stretches our students’ minds, ideas, worldviews, and imaginations, inviting them into a lively and rigorous conversation about ideas.

To me, this “stretch” is what a college education is for. Just as education philosopher Paulo Friere critiqued traditional models of education that value rote memorization as “banking models,” a metaphor that conjures up an image of students’ minds as banks into which teachers deposit knowledge, I remember distinctly my journey from high school, where state assessment often requires a banking model of education since students are judged based on their ability to memorize knowledge, to the liberal arts college I attended. It was in college that I entered classrooms where the crux of learning was a conversation between professors and students, and where the conversation was characterized by disagreement, puzzlement, and wonder over what Ken Bain (2004) calls “beautiful problems ” (as cited in Bean, 2011, p. 3), or problems that spark wonder and inquiry and engage us all as active and deep learners.

But how can I as a teacher create a similarly engaging environment that stretches students in my classes? In this space, I reflect on and explore this question and hope that other college educators with a similar vision may enter into this conversation with me.


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