Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Cold, Stale Coffee?

A full-page ad for Capella University in the New Yorker (Feb. 13 & 20, p. 33) has gotten stuck in my craw. It's a picture of messy file-room full of medical files, and two hand-written notes-to-self. (1) "I wish the health care system would heal itself". (2) "I will drink cold, stale coffee at 2 a.m. to get through 78 pages of a textbook, I will take on hours of research, and I will learn to help fix what is broken". These thoughts were presumably jotted down by a student at Capella University. The ad goes on to explain: "Good intentions alone can't fix a broken system. Hard work and the right education can. Creating real change is a daunting task, but a Capella degree gives you the knowledge to turn the impossible into merely challenging. Are you ready to make a difference? To matter?"

University web-pages are full of romantic, idealized images of what "college life" is like. They are very often misleading or disturbing (i.e., either college life isn't really like that, or the fact that it is disturbs me). One gets the impression that most of the time is spent walking in cheerful groups from one class to another through grassy grounds. Or huddled around a computer in a group talking seriously about what's on the screen. (Even though group work has been shown to make people stupider.) There are, it is true, sometimes also pictures of students "studying" alone in a library or even in a dorm room. I'm not sure I've ever seen someone doing something that might count as writing in one of these idyls.

In the Capella ad we have the glamorization of late-night reading and, for an inexplicable reason, bad coffee. Instead of complaining, let me just offer a corrective. We should read with a clear head, in the afternoon or early evening. We should read and take notes and think about what we're reading, not how many pages we've been assigned. Most importantly: we should make ourselves fresh cups of hot coffee to consume at 6 a.m. while we write some coherent prose paragraphs about the subjects that are dealt with in our textbooks. We can get up at 6 a.m., mind you, because we were sleeping at 2 a.m., and we could sleep, probably, because we drank our last cup of (perfectly good) coffee around 8 p.m. (or whenever it will let us sleep at a decent hour).

It is not hard work that will fix our broken systems, but intelligently managed work. Chris Argyris famously proposed to "teach smart people how to to learn". My aim, these days, is to teach smart people how to work. Capella's ad agency doesn't seem to understand what university life ought to be (though, true, true, all too often what it is).

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