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Petkov: ‘Weed out’ classes should be weeded out

Antonio Petkov, Columnist

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When thinking about the ideal college experience, most of us picture autumn on a gorgeous college campus, cheerfully biking to and from class, making life-long friends and even surviving that inevitable weed-out class. But it’s the concept of those classes that we seem to never question. Those very words are irksome to me: weed out.  They evoke images of pesticides and those annoying Round-Up commercials. They are not at all evocative of the lofty ideals that come to mind when we think of a university education.

Obviously, the idea is very simple. Early in the course sequence of a particular major, there are classes that make you question your life decisions because of how difficult they are. Only the truly dedicated — only those who live, breathe, eat, sleep, chew, and expel their chosen field every single day and have an unbelievable, burning passion for their subjects — will make it out in the end, alive and with their souls intact. Those who are unworthy or not motivated enough will either flee before having a nervous breakdown, or fail despite their willingness to sacrifice their social life and aught besides.

Initially, it seems plausible: Those who are left are the best and brightest, the most resilient weeds of them all, and to make a long story short, they will make the world go round.

This idea is asinine. It’s ridiculous, it’s absurd, it’s backward, and it’s wrong. It goes against everything that enabled us to be where we are now, all of the things which interested us in education in the first place. Chief among those is intellectual curiosity and the corresponding thirst for learning. All of us have had at least one great teacher who inspired us, not by making easy things complex, but by explaining the seemingly impossible in the simplest terms. They showed us learning is not something to be afraid of, to be marginalized, to be done for the duration of the school day and then pushed into a dark corner in favor of an activity that will restore our good spirits. It is a thing to be cherished and done in our spare time out of enjoyment. Just think: How different would your life be if your elementary school teachers deliberately started weeding kids out and steering them towards failure instead of urging them to do well in school and nudging them toward success? Students who might have been successful would have hated school and devoted their energies to something else. And that would really be a shame.

I am aware this isn’t elementary school, but I believe the principle holds.

My question is this: Why is it necessary for some curricula (I am not pointing fingers) to deliberately make already difficult and challenging material even more difficult merely to limit the number of people who can understand it? Why do you have to start out with a class full of students who all have interest in a given subject and deliberately make them hate the things they’re interested in? Education is not the treasure of the Knights Templar. It is not something to be hoarded or hidden or rationed; it is something to be distributed to as many people as possible, because society needs young adults who are willing and capable of solving its problems. The more of them that there are, the better it will be. You don’t need just a handful, just a super small elite who can do things, and the majority to be ignorant and dependent upon the minority. The greater percentage of a population that is educated, the greater its independence will be.

On a final note, in light of all the weeding out and competition, I am reminded of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s commencement speech in June. Baryshnikov remarked that working to be better is not the same as trying to be the best. “Do not make your goal to be the best. Best is a label — it’s something someone else decides for you. Better is something more personal, and far more interesting.” This is the spirit we should all have — not to be the best, but to be better than the person we were before.

Antonio Petkov is a McCormick freshman. He can be reached at antoniopetkov2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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