Hayes: How to improve higher education


Bob Hayes, Opinion Editor

To briefly sum up my 18 months at Northwestern, my college experience has been thoroughly enjoyable and outstandingly valuable to my personal development. I have learned a lot about myself, my relationships, my skills, what I like to do and, quite simply, how life works. Ironically, the only place I feel has been somewhat insufficient in my educational process has been in the classroom, a problem I see rooted in the general collegiate education system — not just at NU.

I have spent some time pondering why I believe I learned more in the classrooms of nearby New Trier High School than I have during my time in Evanston. How does it make sense that I learned more at a public high school than I have at the elite college for which my family pays more than $65,000 per year?

Interestingly, my most influential class at NU so far — my Spring Quarter freshman seminar on “The Goal of Higher Education” — taught me the faults of how we are taught and how higher education is grounded in many preoccupations beyond actual learning. Many people will undoubtedly disagree with my original premise, but everyone can see room for improvement in our educational process.

The initial issue comes down to the philosophy of teaching. Universities pressure faculty members to devote their time to researching and writing publications rather than connecting with students. Even the terminology shows how the teaching method changes once college begins. Teachers become professors. Each term invokes distinctly different images. Teachers spend time with students and focus on legitimately teaching — transferring knowledge and skills to students. Professors stand at the front of a large lecture hall filled with nameless students and pontificate about what they are currently researching, to the detriment of their students’ learning.

Yes, collegiate education stresses individual learning, but is the current level of that emphasis the proper level? Schools often make the excuse that professors simply do not have time to pay attention to each student because they are busy with out-of-the-classroom academic activities. Colleges across the nation must incentivize teaching over researching for students to gain a proper intellectual education. Currently, the focus on individual learning does more to sort out which students may already have the most skills than to teach students those skills.

Additionally, the entire collegiate course system is much more rigid than it is in high school. With the exception of Chinese and some economics courses, my classes have had minimal carry-over among quarters. I have little incentive to truly learn anything in, say, a required statistics course because the knowledge will never be necessary again. As soon as we finish a final exam, the course loses all relevancy in our minds because our future courses do not force us to recall that knowledge. In college, we are only as good as our last midterm and we only care about our next midterm.

A former English class — to this day the most challenging and most rewarding course I have ever taken — taught me that we should never try to relate to characters if we are to properly analyze literature. In a more recent English class, the first discussion topic is which character we relate to most. Although people surely have subjective takes on that debate, the inconsistency between the two teaching angles does not allow for much intellectual growth.

Thus, it is vital that colleges offer more continuity among courses, which administrators could address with a relatively simple change in the educational process. After a freshman year of essentially shopping different courses, schools can offer “course tracks,” with more fluidity among classes. Major “course tracks” would last three years, while minors would last one or two years, with each semester course building from the previous one. Modeled after foreign language courses, this continuity of learning is the best way to sustain knowledge because students will repeatedly recall prior information. Also like foreign language courses, immersion — a temporary internship or working with an expert in the field — could dramatically improve learning and enjoyment. One class slot each semester could be an elective slot, which students could use to take a class that intellectually challenges them but may not relate to their other courses of study.

The result of a “course track” system with more engaged teaching could dramatically increase student interest in classes while also ensuring a more sustainable system of education. While the onus of learning will always fall on the students, it is vital that university administrators consider what would best foster an environment of profound intellectual stimulation that allows us to grow into the best versions of ourselves.

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].