Education is wasted on the prematurely middle-aged

Three or four bits, connected in some way I haven’t quite figured out yet.

Last night I attended a reading at the downtown Vancouver library by Don Kerr, one of a handful of very special professors I studied under at the University of Saskatchewan. The book he was promoting (Earth Alive: Essays on Ecology by Stan Rowe) is a worthy one, and I enjoyed the readings, but my main motivation was the chance to see someone who had opened my nineteen year old mind.

He was exactly as I remembered him — warm, erudite and very funny. No problem holding the room’s attention without any media except a copy of the book. I attended with an old friend who had taken the same Introduction to Film course, so the evening sent us back on something of an undergrad mindset nostalgia trip. We even went for beers afterward and grappled with big imponderable existential questions, just like old times. We ran into Professor Kerr in the pub, and it was satisfying for me to thank him for a fine course that enriched my life when I was sorely in need of some enlightenment. He seemed pleased that both of us had gone on to complete graduate degrees in English, and gave every impression of someone who had benefited from teaching as much as his students did.

This morning I found myself in a studio space at UBC listening to an EDUCAUSE ELI web seminar on net gen learners. It was a solid presentation, and we followed up with an illuminating discussion afterward. It was heartening to share experiences with fifty people here at the University each making an honest effort to better understand their learners.

I did have my quibbles… mostly objections to what I see as an oversimplified stereotype of today’s young people. Maybe it was because my undergrad mindset was more present than normal, but when people make statements like “students don’t understand the value of research as a process in itself”, I wonder when typical students ever entered university with that awareness — I certainly didn’t have it… I never consulted a reference librarian until I was in grad school, I did not even realise that such incredible expertise was available to me. Isn’t a sense of the structures and inter-relationships of knowledge something that is learned in university? And speaking for myself, it was seeing what an agile, educated thinker such as Don Kerr could do with a book, film or idea that convinced me of the intrinsic value of learning.

My other objection was the avoidance of considerations of economic class. Where do net gen’ers who can’t afford snazzy laptops and cell phones fit in? In the profile of Professor Kerr linked above, he notes that the biggest change he has observed is “more students now skip classes, particularly in upper years. Many work up to 30 hours a week to put themselves through.” When we invoke caricatures of the younger set for wanting fast answers to difficult questions, or their propensity to multitask, we should keep that economic reality and the attendant pressures in mind. Could it be they are “Starbucks addicts” (cited repeatedly as a characteristic today) in large part because they aren’t sleeping?

I was interested to read excerpts from this article in my morning paper (dead tree edition, I’m old skool that way):

“Home and family have become more important to today’s teens,” noted Anna D’Agrosa, editor of The Zandl Group’s Hot Sheet. The New York-based research firm interviews hundreds of teens each year to track trends.

“Ten years ago, less than a quarter of teens listed home as their favorite place to be, compared to nearly half in 2006,” D’Agrosa wrote in an e-mail to The Times. One in four teens list family as the most important thing about their day-to-day life, versus one in 10 a decade ago.

Now, one study by something called the “Hot Sheet” is not enough to draw solid conclusions, but this is a blog and nobody listens to what I say anyway…

The study cites more sensitive parenting and bitchin’ home entertainment centres as the primary reasons for this shift. Perhaps included in the latter might be all those web goodies in which we worry our young ones are losing their minds. Danah Boyd, among others, often argues that MySpace, IM, etc constitute zones of virtual autonomy for teens, spaces relatively free of adult intervention. What strikes me about the Hot Sheet study is the suggestion that by facilitating social activities that may be engaged from home, the web may actually be part of strengthening family bonds…

Now a skeptic might reasonably argue that having a kid locked in her room surfing the web or chatting with strangers is a recipe for alienation. But isn’t it conceivable that boundaries can be established (like regular family dinners) that allow for a balance between teen autonomy and familial interaction? So while some fret about online predators, could our kids actually be safer, spending more time under a looser form of parental supervision? And might some families be spending more time together as the result of the internet?

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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