For the Love of Learning….

Stephen Trachtenberg, president emeritus and university professor at George Washington University, published a piece on CNN Opinion on May 2nd entitled, “Do you need a BA, MA, MBA, JD, and PhD?” In the article he laments the loss of a collective joy of learning, and to be honest, I lament it as well.

Trachtenberg blames much of this on the growing classroom to boardroom mentality that seems to have taken hold of the current college student. The idea that colllege is merely a means to a job is indeed pervasive in our society, and while such an outlook does have its merits, it also has its pitfalls.

First of all, when we approach learning simply as a means to an end we are denying our own biology. John Panskepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University, has been studying the emotional systems of mammals for decades. In the sniffing and outstretched neck of a rat combing a maze for food, Panskepp sees a universal mammalian urge, as basic as rage or fear. It is an emotional state Panksepp tried many names for: curiosity, interest, foraging, anticipation, craving, expectancy before finally settling on seeking. As I said before, Panksepp has spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he believes are shared by all mammals, and he says, “Seeking is the grand-daddy of the systems.” This desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs (i.e., learning something in order to earn a paycheck). Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. He says, “when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, and diving meaning, it is the seeking circuits in our brains that are firing.” Darwin spent five years sailing in a small boat, Galileo defied a Pope, and Madame Curie handled radioactive materials, all were seeking. All were in pursuit of knowledge to explain the world around them. And Trachtenberg says, “earning a livelihood and living a quality life do not always go hand in hand. Yes, everyone needs food and shelter and whenever possible, a little extra spending money. But having a job does not always satisfy the inner cravings or the imagination.”

But the fact remains; we live in a market-driven society. Exchange value determines what is important in our world and we revere that which can be commoditized. This philosphy, although it may seem callus in the world of academe, has brought us many creature comforts and has made our nation the leader of the free world. But, as tuition increases and higher education becomes more like a business venture, students want to know, and rightfully so, the exchange rate of their education. What is it worth on the market? Thus we cannot continue to ignore their classroom to boardroom mentality. We cannot continue to avoid the conversation about utility.

Trachtenberg advocates a balance. And I agree with him.  He says, “we have to learn how to combine the practicality of learning with the joy of exploration. We need to give instruction in Arabic and Mandarin so students can work successfully in the global economy, but we also should encourage learning about the culture and history of the countries where those languages are spoken.” But such balances are hard to strike. The push to reduce the time-to-degree and the shuttering of many low completer programs has meant the withering away of the opportunity to fill ones schedule with intellectually stimulating electives and instead pursue only those classes which enjoy a direct correlation with one’s future earning potential.

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