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I signed two contracts today without reading them.

Both were terms of use agreements for software/apps, more than thirty pages long, and I didn’t bother reading a word. It’s possible I have promised Apple my immortal soul.

I figure I’m pretty typical in this regard, though there’s lots of other contracts I sign without reading too. The forms at the doctor’s office, when I bought my car at CarMax. Even the many many pages associated with the purchase of our house I hardly glanced at, trusting the lawyer we had hired for the transaction had our best interests at heart.

Never mind the contracts I agree to tacitly, like financial disclosure forms for credit cards where I get notice that I must “opt-out” of something and failure to act is tantamount to agreement.

I’m careless over these contracts for a variety of reasons. For the apps, whatever those agreements say seems trivial. I’m just using a stupid app, how much could I possibly be agreeing too? At CarMax, I’m trusting the market. If CarMax were in the business of inducing customers to sign onerous agreements, surely I would’ve heard about it.

Contracts in theory are meant to represent a meeting of the minds between two parties, except that in reality, they rarely work that way. Most of us sign contracts to which we’ve not been privy to any negotiations and which instead stand as barriers between us and the things we need. If I don’t sign that CarMax contract, no car. Easy decision.

I’m thinking about “contracts” – implicit ones in this case – as they apply to higher education. I was especially provoked (in a good way), by a comment on a post from last week where I wrote about what I think is a certain kind of alienation that is engendered by the atmosphere of school itself, and how that alienation can sometimes manifest in what appears to be immaturity or unpreparedness in students, but may be an indicator of other, deeper issues with our institutions and practices.

A commenter wrote in response: “The immaturity and ignorance in the student attitude you cite and maybe relate to comes (partly) from not really understanding the contract, the arrangement, or the general agreement about what it means to enact an education. Without acceptance of the terms to which they've agreed, students do come across as entitled. They think college should prove itself to them instead of the other way around.

It's up to the student to step up and make sure their presence and participation “mean" something and "matter." That's the very agreement they've made. Their chosen world -- college -- doesn't have to *give* them meaning or significance. It's on them to make the effort.” 

On the one hand, I agree. Ultimately, what a student learns and experiences in college is largely on the student. I also agree that students often have a limited understanding of the “general agreement about what it means to enact an education.”

My read is that the commenter is suggesting the fault for this limited understanding lies with students. For sure this is true to some degree. It's hard to fully understand something you've not yet been a part of.

But I’m wondering if the “agreement” students sign on to actually signals to them that they’re “enacting an education” or what “enacting an education” might mean.

In talking with students about their experiences and reflecting on the findings of research such as Susan Blum’s “I Love Learning; I Hate School.”  This is not indifference to school, or intellectual sloth, but a rejection of school as a place for learning. 

I think it’s worth examining the evidence of what students are communicated about what the commenter calls “their chosen world” prior to entering that world, and asking if the contract we wish to engage – learning, intellectual development – was ever presented to students prior to “signing.”

When we look at school systems in general, I think they answer is clearly, “no.” The dominant narrative of American schooling at every level does not concern “learning.” “Intellectual development” is even less present.

Instead, we have a system predicated on “achievement” in the service of credentialing. Even students who come to college seeking intellectual growth wouldn’t do so if a degree didn’t come as part of the bargain.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because there isn’t, necessarily. It’s not my preferred framework, but you go to school with the system you have, not the one you wish for.

But when one hears complaints about students who only want good grades, but aren’t willing to do the “real” work, it should not be a mystery where these behaviors originate. They are merely acting on the contract they think they’ve signed. Ask students if they’d prefer an A grade in a class where they didn’t learn anything or a C in a class where they learned a lot. In my experience, most (often sheepishly) will say they’ll take the A.

Bad student attitudes? Only if we’re against rational behavior.

We should also examine the specifics of the “contract” schools present. While there is some variation in the public/marketing face schools put forward, they almost universally promise not intellectual development or even learning, but “experiences.”

Often those experiences are rooted in a message of prestige and “satisfaction.” Clemson University leads with their U.S. News and World Report ranking and their commitment to “both world-class research and a high quality of life.”

“In fact,” Clemson tells prospective students, 92 percent of our seniors say they’d pick Clemson again if they had to do it over.” 

(I wonder how CarMax stacks up on that metric.)

College of Charleston calls itself “A superior public university with personality to spare.”  We have a “beautiful and historic campus,” “contemporary facilities” and “cutting-edge programs.” Faculty are both “committed” and “distinguished.”

The school is a “living and learning laboratory for experiences in business, sciences, technology, teaching, the humanities, languages, and the arts.”

I believe College of Charleston to be a very fine place to go to college. I recommend it. But it’s not as though it’s signaling that it is a place for “education,” in the way those who are often critical of student attitudes conceive of the word. Students are criticized for inattention or disengagement from the important work of class. Very little of institutional communication and marketing talks about classes

I’m actually good with schools presenting themselves as places for “experiences.” We have lots of research suggesting that what’s most meaningful after college is more tied to “experiences” than classes. Of course, some of those experiences should be educational, and should be rooted in learning and intellectual development.

Ultimately, the college experience should be in the hands of students, and maybe no amount or type of communication can substitute for the lived experience of college.

But what if our messages are mixed?

What really is the contract we present to students? Is there a genuine meeting of the minds or are we just that place that stands between them and the thing they want?

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