Beyond Busy

Bruce G. Murphy says students and professors need to reclaim time -- and that to do that, we need to rethink the purpose of a college education.

August 29, 2005

For some time, it has seemed that we in the education world have come to define "quality" mainly in terms of "quantity.” We encourage students to add a minor or a second major, assuming more credits equals more learning. We advise students to add co-curricular activities to their growing list of academic credits, trusting that these additional experiences will enrich their lives and build attractive resumes, making a college education even more valuable.

The same emphasis on quantity has marked the evaluation of professors. The more articles published, the more classes taught, the more committees chaired, the more worthwhile the contribution.

Too often today the assumption is the busier the student, the more he is learning, and the busier the professor, the more she is contributing.

The tragedy and irony in this perspective is that when we stop to think for a moment (and, of course, we don’t have time to) we acknowledge -- especially those of us in liberal arts colleges -- that the wisdom we claim to value above all can only come when we have time to reflect. Activity and busyness, the gods of our culture, are demons in the life of those seeking the mind and the spirit. No matter how good the individual academic or co-curricular experience may be, the cumulative affect of so many experiences is destructive.

So what can be done?

The growing awareness among accrediting agencies that learning is not based on "seat time" -- time spent in a classroom seat -- has opened the door to new, creative ways to maximize time in higher educational institutions. In a recent meeting with the North Central Association, an association official expressed interest in working with my college, a Christian liberal arts institution in Iowa, to explore alternative ways of doing college: the goal being to encourage more reflection and make room for the kind of learning that will one day blossom into wisdom.

What might "a new way of doing college" look like?

One of the questions we will be exploring at Northwestern is this: Is it possible to organize a student’s four years in a more developmental manner, gradually cultivating a way of life that uses time effectively for lifelong learning -- rather than just lifelong busyness?

Here is one possibility: The freshman year would be much like it is today with a structured academic schedule and opportunities to participate in co-curricular activities. But as students move through their sophomore, junior and senior years, they would be weaned from a structured but busy schedule of many curricular and co-curricular experiences to a less structured schedule with more time for critical reflection and synthesis. The focus would be more on overall learning than on particular activities -- more on growing internal student discipline than on relying on external direction.

As sophomores they might replace typical 200-level general education courses with interdisciplinary seminars that integrate service learning and independent study with traditional classroom content. Significant time would be allocated for individual reflection and small group interaction -- the desire being to nurture a dialogue within the students themselves, and with each other and their professors, on what truly matters in life. Faculty and student life personnel might work together in guiding student learning. Knowledge, experience and personal development would merge to help shape the student’s view of the world as she embarks on courses in her major. The other segment of the sophomore year would introduce the foundational content of various academic majors.

The junior year becomes an in-depth exploration of the world through the lens of one particular academic discipline. This might be done best by studying one course at a time, for at least one of the semesters. It might also include an ongoing seminar throughout the year to stimulate reflection on the moral and spiritual implications of the material being explored.

For the senior year, the goal would be synthesis -- academic, professional and personal. Bridges would be built to the world students will encounter after graduation. A senior project culminating in a personal mission statement, incorporating both career and life goals, would provide an appropriate climax.

Developing an effective means of assessing student learning is, perhaps, the most important and difficult task we face once “seat time” is unseated as a critical measure for academic credit. But this challenging task also provides the opportunity to rethink what it is we want 21st century students to learn and how we ought to teach it. “Seat time” allowed us to avoid the central question of learning: What is important to know? The unspoken answer in our current educational culture is: whatever a professor can cover in three or four hours of class hours per week, plus two hours of reading per class period.

Beyond mastering information and acquiring the skills to communicate it, what is it we desire students to understand about our world, ourselves, God? What is wisdom? How do we introduce it to our students? How can we tell if they are moving toward it?  

With time opened up and vision restored, new pedagogical questions arise: How many hours should students spend in class? How many in the library, online, off campus ... in another part of our country or the world? What kinds of experiential and service learning would enhance understanding and excellent performance in our given field of study? In this new expanded world of learning, what is the role of the professor, staff, other students, practitioners off campus, and the individual student? Are there not better ways than only traditional letter grades to evaluate student learning and assist them in their life choices?

"Doing college in a new way" would also provide faculty with the opportunity to take a fresh look at how they spend their time. Where in the current configuration of faculty loads is time for reflection and the growth of wisdom? Is there room in our definition and practice of scholarship to create wisdom? Is the role of wise mentors to our students cultivated and rewarded?

In recent years many significant changes have come to higher education: interdisciplinary classes, innovative first-year programs, undergraduate research, service and distributive learning, to name a few. But is it not true that undermining even these admirable innovations as well as more traditional educational experiences is the problem of time? All too often, hasn’t change come by adding something new to an already crowded educational menu?

Isn’t it time to revisit time itself?


Bruce G. Murphy is president of Northwestern College, in Orange City, Iowa.


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