Associate Professor of Anthropology
Coffman Chair for Distinguished Teaching Scholars
Kansas State University
Life 101: Lessons from Students in Pursuit of a Real Education Why do some “A” students seem so lost upon graduation while some “C” students seem to have it all figured out? Why do some leave full of wonder and ready for a lifetime of learning while others seem to be shutting down and tuning out? Why do students that we have trained so deeply in a discipline seem unable to apply what they learned in real world scenarios? Why are some so afraid of what they might find in the “real world” while others can’t wait to jump in?
For over a decade I have been considered a “very good teacher.” I have won several major awards, including a National Professor of the Year award for my teaching. But if I measure my success based on my own students’ self-perceptions of their own happiness and success, the results are mixed at best. To find out more I have started doing true ethnographic fieldwork among students. I started by simply taking my lunches with them and listening to their life stories. I visited alumni in their homes and discovered how their education was influencing their lives today. Then I became a student again, challenging myself to learn new things to remind myself of all the struggles and joys of learning. I did fieldwork at frat parties, college bars, and midnight life-philosophy discussions on the rooftops of campus. From these studies, I have come to understand that students want more from their college experience than just the tools to make a living. They also want the wisdom to craft a life worth living, and they will need courage, passion and compassion to see it through. They are in pursuit of a “real education,” but they are not sure what it is or should be.
What is clear is that a real education will not be as easy as simply learning a bunch of stuff or mastering a few formulas. They have to ask questions they’ve never considered before, challenge their taken-for-granted assumptions, unlearn what they think they know. Ultimately those who are successful find that what was most important was not the “stuff” they learned, but how they have changed. They experience a new way of being, hard-earned through the trials life. As Neil Postman notes, you can engineer the learning of bits, things, and simple procedures. But “to become a different person because of something you have learned – to appropriate an insight, a concept, a vision, so that your world is altered – that is a different matter.” In this session, we will work together to explore what a real education means and how we can transform our classrooms and campus to help us all pursue one.