OP-ED: Academics and Personal Responsibility

By: Madison Friend

Academic Responsibility Piece (1)Professors may be right when they say that students can’t resist the impulse to check their devices during class. Heck, they probably are – but what does it matter? If I spend all of class on Facebook and fail the next test, who’s fault is that but my own? How can we be mature enough to live on our own, but not mature enough to be held responsible for the decisions we make?

These specific questions are reminiscent of a bigger issue in higher education, one that threatens its very foundation. How can college students be expected to grow into capable adults when there’s so much hand-holding going on day-to-day at institutions of so-called “higher” learning?

It’s more than a cellphone issue. A recent New York Times piece by Judith Brown tackled this issue in the context of on-campus “safe spaces” where students can, in effect, hide out from school-sponsored events they find offensive or damaging to their oh-so-fragile psyches.

I guess I’m confused as to why students that obviously have no desire to expand their horizons or engage with other ideologies bothered to come to college at all. All of this comes back to the idea of personal responsibility. College students are adults in the eyes of the law;  in charge at last of their own lives, are being done a disservice by schools that insist on coddling them both inside of class and out.

This misplaced sense of responsibility has manifested itself in the very culture of campus life. Cell phones are banned from classrooms so nary a student’s attention may stray from the lecture; students are graded on attendance because, apparently, the opportunity to engage with peers and have difficult concepts explained by an expert isn’t attractive enough to a person pursuing a college degree. Colleges preach autonomy, but they don’t encourage students to practice it, instead instituting fail-safe measures that prevent students from learning the values of responsibility and initiative.

I understand these types of policies in a high school setting. After all, we are mandated to attend school until at least the age of 16. The government builds, supplies, staffs, and runs public schools in every county across the state to assure that every student has access to a quality education. In these cases, it makes sense.

But college does not necessarily follow from high school. In spite of the prevailing attitude that you have to get a degree if you want a good job, to attend college is still a choice. There is no law that says you must go. Furthermore, college educations are by and large independently funded, by which I mean that even those students whose education is subsidized by the federal government (in the form of loans and grants – I count myself among them) had to seek out that money by applying for financial aid. Since it’s entirely up to the individual whether or not they attend, it should be entirely up to the individual how they conduct themselves should they choose to; any consequences resulting from their actions are theirs alone to bear.

I mean, when did experience stop being the best teacher, and why aren’t we being given the opportunity to learn from our mistakes? Even those students that, for example, wouldn’t dream of using their cell phones in class suffer in an environment where that behavior is mandated, because it communicates to them that their institution —professors and administrators alike —do not have faith in their ability to behave as a responsible, mature adult.

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