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Sometimes You Just Have to Do It

September 21, 2009

While I was in the process of completing my doctoral program—and in my fourth decade of working fulltime—a well-meaning colleague told me what coursework I ought to be taking to make me “well-rounded.” These were words I’d heard before as an adult student who returned to school to become a teacher after a successful media career. My son has encountered similar comments in his return to school and is often frustrated by requirements that purport to be one-size-fits-all when they truly are not.

Choice related to fun in learning is a serious retention issue for individuals and refers to the need for student choice in what is studied as well as in the ways in which pursuit and mastery of required course objectives (more tomorrow) are demonstrated. Unfortunately, if you are a student currently, or are planning to become one, you should be aware that there are systemic realities you’ll have to contend with in order to pursue your personal goals. I wish I could tell you that this isn’t true, but I would be lying if I did. Sometimes you can get around these requirements; sometimes you can’t. I’ll talk more about this in later blogs. (Even people who were terrible students in high school or who dropped out of school can get a college degree!)

There are courses you will be required to take in order to take another course (prerequisites), in order to complete a major or a certificate program, or in order to graduate. Designing a program of study composed of things that interest an individual student is seldom the focus of institutions that must serve diverse student bodies and meet the needs of the community as well. Instead, most training programs, colleges, and universities present a series of requirements to be met, particularly true if you are just beginning, and true even after you choose a major. In addition, your choice of courses may be limited because of institutional budget constraints. A school cannot afford to offer unlimited course choices when economic times are tough.

You can promote your own persistence by interweaving requirements and personal interests as much a possible, and remembering that coursework is finite. A quarter or semester will soon be over, and if you can accept the pragmatic reality of requirements that will lead to the completion of your goals, it will help you complete coursework in which you find no intrinsic interest.

What kinds of choices about school do you hope to be able to make?

The game is called “Let’s Pretend,” and if its name were chiseled into the front of every school building in America, we would at least have an honest announcement of what takes place there. The game is based on a series of pretenses which include: let’s pretend that you are not what you are and that this sort of work makes a difference to your lives and that the more you are bored, the more important it is; let’s pretend that there are certain things everyone must know, and that both the questions and answers about them have been fixed for all time; let’s pretend your intellectual competence can be judged on the basis of how well you can play “Let’s Pretend.”
• Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner (1967), Teaching as a Subversive Activity

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