It's commencement time, and close to two million college students around the country will be graduating in the coming days. I thus ask one favor: please go to your professor's office and thank them. This one small act will save our world.
Yes, I know this sounds ridiculous. But it's true.
It's true because we are on the verge, without even realizing it, of succumbing to a vision of education as just the transfer of information rather than the transformation of knowledge, what I have called a rising apprenticeship into Wikipedia rather than an apprenticeship into democracy. This acceptance of a "good enough" education will, in the end, not be good enough to truly educate our next generation of thoughtful and engaged citizens.
Education scholars have come to accept that we are living through an "age of disruption" as everything from preschool to graduate school is rethought and re-engineered. At the university level this has come to mean that more and more courses are taught online, by part-time instructors, and that a college degree has come to be spread out across many institutions, credentials, and years. This trend seemingly aligns to the needs and demands of "nontraditional" students who are older, take courses part-time, have kids, or juggle coursework with a full-time job. This has come to be known as the "new student majority" as this population comprises two-thirds of all college students.
Yet this trend exacerbates the belief that a degree is only something to get through in order to move forward in one's life and career. Just take the course, pass the exam, get the diploma. It doesn't matter who teaches it, through what modality. Just do it. That is a "good enough" education.
Except it's not.
A true education is about helping us to grapple with enduring questions - who am I? why am I here? - within the context of our complex, contested, and pluralistic society. This requires pushing students, whether they are eighteen or forty-eight, outside of their comfort zones to confront the deep assumptions of our thoughts and actions in the world. This is hard work and not easily attained, which is why we talk about such transformational events as "aha" moments, what psychologists call a metacognitive leap and sociologists a paradigm shift.
A "good enough" education, though, only cares about the lowest-common-denominator of completion. In such a perspective there is simply no space or need for the difficult work of creating opportunities for these moments to occur. Such moments require an immense amount of, to be cliché about it, sweat and tears. Why suffer when you can surf?
But it is exactly in the hard work of a powerful education that we come to develop the habits of mind and repertoires of action that are the foundation of what drives our society forward. Irrespective of whether we are talking about a new art form, technological breakthrough, social movement, or business strategy, the preconditions for success require exactly the knowledge, skills, and dispositions meant to be fostered in higher education.
Yes, individuals throughout history have and will continue to succeed without or even in spite of a formal degree. But the growing dominance of the mentality of a "good enough" education closes off the opportunity for the one and only formal place where we used to believe and expect such education to occur.
This is why our soon-to-be graduates should go to their professors' office before they cross the graduation stage. Not to shake their professor's hand as a formality or thank them as a sign of gratitude for that good grade. It is to acknowledge that this professor actually helped them to see an issue in a slightly different way, transformed their sense of self, guided them to become passionate about something.
Such moments of realization are uncommon. As any profound experience, they happens in the margins, serendipitously, at the edge of our vision, almost without us realizing it. The British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested that it was like going up a ladder, with each rung falling away as we climb. One can never go back down to one's old view of the world.
Thanking your professors is thus one small but crucial step upwards in keeping alive a vision of the power of transforming ourselves and thus the world.