The “Does Not Care” Gene

Admittedly genetics probably has very little to do with attitude, but I wanted a provocative title for this interesting thought experiment on which I’m about to embark.

What is it about the majority of young people that makes them care very little about formal education?  I still consider myself a young person, so I am speaking about my generational peers, though I am older than most of them.  I am defining ‘formal education’ as classroom instruction in basic topics like biology.  I’d like to look at a few possible factors that may explain the high level of apathy I have observed in students.

Of course, I am going to start by generalizing, with the caveat that not all students are apathetic.  However, from what I have observed in my community college courses, and what my high-school-teacher friends tell me on a regular basis, the overwhelming majority of students demonstrate very little effort or concern in the realm of of academics.  There may be several reasons why this is happening, and it may be completely different for different individuals, but this trend is widespread enough to warrant exploration.

Let me start on the opposite spectrum, with a personal anecdote.  I excelled academically in high school, and then transitioned immediately into a high-caliber college.  As a result, I was regularly surrounded by like-minded students who also sought to achieve their full potential.  It never occurred to me to toss education aside like it didn’t matter, which I realize places me very much in the minority.  It was only as I returned to school (for a career change) that I realized how the “typical” student acts in an academic setting.

First and foremost, most students do not understand academic concepts right away.  From what I have seen, there are two main responses to this lack of understanding; the student either brushes off the knowledge as irrelevant and moves on, or the student becomes frustrated at his lack of understanding and gets overwhelmed.  The number of times I’ve heard a student mutter, “When am I ever going to use this?” really makes me wonder about the disconnect between formal education and real world experiences.  But I’ll get back to that.

What I don’t see typical students do is approach complicated concepts from a “can-do” perspective.  I don’t see them study the material until they understand.  I don’t see those students ask the instructor to explain the concept in a different way.  I don’t see them try to approach the material from an alternative perspective in order to gain a new level of understanding.  The concepts within formal education may not be directly applicable to every day life, but the practice of LEARNING is really the main goal.  And how are you, as a member of your community, going to approach real-world problems if you don’t know how to think, research, and learn new things?  In real life, there is no instructor to clarify a difficult concept; as a student of life, you must rely on your own knowledge base, your peers, the opinion of paid professionals (who probably excelled in school), or your ability to reason and research.  You can expand your knowledge and your skill set by working diligently in a formal education setting.

Why don’t typical students feel empowered to learn?  If they feel inept in a certain subject, why do they respond by thinking of that as an insurmountable barrier to their progress in that subject.  Some students are positive that they are bad a math.  Well, you know what, I am bad at playing the trombone, but if I practiced diligently, I would certainly improve.  No one is born with inherent math skills, but some are exposed to math from a young age.  The biggest concession I will make to struggling students is that they could be “behind” in subjects like math, but that doesn’t mean they are incapable of gaining the knowledge they need to succeed.  But how do you motivate students to work towards self-improvement in formal education settings?

I think what students these days lack is an understand that all knowledge has value, and all knowledge empowers you to make informed decisions in life.  Not only that, but education has a unifying value across all disciplines of teaching you how to learn.  My mother instilled in me the understanding that a 4-year post secondary “liberal arts education” was the most valuable thing I could do, because it would make me a well-rounded person who knew how to think.  Now that I am back in school specifically for Nursing, I realize just how right she was.  Unlike many of my classmates, I am absorbing the knowledge presented, making connections to reality, and actually enjoying the experience.  But even when I was learning more abstract things during my 4-year college experience, I still found ways to be engaged.

There are certainly social factors that influence a student’s lack of concern about formal education.  Doing well in school is not the “cool” thing to do, nor is it always the most fun.  As an example, I have already been teased by my community college classmates for being “too smart” in class.  But I really don’t think it’s my level of knowledge or intelligence that intimidates them; it’s my high level of engagement in class that truly sets me apart.

While my peers do not lack the basic knowledge or cognitive ability to do well in class, the certainly do lack the motivation to excel.  Do they not understand that hard work in school can pay off?  Not only can it lead to a lucrative career, but it also leads to a more informed life.  Who looks around one day and decides, “I would rather earn less money, have a harder life, and know as little as possible about the world around me?”  I’m not trying to say that the final grade in any one formal education class will dictate a student’s future success, but the general level of apathy that most students demonstrate will certainly lead to a life that is below that student’s potential.

I just think it’s so important to expose yourself to new concepts with an open mind; whether that means new music, new political ideologies, or new concepts in biology, what is the harm in learning more?  You may be learning more than you think you need to know, and you may forget some of what you’ve learned over time, but all knowledge builds on itself.  And how do you know what might be beneficial to you in the future?  (Hint: You don’t know what the future holds, so it is helpful to prepare yourself as fully as possible with a wide base of knowledge from a formal education.)

If you wish to be an active member of society, it is important to be educated about the world, and because the world is always changing, it is important to learn HOW TO LEARN.  Every formal education class that I have ever had from English Literature to US History to Biology has taught me a little bit more about the world, helped me make connections across disciplines, and most importantly, has taught me about the many different avenues I can employ to continue my education for the rest of my life.

Most people only spend the first 20 years of their lives in formal education, and that’s supposed to last for a lifetime of 70-90 years!  Every student should be making the most of that time so that their formal education can contribute to their success as an adult.


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