On College, Critical Thought, Cattle, and Baking

I’m not afraid of expressing my misgivings with the “education” I’m receiving at the #4 ranked institution in America. UChicago possesses a certain self-righteous rhetoric pertaining to its general, or Core, curriculum. Founded in the constructivist school of learning theory, the Core’s teaching methodology consists of reading “primary-source” text documents and leading students, like cattle through the slaughterhouse chute, to the captive bolt of stunning revelation. Unfortunately, unlike a slaughterhouse, where livestock are funneled one by one to their end through hard-walled chutes, the texts are deployed thematically and without guidance. This fosters “critical thinking” skills, enabling students to draw connections between sources toward a prevailing image—not theory—of the time.

In UChicago’s Civilization courses, students are given texts and encouraged to make assertions about overarching historical themes. Without the benefit of a critical, theoretical framework any assertions made skitter across the trite surface of the vast intellectual sea.

I approached my professor today and asked why there isn’t more structure in the class, why mention of larger theoretical frameworks is verboten, why whenever I try to probe deeper in class discussion she stares at me as she calls on another person. Why, when I “zoom in” argumentatively the natural inclination is to deflect and remove conversation to the rarefied atmosphere of platitude and placate me with a vaguely patronizing, “A poignant observation about the corporate nature of the Catholic church, but let’s shift the focus to how women are presented… B—, why don’t you go?” B— answers. “They are portrayed, as you say, ‘to be bad.'” Astute.

Please, professor, if you are reading this, I don’t blame you. I am sure you too are frustrated with the somewhat constrained nature of the course, with its “learning objectives” and whatnot. You and I could carp on and on about our shared frustrations at the lowest-common-denominator level of intellectual rigor prerequisite of a Core class, that this like all of ’em are rendered passable even for say, um… the more desultory among us, to be nice about it. I imagine we’d cackle together, laughing at our self-conceptions of our inflated noetic badassery… In some alternate reality, professor, we might be afforded this opportunity, but instead you smiled wistfully, squinting, and said:

“We are trying to teach you how to think. Imagine it this way: we could give you all the instructions for baking a cake, or we could give you the required ingredients and you do it for yourself. We want to empower you, so you can bake that cake.”

There are a couple of sticky issues to address. This statement predetermines that cakes are the goal, and necessarily means that someone measured out the ingredients for a cake, laid them out, and assumed that some unsuspecting person would come along, see the spread, and ineluctably conclude that a cake is in order. Punishment is meted out to those who bake biscuits or cookies or transcend the whole category of baked-goods altogether and instead mix water, sugar, yeast and some flour to distill alcohol, which might be then flavored with vanilla or whatever flavor was intended for the cake.
Those who bake cakes, no matter how lumpy, soupy, squishy, or dense, are commended for baking a cake; because we’re all good postmodern cognitive relativists here, we can’t criticize the craftsmanship of the cake. Cake soup is but an interpretation of cake, and all interpretations, due to their subjective nature, are inherently valid… provided, of course, that they are interpretations of cake. Biscuits and grain alcohol, no matter how well-executed are not cake: you, hapless baker or distiller, fail the test.

It isn’t the biscuit-maker’s fault he didn’t bake a cake when he was given ingredients and told to make the most of them. Without instruction, he can neither be held accountable for his product or the quality thereof. I understand that given an infinite number of tries, some random, novice baker will execute one hell of a cake, but given finite ingredients and some hinting, winking burlesque show of the pinnacle of the cake form, a novice is still a novice.

The best bakers trained with the best bakers. At the kernel level, it disturbs me that undergraduates are doomed to hapless experimentation to autogenously construct the properties of a given set of flour, eggs, sugar, water, etc. and condemned for looking in a cookbook to ascertain some method by which they might come together, some technique: an artistry. That two years of my four are spent in classes teaching me to cherrypick quotes to support baseless, absurd theses, how to render and construe and augment the absurdity of said theses, how “context” “frames” “the lens” of the “text,” how to disbelieve everything, how to laugh at claims of absolute truth—at base, how to intimate, interpolate, and extrapolate bothers me. We are taught to stir and pour when we are smart enough to bake. The details can be figured out along the way, and with the help of a skilled, involved instructor.

En masse we students are funneled toward one moment, a bolt to order the brain, but our handlers failed in one capacity. Temple Grandin, a world-renowned animal-welfare and autism advocate, intuited that animals being led to slaughter know “what’s up,” they knew viscerally what lay around the next turn. At some basic level, they were aware of the machine’s cogs’ turning.

I demand the same sort of recognition by our professors for all UChicago students. We know what the curriculum is trying to do, and this self-consciousness hinders its ultimate transformative goals. Because of Grandin’s work, meat processing facilities now implement long, undulating passageways through which cows blithely wander to their doom. They don’t need cattle prods. If I were unaware that just around the bend lay frustration, emptiness, and disappointment at the waste of my academic journey, I’d be less recalcitrant. I too would walk blithely. I’d be bovine. I am. But for now you’ll take me kicking and screaming, rhetorically of course.

Author: Jason D. Rowley

As I mentioned elsewhere, I wear a lot of hats. Currently, I'm interested in VC data, early stage startups, and journalism. Previously I've been a blogger, designer, researcher, startup founder, (temporary) college dropout, connector, occasional branding designer and amateur chef.

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