Brain-Cardio: Should University Be Easy?

(UPDATE: I’ve reflected further on student expectations and culture here, in part as a response to comments to this post. If you want to read it, you’ll have to log in.)

Today, I was discussing next week’s work in one of my classes, and the third student in a row commented that the book I’d assigned for reading is not easy.

I said, “I know. It’s difficult. It’s weird. It’s about stuff that happened before you were born, or when you were little babies. It’s about technology, and cops, and weird stuff that feels like it has nothing to do with you, with the world you live in. But it does have something to do with you. The stuff that happened far away, somewhere else, with people you’ve never heard of, that’s history. That’s the building of the pyramids. It’s the basis of the world you live in. The stuff in this book, the stuff that happens in it, it’s real history. And it affected the internet, the laws in your own country — not just in America — and the way we think about the internet, about computers, about freedom, about crime and security and laws. The stuff that is discussed in this book affects your life in tons of ways, if you pay attention and notice it. And it is the basis for the book we’ll be reading after midterms, which I am pretty sure will feel like it’s much more connected to your world, to your life. This is the history that made the world we live in, when it comes to computers. So it’s worth knowing. It might be worth knowing more than some other kinds of history. Because this stuff will be important all through your life, how you relate to these funny little boxes that we spend so much time looking at these days, that people fifty years ago thought we would never ever have in our homes or classrooms.”

(I said that last line pointing at a computer in the classroom.)

And then I asked, “Anyway, I know it’s difficult. But this is university. Do you think university is supposed to be easy?”

Silence, smiles. It’s not like they could say yes, especially after I told them how challenging this class was going to be from day one. And I did, I really did! I told them we would read two books in English. That they would have to talk about them. I’d told them that from day one.

And then I said, “Because it’s not. University should never be easy. You’re supposed to ask questions you’ve never asked before. Struggle to understand things, to think differently, to be surprised and to be really, really tired sometimes.”

I told them about the teacher who made me read a 1,000 -page Dickens novel for a 2 hour discussion and told them there are limits to sanity, and that I wouldn’t overstep those limits. And how, you know, all these years later, I still regret not having finished that book for the class discussion, even if he was insane.

University should not be easy. It should be fun, but the kind of fun one feels when one gets into an exercise routine, that good, tired ache in the muscles — it should feel like that in the brain. Only a few people truly get into the habit of exercising their minds daily, of course — for as James Baldwin remarked in his essay “Stranger in the Village”, “Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious…” — but if university is phys ed for the mind, it should not be a series of square dancing and table tennis tournaments. There should be triatholons, mountains to climb, and regular brain-cardio workouts. That’s what university is for, and it is the brightest of my students who have remarked that it should be so, and that university should not, by any means, become merely or solely a form of job-training or career-preparation. Universities are for shaping the citizens who shall have mental lives. Or thus it should be, and anything else should be denied the name universitas.

(And, I should add for context’s sake, most of the class is very much fit enough, English-wise, for the books we’re reading. It’s a stretch, a few weeks of burning muscles and deep sleep, but it’s not a dozen pulled ligaments or a heart attack-scale struggle for them. Well, not for the top 85% of them.)

11 thoughts on “Brain-Cardio: Should University Be Easy?

  1. Oh, I can understand them, they feel like they need a break after the hell of hogwans and no sleep for the past five years.

    Not that I don’t agree with everything you say. I was reminded of the issue recently when I was chatting about home life with a friend, and I mentioned how, although I naturally didn’t want to give the impression that I thought my wife was stupid in any sense of the word, I still couldn’t help but notice that of the 500 or so books that my daughter is busy coloring in and destroying at the moment (not counting my 500 in NZ), less than 30 or so would be hers, and that I wish she enjoyed reading more. Her knowledge of some basic subjects, like evolution say, is virtually non-existent.

    Not everyone who goes to university continues to like reading afterwards, definitely a minority actually, but my friend thought that because the impulse to find out about the world, for oneself rather than having it spoon-fed to us, isn’t nurtured at universities here, then Korea seriously lacks…what?…an intellectual tradition she supposed, despite being able to hit a Phd holder with a stone thrown from virtually any apartment.

  2. James,

    Yeah, I hear you on the hakwons and so on. But the cleverest of my students also get it that they’ll probably never have the time and freedom to read like mad and meet people who will encourage them to question everything again.

    I’m lucky in having found someone who’s as nuts about books as me. She’s actually reading Flowers for Algernon as I type this, which, embarrassingly, I haven’t gotten to yet. (Though I have it slated for this year.)

    I’m not sure that Korea lacks an intellectual tradition exactly — a native form, though, and not what post-Enlightenment Westerners think of as an intellectual tradition — but I think it was probably smashed to pieces during the occupation and never quite rebuilt in the old form, or rebooted with the new system. There are definitely intellectuals here, but whenever Lime reads them, it seems as if they’re breaking new ground just by any kind of critical analysis of Korean society. (And this is a big preoccupation among the ones she reads.) Maybe it’s all a function of the way education developed postwar. By the way, Education Fever? Brilliant. Thanks for mentioning it, I loved that book, and now more than ever I feel like I must write something about education here. Especially with Lee pushing the English-as-LOE thing.


    Ha, you’re the second person to ask. (Julia asked on the LJ crosspost.) It’s Dombey and Son. Still plan on reading it someday, but I think I’ll do Bleak House first. And Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon before that. But Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End first of all. As in, right now…

  3. I may not fare any better. I found Dombey and Son a bit of a slog, and must admit I find that true of Dickens more generally. But the discussion of the book made it sound like I might actually enjoy it, once it gets going.

  4. On another, somewhat related note, while Universities help nurture an intellectual climate and tradition, publishing also has big role to play. I think a very real Canadian tragedy is the fact that a magazine like Saturday Night has never been viable in quite the same way that The New Yorker or to a less degree The Atlantic Monthly have been south of the border.

  5. The analogy, when applied to Korean publishing, is also apt. There’s a certain… dearth of magazines in that category over here, in Korean I mean. SisaIn (시사인) is a new one that is kind of filling in the political spectrum — it’s been criticized for being “too aggressive” or whatever by both the left and the right here in Korea, as it seems to be relatively equal-opportunity in terms of criticism — but it’s really the first magazine that even had the balls to talk about serious problems in connection with the big companies here. (To date everyone else has been scared to say anything about Samsung, to the point of turning away whistle-blowers and so on.)

    Then again, I think printed magazines everywhere are on a fast-track to extinction: the net is making all that history.

    In another field altogether, SF fiction markets are struggling, such that lots of the new ones are going online exclusively. And siome are actually even staying afloat! So Slate was definitely ahead of the curve.

  6. I’ve noticed from my limited teaching experience in hakwons that the kids are often surprised when I challenge them to do any sort of original or creative thought. Now granted, these are kids no higher than 5th grade but still much of the English education here seems to be skewed towards repetitive writing exercises. Just today when one of my students showed up with his homework not even started, I offered to let him write the one page assignment in class (it’s a solo class) and he instead opted to write two pages of lines: “I will do my homework before I come to class.”

    I’m not even certain that the expectations that class is going to be easy can be confined to Korea. Back in Canada, several of the professors I worked with complained about students approaching them with demands that their grades be raised. Some profs did, others didn’t. My favourite account of this was the professor who was approached with the line: “I’m smarter than this. I should have gotten higher than a 67%.” The professor’s reply: “Yes, you should have.”

  7. John,

    I started typing a comment and it got so long and complicated I figure a post will do it justice. So I’ll just drop a tiny giggle at the 2 pages of lines, and suggest something I’ve used to scare (younger) students. Every day late, the page-length of an assignment doubles. Miss one day, and one page turns to two. Miss another day, you have to write four pages. Miss another, it becomes eight. By this point, panic sets in and they do it. Badly. And you tell them they have one day to do it better and resubmit at the same page length, or else…

    They never do homework late again! :)

  8. I wish you were teaching at my university. With the exception of one course last semester (taught by a Korean-American… or is it American-Korean?), I find most of the “academic” courses significantly lacking in challenge. And I’m not all that smart.

    Haha, and I love John’s suggestion above about the essay length :P

  9. oddun (so odd to call you that),

    Hmmm. My only reservation about going, “Aha! See!” from your experience is that I’m not sure how typical your experience is. I can totally imagine courses for exchange students being of a lower priority for a prof, while a course that is for general enrollment, but offered in English, would likely be simplified to account for the language difficulties.

    I’d love to know what you think of my more recent post on this subject. I’ll add an update link, and if you sign in, you can read it all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *