Rhodes College professor Scott Newstok writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education with advice for the graduating class of 2020.
Class of 2020, welcome to college. Right about now, your future professors are probably sitting in a faculty meeting, rolling their eyes at their dean’s recitation of the annual Beloit College Mindset List, which catalogs the cultural touchstones of your lives.
But to me, the most momentous event in your intellectual formation was the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which ushered in our disastrous fixation on testing. Your generation is the first to have gone through primary and secondary school knowing no alternative to a national regimen of assessment. And your professors are only now beginning to realize how this unrelenting assessment has stunted your imaginations.
In response to the well-intentioned yet myopic focus on literacy and numeracy, your course offerings in art, drama, music, history, world languages, and the sciences were all too often set aside “to create more time for reading and math instruction.” Even worse, one of the unintended consequences of high-stakes testing is that it narrowed not only what you were taught but how you were taught. The joy of reading was too often reduced to extracting content without context, the joy of mathematics to arbitrary exercises, without the love of pattern-making that generates conjecture in the first place.
You’ve been cheated of your birthright: a complete education. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. (at your age of 18), a “complete education” gives “not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”
But now your education is in your own hands. And my advice is: Don’t let yourself be cheated anymore, and do not cheat yourself. Take advantage of the autonomy and opportunities that college permits by approaching it in the spirit of the 16th century. You’ll become capable of a level of precision, inventiveness, and empathy worthy to be called Shakespearean.