Academia is a game — don’t play into it

You can’t ‘win’ your education

By Dan Riley, Assistant OpEd Editor

Academia is a game, and we are all playing it. In a perfect world, education would be about the intake of knowledge, expanding our minds with challenging concepts and new ideas. But we don’t live in that world; we live in the world of competitive grade point accumulation. As a result, students no longer “yearn to learn.” Successful students are those who play the game and play it well, not necessarily those with the motivation and drive to master their assigned material.

Academic success is a matter of time management. It becomes contingent upon the ability of students to find the exact point where the amount of time and effort dedicated to a course is minimized and the resulting acceptable grading score is maximized. In short, the goal is to find the most bang for your buck. Good students master the material; great students master the system because, to win the game, you must game the system. That means making plays, like persuading professors into granting undeserved deadline extensions, peer-pressuring teaching assistants into offering extra credit to compensate for low but fair scores, skimming just enough of assigned readings to participate in class discussion enough to earn a full participation credit or showing up to class to earn an attendance grade but spending the duration of the lecture scrolling through Twitter. I would dare to imagine that nearly every student at the University of Massachusetts has either performed or experienced these plays in some capacity. They are useful tricks for getting good grades, but are ultimately symptomatic of a broken education system.

Now the time has come to begin building schedules for the Fall 2018 semester, but the game prevents students from choosing the most fulfilling classes. Rather than build a schedule with the purpose of expanding your knowledge on topics important to you or to your future career, you must maximize the efficient fulfillment of various requirements by choosing classes that check off the most academic requirement boxes. Diversity requirement? Check. Honors? Check. General education requirement? Check. Major requirement? Check. And most importantly, an easy A? Check.

My personal experience being a member of the Commonwealth Honors College, as well as a history major, has been that I have had to choose whatever classes were being offered as honors courses within the history department rather than taking the courses focused on the historical time periods in which I am most interested. As a result, I have taken a mix of unrelated classes with no cohesive focus and now have a shallow knowledge of multiple areas of study but lack deep understanding or expertise in any given area. I know a little about a lot, which is neat for pulling out random trivia but not useful for finding a job. Of course, that also means I never got to know any professors specializing in fields I was interested in, with whom I might have liked to work on an honors thesis, so I have decided to just not write one. However, I have played the game and played it well; while my scholarly interests remain unfulfilled, my GPA is satisfactory and my academic requirements are nearly complete as I round out my junior year.

Of course, the game does not start in college. It starts the moment knowledge acquisition starts to be evaluated in elementary school. The entire system needs to be reworked. Now, it might be naïve to hope that the education system could be reformed into a pure meritocracy, but the fact of the matter is that the best way to make an unfair game fair is to rewrite the rules. There have been education reform proposals made that would seek to refocus education on knowledge rather than achievement, and they are worthy of serious consideration. At the end of the day, a student’s understanding of an area of study cannot always be evaluated through the framework of “10 percent for attendance, 20 percent for quizzes, 20 percent for essays and 50 percent for exams.”

In the short term, an attempt to really engage with your course material should be made, even when it is not strictly necessary. It requires a discipline to truly take an interest in classes when it doesn’t seem to have a substantial payoff, but we are all paying exorbitant sums of money to take these classes. We may as well get all we can from them. In the long term, discuss and support education reform, even if proposed reforms seem alarmingly radical or simply uncomfortable to you. It is time to become game-changers.

Dan Riley is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]