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Guest column, Matthew Boedy: Why unlearning is a critical part of college experience
Matthew Boedy
Matthew Boedy

The public’s opinion of college has seen better days. In 2018, Pew Research reported that about 60% of Americans think higher education in the United States is going in the wrong direction.

More alarming is that a similar percentage of those with only a bachelor’s degree and those who attended but did not finish a degree program also think this. In other words, those who have gone are not keen on it.

Reasons abound — tuition for one, yes. However, another reason concerns me today. About two-thirds of Americans say students are not getting the skills they need in the workplace, according to Pew.

As many students at the University of North Georgia attend classes for the first time this fall, it is an important moment to ask what the purpose of college is. As a professor who teaches a course that thousands of first-year students take, I believe I offer a valuable answer.

I teach writing, a much-needed skill in the workplace. However, the purpose of college goes beyond those skills. If we limit the four-year university experience to skills, we implicitly suggest college is like a technical school or apprenticeship. There’s nothing wrong with those other educational opportunities, but college is different.

What is the difference? College should be a time of kenosis. For those of you who know your Apostle Paul inside and out, you will recognize that Greek word from his letter to the Philippians. Jesus “made himself nothing,” the Scripture reads.

If Jesus did so out of love, students should too, for love of learning.

College is not about the skills one could learn. It is not about the accumulation of knowledge. It is not about getting at all. If you are at college to acquire information, to pass a test or two for a degree, then you are not experiencing college as it is best defined.

College is a time for self-limiting, selflessness, or in another word, humility.

It is a time for unlearning. It is about questioning, critical thinking, and rethinking. If a college experience merely affirms, it is not learning.

The claim against college that it does not teach skills is another way of saying an older attack on college: it is not “the real world.” The real world is not merely a collection of people with already formed skills. We need people to change their mind, to admit ignorance, to expand their thinking. We should learn how to do that in college. It is dangerous to our democracy if we do not.

Students change because they are servants of truth, following it wherever it may take us. If one assumes they know already — and more importantly, if one assumes they already do all the most ethical, most accurate, most productive knowing — then they are missing college.

How might this work out in my classes? In my courses, I teach rhetorical invention. That is, how to come up with things to say. To do so, my students must see rhetoric not as flowery words or well-crafted language, but as a practice of possibility. To invent means to create an idea, to think, not merely agree with another person.

Invention requires kenosis – a willingness to reconsider or decenter the pride we get from possessing what we already know.

Moreover, if I want my students to practice this, so must I. I try to teach kenotically. I ask questions I do not know the answer to. I practice curiosity, unafraid of changing my mind.

And I write hoping to learn, not knowing what I want to say.

So then, writing beyond being a workplace skill is the quintessential kenotic act. I have worked on this editorial several times. Sometimes I reread what I have written for clarity. However, most of the time I am trying to craft a claim that comes close to what I think. And my idea of what I wanted from this column — what I pitched to the editor of this newspaper — has shifted since I began writing. My thinking has changed.

In fact, I had not thought of writing itself as an example of kenosis before writing that sentence above just now.

Where do the words come from? Where did that idea germinate? Who knows.

Why do I spend some time thinking aloud about my process?

I want to show that even as someone with an advanced degree, I still don’t get it right from the start. I have to learn or relearn how to write each time I do it. And I can assure you as a professor of writing that is a humbling fact to admit.

You are welcome in my class anytime if you want that experience.

Matthew Boedy is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Georgia. He can reached via email at matthew.boedy@ung.edu.

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