What should university students know?Sunday, October 10, 2021
It has been argued — perhaps it is now a truth universally acknowledged — that university learning during COVID-19 times differs from the situation in the bright, sunshiny days preceding today's reality.
It has also been suggested in some places that remote testing of students has generated observable methods of cheating, not necessarily novel, but genuinely disconcerting.
These two propositions — the difference thesis and the cheating hypothesis — prompt the thought that we should ensure that our universities promote first-rate teaching and learning, even as the pandemic rocks the city walls. One step in this direction is to identify the core objectives of the teaching and learning project and insist that these are respected. No doubt there are various theoretical approaches on this point, but my broad listing of educational objectives for the university student would include the following.
World of ideas
(1) The student should be made to feel comfortable in the world of ideas. She should not be afraid of new concepts and unfamiliar methods of thinking and should be prepared to challenge orthodox and unorthodox viewpoints in appropriate cases. She should be willing to embrace coherent and critical thinking and should not be willing merely to regurgitate what others have said on an issue. As part of this she must have a questioning spirit, but this spirit must not be based on wilful ignorance or blind dogmatism. If she challenges ideas or puts forward her own, they should be supported by evidence or reasoning.
(2) He should be able to express himself well in the English language. Cassidy and LePage's Dictionary of Jamaican English is a significant achievement and several authorities have done outstanding work in advancing the cause of the national language. But it remains “impatient of debate” — to borrow a favourite Michael Manley phrase — that the wider Jamaican society firmly expects our university graduates to have facility with English. Presumably, conservatives and liberals alike may also agree that English is of immense, even indispensable, value for the professional Jamaican operating in the Western World.
(3) Closely related to point (2), the student should write with some degree of sophistication. He should know how to structure an argument, demonstrate an appreciation for good quality writing and value the importance of style in presentation. A few years ago, a distinguished Jamaican judge aptly began his decision in a commercial case with the quotation: “In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan; A stately pleasure-dome decree.” This, for me, was a memorable display of judicial learning, used with subtlety. I am reminded too of the concise, crystal clear and convincing style of George Orwell, introduced with analytical precision and power to our fourth form class by the outstanding educator, Mrs Sereta Harris.
(4) The student should be strongly inclined to undertake reading beyond the narrow confines of his discipline. Not only does this lead us to elegant references to Coleridge, it also promotes a broad, carefully considered and inclusive vision of society. Some years ago, John “Rumpole of the Bailey” Mortimer visited Lord Scarman, then a senior judge of the House of Lords, for an interview. Mortimer, himself a lawyer, remarked with more than a touch of admiration that most of Scarman's books in his office were not law books. Scarman was the author of a sensitive and supportive report on aspects of black life in Britain following the Brixton Riots of 1981.
(5) Taken together, wide reading and the cultivation of mature powers of expression, will work best for a student gifted with skills of articulation. The good student will know that not all fast talking is substantial; however, instructors should encourage those within their charge to “think quickly on their feet.”
(6) The student should develop technical mastery in her field. The different areas of specialisation will have their core principles, points of emphasis, methodology, patterns of assessment and jargon. Mastery of the core principles and other characteristics of each field of expertise implies that the student will be able to address confidently —without constantly double-checking sources for basic knowledge — the main issues that fall within her contemplation. Technical mastery requires the student to develop good skills of memorisation, the capacity to explain matters in straightforward, unambiguous terms, and the ability to undertake independent research that may lead to the resolution of complex problems.
(7) The good student will be able to distinguish important and unimportant issues from a mass of facts. In the old days, one of the main handbooks distributed to Oxford law students at the start of their jurisprudential pursuits listed the development of this ability as a primary objective of student life. The student, in all fields, must strengthen her powers of discernment and must be prepared to impose intellectual order on information from diverse sources often pointing in disparate directions. Today, when information on myriad issues is instantly within reach, the student has to be familiar with authoritative sources of information and must be prepared to cast at least a sceptical frown on imperfectly prepared perspectives.
(8) Today's student will be adept at receiving and imparting technical knowledge through modern methods of information technology.
(9) Students should also be encouraged to develop certain personal attributes. The precise list of these attributes is open to argumentation, and some academics may be inclined to the view that these matters should be left to parents and other family members, the parson or the guidance counsellor. In addition, the academic may well find that, within the time available for technical instruction, there is little scope for discussion on points of morality. Even so, however, some instructors are able to offer strictures to guide their students. Thus, a lecturer would be well within her rights firmly to oppose, at minimum, academic cheating, plagiarism, copying, copyright infringement and other patterns of morally wrong behaviour that could damage the reputation of the student.
Ambassador Stephen Vasciannie is Professor of International Law at The University of the West Indies.