On Being a Student
by Donald E. Simanek
An ex-president of this institution, when it was a college with an
enrollment of several thousand, was asked how many students the
school had. He quipped "Oh, perhaps a dozen." He was making a joke
that is as old as the hills. The president of a large corporation
used it when he was asked by a reporter (during a strike) how many
workers there were in his plant. One of my junior-high teachers
used to remind us that to be a student meant more than
merely being a pupil.
Times change. The definition of "student" once was "one who studies something".
Today it can mean merely "one who attends a school, college or university".
This modern definition doesn't even suggest that the person does more than "attend".
College and university professors still use the first definition, and
schools have ways (such as requirements, exams and grades)
to attempt to ensure that those who attend will also study and learn
So what distinguishes a student? What makes the student stand out
from the rest of the class? The four As: attitude, academic
skills, awareness, and accomplishment, certainly are a large part
of it, and a student who has them will be very likely to earn
- Attitude is primarily a genuine desire to learn, and the
willingness to do hard intellectual work to achieve understanding.
It is also shown by how well you apply yourself even to subjects
for which you have little interest, and how much you can achieve
even when a professor's style isn't to your liking.
- Academic skills include ability to read with
comprehension, intelligent use of resources (including library
and internet resources), logical and mathematical skills, efficient study
habits, and the ability to communicate clearly and fluently in
speaking and writing.
- Awareness of what's going on in the world around you, and
the habit of intelligently relating it to your academic courses.
For example, when taking a course in political science, you should
relate what you are learning in class to what's happening on the
national and world political scene. When taking a science course,
you should relate scientific principles to phenomena you observe
in everyday life, and go out of your way to find applications and
examples of science in the real world.
- Accomplishment is demonstrated by successful application
of understanding. The evidence of that includes:
- Correct and confident application of what you've
learned to new problems and challenges,
- clear and effective communication of your understanding
through speaking and writing, and
- possession of a base of information, skills and understanding
sufficient to allow you to continue your education outside of the
classroom, throughout your life.
All of these add up to a fifth A: ability
, a word
frequently used above. The goal of education is to achieve
the ability to apply one's knowledge in new, creative,
and correct ways. Abilities are not entirely innate;
some are achievable through dedicated and focused effort.
Other symptoms and qualities of a good student include:
- Self-discipline. The successful student has learned to
budget time and use it efficiently, and will do the things that
need to be done, when they must be done, whether or not one feels
like it at the time.
- Initiative. In short: doing things without being told.
The student doesn't wait for assignments to read ahead in the
textbook, or to seek out and study related books to gain
understanding. The good student does more problems or exercises
than assigned, and does them even when none are assigned. The good
student working in the laboratory does not merely follow instructions
(though that is an important skill) but looks for opportunities to discover
new things, try new things, and find better methods. When an
opportunity arises to do a project outside of class, the good
student jumps at the chance and doesn't even ask whether it will
earn extra credit.
- Breadth of interests. College provides a great
opportunity to broaden your interests and explore new things. You
may never again have available to you such a convenient and
comprehensive library, well-equipped laboratories, and such
diverse and inexpensive cultural events
and academic activities. Much education can occur outside of class,
if you seek it. But if you confine yourself to the things you've
always done, avoiding anything new and unfamiliar, you will have
squandered a valuable opportunity.
- An open mind is a mind receptive to examination of new
ideas and facts. Having an open mind does not mean that one jumps
on the bandwagon of every new fad. A better characterization of an open
mind is one that is willing to dispassionately and rationally
analyze new ideas, weighing them objectively against
established knowledge and the facts at hand.
- A critical habit of mind. Education is more than the
acquisition of information. It includes the ability to acquire new
information, to critically evaluate that information, and to
correctly and effectively use it. With so many information sources
at our disposal in this computer age we are awash in information,
and in danger of information overload. But much of that information
is fraudulent, worthless, incomplete, or just plain wrong. It has
always been so. Probably 90% of the books in any library could be
lost with no harm to human knowledge. But it's not always easy to determine
just which books are worth keeping. We are assaulted through
every medium by folks trying to sell us something (with impressive
claims of its value), to persuade us to accept some political or
social idea, to convert us to some religion or philosophy,
or to convince us of
the value of some medical panacea. Most of this is humbug.
One of the values of a good education is the ability to see
through false claims, unfounded assertions and outright deceptions.
By this criterion, education has largely been a failure, for many people
who have college degrees are still suckers for snake-oil and
- Perceptiveness. The more you learn, the more perceptive
you become. You can, as necessary, "read between the lines." You
no longer need everything spelled out; you can fill in missing
details. You aren't dependent on being shown; you can
puzzle things out for yourself. You perceive quickly what a writer or
speaker means, without misinterpreting. You learn to seek the intended
meaning of what you read or hear
rather than trying to impose your own preconceived meaning. You can see
through complexity to the heart of a matter. You are able to
distinguish the important from the trivial in a serious discussion.
- Objectivity. Most of us begin our education with an
"egocentric" view, expecting everything to have some relevance to
our needs or desires. We even impose such interpretations on things
we learn, and avoid learning some things because they don't seem
important at the time. Education can broaden that view, encouraging
us to set our egos aside and objectively evaluate facts and
interpretations. We find out that mere unsupported personal
opinions have no value in an academic discussion. We learn to
recognize the validity of facts and ideas that we may not like. We
learn that other people and other cultures may interpret things
differently, and that fact is not a-priori evidence that they are
wrong. We learn that the world does not revolve around us, and the
universe cares not at all whether we exist, or what we do.
Education can give us humility.
- Humility. However much we learn, we must realize
there's a lot more to be learned, and that some of what one `knows'
may turn out to be wrong. For this reason intellectual arrogance
is unbecoming an educated person. Knowing lots of things is good,
but knowing the limitations of one's knowledge is essential to
using it properly. Many of the classic errors of history were made
by people over-confidently going beyond what they knew and
Work to be educated, not merely trained.
— Donald E. Simanek, April 15, 1997.
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