Kick in the Pants

I’ve just read some responses on the NACAC listserv to a question about how to motivate unmotivated kids (mostly boys) to do well in high school so they can go to college. Many of the responses were about the economics of a college degree (over a lifetime the college grad earns a lot more), the terror of working at McDonald’s, having some self-respect, and so on. People suggested that students get therapy for their sluggishness or that counselors read students the riot act, so to speak, let them know what’s good for them. I found it all depressing although I can’t say I haven’t felt the same way in dealing with some of my own students in the past.

But here’s the thing: Not a single response (of the ones given) said anything about the possibility that these unmotivated students see no meaning in their lives or in going to college, so why should they be motivated? While it’s fine to focus on the pragmatics of going to college or even getting a job, most people, at some level, are also hungry for their lives to be worth something, even if they may not recognize it. Perhaps these kids have been marched through a school system that spends more time testing them and preparing to test them than in presenting them with ideas and asking them to have thoughts. Perhaps they have become numbed by shallow textbooks or uncreative lessons, or been warehoused in classes of 32 students and have figured out that the only way to survive is to hunker down and do only what’s needed to get by. Yelling at them to shape up isn’t going to do it.

And forget about the economic argument, at least for now. Surely even the most willfully ignorant student knows that the economy is in the tank and that college costs more than ever. At least one parent is probably out of a job or about to be—who are we kidding? Trying to get out of college with a reasonable amount of debt is a job in itself, so don’t expect the idea of an eventual six-figure income somewhere, sometime in the distant future to mean much, especially to kids who are used to immediate gratification. (Not, at least this time, a criticism, just a fact.) The ant doesn’t beat the grasshopper here, and why should it given the headlines and the breadlines?

Forgotten, are the more esoteric, but primary reasons for going to college. It might be nice to hear someone say that going to college exposes you to ideas and situations that can rattle your cage and make you think about and connect you to something larger than yourself, or that reading great things and talking about them with great teachers and students can set your brain abuzz with thoughts that could help you change yourself and change your neighborhood or city or who knows what. It would be inspiring to hear that going to college can inspire you, even when you think there’s not much to be inspired by. That reading The Culture of Narcissism or Sister Carrie or dissecting a mouse can literally change the way you think. Really, it can and does happen.

Are we reduced to seeing college only as an economic “value added” proposition or as an alternative to something worse? Is the idea of college as a place for thought and experimentation only for those who can afford the luxury of thought untethered to the need to make a living? Surely even in the most career-oriented education there has to be a little room for some independent thinking; it’s what makes having a brain worthwhile. Perhaps if we reached these unmotivated kids sooner with something that sparks their interest, we might do better by them. Studies have shown (and I’ve seen it in my own experience) that just a few supportive words from a genuinely interested adult can make an immense difference to a kid. Being noticed, realizing that you mean something to someone, can tip the scales toward accomplishment. Whether it’s giving kids something real to think on or noticing what they already have that is worth developing, perhaps we need to motivate more by treating kids as prospective thinkers instead of prospective drones.

If our new stock in trade is mental not metal (and I don’t mean just information but knowledge), then we should be trying to stir up our kids’ synapses with stuff to make them think. Perhaps then they might feel motivated enough to get where they could do a lot of it.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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