A pox on student satisfaction

If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are? (T. S. Elliott)

One of the methods used to rate universities, and departments, in the UK is the National Student Survey, based on a questionnaire seeking new graduates’ opinions of their degree courses. It claims to `build a broader picture of the quality of Higher Education‘ by measuring student satisfaction. In the interests of transparency, I should declare that my employer is very proud of having the highest NSS score in the land.

The logic here seems to be that if students are satisfied, the university has done its job properly. Students are invited to think like customers, because they are paying, and because customer satisfaction is the objective of the supplier. Apart from the unexamined assumption that `satisfaction’ is the same thing as good service, for this to work, students need to forget that charging for a service puts a limit on what is to be expected: you can’t get more than you pay for, if you pay in cash, and if you do not invest part of yourself, `satisfaction’ is all you will get from the transaction.

In fact, a properly functioning university should produce radically dissatisfied people, and spend much of its time making students feel stupid. Martin Schwartz talks of how science makes you feel stupid. In part, this is because whenever you study something of substance, you have to confront your own ignorance and incomprehension. If you do not, you are either mediocre, or studying a triviality. But also:

we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying. I’m not talking about `relative stupidity’, in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don’t. I’m also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don’t match their talents. Science involves confronting our `absolute stupidity’. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown.

Feeling stupid is part of what it means to take on something worth the trouble. A student confronting fundamental physical concepts for the first time will suffer a conflict between those concepts and common-sense; a student learning a foreign language will struggle to express themselves at the level of a five year old native speaker; a student of history or literature will quickly realize that there is an assumed background knowledge which is the price of entry into any conversation. The first duty of a university should be to implant dissatisfaction in students, to bring them to an understanding of the size of the task they have taken on.

Universities, in Stefan Collini’s words, are places where things are studied for their own sake. Whatever these things might be, they are usually difficult, because clever people have spent centuries working on them: they cannot be mastered in a year by a school-leaver. If we are honest with students, they will suffer the shock of realizing that they will never master their discipline in full, since only trivial fields can be fully mastered. This puts them in the same position as the academics who teach them: we are trying to chip some pieces off our own ignorance, but starting from more knowledge. Academics do work which makes us feel stupid; the more we work on a topic, the more we realize how little we understand it. Students are in the same position, with the difference only that they must master work that has already been done (though not by them), whereas academics are trying to master work which nobody has done, which is why we have bigger waste paper baskets.

Edward Said wrote that a

case can be made for genius as forced labour, a sort of convict-like return, again and again, to the workbench, studio, desk, easel to try to finish a work whose early inspiration recedes further and further back, and requires almost desperate attempts to give it realisation and permanence. That point is finally arrived at only after much uncertainty and unremitting effort: all along a real doubt gnaws away at one’s confidence, threatening to undermine the work completely. The products of genius are precarious, by no means guaranteed in their outcome, and, alas, derive from often thankless effort. It’s far too much work for most people to be a genius.

If even an authentic genius feels unsure, or stupid, or that their efforts are inadequate, why should new graduates be encouraged to feel `satisfied’?

A university education should inculcate intellectual honesty in students, a habit of rigorous assessment of claims, of evidence, and of arguments. That education is part established fact, part the interpretation of fact, part ongoing argument, and part independent thought. Dealing honestly with reality requires taking on what is already known, and believed, and testing it. This is unsettling because it may require confronting your own assumptions, but this is the dissatisfaction which any thinking human being bears as the price of being able to do anything of value.

Intellectual satisfaction is self-satisfaction. If you want to feel clever, watch Sesame Street.


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