Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hobbies are not just for College Applications

When it comes time to fill out college applications many students panic at the thought of having to list their extra-curricular activities. They question whether they have enough activities, the “right” ones, and if their list will persuade the admission staff of their commitment to these pursuits. “If I don’t have a passion, will colleges even consider me?” is the unproductive thought that plays repeatedly in many students’ heads. Sometimes I wonder if the pressure to pursue “extra-curricular activities” actually discourages less confident or rebellious students from getting involved. The shame of it is that engaging in activities often becomes more about impressing college admissions than finding pleasure and meaning in one’s non-academic pursuits. The focus on figuring out what colleges want to see is misguided; the more important question is: are you developing and exploring interests and hobbies that provide personal satisfaction and which will continue to enrich your life, even beyond college?

We engage in hobbies for a variety of reasons, but largely for personal fulfillment and to give purpose to our lives. It’s about choice, not obligation. Whether social or solitary, active or sedentary, philanthropic or artistic, the things we do that are individually meaningful can trigger the release of pleasure-inducing dopamine or lead us to form new social groups with people who share our interests. But one of the best things about hobbies is that it is never too late to discover new ones. Take it from me; last year I more or less traded in my running sneakers for cycling shoes. I signed up for a college counselor bike tour in southern California because it seemed like a great way to visit colleges, share the experience with colleagues and get some heart-pumping outdoor exercise. What I had not anticipated is that I would become hooked on cycling.

This summer once again I am participating in the college counselor bike tour. Our destination is to the south: North Carolina colleges and universities. Last year at this time I was marking off the days to the trip, filled with a mix of excitement and trepidation. New to cycling, I had concerns about keeping the pace, conquering hills, carrying my own gear and releasing my toe clips with sufficient time before a stop to avoid falling. I had premonitions of an embarrassing Arte Johnson moment, toppling over on my bike in a klutzy move reminiscent of the Laugh-In tricycle routine…a self-fulfilling prophesy.

With just 12 days until this year’s trip (and counting), I have no anxiety and feel only the excitement. I have already experienced the adrenaline rush that for me comes with the joy of cycling and sharing the ride with other adventurous counselors. Hobbies can also motivate us to challenge ourselves and improve our skills. I am a stronger rider today and therefore, more confident. I am happy to report that I no longer get stuck in my toe clips.

Many of my friends from last summer have also decided to participate again this year, anticipating another action packed week of great cycling, plenty of laughs and lots of support. The cycling trip takes us to Duke, NC State, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Elon, Guilford, High Point, Wake Forest, Catawba, Davidson and Queens College. We carry our own clothes and gear, and stay in dorms; it will be as close as possible to a true college experience. I actually visited many of these colleges as recently as two years ago, traveling by bus with a group of independent educational consultants. Even so, it never occurred to me to pass up this bike trip. The cycling, the camaraderie, the exercise, and yes, the professional benefits inspire me. I always gain something new from subsequent campus visits, whether it’s a different perspective or the reinforcement of something I had previously learned. This time around my vantage point will be different; after all, I will arrive on each campus by the power of my well-trained legs, my bike and my determination.

There is no one path to uncovering our passions and interests. I first happened upon the counselor bike tour and took up cycling after reading a posting on a college related listserv. One’s interests are sparked through exposure, receptiveness to new things, a suggestion from a friend, but most importantly, through self knowledge and an understanding for what makes us happy. When the interest is genuine, the commitment and endorphins will follow. That’s what will get a college’s attention.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What China Can Teach Us about the Value of Liberal Learning

Are American parents appalled or threatened by what author Amy Chua portrays as the excessively demanding Chinese approach to education and childrearing in her best-selling book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom? Many of us defend our less-disciplined, more permissive style of parenting by citing the creativity and superior critical thinking skills that our approach fosters. Our children’s generation may lose ground to the Chinese on math rankings, but they will have the lock on thinking out of the box. Is this a fact or our convenient rationalization?

Thomas L. Friedman’s Op Ed article in yesterday’s (June 15, 2011) New York Times (Justice Goes Global), may throw that argument under the bus. The same Chinese culture that emphasizes rote learning over creative thought could be on the verge of a metamorphosis. Friedman points out that the person recently named most influential foreign figure in a China Newsweek special issue is not a powerful business executive or politician, but rather a popular Harvard political philosopher named Michael J. Sandel. How did a U.S. professor become a Chinese superstar? With the help of technology, Professor Sandel’s classroom is now virtual; his public television philosophy course series is available online and has gained popularity around the globe, even in China.

Sandel’s classes explore issues of morality and justice. Students are encouraged and expected to challenge, debate and reason with each other in the classroom. Access to Professor Sandel’s lectures has been greeted with much enthusiasm in China and elsewhere in Asia. Educators and students have begun to recognize the power of discussion-based learning and see the strong connection to creativity and innovation. In at least one Chinese university, the undergraduate education is experiencing a major reform that will incorporate deeper philosophical thinking, reasoning and debate into the curriculum.

Friedman suggests that questions of morality and justice are global issues which students everywhere can and are eager to discuss and debate on a deeper level. Even the Chinese have come to recognize the benefits of liberal learning, the responsibility to challenge and question, as a means to produce more innovative and creative thinkers. Kudos to China, though we shouldn’t treat too lightly the significance of this potentially radical change in the country's approach to education. We have already lost ground to Asia in the production of scientists, engineers and professionals in other STEM fields. What might it mean for U.S. productivity and leadership if China and other Asian nations adopt an academic model that will emphasize innovation too? I’m not suggesting that we obsess about U.S. world dominance. Yet we should not overlook the connection between critical and innovative thinking skills and economic security. These are the skills that will enable future generations to create and keep jobs and industry in the U.S.

Herein lays the value of a liberal arts education. A student’s major is almost irrelevant. The more pertinent factor is whether students are compelled to question, challenge, debate and think critically while exploring issues across a broad spectrum of disciplines. Though it is easy to comprehend why students in today’s economy feel a need to pursue a more concrete course of study directly identified as pre-professional training, in the long run the absence of the critical thinking piece will catch up with us.

So as we compare our parenting style to those of our Chinese counterparts, we should not assume too hastily that we have the inside track on creativity and innovative thought. Strict discipline will probably continue to be the childrearing norm in Chinese households. However, let’s not be lulled into a false sense of security about our creative edge. They just might not be too far behind in that department too.