Value Added Versus Value Perceived


If, in the 21st century, K-12 schooling is to promote literacy and an appreciation for learning, what is the purpose of post-secondary education? For some it’s basic: to compete in the global economy. For others, the purpose is an abstract idea about the value of a liberal arts degree, a continuation of this appreciation for learning. 

Over the last few years, I’ve taught in a variety of classrooms: developmental courses at community colleges, adult-education accelerated programs, traditional athletics-motivated universities, and an honors college. Past students wondered about the purpose of taking English composition courses in college. Common retorts from them included, “I already know how to write,” “Who cares about grammar?” “How will this academic research paper help me in the job market?” Students, it seems, are more utilitarian these days: how was this writing class to benefit them in the real world?

We would discuss writing as a way to learn, which in the abstract sense will always be the objective—no matter what degree they are pursuing, we as humans will always learn new things and writing is a tool we can use to process our experiences and improve our critical thinking skills. Writing, in this sense, has value. But for practical students with microeconomics or organic chemistry on the forefront of their minds, learning to write better is not necessarily priority.

At times, the only answer I could give them was “Because it’s required.” As an idealist who routinely questions purpose, I needed a better answer. What is the purpose of taking rhetoric and composition, if students already know how to communicate effectively and do not plan on going to graduate school wherein extensive research papers will consume their life?

As an instructor, I tried to see their needs and structure the class so that it was at least somewhat relevant to their daily lives or eventual goals. Certain classes warranted relevant writing projects: in a technical writing course, my students wrote proposals and feasibility reports. Because this course was directly correlated to their technical degrees, the purpose was straightforward: to prepare them for the workplace. Other courses, such as developmental ones, also seemed to have a clear objective: to further develop their literacy in preparation for the rest of their college courses.

The purpose of writing courses becomes a bit murky when the level of literacy does not diminish the student’s ability to learn or when it is not directly relevant to the student’s degree. The issue of “need” no longer applies, so it feels as if we are wasting each other’s time, simply to meet a requirement. Of course, for the most part, these classes end up being of some use—research writing skills, further developing their critical thinking skills, etc. For the freshman composition instructor, however, it’s a daily battle for students to put in effort.

In thinking about ideals regarding post-secondary education, how can we improve our approach to required curriculum so that it addresses the current needs of our students? What value are we adding to the lives of students?

–O. Ayes