I grew up in what I like to call the technologically intermediate era. They taught us how to use computers in elementary school even though few of us had one at home and toys had started to do more than squeak and roll, but most of my toys didn’t do much of anything. Now I don’t know a single person who owns a computer and it’s hard to walk through a toy store and find a toy that doesn’t have eight different tricks and gadgets.
“LEGOS?” you may ask. Yes. LEGOS.
When I was little you could buy a huge bucket filled with little color coded building blocks. It came with “instructions” but those usually got tossed aside in the first five minutes and you were left with the endless possibilities of an infinitely solvable puzzle. Now? The only LEGOS I’ve seen in years come in pre-fab, branded kits that basically discourage creative thinking.
But recent students also have their weaknesses and blind spots. And one of the they ways in which they can frustrate faculty and undermine their own performance and development has to do with LEGOS.
Yes, LEGOS, that classic toy of colorful, plastic, interlocking blocks invented by a Danish carpenter.
The carpenter in question, one Ole Kirk Christiansen (1891-1958), named his invention for the Danish phrase leg godt, meaning “play well.” And indeed, I and millions of other children of the Baby Boom and Generation X eras played well with them, along with their earlier American counterparts: Lincoln Logs (invented by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son) and Tinker Toys (from the same company that brought you the Erector Set).
Legos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys and the like were all early 20th century versions of classically minimalist children’s toys. Featuring new colors, shapes, and materials made possible by the industrial revolution, they were not complex. They were just a just slightly more sophisticated version of simplicity.
After all, what is a box of LEGOS? Well, really it’s whatever you want it to be, or perhaps more accurately, whatever you can make of it. It’s just a bunch of blocks, waiting for you to create something. Anything. Or nothing at all. It’s up to you.
But not anymore. Now LEGOS come with specific plans and goals. LEGOS have transformed into pre-determined set pieces. Some of them are crass cross-promotional tie-ins with other child-oriented, entertainment business brands such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and Sponge Bob Square Pants. Others are more generic in their design. But make no mistake. The family-owned LEGO Group of Billund, Denmark is no longer offering the world a simple, inexpensive toy with which children might challenge themselves by finding creative ways to “play well.” Instead it is pushing pricier set-pieces in which children are given clear directions.
Here are your instructions. Do it this way. Here is your goal. Achieve what has been carefully laid out for you. Your success or failure will be defined by these very clear and rigid parameters.
And this prescribed version of LEGOS, metaphorically speaking, has been very detrimental to the newer generation of college students. Growing up in a highly structured world of play-dates, organized activities, and adult-monitored “fun,” on the whole they thrive in an environment that presents them with detailed directions and clearly stated, narrowly defined goals.
What they tend to lack is creativity and initiative.
In college this often translates into a generation of students who want the answers but are less interested in asking questions. But it’s not just about grades. Of course most students have always wanted to do well, the system has often emphasized correct answers, and so many students have always placed a premium on them. Rather, the issue is that many students do not trust the educational process unless it is clearly delineated and points directly to the A+ at the end of the rainbow.
If the process is more open, then they are often confused and worried. If they are challenged to forge their own path, to find their own answers, or god forbid to ask questions that have no clear answers, then they are apt to panic or stare at you blankly. That kind of process either scares or confuses them.
In the end, it seems to me, the reason they do not trust an abstract process of education is because they do not trust themselves. They have not been given ample opportunity to find things on their own. They haven’t spent enough time discovering, wondering, and inventing. Instead, too often they have been given detailed blueprints about what their LEGO world should look like.
As a Historian, this is very troubling. History is a field that straddles the Social Sciences and the Humanities. Abstraction is a big part of what we do. And in a discipline with ever-expanding borders, and source material (or “data”) that is at once horribly inadequate yet far too voluminous to use comprehensively, initiative and self-direction are at a premium.
If you’re going to write a 25 page research paper, it really would be for the best if you picked your own topic, found and selected your own sources, constructed your own narrative, and drew your own conclusions. Yes, of course the professor is here to help, and rightly so. But the professor’s job in that situation is not to pick a topic and sources for you, but rather to guide you in a more subtle way.
We can talk about why you have more short blocks than long ones, what the blue blocks might mean as opposed to the red ones, and interesting places where you might find some other blocks that may prove helpful. But in the end, I can’t tell you what to build. Hell, I can’t even give you detailed directions on how to build it, only general ones. You have to do that for yourself.
Self-Determination is an odd little concept, and whatever it is, certainly some people have more of it than others. But that’s one of the reasons why parents send their kids to college. Lest we forget, two-thirds of Americans do not have a college degree. Higher education is still a sign of privilege and opportunity to some degree, pun intended. It’s the chance to take the blocks of your life and build something that approximates your dreams, without the daunting challenges and fantastic odds of a Horatio Alger story or a Lotto ticket.
Come Thursday, I will begin the 15 week-long process, conducted twice yearly, in which I try to drive that home to my students. Along the way I will show them some things that other people have built. And then I will pour a bunch of strange new blocks onto the floor, in the form of lectures and assigned readings, and ask them to build something relevant through discussions, exams, and papers.
The opportunity is theirs to pursue as they see fit.