Columns

Esemplare ’18: Mandatory attendance misses the mark

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, March 2, 2016

You probably remember your first day of college. You walked into your dorm room for the first time, overwhelmed by a nervous excitement as you took in the scene. You probably felt freedom. You may have loved it. It may have scared you. It was probably a little bit of both. But that’s what college is about, isn’t it? It’s a four-year trial by fire at learning to be independent.

Most people seem to agree that the value of college goes beyond classroom learning. Instead, people often describe college as some combination of academics and a more abstract “life education” that prepares college students for the “real world.” It is not novel to suggest that college is more about experiences than grades. As one of my professors more bluntly put it, “College is about learning how to blow stuff off.”

So I was struck by something odd this semester that challenged this notion: All of my classes (three of them lectures) have mandatory attendance. This isn’t a great inconvenience, but I can’t deny that I feel slightly wronged. While the actual effort of attending class isn’t too much to ask in my case, the principle behind the decision bothers me. And while I think moaning about such slight woes is probably unnecessary — and might attract the attention of Fox News­ — the matter raises interesting philosophical questions about the purpose of college.

The obvious counterargument to my reflexive distaste for mandatory attendance is that attending class helps students learn. This point is difficult to counter. It probably is ultimately better to attend class. But if we assume that attending class helps students learn, the issue of mandatory attendance raises much larger questions about the ultimate purpose of a college education.

The decision to make lectures mandatory arises from a misconception of what kinds of learning make college valuable. If the goal of going to college is strictly academic, attending class seems like a must. But this belief is also somewhat ridiculous. When students leave home, they learn much more than can be put in any textbook. If there is value in attending class, there is simultaneously value in making students decide whether or not going to class is worthwhile. Teachers who make attendance mandatory are attempting to improve a student’s learning but neglect to consider that prioritizing and making decisions are just as much a part of a college education as calculus or philosophy.

There are certainly exceptions to this argument. I would not argue that seminars or discussion-based classes should be optional for students. But when it comes to impersonal lectures, mandating attendance comes at the cost of limiting a student’s freedom. At the very least, optional attendance rewards those students who do make it to class and teaches a more valuable lesson than the hand-holding directives of classes where attendance is recorded.

Woody Allen once said that “80 percent of success is showing up.” But if this is so, it is a lesson better taught through lived experience than by reverting to the forced obedience of high school. Life is about deciding between alternatives. Whether you are choosing a career, a spouse or lunch, you must weigh options and make decisions based on your values. And therein lies the importance of decision-making for college students.

Making choices between alternatives necessitates the creation of a value system. A student may or may not attend class based on his prioritization of that class, his GPA or sleep. Regardless of the rationalization, when students are forced to make such decisions, they must develop some semblance of core values that will guide their actions. Ultimately, mandating attendance in lecture-based classes is at odds with the type of academic liberty that Brown attempts to give its students.

If the open curriculum and S/NC grading option assert anything, it’s that students should be left in charge of their own educations. It is a bold proposition and one that is certainly not common in present-day higher education. I’m a proponent of going to class, and students that frequently skip lectures definitely miss out on an important aspect of the college experience. But there is lunacy in telling legal adults how to live their lives. Brown doesn’t hold the hands of its students, and it shouldn’t. So don’t tell them to come to class, either.

Nicholas Esemplare ’18 can be reached at nicholas_esemplare@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.