June 2, 2009

Education is a Bit Like Composting

By: in Teaching and Learning, Teaching Professor Blog

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We’ve moved up to our summer home and I’ve decided to start composting. We live on an island that is mostly rock. When we had the place excavated, the engineers called what’s on the ground organic matter and decreed it wasn’t deep enough for anything like a conventional septic system. There is no topsoil anywhere that I’ve been able to find … so composting makes good sense, to say nothing of having less garbage to haul to the local dump.

My Dad (and Michael’s Grandpap) used to have compost piles in the backyards, but now we have fancy plastic composters. Mine came with a book of instructions, written at about a 4th grade level with cute pictures but not much information. However, my composter is up and running. I’m adding the listed food scraps and greens from the garden, mixing with each addition, and covering the contents with leaves.

If I were a biochemist I’d understand how a wilted lettuce leaf transforms into rich brown soil, but I believe it happens and am willing to wait patiently for what is supposed to come of out of that bottom door on the composter.

I’ve been thinking that education is a bit like composting. You take a disparate collection of ideas and information and toss them into a student. Most of us do chop that content into pretty small pieces (something else recommended in the composting booklet), but I’m not sure with courses being as separate as they are, much of the valuable mixing occurs. Nonetheless, in four years (sometimes less, often more) an “educated” citizen emerges—one who can think, write, problem solve and appreciate the arts. One of the most rewarding aspects of education is seeing how different these four years with us makes most students look and act. Of course, some are more successfully educated than others, but graduation verifies that their time in the composter is over.

Do we know how the process works to transform minds and lives? Not really, but we know for sure we need lots of those educated, thinking adults to spread over the often barren landscape of our many cultural garden plots.

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