Iatrogenic Teaching – The Problem Itself

Many universities as well as high schools have a mission statement that involves “producing contributing citizens.”  This is certainly a noble cause, as we get a complete turnover of humanity every 100 years or so.  We must “pass the baton.”

However, over my 20 years of teaching I have seen this mission shift dangerously toward “avoiding stress amongst the students.”

The way this is accomplished by not challenging the students with hard problems and have “soft” deadlines for completion of their work.  If an exam contains a new problem that requires new thinking, there are an increasing number of students who will label this as unfair and will complain that it is a “trick” question.

When the exams require nothing more than regurgitation of exactly what was covered in class, the teachers are stress-free because the students aren’t complaining that the class is too hard and the administration is not complaining to them that they are reducing the retention rate by stressing out the students.

Keeping the students stress-free does not produce contributing citizens.  Students need to learn how to handle stress for their lives after graduation and the only way to learn how to handle stress is to experience it.

What many call stress, I call responsibility.  For example, the stress (responsibility) of handing a paper in when it is due.

The stress (responsibility) of trying to solve a problem that doesn’t come with instructions by thinking hard for a long time.

Humans are naturally antifragile to challenging problems – the more of them they experience, the better they get at solving them.  The only way to develop the ability to handle stressful situations is to experience a lot of stressful situations.  The only way to develop students’ mental strength, mental stamina, determination, and the ability to think independently is for them to struggle with challenging problems that require new, creative solutions.

By not tackling challenging problems during their formative years, students become fragile to challenging problems and stressful situations.  When confronted with a problem for which they don’t have a rule to follow to get the answer, they are nonplussed.  They can’t move forward without being told what to do.

What makes this iatrogenesis so tragic is that many students could have developed into true intellectuals with mental strength, mental stamina, grit, and the ability to think for themselves if they were required to tackle challenging problems as part of their formal education. 

Today’s employers have no interest whatsoever in a graduate that is fragile to challenging problems or a stressful situation.

A university that makes it a priority to avoiding putting the students under any stress, will prevent them from developing the many of the skills they need to become contributing members of society.