October 30, 2011
Of all the things I have learned over the years as a college professor, one of the most dispiriting is that many of the students in my classes simply don't belong there. Maybe ten percent, maybe thirty percent or more in some cases, they either lack an adequate preparation in terms of core knowledge (especially history), writing ability, or both. A great number of students lack the intellectual curiousity which is essential for anyone who is going to tackle a thick book and make some sense out of it. What is wrong? Is America getting dumber?
Not at all. The basic problem, as many academic professionals know but rarely admit, is that admissions standards have steadily fallen because of pressure from government policy makers to give all young people a second chance at attaining the American Dream. In the latter part of the 20th Century, that became intertwined with the goal of a college degree, especially as the manufacturing sector went into decline and everybody started talking about our transition to being a "service economy." A few months ago there was a provocative article in The Atlantic Monthly, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" by "Professor X," whose career situation resembles mine in some ways. Even though it is contrary to his own interests, he asserts that the widespread tacit assumption that almost everyone ought to pursue a university education is "a destructive myth." See theatlantic.com, brought to my attention by a Facebook friend. This passage is especially painful to read:
No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass. The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces--social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students--that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty. No one has drawn up the flowchart and seen that, although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment.
In a society in which young people's self-esteem is carefully nurtured and cultivated, getting a below-average grade can be emotionally devastating. In the real world, unfortunately, about half the people are below average, by definition! (Except in Garrison Keillor's "Lake Woebegon," that is.) On the other hand, I have learned that community colleges are not just a repository for mediocre students, as many people seem to think. Some students are probably wasting their time there, perhaps a higher proportion than in most four-year colleges. But there are a lot of very intelligent, very curious students in my classes who have a variety of reasons for going the community college route -- most often, the fact that they need to hold down a job to pay the bills and just aren't ready to go to school full time. Overall, community college students tend to be more mature and world-wise than students in most colleges and universities.
On a related note, the National Inflation Association (!?) "believes that the United States has a college education bubble that is set to burst beginning in mid-2011." (The article came out in January. That organization's stated mission of "preparing Americans for hyperinflation" suggests that they are perhaps just a bit on the alarmist side.) In other words, first it was the savings & loan industry that crashed and burned after the speculative bubble burst, then it was the high-flying Internet companies that got caught up in the "dot com frenzy," then it was the home mortgage industry, which thrived on public subsidies which drove housing prices far above the equilibrium level, and now it is college itself.
So what are the reasons for which our system of higher education has gotten so badly out of whack? That will be the subject of a future blog post.
After church today, where I was taking photos for the special Harvest Day celebration (see emmanuelstaunton.org), I was driving past Mary Baldwin College, and couldn't resist the opportunity to take a few photos. With the crystal clear blue skies, the conditions were just perfect for the camera. See the photo below, and a few others, at the new Autumn 2011 Photo Gallery.