The local paper runs a sort of blog on its web site that features all sorts of writers. This morning there’s a short and sensible article written by a high school junior about the college application process that few would find hard to argue with. About five comments down, though, we have this:
As a college professor I can tell you that MOST student in Indiana should go to junior college. They can not progress beyond the 2 year level. They can’t write. They know virtually no math. They can not formulate an argument. They are ill read. They do not know what they want except a 40K job at which they will presumably play euchre all the time. Most students should forget a 4 year education and start at Ivy Tech and ONLY IF THEY DO VERY WELL–CONTINUE.
I find it hard to know what to think about comments like this. Yes, I agree, the average abilities of college freshmen when it comes to math and writing are way below what I would expect from a decent high school education, and it creates big problems in the college classroom where a certain amount of prerequisite knowledge is expected — and where there are students who really are prepared and wanting to learn, but bored by the pace we must take in order to try to get the others up to speed. Yes, they have a hard time thinking logically. Yes, they probably haven’t read widely. Yes, their sights tend to be set more on lifelong stability. And I’ll even agree that a good percentage of these students probably should be in a different place and would be better served somewhere else.
But there is something in the tone of this remark that chafes. I’ve seen the same tone elsewhere in the edu-blogosphere — it seems to show up much more frequently toward the end of the semester, unsurprisingly — and I catch it in myself. I think it’s the fact that we look at the problems and needs of college students and conflate them with the students themselves. Look at the use of the word THEY in that comment. THEY can’t do this; THEY are really bad at that. It’s so easy to turn these frustrating deficiencies into personal characteristics or social boundary markers — to take the very real problem of lack of college preparation and turn it into an us-versus-THEM scenario.
It’s one thing to be clear-eyed about the challenges facing college teaching that stem from poor pre-college preparation. Those deficiencies are real and there is no getting around the fact; and it will take decades to reverse the cultural decline that has led to this situation, if in fact it can be reversed at all. Let’s all of us profs be real about that.
But it’s entirely another to turn this situation into an occasion for antagonism and defeatism — to turn our students into lay figures who symbolize the cultural and educational decline that has let them down. It’s true that those students’ choices and values (or lack thereof) play a large role in whether they end up prepared for college and/or working hard in college. The students must choose excellence and education over the culturally easier choices like entertainment and indulgence. But I don’t want to forget that I play a role in making the former choices more appealing than the latter. A large part of my job consists not so much in exposing students to content knowledge, but training the students’ tastes to be more inclined towards beauty, curiosity, and wonder — and the resulting educational excellence that those attitudes engender — and less towards mindless fun and satisfaction of physical impulses. They must choose; but WE must make the choices we want appealing.
I’ll be reminding myself of that in 5 minutes when I go to teach my liberal arts math class… and over the next three weeks as the semester ends. And probably for the rest of my career!