Monday, May 12, 2008

"Higher Education's Cruelest Hoax"

In the June issue of Atlantic Monthly, there is an article entitled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” by Professor X. The contents of the article will come as no surprise to anyone who has taught English 101. There are some minor differences between Professor X’s experience and my own: He’s a professional adjunct, I was a TA. He works at a private college and a community college, I worked at two mid-sized public universities. He believes that it is his job to uphold academic standards and seems to be supported by his university’s administration in doing so, I have received mixed messages in that regard and have serious reservations as to what standards the curriculum of English 101 is meant to uphold. Beyond that, the points he makes are all things that have occurred to me or been made by my colleagues in the three years I’ve taught 101. Many students are not prepared to succeed in the strange mix of critical thinking, analysis, and blitzkrieg workload that we’re peddling. Our values as students and teachers of English are different from theirs. Students don’t necessarily come to college to become scholars. Most are just there to achieve a higher income bracket. Some are there to receive specialized training within a field. Very few will go on to post-graduate work.

Professor X corroborates something that has been bothering me for a long time, although the way he expresses it doesn’t sit well: that not all students are “fit” for college. He notes, “America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.” He goes on to position himself as a gatekeeper of sorts, crushing the dreams of those students who aren’t up to the challenge of college. What worries me is the assumption that “unfitness” is permanent, that it can’t be overcome, and that it is an inherent quality of the student. I don’t have any proof that this isn’t true. I haven’t seen any remarkable turnarounds to contradict it because I haven’t been teaching long enough. And maybe my resistance to the very notion of unfitness just proves that I buy into the American ideal that everyone should be given the chance to try. That’s not a bad ideal, frankly.

I think the problem enters when we encourage students to pursue a college education blindly and without thinking about their purpose in doing so. The problem is that we end up with students who don’t know what to do after high school and don’t know why they are sitting in our classrooms. Or we end up with returning students who assume that higher education is the cure-all for their life crises, their inabilities to reach the next tier of their career field, their sense that something (they don’t know what) is missing in their lives. With only vague (or inaccurate) notions of what my class, or any class at the university, can and should do for them, students risk wasting significant amounts of time and money. It’s not rocket science—in almost any other endeavor where there is an exchange of money and time, we know why we’re doing it. We go to the gym because we want to lose weight, be fit, prepare for some other physical endeavor, meet other hardbodies, etc. We go to therapy because we are in psychological crisis. We start a hobby because we are interested. Often, the more specific our goal, the more successful we are with the endeavor. Unless the goal is absolutely unreasonable. My most successful students are very aware of why they have come to college and how it can prepare them for their careers. They see how the liberal arts education fits together and they tailor their required courses and electives to their needs, integrating the assignments into their academic interests. My least successful students are the ones who still don’t know what interests them. They are the deer caught in headlights, fearful and sticking to their instincts. They cling to what they already know and are uncomfortable stepping outside of their self-defined boundaries. And then there are the students who have glommed onto this “You can do anything you set your mind to” schtick. The students who struggle with basic algebra and can’t use a research database to save their lives but still believe that, somehow, it will all fall into place and they will become brain surgeons, rocket scientists, Fortune 500 executives and TV news anchors.

As a teacher, you’re supposed to be supportive of your students’ dreams. But you wonder when some responsible adult in these students’ lives is going to sit them down and give them the reality talk. You wonder what world they live in, that these dreams haven’t been dashed already. You wonder whether they might actually make it to their seemingly unattainable goals and wonder if you might’ve aimed higher yourself. And then you’re caught up in that American fantasy of achievement where we all challenge each other to do better and astronauts end up on the moon. THE MOON! And isn’t life amazing and aren’t we, each and every one of us, fantastic?!? And you stay in this la la land until the students turn in the next batch of papers and their gnarled prose shocks you back into reality. Harbingers of the apocalypse? Yes—we are all, each and every one of us, doomed.


Robb said...

Been tossing the idea around of starting a non-profit that works to provide information and funnels resources to high school students about how the for-profit higher education industry works, how students are 'served' through higher education, and what other alternatives there are out there. We should talk about this over next year, before C and I end up back out your way. I think pretty much anyone teaching a general education (read: gatekeeper) course can see how poorly served incoming students are by the resources they have at present.

Trina said...

I think that "alternatives" are key to this. Right now there don't seem to be many desirable alternatives with clear paths that are offered to high school students. A lot of the problem seems to stem from the stigma attached to "vocation" as opposed to "education". Yet, economically, many "alternatives" to higher education are more lucrative than the jobs that are available to new college graduates.

Indeed, we should talk.