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Is college for everyone?

As essay by Professor X in the June 2008 Atlantic (“In the Basement of the Ivory Tower”) tells the story of higher education from the perspective of an adjunct instructor of English, and in classic The Emperor Has No Clothes mode, she or he is here to here to say that the American university system is failing:

“There seems, as is often the case in colleges, to be a huge gulf between academic and reality.  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 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 student, must ink the F on that first writing assignment.”

The anonymous pose adopted by the writer both establishes his or her credentials as a whistle blower but is probably also a survival tactic, for if the name of the writer were to circulate the essay would be seen as an act of betrayal:  a renunciation of the democratic ideals of public education, an abandonment of those hard working students who have a dream and are there to gut out the introductory literature courses come hell or high water, and so on.  For the instructor’s colleagues the essay would also signify a betrayal, since confessions of these sort (and they are pretty infrequent in my experience although frustration lurks close to the surface in many more cases) are too easy to read as s/he should not be teaching, for look, here we have evidence of irreparable burnout or failure in the classroom or an incapacity to adapt to a new generation or a refusal to work hard enough or…

Attaching a name to the essay would therefore have robbed it totally of its persuasive force.

My point isn’t to launch into a critique of college students.  I love teaching, and I’m not on the same community college front lines being described by Professor X.  The dynamics of the college classroom are, even when recognizable on his or her terms, much more complex at a comprehensive research university where the students tend to be better prepared (though in many respects still under-prepared) and more skilled at juggling all the activities of their busy lives.  It is true that more students than should see the university experience as wholly vocationally preparatory, their interests gravitating more directly to the practical than the liberal arts.  It is also dismaying to see the insidious effects of the No Child Left Behind culture, which has only recently hit universities with full force, including the “teaching to the test” values in which so many bright students have been forcibly inculcated.  Gerald Graff has diagnosed the broader problem as the challenge posed by a culture that demands college education as an entry credential but that has failed to prepare students with the skills they need to succeed there; Graff says this generation is largely Clueless in Academe.  Bill Readings has famously argued that all this (and particularly the sometimes absurd public declarations of a commitment to excellence) has produced a university in ruins.

All this complicates how American culture navigates the mythologies of higher education.  We are torn between the mixed allure of a college degree earned an ivy-covered campus where students argue the Great Questions of Human Existence and the reality that most campuses are not deeply educating their students in such matters (courses in philosophy and literature and history tend to be one-shot detours on the faster interstate to management or criminal justice classes), between the idealized Renaissance Woman or Man and the reality, which is that many students will not develop an interest in the wider traditions of learning no matter how passionate their teachers, and even if they do, will often lack the skills necessary to succeed on the (now mythical) four year timetable of higher educational achievement.

These realizations need not lead one to despair:  after all, universities have long been attentive (and rightly so) to preparing their students for the world of work, and this is not the first generation to wonder at the usefulness of an education in the classics.  And even if students do not understand the value of a generalist liberal arts education they can still benefit from one.  The classes that seemed like a waste of time last year may be fondly remembered when the allures of the corporate suite fade.  A colleague of mine sees no necessary difficulty since, in his view, even the most vocationally motivated students have, down deep, some sense that it wouldn’t be college without at some point engaging Nietzsche or Arendt or Wagner or Pisan, and I think his point is a reasonable one.

Georgia State University held its spring commencement yesterday, and I was among the several hundred faculty who participated.  I love university graduation ceremonies because they symbolize the best of higher education:  celebrations of scholarly accomplishment, opportunities to honor families who have struggled to nurture students through difficult degree programs, occasions for eloquence about the shared purposes of university life.  Because of this, nothing offends me more than when a speaker ends up (surely inadvertently) disparaging intellectual life as a way of encouraging the middle of the road graduating students in the audience.  Several years ago a corporate type keynoted by orating at some length on his own failures in the classroom, which he proudly dismissed by accentuating the importance of the College of Hard Knocks or some such autobiographical rationalization:  It’s not your grades, it’s your passion.  It’s not your intelligence, it’s your integrity.  For me these moments are blasphemy, like being in a church and inviting a testimony where the speaker gives all the credit to the lessons he learned at his weekly poker games.

Yesterday’s speaker, Ambassador Andrew Young, was better than that, and by the generic expectations of commencement addresses he did pretty well.  Young was rightly well received and was gracious in his comments.  I admit it saddened me that his main point, which was to celebrate the businessman getting the day’s honorary degree, took him far afield from the topic of college education (it didn’t help that the honorary degree recipient went to school somewhere else), which meant the speech was more a tribute to personal vision and perseverance than the benefits of education.  Young talked about the importance of teachers, which was nice.  But, and I have to confess this says more about my hobby horse than the quality of his overall address, it felt like a knife in the heart when Young joked that even the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., had gotten a “C” in preaching.  The implication seemed to be who are those pointy heads professors, and what do they think they know when they can’t even recognize brilliance in their midst? And, don’t let any foolish book learning get in the way of your dream.  It’s pretty hard to resist the lure of the thought when it connects to the most eloquently articulated Dream of the past century.

But the sentiment bothers me.  Is it so outside the bounds of possibility that as a young minister-in-formation King might have actually well earned that C?  Or, more to the point, why not cite King as an example of the central significance of intellectual formation?  Why not call attention to the fact that his intellectual skills enabled him to start college three years earlier than normal, or to the fact that he earned a doctorate in theology (and twenty more honorary degrees), or most of all to the fact that his commitment to nonviolence continues to inspire as much because of its intellectual sophistication and coherence and its connections to other international traditions of learning as the passion with which this worldview was articulated?

But I understand why the joke has resonance – both why Ambassador Young, who is deeply committed to the importance of education, told it, and why his audience laughed – in a culture where university learning is both celebrated and disparaged, where, sadly, some students will graduate exuberant and proud but still fail to see the relevance of World History or Survey of British Literature or Rhetorical Theory and some of their teachers will quietly question whether what they did in those seminars finally mattered.


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