Monday, May 19, 2008

Organized ignorance

The futility of "educating" stupid people:
I work part-time in the evenings as an adjunct instructor of English. I teach two courses, Introduction to College Writing (English 101) and Introduction to College Literature (English 102), at a small private college and at a community college. . . .
My students take English 101 and English 102 not because they want to but because they must. Both colleges I teach at require that all students, no matter what their majors or career objectives, pass these two courses. For many of my students, this is difficult. . . .
A few weeks into the semester, the students must start actually writing papers, and I must start grading them. . . .
Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.
Oh, could I ever write a book on this topic. (Maybe Obama's agent can get me a contract.) This teacher reiterates an argument I've been making for at least 20 years: Americans foolishly confuse (a) attendance at school with (b) education. My six kids have been homeschooled -- attending church schools once they reach high-school age -- and there can be no more enlightening opportunity to observe the difference between learning and schooling.

Americans also confuse certification with accomplishment. We're like the Scarecrow, thinking we'll automatically become smart as soon the Wizard of Oz gives us a diploma for our Doctor of Thinkology. Yet there are people with advanced degrees in English, communications or journalism from first-class institutions who are lousy writers and can't make a living as working journalists. "Those who can, do ..." etc.

Over the years, I've worked with enough newsroom interns and rookie reporters to realize that our colleges and universities are in many cases handing out degrees to people who are half-educated, and in other cases graduating people who have little aptitude for the profession for which their diploma supposedly qualifies them. If this is true in journalism, I'm sure it's true in many other fields.

American youth are repeatedly told that higher education is a ticket to success, but this involves a correlation/causation relationship that's hard for some people to undertand. Yes, very smart people tend to be successful, and more very smart people go to college nowadays. But this doesn't mean that sending a moron to college will make him a more successful moron.

I attended a second-tier state university in Alabama. My dad had graduated from the flagship University of Alabama, but I was a lazy teenager more interested in rock 'n' roll than algebra, so I enrolled at Jacksonville (Ala.) State University in 1977.

At that time, Jax State had an open admissions policy, operating on what they called the "right to fail" principle. If you had a high school diploma and tuition money, you could sign up and take your chances, but if you flunked out, that was your own fault. Reading and writing was never my problem, and I actually made the Dean's List a few times, although I also flunked a few classes because I spent too much time partying.

Yet among my classmates were lots of what you'd call "earnest strivers." They showed up for class and worked hard at the assignments but -- bless their hearts -- they just weren't very smart. Or at least not "book smart." Smart enough to graduate from high school with a B average, but not adept at abstraction, reading comprehension or written composition.

Nor, I should say, did such of my fellow students demonstrate any keen interest in what you'd call "the life of the mind." Despite being a high-school slacker, I'd grown up sort of idealizing college life: Young men of learning, sitting around the dorm discussing politics, literature, history, psychology and so forth.

Instead, I found myself surrounded by a lot of kids who'd been jocks or cheerleaders in high school, and who evidently thought of college as a continuation of their hometown social scene, parties and "popularity," etc. They weren't there to discuss Descartes and Kant or the Peloponnesian War. They were there to get a degree in business management so they could get a suit-and-tie job, or to get a degree in secondary education and become basketball coaches.

Many of those kids flunked out; for some reason, the sophomore year was when the scythe really swept through. Yet about half of those who enrolled as freshmen eventually got degrees, though not without a lot of griping about the curriculum requirements.

The administration of JSU had delightfully quaint notions about liberal education. So you'd occasionally find yourself sitting in a psychology, political science or art history course with these future textile-mill managers and high-school coaches. And they'd whine relentlessly about it: "Why do I have to study this crap? I'm never going to need to know this stuff in The Real World."

Looking back, I shudder to think how many people with that attitude actually became teachers. I suppose the world is little harmed by business managers who are uncultured and ill-educated, but the thought of anti-intellectual teachers is profoundly disturbing. And so the cycle perpetuates itself, you see? Thirty years since I was a college freshman, and today's freshmen are even less prepared to do college-level coursework than were my classmates.

The article in The Atlantic Monthly is more interesting than my ramblings, so please, read the whole thing.

The Death of Allusion: On the odd chance anyone's actually still reading, let me call to your attention a few passages in this article:

Our dialogue had turned oblique, as though we now inhabited a Pinter play. . . .

If colleges could find a way to mount a third, graveyard shift, as Henry Ford's Willow Run did at the height of the Second World War, I believe that they would. . . .

Will having read Invisible Man make a police officer less likely to indulge in racial profiling? . . .

I roam the halls of academe like a modern Coriolanus bearing sword and grade book, "a thing of blood, whose every motion / Was timed with dying cries."

These sorts of allusions -- to drama, to history, to Ralph Ellison and Shakespeare -- become increasingly impossible as our culture decays. There was a time, and not that long ago really, when a college graduate was expected to have at least a passing acquaintance with the canon of Western civilization.

Maybe you never actually read Aristotle or Locke or Dickens, maybe you'd never seen "Othello" or a Wagnerian opera, and maybe you couldn't give a tactical account of Austerlitz. But somewhere along the way, you'd picked up a kind of recognition vocabulary, so that you at least knew that Aristotle was a Greek philosopher, that Othello was a jealous Moor, and that Austerlitz was a battle won by Napoleon.

Literature, philosophy, history, art, music, drama, religion -- what else do we mean when we say "culture"? If you don't know this stuff, you're not a cultured person, and there was a time when colleges cared enough about their reputations that they more or less insisted that you had to be a cultured person in order to get a diploma.

Grant that The Atlantic Monthly is a high-toned publication. Yet should it be the case -- as it surely is -- that you could hand that article to the average American with a college degree and he wouldn't be able to make heads or tails of the literary or historical allusions?

Seriously, what percentage of college graduates would know what I meant if I said that someone was "as proud as Coriolanus"? Or "as faithless as Iago"? Never mind alluding to Greek history, or throwing in a bit of Latin, French or German. Vermeer, Seurat, Degas? Hayden, Chopin, Strauss? Such names evoke nothing in the minds of a majority of current college graduates.

A dozen years ago, I came across Gen. Richard Taylor's memoir, Destruction and Reconstruction. Taylor was a thoroughly literate man, and his account of the war is studded with all manner of historical and literary allusions, often employed humorously. But if you don't know anything about, say, Greek mythology or the works of Sir Walter Scott, these allusions are meaningless and you can't get the jokes.

The decline of literacy and the loss of culture deprives us of a common ground of shared knowledge necessary to the effective use of allusion in writing. If there is no canon, no generally recognized body of learning with which all educated men should be familiar, our intellectual life becomes impoverished and shriveled.

This Atlantic article, with "Professor X" desperately trying to teach college students how to compose a cogent paragraph, is just the tip of a large and growing iceberg of ignorance in American society. Even those who manage to pass his introductory English courses -- that is to say, his "good" students -- are not likely ever to possess the cultural vocabulary required to catch the allusions in that article. These college-educated semi-literates are more and more common, and are emblematic of how our culture deteriorates by the gradual decline of standards.

1 comment:

  1. I can't speak for others; I went to college to avoid the draft and came away with two engineering degrees which have served me passably well. That said, I must say that I've noted that many allegedly educated people have all the depth of a sidewalk puddle. I known many, truly educated people and I've known many that their eduction is little more than a whitewash over profound ignorance. Too many of these people are in positions of power. The sad thing is they haven't a clue.

    Jerry in Detroit