7.5.07

ON THE MAIN LINE OF MIDDLE AMERICA.

Welcome, Joanne Jacobs's readers. A few other posts that stress the importance of socializing youngsters into the ways of the middle class have come to my attention. Start with King Banaian at SCSU Scholars.
So how do you fix that? One observation from Littlest, also over the weekend: We went to church Sunday; we are still deciding between two churches to replace the one we closed last November. Yesterday's was the one not affiliated with her school. It has a large preschool and yesterday was preschool Sunday, so all the kids were there, had decorated the sanctuary and the vestments worn by the pastors. As we're leaving I ask her how she liked the service. "I don't like the children's handprints on the pastors' robes." Why? "That's not respectful or dignified."

I whistled lowly, and we hurriedly left the church.

The basis for teaching the courtesies is there. You just have to put the little extra effort in now.
That's a brief elaboration of a longer argument by Thomas H. Benton.
I think it is a serious problem that many public schools -- and private ones -- have just about given up teaching many of the academic skills that were once considered basic for every high-school graduate, not just the ones going to college. But what really troubles me is that schools -- no doubt, mirroring the broader culture -- have given up cultivating the ordinary courtesies that enable people to get along without friction and violence.

Instead, I see among my students a dispiriting amount of cynicism about teachers and contempt for learning except as a hurdle over which one must jump on the road to some lucrative career. Some students imagine they will advance on the basis of having a degree, even if their words and manners indicate that they are unsuitable for any kind of job that involves dealing with people. They seem completely unaware that knowing how to behave will have a serious impact on their future prospects.

This is not about the simple rules governing which fork one should use but about norms of behavior about which nearly everyone used to agree and which seem to have vanished from student culture.

There are the students who refuse to address us appropriately; who make border-line insulting remarks in class when called upon (enough to irritate but not enough to require immediate action); who arrive late and slam the door behind them; who yawn continually and never cover their mouths; who neglect to bring books, paper, or even something with which to write; who send demanding e-mail messages without a respectful salutation; who make appointments and never show up (after you just drove 20 miles and put your kids in daycare to make the meeting).

I don't understand students who are so self-absorbed that they don't think their professors' opinion of them (and, hence, their grades) will be affected by those kinds of behaviors, or by remarks like, "I'm only taking this class because I am required to." One would think that the dimmest of them would at least be bright enough to pretend to be a good student.
To some extent, he's noting the rotten fruit of access-assessment-remediation-retention, but he's onto something bigger. Start with a paragraph that leads to the "broken windows" hypothesis of crime proliferation.
In classrooms where the professor is not secure in his or her authority, all around the serious students are others treating the place like a cafeteria: eating and crinkling wrappers (and even belching audibly, convinced that is funny). Some students put their feet up on the chairs and desks, as if they were lounging in a dorm room, even as muddy slush dislodges from their boots. Others come to class dressed in a slovenly or indiscreet manner. They wear hats to conceal that they have not washed that day. In larger lectures, you might see students playing video games or checking e-mail on their laptop computers, or sending messages on cell phones.
In railroading, one reason the assistant trainmaster is tough on relatively minor rules violations is to inculcate the attitude that the consequences for a major rule violation will be real and meaningful. I have read some advice books for new professors (most of them now out-of-print) that suggest a similar approach. It's relatively easy to put a paragraph in the course outline about the electronic devices and the hats. There's something to be said for cultivating a bit of social distance as well. Ultimately, though, Professor Benton gets back to inculcating the values of the middle class.
For the most part, colleges are middle-class institutions. As such they are generally spared the more extreme manifestations of societal breakdown. Serious moral and criminal transgressions are rare -- at least where I teach -- and I sense that some of my students -- the skeptical ones who shun eye contact -- are not "beyond redemption." Rather, they are veterans of schools where petty crime, harassment, and violence are common, and almost nothing is done to prevent those ills by adults who look the other way.
He'd like the adults in charge of the common schools to take charge, but he'd also like the professoriate to reclaim those middle-class habits.
Unfortunately, the problems of students in elementary and secondary schools -- mirroring the problems of the larger culture -- are beyond the immediate control of college faculty members. But, in the last few years, I have become convinced that professors -- particularly the ones with tenure -- need to find ways to give remedial attention to student behavior, just as they have long done for students who cannot read or write well enough to succeed at college.

We must stop pretending that we are not seeing what is in front of us every day. We must stop shrugging our shoulders at minor discourtesies before they metastasize into a culture of vulgarity, violence, and general mayhem. In the process, maybe we can win back the trust of serious students and provide a safe learning environment where they can express their enthusiasm for learning without making themselves targets for abuse.
To some extent, a U.S. News article (also via Joanne Jacobs) calls for the same socialization.
Merrier Jackson was the first new hire. A tall woman with neatly polished fingernails and carefully cropped black hair, Jackson seems born for the job.

After attending the University of South Alabama in Mobile on a basketball scholarship, she'd built a 10-year career in human resources, working for a healthcare nonprofit, a Target store, and the Internal Revenue Service. She has a businesswoman's approach, but her bottom line is not a dollar value. "I'm a servant here," she says.

In addition to improving the school's facilities, Jackson wants to transform her students' expectations about the types of jobs they can pursue. Earlier this year, when she saw a boy marching quietly in line behind his classmates, perfectly in order except for a rogue corner of his polo shirt, she excused herself from a conversation with visitors to pull him aside.

"I've always thought of you as a little attorney," she said, peering way down into the boy's face, "but I don't know if I would trust my freedoms or my rights on someone whose shirt is untucked." Her message of aspiration is literally plastered on Brazier's walls, where students' handprints sit beneath the title "When I Grow Up These Hands Will Become." Entries include teacher, doctor, and nurse (as well as queen).

But because Jackson (and those Mobile businessmen) can never know for sure what the little hands will become, she obsesses over the next best stand-in: test scores. Because the two most important subjects-the ones that determine whether Brazier meets federal adequate yearly progress standards-are reading and math, Jackson overhauled her curriculum around them, shoving science and social studies into one period to allow 2 ½ hours each day for reading drills and 1 ½ for math. Each week, students take an assessment test in each subject to track their progress.
The setting is the Mobile, Alabama common schools, and the problem is workforce development. But a big part of success in commerce is knowing the ways of the bourgeoisie.

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