22.5.08

TEMPERING PRINCIPLE WITH PRACTICALITY. The Atlantic Monthly lament by an anonymous writing professor that University Diaries Extension brought to my attention has come to the attention of a number of commentators, most of whom confirm that which they expected to see. We'll start with George Leef at Phi Beta Cons, who sees the social waste of credentialitis.

The author teaches evening English classes at one of those colleges that will enroll anyone with some money. He feels lousy about having to give bad grades to pathetic students who just don't have the capacity to write a coherent sentence.

What jumps out are the reasons why most of his students are in school. It is not because they have any yearning for knowledge. They just want to "get ahead" and the system they live in places undue faith in college credentials as indicators of worth. The author (who remains anonymous), says, "I teach young men who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work."

In other words, the students are there because of our credentialitis.

Here's an anomaly for economics researchers: if the credential is at best a noisy signal of the underlying human capital, why does it hold any value?

Rod Dreher is less charitable.

What drives this essay emotionally is not disdain for and disgust with dim-bulb students. X says he really identifies with his students and their struggles in life, and wants to help them along. "I could not be aloof even if I wanted to be," he writes. But he can't compromise academic standards out of pity or solidarity.

What it all boils down to, he says, is that a cruel hoax is being played on these students. "America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting someone's options," he writes. And he sympathizes with this ideal -- but he's the one who has to see how little it has to do with reality. His students aren't college material. They don't read (some of them can't really read). They don't share even the rudiments of a common intellectual culture on which to build. He says he tries to explain the basics of narrative to them in terms of movies, but they haven't all seen the same movies. They are more or less well-mannered, hard-working barbarians. The only thing they all share is a sense that they are good people for being in college, and that they can be anything they want to be.

Prof. X says the whole system, premised on a false egalitarianism, is to blame here. One key question this excellent essay raises by implication is this: if quite a lot of Americans are incapable of doing college work, what does that do to the Thomas Friedmanesque understanding that in order to compete in a flattened, globalized world, US laborers are simply going to have to get retrained and better educated? What if there are natural limits to their ability to expand their cognitive skills? What then?

I mean, look, what if things were flipped, and the Friedmans of the world were telling the "knowledge workers," for lack of a better term, that staying competitive in this globalizing world economy meant having a stronger back. Ergo, nerdling, you're just going to have to start spending a lot more time at the gym to develop a longshoreman's body, or get left behind. We'd laugh at this, because we have no problem grasping that nature has not endowed all of us equally well in terms of physical strength and capabilities. The nerdling would be able to improve his strength to a certain degree, but to tell him his physical limits are defined only by his desires and will to succeed is to play a cruel hoax on him.

On the other hand, the nerdling could invent the shipping container or the mechanical stoker. The voicemail systems and what will evolve from them are not yet at the stage where they will threaten the livelihoods of the least able symbolic analysts. That, too, will come.

Are we not doing that with some of the people who are in college now? And furthermore, aren't we shortchanging them when we fail to make allowances for them in the kind of economy we're building? A public schoolteacher friend back in the 1990s railed against free trade agreements because she said these agreements did not consider the interests of US workers who made their living with their hands and backs. It's very easy, it seems to me, for the university-educated meritocratic elite to assume that an economic order in which symbolic analysts are the paradigmatic workers to construct in total innocence a "rational" system that favors their interests, at the expense of manual laborers who are by no means dumb, but whose intelligence is not geared toward academic achievement. Indeed, is that not what we have done?

The supposition that makes that kind of economic order seem just is the belief that cognition, and improving cognitive skills, is simply a matter of running people through a diploma mill -- and the conviction that anybody who wants to succeed in school badly enough can. Again, this is what you get when those who have been genetically blessed with cognitive capability -- intelligence, in other words -- don't grasp how unearned their advantages are. You get what Gov. Ann Richards, I think it was, said of George H.W. Bush: "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." [Correction: It was Jim Hightower. Thanks, Victor Morton!]

Understand I'm not making excuses for mediocrity. Plainly there are people who are capable of succeeding in the classroom, but who don't because they lack focus, self-discipline or initiative. What I'm talking about is the taboo we have against admitting that some people are smarter than others, and the contemporary American disdain for the dignity of manual labor, and the gnostic egalitarianism of US culture, which holds that we create our own realities by force of will.

The problem the anonymous professor is dealing with is somewhat different. His essay makes no suggestion that the health workers or first responders are in any way lacking those skills. They might understandably ask whether creative writing or teasing out hidden meanings will enable them to work better with patients or drunk drivers. (Well they might, but a newly-minted freeway flyer might not yet understand it.) "Dignity of manual labor," incidentally, isn't what it used to be. It takes a symbolic analyst to lay track these days.

I reached Mr Dreher's post from a reference by In Medias Res (a better writer than I might have put that more wittily) who is in the middle of some broader strategic thinking.
There was a time when I struggled with this tangle of issues a fair amount--mostly, it was back when I was teacher at Arkansas State University, trying to figure out what I, the Highly Trained Political Theorist Only a Couple of Years Out of Grad School, had to offer the good students of northeast Arkansas, some of whom wanted to get out and go on to other things, but most of whom wanted a BA (so they could get the sort of work for which these days such is a requirement), and perhaps to pick up a little odd learning along the way. I tried to figure out what my own class perspective was on all this, and ultimately I had to kind of shrug my shoulders, acknowledge my own elitism and my own contribution to an educational system that is so thoroughly a product of a globalized and technology-amplified (not to mention cheap-oil-fueled) mindset that I might as well just find a niche where I could feed my family and continue to teach in the best way I could, balancing (and perhaps even occasionally combining) the classical aspirations for liberal learning or "Humanit├Ąt" which I still held (and still hold today) on to on the one hand, and the populist needs of the people I increasingly felt my greatest allegiance to on the other. I wrote: "It's not easy being an academic, especially when it seems that the internal contradictions of the whole system--and, more especially, its complicated and sometimes near-absurd relationship to the socio-economic world of America today, where an education in the elite liberal arts or research-university sense is often irrelevant to the sort of jobs most people are able to obtain and sort of schooling options available to most of their children--are promising an inevitable and total collapse."
The passage appears to be an extended reaction to this observation from 11-D.
These unprepared students are the product of a shoddy public education system. Community colleges are picking up the pieces for that failure. And only the invisible adjuncts know the truth.
What the Atlantic columnist and the Arkansas State professor and I and a good number of other faculty members, visible or invisible, at the land-grants and mid-majors and converted normal schools and community colleges grapple with is on the one hand serving the place-bound yet ambitious student without discouraging the ambitious striver while on the other hand not enabling the time-server or the corner cutter. The hardest part of my job at Wayne State was attempting to manage that juggling act for 20 hours a week while keeping my research tools sharp enough to manage single-authored articles in top journals the other 40 plus hours. That the Detroit school system was melting down even then was part of my problem, but not the only part. Sherman Dorn reminds readers of those other parts.
And for the larger argument of the article, I will just advise that everyone read Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary, which addresses many of the same issues in much more depth and with far more compassion.
That there are people attempting to better their lives against long odds nobody gainsays. That striking the right balance between compassion and discipline is difficult is captured in an anonymous missive to Rate Your Students.
What's sad is that the majority of students who have perfected game-running and scams and chronic lying have made us 'toughen up' on the rest.
I don't know if it's the party animals wrecking it for the strivers in difficult situations, or excessive sympathy for people in difficult situations that enables the party animals. Better socialization to proper life-management skills in the elementary and secondary schools would help.

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