13.11.12

THE COLLAPSE OF HIGHER EDUCATION

Rutgers sociology professor Jackson Toby, whose works we have encountered previously, comes out of retirement to teach a seminar course only to discover what his previous testing methods hath wrought.
As a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, I taught large lecture courses for years, basing grades on multiple-choice tests. So only after retiring, and offering to teach a small seminar for free, did I discover something important about student writing: it was awful.The short weekly papers turned in by my seminar students showed overwhelming shortcomings in the structure and expression of basic ideas, plus a Niagara of errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Perhaps a third of the students averaged five to ten errors per page. They had computers equipped with spell-check, but that function couldn't prevent wrong word usage. Many couldn't keep straight when to use "there," rather than "their" or "they're," "threw" instead of "through," "sight" instead of "site," "aloud" instead of "allowed," "Ivy" instead of IV (intravenous), and "stranglers" instead of "stragglers."
It's possible, as he goes on to argue, that these students were not properly prepared beginning with elementary school.

His essay does not contemplate the possible deleterious effect of fill-in-the-circles tests as a productivity enhancer.  What the university does not emphasize does not get developed.  The proliferation of high-stakes fill-in-the-circles tests commencing as early as the third grade serves to further de-emphasize proper writing.  It comes as no surprise that the kids might think that their text-message argot is proper writing.
Some students disregarded spell-check warnings and used the misspelled words anyway, probably because spelling correctly took too much time, and they were not ashamed to let wrong spellings go.  The underlying problem I believe, is that a lot of students did little, if any, reading outside of course requirements, emails, and social media communications.   And since language is a crucial tool for thinking, they tended to be sloppy thinkers.  My students in the spring of 2003, were majoring in sociology or psychology; some were planning to become teachers.  The economy in 2003 was still quite good, so they probably got jobs despite their spelling, grammatical, and punctuation deficiencies and began paying off their student loans.  Then the economy worsened, so employers could afford to be more choosy.
Thus comes the reckoning.
Typical college dropouts leave college because they are bored trying to learn things they cannot understand or don't want to understand.  Like some of the students in my seminar, attending college won't help them read or write better and thereby make them more employable. Certain problems they faced in earlier educational settings -- such as a lack of family encouragement or ineffective instruction -- are insurmountable.

In some cases, however, their deficiencies were self-inflicted.  They did not pay enough attention in classes; they sometimes cut classes.  Their most important misstep was that they probably did not read books outside of school unless they were required to read them for school assignments -- and often not then.  Instead, they watched TV programs, played sports or computer games and socialized with friends. It is unlikely for such students to profit intellectually from going to college.  Remediating deficiencies in college is enormously difficult. It requires a commitment from underprepared students for self-improvement that most are unwilling to make.

Contrary to the mantra that everyone should go to college and that the main obstacle is inadequate financial support from governments, students have to be fairly well prepared for higher education by the time they arrive on the college campus.  Such preparation must begin much earlier in students' lives, including convincing them that education has to be taken seriously if they aspire to interesting, well-paid jobs.  Parents are more effective than teachers at instilling this message.  Unfortunately, not all parents have their children's education at the top of their agendas, especially parents with meager educations or serious personal problems.  Poverty alone does not prevent parents from promoting high educational aspirations in their children.
No, it's not poverty alone. The bubble in which more affluent children grow up is not necessarily an environment conducive to developing high educational aspirations.

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