College For Everyone: A Destructive Myth

A private school professor who is also an adjunct community college English instructor discusses the joys of teaching required composition courses to the latter.

Professor Grading Papers Illustration by Marcellus Hall 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.

In each of my courses, we discuss thesis statements and topic sentences, the need for precision in vocabulary, why economy of language is desirable, what constitutes a compelling subject. I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I’m sure my students do. I envision the lot of us driving home, solitary scholars in our cars, growing sadder by the mile.

[…]

How I envy professors in other disciplines! How appealing seems the straightforwardness of their task! These are the properties of a cell membrane, kid. Memorize ’em, and be ready to spit ’em back at me. The biology teacher also enjoys the psychic ease of grading multiple-choice tests. Answers are right or wrong. The grades cannot be questioned. Quantifying the value of a piece of writing, however, is intensely subjective, and English teachers are burdened with discretion. (My students seem to believe that my discretion is limitless. Some of them come to me at the conclusion of a course and matter-of-factly ask that I change a failing grade because they need to graduate this semester or because they worked really hard in the class or because they need to pass in order to receive tuition reimbursement from their employer.)

[…]

America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.

Things aren’t much better, I’m afraid, at most open-admission state universities. The vast majority of 18-year-olds aren’t ready for college right out of high school and most of them never will be. Wishing it were otherwise won’t make it so.

via Glenn Reynolds

FILED UNDER: Education, General, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    It seems to me there’s a trilemma. If the key to our country’s economic future is a better educated citizenry, then universal higher education would appear to be mandatory. Vocational training? What jobs are we producing that don’t require basic literacy and mathematics? Readin’, writin’, ‘rithmatic. Many jobs of that sort can be performed just as well in China as they can here and at a substantially lower cost.

    Alternatively, we could accept a stratified society: the educable and the ineducable. The only way I can imagine that being tolerable in anything that resembles a democracy is if the “social safety net” becomes much, much bigger.

    The third alternative is an oligarchy. From the grimness of the alternatives I think we’re likely to see an even greater push for universal higher education. College profs had better get used to it.




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  2. Elly says:

    I worked at a State University for years and became so frustrated at the students who were there for 3 hots and a cot ALL AT GOVERNMENT EXPENSE. They would repeat remedial classes over and over (rarely attending) and party the rest of the time.
    Use my money to send them to plumbing school, auto mechanic school, welding school but don’t try to make them into scholars. Do you know what a welder makes an hour!!??

    Some people just aren’t college material and a seat at a University is a terrible thing to waste!




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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Let me say it another way: the complaint is ill-founded. I(t should be about automatic promotion rather than universal higher education.

    Somebody has to be the one to say “you don’t know enough to go to the next level” and for obvious reasons nobody want to be that person.

    Don’t want to make the poor primary school teachers shoulder the responsibility? Fob it off on middle school, high school, college, grad school. Then wonder why people with college educations can’t find jobs. Or American companies don’t have people with the skills that are needed.




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  4. Anon says:

    The other question is how much of this is the result of actual lack of intelligence, and how much is just lack of will.




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  5. Michael says:

    How I envy professors in other disciplines! How appealing seems the straightforwardness of their task! These are the properties of a cell membrane, kid. Memorize ’em, and be ready to spit ’em back at me. The biology teacher also enjoys the psychic ease of grading multiple-choice tests. Answers are right or wrong.

    Sounds to me like a teacher who doesn’t actually want to be teaching. I can only imagine the quality of their instruction, if this is how they approach it. Maybe some of those students just need a better teacher.

    What jobs are we producing that don’t require basic literacy and mathematics?

    Basic literacy doesn’t necessarily require being able to craft well-structured essays. I haven’t written a thesis statement to topic sentence since Comp 101, so what did it do to prepare me for the world? Seems like this teacher is trying to teach “Essay Construction”, instead of teaching these kids how to write.




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  6. James Joyner says:

    Basic literacy doesn’t necessarily require being able to craft well-structured essays. I haven’t written a thesis statement to topic sentence since Comp 101, so what did it do to prepare me for the world?

    The first sentence of the above quoted paragraph negates the second.




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  7. Michael says:

    The first sentence of the above quoted paragraph negates the second.

    I doubt any of my English teachers would have been quite so generous. Certainly that sentence would have been marked down had I used it in any submitted paper.




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  8. James Joyner says:

    Certainly that sentence would have been marked down had I used it in any submitted paper.

    Could be. English profs are trained in literary criticism and can have some highfalutin ideas about writing. But their methods are decent ways to learn how to structure one’s compositions.

    Far better, of course, is a true Writing Across The Curriculum program, whereby you’re being critiqued and thus getting constructive feedback on your writing in all your classes. The incentives, unfortunately, make “objective” testing and few writing assignments the norm.




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  9. Michael says:

    Far better, of course, is a true Writing Across The Curriculum program, whereby you’re being critiqued and thus getting constructive feedback on your writing in all your classes.

    I agree, they tried some of that when I was in High School, and though it was hard to write a paragraph on Calculus, putting your solution in the form of a sentence or two still makes you learn how to communicate, not just regurgitate the correct answer from memory.

    The incentives, unfortunately, make “objective” testing and few writing assignments the norm.

    Which, ironically, is exactly what the article’s author was longing for. There are very few subjects where I think objective testing is an adequate way to measure learning. It’s much better, in my opinion and experience, to see if a student can figure out _what_ to remember, not just whether or not they can remember it.




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  10. Bithead says:

    It seems to me that there is a remarkable similarity at many points, to the basic discussion here, to the basic discussion about ‘healthcre for all’.




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  11. Michael says:

    It seems to me that there is a remarkable similarity at many points, to the basic discussion here, to the basic discussion about ‘healthcare for all’.

    Such as?




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  12. Anderson says:

    Far better, of course, is a true Writing Across The Curriculum program, whereby you’re being critiqued and thus getting constructive feedback on your writing in all your classes.

    Of course, real professors would rebel at having to grade their students’ writing.

    At my lib-arts undergrad school, not even the English profs would correct the grammar & typos in English majors’ papers. Beneath them, I guess.

    I taught the same classes as Prof. X., tho as a grad student, and had much the same experience, except for being scared to fail as many students.

    Gotta agree with his conclusions, though I do wonder whether there shouldn’t be some sort of “business writing” course that subs for the traditional comp courses. Very few people need to know how to write a research paper — and if they do, they should learn how from the professor teaching the subject they need to do research in. (But see “real professors,” above.)




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  13. Michael says:

    Of course, real professors would rebel at having to grade their students’ writing.

    Who says they’d have to grade the writing? The practice in a different environment is what helps the student, not having their grammar graded on their chemistry paper.




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  14. James Joyner says:

    Which, ironically, is exactly what the article’s author was longing for. There are very few subjects where I think objective testing is an adequate way to measure learning.

    I don’t think he’s longing for that so much as he’s wistful that he doesn’t have the easy “wrong answer” excuse that’s available in most disciplines. Not only does he have a tougher grading process but he has the psychological issue of having to deal with disappointed students intellectually incapable of grasping why they’re doing poorly and thinking, therefore, that it’s personal.




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  15. Anderson says:

    The practice in a different environment is what helps the student, not having their grammar graded on their chemistry paper.

    We may be approaching an era when there’s no such thing as “correct grammar” for practical purposes, and when, say, editors of chemistry journals, or corporate clients, don’t care if a submission or a report is written like a text message.

    But I don’t think we’re there just yet.




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  16. Bithead says:

    Such as?

    That providing something for everyone regardless of their merit, has consequences, for one thing. In this comparison, I stretch merit with ability to pay. In both cases, we suffer from intentionally ignoring those consequences.




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  17. Michael says:

    That providing something for everyone regardless of their merit, has consequences, for one thing. In this comparison, I stretch merit with ability to pay. In both cases, we suffer from intentionally ignoring those consequences.

    Hmmm, in our current setup maybe. Theoretically at least, the cost of giving knowledge to 10 people is the same as the cost of giving it to one, so I don’t think this comparison will hold for all implementations of a universal education system. Health care, on the other hand, has a definite per-patient cost.




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  18. Bithead says:

    Theoretically at least, the cost of giving knowledge to 10 people is the same as the cost of giving it to one, so I don’t think this comparison will hold for all implementations of a universal education system

    No, that’s not true for several reasons. Among them, you’re assuming all students to be equal in their ability to learn… and as James demonstrates, that’s most certainly untrue, to say nothing of my argument that it ends up being at least counter productive.

    I’m not really making any connection or analogy, simply noting the general trends when priciples are applied and or ignored.

    True, costs in edication do not go up in a one to one fashion, for the most part, but neither do they go down one to one.




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  19. Michael says:

    No, that’s not true for several reasons. Among them, you’re assuming all students to be equal in their ability to learn… and as James demonstrates, that’s most certainly untrue, to say nothing of my argument that it ends up being at least counter productive.

    That’s the difference between the cost of giving knowledge, and the cost of retaining it. It costs me nothing to give knowledge to 1, 10 or 100 people, even if it costs them some per-person amount to retain it. In our current education system, it’s the cost of verifying the retention of knowledge that is high. Look back at the original article, the author talks about how wonderful the giving is, and only complains about the burden of verification.

    Ideally, offering free college education, with voluntary attendance and no testing requirement, would give knowledge to everyone who wants it and can retain it, without wasting money on those who don’t want it or can’t retain it.

    Under such a system, the teachers do not make you take tests to prove you are retaining the knowledge, and you won’t be stopped from attending more classes if you haven’t obtained the required level of knowledge. It would be entirely your responsibility to make sure you have what you need to advance before advancing. You could then choose to pay and take a test to get your degree certifying that you retained some level of that knowledge, but that wouldn’t necessarily be a pre-requisite for obtaining more knowledge.




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