Most Americans can't write a decent college paper. It's not exactly news. Half a century ago Bernard Malamud, smart Jewish kid from Brooklyn, taught English at Oregon State University. He found the experience so grueling that he wrote it up in A New Life. His fictional hero, Levin,
"lectured his students on this thinness of their themes, for their pleasant good-natured selves without a critical attitude to life."
Then he wondered why "people disappeared from his classes" and transferred to other courses.
The boneheadedness of the average college student is, of course, a favorite theme of the educated classes, so it is not surprising to read in the June Atlantic the lament of an adjunct college instructor. In "The Basement of the Ivory Tower" we learn of the experiences of "Professor X" teaching English "at a small private college and at a community college."
Professor X is not teaching the children of The Atlantic readers. He is teaching evening classes to other peoples' children, students whose college applications showed "blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go." Nor are many of the students children. Many of them are health-care workers, would-be police officers, and municipal employees who need college level credits to "advance at work," or, in short, get a raise.
The students' chosen path to increased emoluments is not easy, for many of them are not well prepared for college work. Never mind the agonies of the "compare-and-contrast paper, the argument paper, the process-analysis paper... and the dreaded research paper." Many of the students "cannot write a coherent sentence."
Professor X wonders when he's going to get a note from the college to pass more students, and he worries "about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass."
Since we are worrying about "larger implications" let us escape from the bell jar of liberal thinking and wonder why it is that after a century and a half of "free" public education so many students present themselves at college unable to write a coherent sentence. If you read the latest National Assessment of Adult Literacy you will find that only 13 percent of US adults are rated "proficient" in prose literacy, e.g., "comparing viewpoints in two editorials." We are not talking here about 87 percent of Americans lacking the skill to write a scintillating article comparing foolish liberal with wise conservative viewpoints on education. We are talking about 87 percent of adults being not quite up to the task reading a couple of editorials and getting the point.
Could it be that the vast majority of Americans aren't particularly interested in reading and writing? Could it be that they don't really need advanced literary skills in order to hold down a decent job and enjoy a comfortable life in these United States? The "larger implication" of unprepared students attempting entry-level college English is that maybe the program of universal K-16 education is fatally flawed, for it suggests that for an unknown proportion of students the program of compulsory bums-on-seats education that is a central article of faith for the governing elite is a mistake.
If we have made a mistake in the development of our government education system we ought to do something about it. Liberals were properly outraged that President Bush tolerated two years of failure in Iraq before he would agree to change his strategy. For some reason they are not in quite such a hurry about the K-12 education system that was excoriated over twenty years ago in A Nation at Risk.
But if the current education system is broken what should we do to fix it? Laurence Gonzales' intriguing Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why suggests a different understanding of learning. Gonzales warns that you cannot confront the crises of life with just book learning. If you fall down a crevasse on a mountain or your yacht sinks a hurricane you need more than a rational appreciation of natural hazards to survive. You need practice, and actual experience in decision-making under duress so that your rational knowledge becomes internalized as an instinct. That's the way they teach you to fly airplanes. When the weather starts to close in good pilot must combine knowledge, skill, experience, and judgment to make the decisions that will get him out of a jam. The same applies to ordinary life crises like losing a job or getting divorced.
The day will come, perhaps sooner than we think, when the American people will be ready for education reform. Yet after a century and a half of government stasis it is difficult to know what to do. There is not even consensus on the notion of a "learning style." Perhaps the only thing to do will be to let the American people decide for themselves.
One thing is certain. The future of education will not have much to do with forcing government bureaucrats to jump through hoops in order to get their next raise.