I Did Not Come to College to Read
I recently found a 1984 edition of Comprehensive English by Harold Levine. An Amsco publication, it was meant to "help students pass the New York State Comprehensive Examination with distinction." At the time, the examination contained a listening test, a reading comprehension test, the literature test, and the composition test.
I have serious doubts as to whether my current crop of college students could pass this examination In the course of teaching, one develops some theories about classroom discipline and the ability to reach students. My "theory of threes" used to mean that if there were three troublesome students in a class – i.e., class clown, disruptive individual, pupil outwardly resistant to reasonable demands – it was going to be a rough class to teach. Thus, creative strategies were devised to reach those three without adversely affecting the other students, who were eager to learn and who expected the teacher to control a class and teach.
Things have changed radically. If I have three students in a class who are eager to apply critical thinking skills, I consider it a lucky break. What more instructors are faced with is a classroom of bored students who would rather stare into space than actually tackle the lesson at hand. And remember that for financial aid purposes, "D" and "D-" are passing grades.
I have had to pepper the blackboard with "Ban Mental Lethargy" just to get their attention. But then again, they do not know what lethargy means, even though their ever ready cell phones have a dictionary function.
The last time that I asked if students were attending school because of a love for learning, I was greeted with undisguised guffaws.
In an effort to maintain class size, one school is pushing students to "earn bucks just by enrolling in weekend classes." Thus, a student can "earn $50 per credit for Friday classes that start after 3:30 p.m. and for Saturday classes that start before noon." For "Saturday classes that start after noon, one can earn $100 per credit." These bucks can then be used at the university bookstore and the campus food outlets, including Starbucks.
Each semester becomes more dispiriting than the previous one. At one school, the readings center on the topic of marriage. Mostly concerned with the breakdown of traditional marriage and the upswing in gay marriage, there is little that promotes marriage and its concomitant joys. Thus, in an (unedited) recent piece, one student wrote:
In my culture legal marriage does not happen that much. Once the woman becomes pregnant then she is supposed to go live with her boyfriend and live together as if they were married. There are a few couples who do get legally married. I believe a couple should be legally married if they are already living together and in love. Why not? Isn't this the goal when starting a relationship?
At another school, we are deluged with reminders that "LGBT issues, concerns and realities are topics that the college community has neglected over the past few years." Thus, there will be a discussion of the award-winning documentary The Raid of Rainbow Lounge. Then there is the invitation to hear "about the prevalence of domestic violence." And finally, "the office of multicultural affairs ... will be holding a diversity fair in celebration of the UN day of tolerance ... to promote the idea of equality."
Tolerance and the United Nations! What a perfect lesson on the oxymoron. Will the speaker mention that the U.N. sees fit to award the Equator Prize to a terrorist connected with the murder of Jewish children?
Last month, a lecture entitled "Puerto Rico: Modern American Apartheid" was offered. The fact that Puerto Rico is a commonwealth by choice and that this individual has no idea what apartheid means is of little consequence as the meanings of words are debased.
The poster that maintains "Justice for Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Ramarley Graham" from the SEIU is prominently displayed alongside the sign that asserts that "I am an Ally: This is a safe zone. I provide a safe and inclusive [space for] LGBTQ students and their allies." It is highly unlikely that the individual who put up the Michael Brown poster would bother to read Stephen Hunter's logical approach to the shooting.
And one must not forget the Campus Sustainability Day fair, where environmentally beneficial organizations will be featured. In fact, wastebaskets have now been removed from this school's individual classrooms in order to cut back on the waste and save the custodial staff additional lifting.
Recently, a colleague left a handout about gender equity, gender equality, and women's empowerment, where one learns that:
... [t]he achievement of gender equality implies changes for both men and women. More equitable relationships will need to be based on a redefinition of the rights and responsibilities of women and men in all spheres of life, including the family, the workplace and the society at large. It is therefore crucial not to overlook gender as an aspect of men's social identity. This fact is, indeed, often overlooked, because the tendency is to consider male characteristics and attributes as the norm, and those of women as a variation of the norm.
This falls right in line with the University of Notre Dame hosting a "Gender and Culture in American Society" program which will give teenagers "an understanding of current theoretical explanations of gender, including femininity, masculinity, sexualities, patriarchy, and feminism." This goes hand in hand with the attempt to have a school district in Nebraska train teachers to abandon terms such as "boys and girls" and call children "purple penguins."
In addition, on a survey distributed by a college, instructors are asked to respond to (1) What is your gender identity? (a) Man (b) Woman (c) Another gender identity (d) I prefer not to respond; and (2) Which of the following best describes your sexual orientation? (a) Heterosexual (b) Gay (c) Lesbian (d) Bisexual (e) Another sexual orientation (f) Questioning or unsure (g) I prefer not to respond; and (3) Are you always courteous, even to people who are disagreeable? (a) No (b) Not sure (c) Yes.
And, of course, we are bombarded with the fact that racism is still a serious problem and that America's class structure is not fair; "considerable evidence" proves this. Marx is alive and well in the English literature department.
Moving through the semester, the panoply of discussions include a "Celebration of Native American Heritage and History: Honoring Our Warriors: A Veterans Day Tribute." Then there are the faculty members who proudly boast, "Imagine if we told all the silly hippies they would never amount to anything" in an effort to show how far they have come from Woodstock to the college classroom.
There is a luncheon to highlight the creation of "an ambidextrous general education curriculum in career-focused degree programs" because "creating a general education curriculum that is 'ambidextrous' is not easy, but it can be achieved through ongoing collaboration and dialogue among faculty members across disciplines within an institution."
Once one unravels this balderdash, can one ask whether this wasn't what was once called a liberal arts education? It was when the humanities were stressed, and a basic curriculum consisted of history, foreign language, math, English literature, mythology, Bible as literature, and science. Nowadays, Western civilization studies are completely marginalized. Randall Lund, Ph.D. recently wrote that "the Common Core standards and testing enforcement ... [are] also linked to standards for pre-service teaching training." Put another way, "if colleges do not adopt the Common-Core aligned teacher education standards and prove through an onerous data collection system that their program is compliant, their accreditation can be withdrawn" (hat tip to JaKell Sullivan).
Who are these teachers-to-be, anyway? Far too many students do not understand what the word "seldom" means, and thus, when they read a sentence like "he seldom writes his paper," they understand this to mean he writes his papers regularly. Or they simply ignore reading directions altogether and, when queried, respond with "I didn't come to college to read"! Then there is the student who wrote this unedited paragraph:
What goes on inside a people emotionally and physiologically in side their brain when they are stereotype threat and trying to perform a cognitively challenging task? A large percentage of people at some point may face stereotype threats knowingly as well as un-knowingly. From all walks of life and back-rounds.
Of course, the babble extends both ways, as the instructor, who, in an effort to relate to his students, will give this as an example when writing a thesis statement:
While the general movie-going public, and even motion movie aficionados, may argue that the best movie heroes are super heroes like Spiderman or super players like James Bond, the most kick-ass movie hero is actually Indiana Jones.
So much for sophisticated language.
In an oral presentation assignment where students were asked to research the effect of Obamacare on millennials, the student presenter was asked how he could explain that Obama lied more than 20 times about Americans keeping their doctors and their health insurance plans. In response, the young man said that "it was just an oversight" on the part of the president!
So while businesses keep looking for critical thinking in their employees, instructors are faced with students who lack the ability to question, to research, to connect dots, and, frankly, to think. And at the Chronicle of Higher Learning, David Gooblar offers instructors solutions concerning students who "haven't done the reading. Again."
More disturbing than the issue itself is that no one demands that the students take responsibility for doing their work. Instead, teachers have to devise methods to prod students to accomplish their work. One respondent thus exhorts instructors to:
... [h]elp them develop the skills needed to understand difficult texts. Or at least, explain that the texts are difficult to you, not just them, and you are able to read them not because you're smarter but because you're patient, you re-read difficult passages or sections a few times, etc etc. [sic] Also, give them a list of specific things to pay attention to as they read.
We are talking about students in an allegedly higher learning environment, but we have to be dumb in order to reach them. Empathy, indeed!
At another college, the Minority Student Affairs Department's schedule of events – i.e., "writing workshops," "how to handle word problems," "how to stay motivated," etc. – is next to the Education Opportunity Fund (EOF) set of events and a picture of two smiling women wearing hijabs, covering their hair. Do I detect a whiff of racism, in that Minority Student Affairs is acknowledging that these problems exist only among the minority students, or is it that non-minority students need their own schedule of events?
At a four-year university, one learns in the school newspaper that "anti-Muslim bias in America has been well-documented, particularly since September 11, 2001. The peaceful religion of more than a billion people, which has been bastardized by a few thousand fanatics, is often seen as violent or extremist because of the tactics of radicals." Once again, a smiling hijab-clothed woman is shown. The fact that the source of this information is the Southern Poverty Law Center is particularly troubling, since they have been shown to be biased on many accounts. Yet the Muslim Student Association (MSA) is alive and well on many campuses as its members host "inspirational lectures." Wonder if the students will be informed about the MSA move to ban Bill Maher from a campus invitation at the University of California, charging that he is an "Islamophobe."
In 1991, Arthur Schlesinger wrote The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. In the blurb, one learns that "the 'ethnic upsurge' has had some healthy consequences including long over-due recognition of the achievements of women, black Americans, Indians, Hispanics, and Asians, among others. But the 'cult of ethnicity' has its price. If pressed too far, it may portend a dangerous new turn in American life, even a return to racial segregation." In fact, "instead of a nation composed of individuals making their own free choices, America increasingly sees itself as composed of groups more or less indelible in their ethnic character." As an example, "the teaching of history ... has been used increasingly as a therapeutic tool to build a sense of self-worth among minority children. But 'feel-good history'... is a betrayal."
How prescient Schlesinger was. He asserted that the "task was to combine the appreciation of the splendid diversity of the nation with due emphasis on the great unifying Western ideas of individual freedom, political democracy, and human rights. These are the ideas that define the American nationality – and that today empower people of all continents, races, and creeds."
Sadly, political correctness, biased textbooks, and teachers who politicize the classroom are more the norm as the "plot against merit" keeps marching along.
Eileen can be reached at email@example.com.