June 24th, 2008

Who Should Be in College?


Have you seen this article in the June issue of the Atlantic? http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/college If you haven’t, it’s definitely worth taking a look at. The writing is powerful; the message depressing at the same time it’s provocative. A very smart writing teacher I know described the piece as “a screaming canary, showing off about a dozen things going wrong in the coal mine.”

The author, whose byline is “Professor X,” is an English adjunct who teaches evening class at places he/she describes as “colleges of last resort.” They sound like institutions with open admissions or something pretty close to that—lots of adult students doing college work to advance their careers and some younger students. The author describes them as “in over their heads” with significant “skill deficits.” He/she doesn’t say these students don’t have the intellectual muscle to succeed in college, but that conclusion is clearly implied especially by the poignant anecdote about a female student whose research paper earned an F. The professor reports that this student was in trouble right from the start.

Among many things that trouble me about this article is whether professors have any business deciding who will and won’t succeed and the extent to which those decisions become a self-fulfilling prophecy? What happens to the integrity of your teaching when you don’t believe it’s going to help students learn? At issue here are not those behaviors like skipping class, doing half-assed work and in other ways not taking the educational enterprise seriously. Those behaviors have consequences and students deserve to experience them. The issue here involves those students who do what’s appropriate and still fail, but for more endemic reasons.

The article ponders the ethics of admitting poorly prepared students, the way higher education has been opened to everyone and the pressure that puts on instructors who stand at the vanguard with standards to protect. The intrigue of these issues made this article worth discussing with my nonacademic spouse over breakfast. The issue not discussed in the article is the teaching and how it so completely failed this and other students. The instructor describes the approach, method, and assignments used, but I wonder if he/she ever considered that they might be just as much of a problem as those students “in over their heads.”

—Maryellen Weimer