February 18, 2009, 11:48 AM ET
Welcome to Lake Wobegon: Population 14 Million
Remember Lake Wobegon? It’s the make-believe town Garrison Keillor made famous where “all the children are above average.” Stupid me. How did I miss it? Here I thought it was a dying little place, when it turns out it’s grown into an enormous city.
Today’s New York Times has an article quoting several college professors talking about the problem of “academic entitlement” — where students think that by merely showing up in class they’re “above average” (meaning they think the default grade for their academic performance is “B” or even “A”). Most college professors know these students all too well. They come to you with big, pitiably wet eyes, uttering the dreaded words, “I tried.”
Whether academic entitlement (AE — I never knew until now that it has its own acronym) derives from parental coddling, parental pressure, student insecurity, or student narcissism (different studies and theories support any and all of these), it puts us college professors in a bind.
On the one hand, we’re paid the big bucks to tell the truth about performance. On the other hand, the rise of “student-centered learning,” combined with the pressures of the outcomes-assessment movement, require professors to demonstrate that, at the end of the day, “Students will be able to [fill in the blank].” We’re not given the option to choose parsed conclusions (unless we want to be fired), where we would say, “The best students will be able to do this or that, even if a bunch of them can’t do anything.”
In an insidious, roundabout sort of way, student-centered learning and outcomes assessment both reinforce academic entitlement. By shifting the responsibility for learning from students to teachers, we’ve developed a model of students as passive “vessels” into which we pour “learning.” And if the vessels are leaky, well, get rid of the professors.
I’ll own that “average” is a pretty depressing word. I should know. When I was in college, I stared at more than one grade of “C” on my college transcript even after I’d given what I considered to be my all. But in my day, students knew how to buck up after getting an average grade, and we certainly never complained. We lived in the discredited world of “teacher-centered” teaching, which meant that the only time you contested a grade was when there was a miscalculation of that grade.
Today, earning an average grade (which, as more than one of us on Brainstorm has pointed out, is now either a “B” or “B-”) is almost worse than receiving a grade of “D” or “F.” With poor grades, there’s at least a little wiggle room for students to retain their dignity. They can always say, “I didn’t really try.”
Like student-centered learning and outcomes assessment, the new, inflated meaning of “above average” isn’t about to go away any time soon. Before Lake Wobegon was ever founded, “above average” actually meant really smart and accomplished, and no one thought all that much about it. Average, on the other hand, was a normal fact of life for everybody (parents, teachers, and students alike), and no one thought all that much about that, either. Life was rich and varied enough in the old days so that grades and tests were not the be-all and end-all of existence for young college kids that they apparently are now.
We’ve now made it so that “average” is humiliating, and the old way of accepting it with a grain of salt is gone. Instead, we need to believe we’re all deeply special (isn’t that what our mothers were supposed to prove to us?).
While no one was watching, tiny Lake Wobegon grew into an enormous city.