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Should They Stay Or Should They Go? A Few Thoughts On Who Is “Supposed” To Be In College

April 14, 2011, 1:49 pm

I have been reading a variety of books and articles in the past year that question the utility of going to college at all, much less whether it matters in the course of a life whether a young person decides to go to a selective,  private college. If you are a famous actress, for example, it might not.  Yesterday, “Kaiser,” who blogs at CeleBitchy, mused about Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame) and her decision to drop out of Brown, at least temporarily, because she holds herself to such high standards. According to the AP story Kaiser quotes:

Watson has always been studious. She enrolled to study liberal arts at Rhode Island’s Brown University in 2009. But being a movie star and an Ivy League student took its toll, and she says commuting back and forth to the U.S. left her stressed out. Ever the perfectionist, Watson couldn’t stand delivering a below-average performance, so she took some time off. How very Hermione.

“I just knew I was going to be beating myself up because I wasn’t going to be able to be doing the best that I knew that I could at school or in my job,” she said. “If I’d been getting B’s or C’s I would’ve been really upset.”

We all would have been really upset.  What a thoughtful person.  Exactly the kind of rational individual who is ideally positioned to take advantage of a liberal arts education.

And now let’s hear from the other kids, the ones who don’t have film and modeling careers to distract them.

Currently, I am reading In the Basement of the Ivory Tower:  Confessions of an Accidental Academic by the mysterious Professor X whose initial thoughts on this matter were published in The Atlantic in June 2008.  A teacher of expository writing, who ended up in this position in the first place because he bought too much house and needed a second job, Professor X’s argument is that the vast majority of people who end up in our community college system don’t belong in college at all — and wouldn’t be in college if the United States didn’t have a collective fantasy that higher education is a prerequisite for even the lowest paid work.

Needless to say, one powerful message In The Basement of the Ivory Tower delivers is how profoundly different the lives of academics are, not just because our students are sorted and tracked at an early age by testing, poverty and race, but because many of the students in most need of close attention and the time to reflect, read and learn to express themselves are the least likely to have that opportunity.  Furthermore, a community college campus may be running two entirely different schools in the same space.  By day, tenured faculty and long-term adjuncts teach students who may indeed go on to a B.A.:  you might be interested to know that a number of these students end up at places like Zenith.  They  transfer in during sophomore or junior year, and do very well despite the fact that they haven’t had access to the kind of curricula that elite liberal arts colleges see as a crucial foundation to upper level work.  Other than intelligence, one reason for this in my view is a higher degree of maturity and commitment to their courses than many students (who have taken this opportunity for granted) have.

By night, however, Professor X describes classrooms given over to the generation of tuition revenues, paid by working people who don’t give a rat’s a$$ about literature, can’t write or put together a coherent thought, and are taking an Associate’s degree because they can’t advance in their ill-paid jobs without it.  Why, Professor X asks us, do we force dental technicians to read Wallace Stevens?  And why do we cycle students through the same course that they have failed before because we think that writing a coherent essay has something to do with putting in a Foley catheter or making sure all the right boxes on the income tax forms are filled out properly?

It’s not a dumb question, except that it misses what is for me a crucial point:  if we are educating large numbers of people inappropriately, and at great expense to them, what would it mean to educate people well?  While Professor X displays a high level of devotion to his students, the “realism” that he insists we adopt towards community college students, as taxpayers and as citizens, verges so closely on contempt for them that the book can be a difficult read.  Granted, many students come to community college (or Zenith, for that matter) needing to be brought up to speed on things they never learned in high school.  The gap in some cases is far greater than it is in others.  But is that a reason to throw in the towel on college?

A redeeming feature of this book is that Professor X sees faculty and students as having ended up in the same canoe, up the same $hit creek, and without a paddle between them. “Our presence together in these evening classes is evidence that we all have screwed up,” he writes.

I’m working a second job; they’re trying desperately to get to a place where they don’t have to. All any of us wants is a free evening. Many of my students are in the vicinity of my own age. Whatever our chronological ages, we are all adults, by which I mean thoroughly saddled with children and mortgages and sputtering careers. We all show up for class exhausted from working our full-time jobs. We carry knapsacks and briefcases overspilling with the contents of our hectic lives. We smell of the food we have eaten that day, and of the food we carry with us for the evening. We reek of coffee and tuna oil. The rooms in which we study have been used all day, and are filthy. Candy wrappers litter the aisles. We pile our trash daintily atop filled garbage cans.

You’ve got the message (the guy does have an MFA after all):  garbage in, garbage out.

That Professor X is an “accidental academic” speaks volumes, in the sense of how much public policymakers now prize the voices of “outsiders” to the profession of education, as well as the opinions of successful businesspeople and politicians (for whom having gone to school is qualification enough to play a decisive role in shaping public education.)  We who have made careers in higher ed, the reasoning goes, are far too immersed in our tenure systems, our unions, and our persnickety claptrap about committee work to understand “the big picture.”  We are myopic.  We are perpetual adolescents who have fled from the challenges of the “real world” and pursued graduate educations that suit us for nothing better than to return to school for the rest of our natural lives (“Those who can’t do, teach/Those who can’t teach, teach gym,” they are snickering in the New Jersey and Wisconsin governor’s mansions.)

It’s a surprise we are able to pull ourselves together to pay our taxes every year.

It’s also not an accident that Professor X’s day job is in government:  a self-confessed bureaucrat of some kind, he is no stranger to waste, mismanagement, and the outdated social theories that throw money at problems, as if money solved anything.  Indeed, that only a fraction of
X’s students are able to move successfully through the courses he teaches, and that a dramatically large number fail the same course repeatedly without apparently ever having had a clue what their own failure to do the work had to do with the outcome, is a compelling argument for cutting education budgets and excluding people from college altogether.

And yet:  what does it really mean about us as a society that we are able to tolerate, simultaneously, such vast gaps in educational opportunity, and such profound contempt for those people to whom we literally give almost nothing for their hard-earned tuition dollars:  not a clean classroom, not a professional teacher, not access to writing centers, not a class that meets before 10 P.M., not child care? 

When I taught community college as an adjunct over twenty years ago, we received repeated memoranda reminding us to drop students from the roster if they missed two classes.  Early on, I learned to throw these away without a thought, particularly since there were no administrators around between 7 and 10 in the evening when my two classes met.  But it seemed obvious that these policies were intended to weed as many students out of the system as possible — after, of course, having snarfed up their nonrefundable tuition dollars.  For most students, missing two classes by midterm was routine:  babysitters not showing up, a spouse having to pull an extra shift unexpectedly, a relative falling into the hands of the law, housing court — you name it, they were derailed by it.  Compare these to the equally good reasons I get from my current students for not coming to class (“I’m really stressed;” “My father’s travel agent bought me the wrong plane ticket;” “my best friend is getting married in France;” “my roommate has been really upset lately”) and ask yourself:  why are these working people not due the same care and consideration that we assume those who pay far higher tuition deserve?

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