Our presence together ... is evidence that we all have screwed up.
January 21, 2015 2:24 PM   Subscribe

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower. A 2008 article about a place where the dream of sending every American to college has an ugly encounter with reality.
posted by kaibutsu (51 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Harsh but fair.
posted by GuyZero at 3:04 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Would one get at least a D for stringing together sufficiently historical bits of snark? (annotated snark fur shure)!
posted by sammyo at 3:09 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Developmental" (i.e. remedial) writing courses really are stuck between the Scylla of inadequate primary/secondary schooling and the Charybdis of the broad aspiration to higher education in the US. You just can't get someone from being unable to construct grammatical sentences all the way to college-ready in a single semester, but the entire system too often just requires everyone involved to pretend otherwise. And yeah, the way the whole institution devolves not just the hard work of teaching but the emotional and ethical work of gatekeeping on the individual teacher (who's often a poverty-wage unsupported adjunct) is really shameful. This is a real systemic problem; every citizen ought to be (and can be) a competent reader and writer, but once a person is out of high school and isn't, there's no institution that's constructed to help them get there.
posted by RogerB at 3:12 PM on January 21, 2015 [28 favorites]


The either-college-or-vocational-ed choice is a false dichotomy. BUT getting both is basically the equivalent of going full-time to two colleges simultaneously, and no one in the US but the independently wealthy can manage it right now.
posted by infinitewindow at 3:13 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


stuck between the Scylla of inadequate primary/secondary schooling and the Charybdis of the broad aspiration to higher education in the US

Someone clearly remembers their classical Greek reading coursework.
posted by GuyZero at 3:21 PM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I thought the article spent too little time on the sociology of our labor market. Many of the problems listed in the article apply to high school English too, because they have the same problem: these students are forced into classes they don't want or aren't ready for.
posted by Monochrome at 3:26 PM on January 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


I work with college students all day long. It never ceases to amaze me the difference in capability between our business students (have to pass some secondary requirements to be admitted to the business school) and our hospitality students (the school theoretically has admissions standards above what the university requires, but...).

As a result, though I remain firmly committed to public higher education, I also have come to strongly endorse selective admission standards for universities alongside a national conversation about the role and necessity of remedial classes in community college education. Open admissions do remedial students a disservice. They don't seem to connect the concept of open admissions with 'I wouldn't have been admitted elsewhere so I'd better study hard to get out of these remedial classes so I can pay college tuition for actual college level classes.' And then they don't advance--which is a tragedy on many levels.

I also remain profoundly grateful that, for the most part, I don't have to grade these students' efforts. As it is, every academic librarian who's ever worked a public services desk knows That Student. That Student latches on to any sympathetic body, is a boundless pit of neediness with absolutely no ability to remember the necessary research skills between one week and the next, and presumably advances to graduation primarily because their professors are tired of dealing with them. That doesn't serve the student or the school well in the long run.
posted by librarylis at 3:27 PM on January 21, 2015 [19 favorites]


This reminds me of my days working as a peer tutor at a community college (in Canada a community college is for learning specific job-related skills like mechanics and secretarial work), back when I was a student there myself. A number of my students were simply not prepared even for the very easy academic work there. One student I worked with misspelled words like "birds", couldn't write a coherent sentence, and basically functioned at an elementary school level. And he thought he was a talented writer. He somehow got into the journalism program the next year, though he soon washed out of that. The college was doing him no favours by allowing him to take courses he wasn't at all capable of passing.

Then as a volunteer literacy tutor in my twenties, I learned that HALF of all Canadians have some trouble with literacy. We're leaving so many people behind, and I wonder sometimes if the situation is even fixable. Certainly nearly everyone is capable of learning to read, and surely it's at least theoretically possible to raise the literacy level, but I wonder how high we can raise the level of education otherwise. Can we get people to the level of being able to vote intelligently, for instance? George W. Bush had every advantage including an Ivy league education, and he has very little capacity for complex thought. It's a grim reality that although modern, industrialized society needs its citizens to be capable of complex analytical thought, so many people aren't.
posted by orange swan at 3:38 PM on January 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


Well, this is a hell of a thing to read as I grab a quick bite before teaching my first community college evening class of the semester.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:42 PM on January 21, 2015 [17 favorites]


This fellow appears to have set the bar much too high. He also appears to be blaming the victims (the students). If nine out of 15 fail a class, that tells me that nine out of 15 are not ready for that class. Who let them sign up for the class? Aren't there tests for placement at most colleges and universities? I suspect this is a business model college: you pay your tuition and take whatever you like....

I attended a community college, an elite university, and taught in a large state school. I tutored English at a prep school. At no time did I encounter this kind of failure rate. I did have a few ESL students struggling with the preparation classes who were somewhat like "Mrs. L.," but never in the primary introduction classes.

Again, if the failure rate is that high, I'd examine the procedures that allowed the students to sign up for the class....
posted by CrowGoat at 3:42 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Why can't people admit anymore that there are differences in intellectual ability? This article was interesting but continued with the lie that the students just weren't "prepared" enough, rather than admitting that some people are not intellectually capable of genuine college-level work, and no amount of "preparation" is going to fix that. That *should* be ok and such people should still be able to both make a living and to be treated with basic respect.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 3:52 PM on January 21, 2015 [19 favorites]


How I envy professors in other disciplines!

He would have no trouble recognizing the Mathematics version of his story. Most of the differences are superficial.
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:53 PM on January 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


CrowGoat and mysterious_stranger:
The point he's making is that, since these are students who are _required_ to be at the school, and the class he's giving is the _first_ required course, there's an obvious gap between expectation and ability. And ultimately, he's saying the problem is more on the side of the expectation: It simply doesn't make sense to put these students through the wringer like this.
posted by kaibutsu at 3:56 PM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah, 9 out of 15 students failing is fairly shocking and indicates a major malfunction at some point. Either admissions is placing students in classes they can't hope to succeed in (probably due to a failure in placement testing or an unscrupulous administration) or the teacher's standards are way too high. Bad passing rates are not always the fault of the instructor, but they're also not always not.

Also, I've taught low-level biology labs and I have to say, teaching biology isn't all about multiple choice questions unless you're a terrible instructor. There was usually a research paper in the labs we taught, and there was often a powerpoint presentation. There are always essay questions, and you have to try to assess systematic knowledge (not just fact recitation). I doubt it's as difficult as teaching English, but he has smaller class sizes to make up for that.
posted by Mitrovarr at 3:58 PM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I attended a community college, an elite university, and taught in a large state school. I tutored English at a prep school. At no time did I encounter this kind of failure rate.

Attending an institution gives you no clue at all what the skill level among students there is. Every single person I know who has taught post-secondary school has had a shock when they taught their first class at seeing where the bottom of the distribution is. If you do well, the people you know likely do well. The people who are scraping by and failing classes a) Aren't hanging out with you and b) probably aren't talking about.

9/15 is an unusually high fail rate for many classes, but my sense is that it's entirely typical for remedial classes. There's only so much remediation that can happen in a few weeks. Most of our reading and writing skills come from a lifetime of reading (and throw in some writing). You can't just fix "deficits" by explaining that every sentence needs a verb and thinking you've solved everything.

I'm not sure how you can tell where he's setting the bar when you haven't seen the student papers and the grades they receive, but I think one could set an entirely reasonable bar in a remedial course and get a failure rate like this.

And I don't think the guy is blaming the students, I think he's blaming a system that puts students in situations where they cannot (yet?) thrive.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:59 PM on January 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


Thing is, there is no one class or one point at which students could or should be turned away. We're human: we hope, and we extend that hope and nth chance to everyone we see.

It's the students themselves who need the executive judgment to say - this is not going well, and I need to turn away. But the students least able to do that, the ones most susceptible to eternal hope, are the ones must likely to need to do so.

It is heartbreaking to be on the other end, when I read appeal letters from a student who could not string enough passing grades together to graduate, and when I see a transcript of Fs. It is awful to realize how much time and money has been wasted, as the student could not and did not say 'enough, this is not for me'. And no one would even hint at that fact for them, beyond putting another F on the transcript.
posted by Dashy at 4:16 PM on January 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


I am in my fourth year as a professor at an open access college, and I absolutely, positively believe in open access education, not because I don't have horror stories of underprepared students like his, but because I also have stories of students who no one ever encouraged or expected to go to college, who come to us and learn how to study and how to do college level work, and end up going to graduate school in biology. I believe in open access education because it seems very hard to predict who those students will be, and I firmly believe everyone who wants to deserves the chance to be that student. (also, biology is not about facts and multiple choice tests and anyone who tells you so is doing biology wrong)
posted by hydropsyche at 4:22 PM on January 21, 2015 [15 favorites]


For what it's worth, this guy isn't teaching remedial classes, he's teaching the incoming freshman-level ones. Those classes should generally be subject to placement testing, with remedial classes offered for those who fail the placement test. I can't imagine that a class that fails more than half the people who enter it serves the students well at all; most of them probably come out of it discouraged and defeated (also dumped by their financial aid or employer assistance programs).
posted by Mitrovarr at 4:27 PM on January 21, 2015


In college and for a year afterwards I was an academic tutor for the athletic department at a huge state school known for its athletics. At this school football and basketball carried all the other sports, financially, and the finances were obscene. Any student in a non-club sport could avail themselves of 100% free tutelage in almost any subject.

About half of my students were A-list students with scholarships in B-list sports: wrestling, swimming, volleyball, etc. They came to me voluntarily and were generally disciplined, motivated people. They knew a good thing when they saw it: free homework help at the college they also got to attend for free because they had applied themselves to excel at a weirdo sport like wrestling.

The other half were young men — yes, they were all men — with scholarships in football or basketball. These kids had handlers. If one of my gymnasts needed help before an exam she’d call me, personally, for a tutoring appointment. But the football and basketball players never not once not a single time did this. Their handlers did.

“This is Jody, Tom’s Academic Assistant. I need to schedule eight tutoring sessions for him.”

Then Jody would badger Tom into going, maybe even drive him there herself and sit next to him while we worked. At the very least she would call before the appointment and remind me to call her if he were even five minutes late. I was friends with the instructors in most of the classes I was tutoring, so I knew that Jody was calling them too, to make sure Tom went to class, that he was taking his homework home, that he was turning it in on time, etc. She'd coordinate meetings between the instructors and tutors, so that we knew exactly where best to prop Tom up and get him to his (IIRC) NCAA-mandated 2.5GPA. (In fact, this dept. had a 3.0GPA requirement for sophomore athletes.)

I won't pull punches: most of the A-list athletes were F-list students. A few weren't just “functionally” illiterate but actually illiterate. One guy misspelled his own first name all the damn time. Anthropology 101 was way over many of their heads. (Of course not all the Big Two athletes were like this.) But with the constant, exclusive attention of a handler like Jody, and a team of personal tutors in every single class, and special attention from all of his professors, he could work up to a legitimate B-minus. These were guys with enormous talents but dreadful educational backgrounds, and a massive community interest in seeing them get a 2.5GPA before second semester of sophomore year. The resources followed and it was genuinely amazing to see them get pulled up in a year to that place. But it took a shitload of personal attention and institutional support.

So: to the notion that “college isn’t for everyone” I call bullshit. It is for everyone, if everyone had someone like Jody who drive your ass down to your all-you-can-eat free-to-you tutoring sessions.
posted by axoplasm at 4:36 PM on January 21, 2015 [44 favorites]


End of the Road is a terrible film, but the brief scene where Stacy is teaching remedial English is pretty good.
posted by ovvl at 4:56 PM on January 21, 2015


My father spent 25 years as a physics professor at a four year university that got a lot of inner city students. Over the years he became increasingly disillusioned. He cared deeply about his students but when a sophomore with the requisite credits comes to your supposedly Calculus-level physics course unable to do basic algebra, there's not a lot you can do. He always cherished and spent a lot of time with the few students who were capable of getting the material, but there were fewer and fewer of them and toward the end some semesters there weren't any.

He retired in the late 1980's. I can't imagine it being much worse now than then, but anything's possible I suppose.
posted by localroger at 4:57 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


When I was in grad school, I did what most grad students do, I ended up responsible for a philosophy 101 class. I wasn't the professor of record, but I was the one who did most of the grunt work, including grading all the papers. This was 20+ years ago and I had an 80% fail rate.

When I went to the professor and asked if I was doing it wrong, basically he said that it was a weed out course, and they expected failure rates of 50% or more.

The difference is that back then, classes cost $4.00 a credit hour. If you had to repeat that class, it cost $16.00. (At a good state university.) Now, the universities have been deregulated and classes are $200 a credit hour or more. Destroying our primary education budget, and turning out a generation of scantron fillers instead of thinkers is beginning to look like a long tail of university profit planning.
posted by dejah420 at 5:14 PM on January 21, 2015 [11 favorites]


For what's it worth, I work as a public school teacher (and to be fair largely most of my work is in Special Education although I have experience working in Inclusion and Self-Contained) and my main issue--which I have to hedge cause I know it's controversial--is believing everybody is equally smart and has equal capabilities to acquire information and learning reading, writing, and mathematics at a suitably high enough level to be considered proficient or have achieved mastery. I have students (not just Sped) but I mean students who are just not very academically able and it's not from lack of trying. Actually, the lack of trying often results from not understanding what is taught and pretty much realizing that one's efforts should be directed toward other activities where one has more interest in. Usually those activities are more fixated upon mechanical work, construction of objects, and interest and pre-occupation with tangible objects. Abstraction is just difficult. It just doesn't come to them.

Again, I know I am sticking my head out on this one and there is something self-sabotaging about having this kind of view as an educator, but the reality is that not all kids come equipped with the capacity to manipulate, say, abstract variables or fulfill conjugations of French verbs, or engage in discussions of the merits of symbolism in the different colors used to conclude James Joyce's "The Dead." Part of these attitude, which again I admit is probably not the most politically correct one, is that my upbringing derives from foreign parents who grew up under a different educational system where it was expected that not everybody would be "academically able," to use one euphemism. Tracking, which is a dirty word in Education circles, was accepted as the norm not just as a matter of elitism--which it kinda was--but also because it was unfair to teachers and the tracked students themselves to place them into classes where they showed very little, if any, aptitude to begin with. After a certain point, prior to middle school, most students were tracked into different occupations. And this still occurs in most countries to one extent or another. We do it in the United States but in more roundabout ways.

Still, if I were to show this linked article to some of my friends, none would understand why one would be encouraging individuals to attend institutions of putative higher education only to enter into some form of remedial high school. There are benefits to such an approach, no doubt. It is democratic, anti-elitist, it provides people options in their lives wherein their decisions as youths do not prohibit them from succeeding later on should they choose a different track. Still, there are other positives to the system as well. We don't, contrary to what Fitzgerald said, believe that nobody should have a second or third or fourth act in their lives. But there is something strange to be sending individuals into colleges and accept them to acquire skills that should have been there to begin with.

I guess what puzzles me is this weird tension in the American school system (and probably most other school systems to be fair) where we accept that school has to be hierarchical to some extent lest grades don't send a clear and trustworthy signal of academic competence to Universities and prospective employers. On the other hand, we also want schools to be egalitarian and achieve some sort of quota and any outcome that differs from said quota is presumed to be the result of some flawed system, some flawed expectations, something flawed to say the least. And it doesn't make much sense to me. The other problem that I find is that at some point the premium to going to college must certainly diminish if the degree becomes proliferated and common to nearly anybody who asks for it. At that point, the college premium seizes to possess a rarity that permits it to have some cachet in the market place. Something else must take it place, say the Master's Degree or Ph.D. or some other form of certification. The point is that for education to have economic value (I am not going into social value, which is on the whole positive for the most part), it has to be hard to attain and hard to get.

Either way, the stories the author is describing strike true to me and I see it everyday. Ideally, we would have some sort of de jure tracking system in the United States that would establish some sort of realistic expectations (as opposed to high expectations) for our students. Although at this point it's probably sacrilege to say this, things like standardized tests and IQ scores are actually fairly good gauges of outcomes in traditional academic areas. Additionally, repeated patterns of work and abundance or lack thereof quality should also be taken into account. But the idea that we have students who have demonstrated consistently that for whatever reason (cognitive or financial or just plain-old laziness) they are not able to achieve certain academic feats at some proper level are to be thrown again to try it is just painful. The only example I could give is of living in a society that prized athletic prowess above all else and sent individuals with poor hand eye coordination and unalterably bad vision and lack of interest in athletic pursuits to attend school that did nothing but emphasize these things at the cost of finding other venues for individuals who simply weren't good athletes. Why not offer them other options and other outlets and stop needless torturing them by having them go through the same riggamarole again and again. Right now, in the state I reside in, individuals with IQs in the low 60s and 70s are required to pass formal accreditation in Algebra and English. To say that the individuals engaged in these pursuits find their efforts futile misses the point. The real people to blame are ones who seek equality for everyone no matter what the emotional or economic cost to the ones who have to bear the burden of repeated expectations that they are almost all required fulfill. I always thought much of our educational system exhibits much cruel and unusual punishment toward our students and just destroys every shred of dignity by insisting on acquiring skills that they either can't or simply would have to work 50X as hard to acquire as somebody else.

I also do understand that there is a sort of American democratizing to the way education is practiced here. And I understand that my view is elitist, for what it's worth. I also realize that this is not a popular view nor one that most people would countenance but it does strike me as far more sensible to have at least some consistent logical basis to argue that people are not living up to their potential when they can't grasp this or that academic concept and apply it diligently in some accorded matter. Most of what I see are students who exhibit excellent traits in other fields such as art and visual renderings as well mechanical aptitude that strikes me as utterly phenomenal only to have these pursuits stifled in the name of some abstractions they'll never utilize nor coherently grasp or even have the slightest bit of interest in. Everybody ends up getting hurt in the process and they are shuffled off along into other institutions that lose their own credibility as they true to remediate what should been either taught or have been entirely omitted when these students were in middle or high school where you could clearly tell where their abilities lay (with obvious exceptions). To this day, I find this system utterly cruel. But at the end of the day, I do my best and provide as much possible instruction and supports and accommodations to my pupils knowing full well that their talents are not being utilized correctly.
posted by RapcityinBlue at 5:38 PM on January 21, 2015 [28 favorites]


"Professors can fail these young people with emotional impunity because many such failures are the students’ own fault: too much time spent texting, too little time with the textbooks."

No, this is the excuse that many Professors use without asking why these students are so disengaged with their classes. I've seen this excuse (the generic bad student excuse) come up over and over again, yet these same students mysteriously perform well in a range of different classes. Ok, a small set of students are not ready to commit the time to participate, but it's much, much smaller than the number who are accused of wilfully not participating as if this is some sort of intrinsic issue.

Too many of the problems are well entrenched before college and, in the author's microcosm, this is a snapshot of the difference between people whose parents read and those who don't. The fundamental exposure to additional vocabulary and informal rules of grammar as part of being associated with someone who has previously had that education.

I take X's point: our ideology and our reality are in conflict. But to start at the college level is to start too late, sadly. (Vocational education doesn't have to be restricted to some sort of mechanistic technical training, by the way.) And it sucks to be the person to fail someone, pretty much always. But those who have conquered college are more likely to be those who weren't defeated by life before they walked in. There's a little too much victim blaming in this for me to really jump on board.
posted by nfalkner at 5:53 PM on January 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Providing universal access to 2 years of community college is nice, but it will do little to help the problems that plague America's talent pool. Sure it will be great for middle class students who come from homes that might not have the means to send them to university. But for the swaths of kids who are chronically underserved by the public school system, it will be of little to not help.

Many of the problems endemic to public education can be solved by simply throwing money at them. Here's my proposal: Triple the budget in every public school district in America, give very teacher a 50% raise and reduce class sizes by half. Talented people who would make great teachers opt for jobs in the private sector because the pay is shit. Paying excellent teachers more is worth the expense. To deter experts from educating our children by offering nothing for extremely hard work is a crime against society.
posted by triceryclops at 5:55 PM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I found myself looking critically at the descriptions of the course and the students and coming to the conclusion that the pedagogy was the problem, not the students.
posted by humanfont at 6:08 PM on January 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Here's my proposal: Triple the budget in every public school district in America, give very teacher a 50% raise and reduce class sizes by half.

From every study I've read, there is no correlation between school budgets and student performance, no correlation between teacher pay and student performance, and a slight (we're talking about 4% gain) improvement had in reducing class sizes.
posted by The Giant Squid at 6:52 PM on January 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Although at this point it's probably sacrilege to say this, things like standardized tests and IQ scores are actually fairly good gauges of outcomes in traditional academic areas.

This a thousand times - though it is certainly considered sacrilege. The very notion that students might not be equal, that no amount of remedial work will make them equal, is taboo, so we all have to pretend that it doesn't exist.

What's funny is that this is incredibly visible - and arouses no controversy- at the higher end of the spectrum.

I have always tested very well for certain items that tend to lend themselves to various forms of intelligence work - as did many of my colleagues at the three-letter-agency I worked for. Most of us had similar backgrounds and educations - as much as we could get - on the type of work we would be doing. We were all the best of the best - among the top 5%, generally higher. But when I got there, I knew instantly - within the first day - that I would never be the equal of the intelligence guru in the corner who was generally acknowledged as a golden god. It had nothing to do with the classes he or I took. It had to do with the fact that his brain just put together intelligence pieces in a fashion that obliterated the rest of us, who were very gifted, but not geniuses. And that was just fine. It didn't demean me any to accept his superiority in the field.

I don't get why we can't do that for the lower ends of the academic or math-and-science spectrum. Academics aren't for everyone. Some of the people who are terrible at the academics, however, are really savvy at bargaining, or great at human relations, or sports, or fashion design. Why can't we just identify that earlier instead of forcing them into programs that they have neither interest nor ability in?
posted by corb at 7:04 PM on January 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


not all kids come equipped with the capacity to manipulate, say...fulfill conjugations of French verbs

The lucky thing is that none of the students who don't had the misfortune of being born in France, where miraculously, they all have said capacity.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:06 PM on January 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


I kept wondering what the actual point of education was while I was reading the article. Anyone can tell stories of tasks assigned at school that left you wondering how they were ever going to be useful to you in your life. Most of them turn out not to be. In terms of this piece, for example, what is the point of people being able to write an essay that analyses a piece of literature? Is it so that they can express themselves in writing? Or make a point and support it? Or read, understand and hopefully appreciate the literature? Or is it just to conform to the academic tradition that this is how you evaluate students of literature?

For example, when he writes:
We want the police officer who stops the car with the broken taillight to have a nodding acquaintance with great literature. And when all is said and done, my personal economic interest in booming college enrollments aside, I don’t think that’s such a boneheaded idea. Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of value to anyone.
If the point of education (we'll just go with literature for the moment and not other disciplines) is to give people an acquaintance with great literature so that they think about things on a larger level, is making them write essays analysing that literature the best way of doing it? It's certainly a valid way of doing it, but could there be other approaches that help people gain that appreciation and confidence in their ability to engage with a text, challenge a text, think at a level that challenges their own preconceptions? What about alternative versions of "literature" like films based on books or comic versions of books? Or comics full stop? Or oral storytelling, maybe even getting students to tell a story from their own lives in whatever way they choose, whether written or drawn or acted out?

I know I'm not making earth-shattering suggestions here and I know that plenty of teachers probably do these things, or similar things. I'm not a teacher so I'm sure there are factors I don't know a lot about, like needing to conform to a certain curriculum defined by people who are not you, who do not have your students and their abilities. I'm not saying it's all the fault of the teachers, it's a systematic thing where education has come to mean certain defined activities that can be evaluated in certain ways. Maybe it's time to think outside the box.

I think it is worth requiring people to engage with different points of view than their own, to engage in critical thinking, to learn how to find things out and evaluate information. I also think that there is merit in people being able to express themselves in writing, to make a point and support it with arguments, to reference sources so that others can trace your research. These do not have to happen at the same time, and I think that more people have the capacity for the first collection of things than the second.

I do realise that this approach requires more tailoring to the individuals rather than a uniform, one-size-fits-all curriculum with evaluations determined at a state or federal level. It would require a lot more in the way of resources, and teachers who are supported to offer this kind of education, and lots of things would have to change. But isn't it better than what we've got?

(As a not-unrelated aside, a certain young lady of my acquaintance really wasn't doing well in school - not because she wasn't smart, because she is, but because she doesn't fit in terribly well with the mould. Her parents are fortunate enough to live close enough to a school which offers a radically different approach to learning and have the resources to send her to it. Her classes sound fascinating and, because it's a small school, the teachers have time to engage with individual students and find ways to engage the students in what they are learning. It's amazing.)
posted by Athanassiel at 7:55 PM on January 21, 2015


This dovetails nicely with the fpp last week about Bryan Caplan's blog post, "The Magic of Education" (which I found interesting in that it was so poorly received here).

I've seen several times coworkers and acquaintances try jumping the college hoop under similar circumstances to those described in the article. Compelled by circumstances to aim for a degree for no reason other than moving up a pay scale that demands a degree. Often for doing the same fucking job they're already doing. Sometimes even on the company dime. It's pointless and wasteful, not only for the person paying tuition, but also for the person who hasn't great aptitude or desire for the college experience. But it's somehow better to be pointless and wasteful than elitist.

Yet sadly, on those occasions when an employer or counselor recommends a specific skill certification rather than a college diploma, there's a risk of being attacked for elitism or throttling a person's educational prospects and personal betterment.

There's been a long trend of devaluing practical skill training to make way for the college diploma. Even back in the 80s, my high school made absolutely no mention of paths that would be fulfilled by trade schools. It was college... end of story. Never mind how many washed out. It still goes on now, with local community colleges increasingly morphing into post-high school university stepping stones at the expense of trades. This leaves significant amounts of people with the only option of going to for-profits for trade skills, all because we want everyone to "aim higher". Which, ironically, I think, is just as elitist separating the cream of the crop for the college path.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:42 PM on January 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


I feel like the people calling for vocational schooling, for trades, are already behind the times. I'm 30, from a middle class family, and I always knew vocational training was at least an option, and probably an as good option as college for making money, if not having a fulfilling job. I looked into that direction - but the number of apprenticeships and non-sketchy, non-expensive tradeschools that could guaranatee you a decent job - there weren't that many.

The thing is we just don't need that many people working blue collar jobs any more. There aren't enough drains such that we can all be plumbers. The push to college education is an arms race for the white collar jobs that remain. And even those are subject to computer automation to some degree.
posted by Zalzidrax at 9:01 PM on January 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


Another issue with vocational training is that if the field changes such the job you trained for is eliminated, or gets ruined by having too many people in it (either too many got trained, less people are needed, positions got outsourced, etc), your training is totally non-transferable to anything else. It also goes out of date in a way that college degrees do not.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:10 PM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


This guy fails a lot of students because he thinks it's the only way purely academic achievement such as he can lay claim to will continue to hold on to a waning prestige:
In her own mind, Ms. L. had triumphed over adversity. In her own mind, she was a feel-good segment on Oprah. Everyone wants to triumph. But not everyone can—in fact, most can’t. If they could, it wouldn’t be any kind of a triumph at all. Never would I want to cheapen the accomplishments of those who really have conquered college, who were able to get past their deficits and earn a diploma, maybe even climbing onto the college honor roll. That is truly something.
And a few feeble protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, he revels in the cruelty of this work and sees himself as magnified by it:
I am the man who has to lower the hammer.

We may look mild-mannered, we adjunct instructors, but we are academic button men. I roam the halls of academe like a modern Coriolanus bearing sword and grade book, “a thing of blood, whose every motion / Was timed with dying cries.”
posted by jamjam at 9:22 PM on January 21, 2015


jamjam: "This guy fails a lot of students because he thinks it's the only way purely academic achievement such as he can lay claim to will continue to hold on to a waning prestige:"

Indeed, the piece is fairly absent of any self reflection. "Half my students are failing. They must be really stupid!"
posted by pwnguin at 1:21 AM on January 22, 2015


I teach high school, not college but much of this rang true. I despair most days because they keep placing kids in my academic classes that are essentially illiterate and/or too immature and undisciplined to keep up or even bother trying. It absolutely does ruin class for everyone else and serves no function except to make the school look good and keep the dream alive for parents. Especially since no one ever fails high school around here thanks to "credit recovery" and other hand holding measures.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 3:33 AM on January 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure using sexist and racist IQ testing is the answer.
posted by Hildegarde at 4:46 AM on January 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


The lucky thing is that none of the students who don't had the misfortune of being born in France, where miraculously, they all have said capacity.

You clearly have not spent significant time communicating in French with French people. I have, and can assure you, they do NOT all have said capacity. Nor do Finns with Finnish, nor English-speakers with English, nor Russian-speakers with Russian...

I feel very lucky to have grown up in the boondocks, where all the kids in our area went to a tiny elementary school. Its size meant that we were, by necessity, all in the same classes. Additionally, we had the immense luck to have compassionate teachers who placed emotional intelligence (relationships) above academia. As a result, and in spite of being put in TAG (80s kid) and a year ahead of my grade in reading & spelling, I did not understand that I was considered "separate" from most of my friends until reaching middle school and finding myself in A-level classes with teachers who privately met with me to swoon over my IQ test results, while friends were in C-level ones and no one aside from me ever told them that the "fun story questions" (as I saw them) were to measure our IQ.

Whoever it was said that intellectuals are not friends with mechanics is, I am very happy to say, mistaken. The vast majority of my closest friends are mechanics, construction workers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers. My own brother, thanks again largely to our elementary school, always knew he was mechanically gifted. For all my AP classes in calculus, chemistry, physics, English, and French (yeah, overachiever), I could never grok much further than the spark plugs in my car's V8 engine. Meanwhile, he could, like, LOOK at the thing and be all "oh I bet it's the XYZ in the thingummy misaligned with doohickey," wrestle with it, and yup, that was it. He's an aviation mechanic now. Takes apart helicopters and puts them back together again. But write? He tried as hard as he could... I'd tutor him, and he just couldn't get further than basic composition. With Cs. We'd laugh and tell each other he got the mechanical skills and I got the language ones.

Then there's one friend who's a bonafide genius in chemistry. She would figure out molar masses of complex compounds in her head. Seriously. After the second or third time I told her not to tell me the answer until I'd figured it out. Five minutes of her grinning and bouncing as she watched me draw the thing, look up elements I didn't remember, and do the calculations, she blurted out "YESTHAT'SIT" the literal second I wrote the answer. She has her choice of research jobs around the world now, and lives it up.

We're all happy with our lives. But yeah, when I see other friends, met later and in other places, who did not have enough people who validated their individual gifts, instead pushing them to Write Well! it is heart-breaking. I too now live in a country that practices tracking (France), and while it does have its downsides – namely racism which compounds a lot of non-white kids being "tracked" into less-well-paid lines of study not because of their talents, but because of systemic prejudice – it also has a lot of upsides, as mentioned by RapcityinBlue.
posted by fraula at 4:56 AM on January 22, 2015 [8 favorites]


The lucky thing is that none of the students who don't had the misfortune of being born in France, where miraculously, they all have said capacity.

Learning a language as a young child is a very different thing from learning a second language as a teenager or adult.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:19 AM on January 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


What if instead of throwing federal dollars at shoving more people onto the academic credential treadmill, we used that money to pay people a living wage to do socially vital jobs? Like repairing infrastructure, caring for the elderly and disabled, cleaning up rivers, etc.? It seems like that would be a lot more efficient and would serve a much bigger sector of the American people.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 6:49 AM on January 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Me: The lucky thing is that none of the students who don't had the misfortune of being born in France, where miraculously, they all have said capacity.

Anne Neville: Learning a language as a young child is a very different thing from learning a second language as a teenager or adult.

Yes, that's sort of the point. None of those students lack the capability to conjugate French verbs. What they lack is the preparation -- learning a language shouldn't be left until one is a teenager or adult. It's the school system earlier in the pipeline that failed them.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:36 AM on January 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


This guy fails a lot of students because he thinks it's the only way purely academic achievement such as he can lay claim to will continue to hold on to a waning prestige

Maybe. He does seem to sort of revel in his role, yeah, but I wonder if that's real or just the armor he puts on to deal with the stream of failure he sees.

Anyway, I think you're underestimating how much student preparation, skills, and habits can vary from one place to another. My usual story is that in grad school I did adjuncting work at NC State. Big State U, good school that people compete to get into, but not the flagship except for engineers. Teaching Intro to American Politics I'd put together tests that came back with a mean in the high 60s or low 70s, which was fine with me since it gave the high-achievers room to shine if I had to write letters for them. Nothing fancy, mostly just short-answer questions (ie, a few words) and one or two one-paragraph responses.

So I get a real job and move to North Texas, where sure enough I'm teaching intro-American to their crop of first year students. The big difference is that except for music, North Texas is (or at least was at the time) a place to go if you didn't get into A&M or UT, or being close to home was the most important criterion for your college, and that Texas required -- by law -- every single motherfucking student to pass that class to graduate. Anyway, comes time for the first exam and I figured that since these students were unlikely to have friends in Raleigh I would just re-use an old exam from NCSU. To be clear, I was the same person I was in Raleigh, I was teaching the same notes in the same way as I had in Raleigh, and this was the same exam I had given in Raleigh. The only difference was the students. And the mean came back: mean of 35 and a median even lower, and IIRC most of the responses were simply blank. As best I can tell, a majority of students were simply unprepared by their high schools to deal with an exam that simply asked a question to which they should write an answer. It's not their fault, of course -- Texas public schools leave rather much to be desired in general, and public schools in the dinky little towns a lot of these students came from are wildly variable in the quality of preparation they provide. But the fact remains that the whole time I was there, if I'd imposed the unremarkable standards I'd held NCSU students to, around half the students would have failed.

tl;dr: I don't think you get how low student preparation and skills can go in a required class at an unselective school.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:08 AM on January 22, 2015 [10 favorites]


None of those students lack the capability to conjugate French verbs.

Many people in America lack the capability to conjugate English verbs despite being in an English speaking country. This is not the gotcha you think it is.
posted by corb at 9:22 AM on January 22, 2015


I expect rather few people in the US lack the capability to conjugate verbs correctly for their dialect.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:24 AM on January 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I didn't get the sense that he rebelled in his ripple; in fact the whole point of the piece is that he hates the role. He recognized that he's fallen off the bottom ofthe academic machine, (see the post title...) but doesn't dwell on this, because he's isn't a story about overworked adjuncts, but instead about a troubling system that's fairly invisible to those living upstairs...
posted by kaibutsu at 9:25 AM on January 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Many people in America lack the capability to conjugate English verbs despite being in an English speaking country. This is not the gotcha you think it is.

Nobody uses "to verb" for every subject and tense. People may not conjugate verbs in quite in the "correct" way, but they've all learned the methods of conjugation they've been exposed to and are thus apparently capable of learning to conjugate.

The comment above would look like this without conjugation. Know any English speakers who speak this way?: Many people in America to lack the capability to cojugate English verbs despite to be in an English speaking country. This to be not the gotcha you to think it to be.

Nobody to use "to verb" for every subject and tense. People to be possible not to conjugate verbs in quite the "correct way, but they to learn the methods of conjugation to expose to and to be thus apparently capable of to learn to conjugate.

posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:42 AM on January 22, 2015


None of those students lack the capability to conjugate French verbs. What they lack is the preparation -- learning a language shouldn't be left until one is a teenager or adult. It's the school system earlier in the pipeline that failed them.

But does every American need to learn a foreign language? In situations where people do need to be fluent in more than one language, I suspect the second language generally does get introduced much earlier. Do we really benefit by pushing people to study things that they don't need to study, don't want to study, and are not good at?
posted by Anne Neville at 12:02 PM on January 22, 2015


But does every American need to learn a foreign language?

First, I was responding the statement about lack of capacity and not speaking to whether or not something is worthwhile to learn.

But since you asked about whether or not it's worthwhile: I can't think of a single occupation or life path in which it would not be useful to speak another language. I assume you can, but I can't even imagine what one would be.

And besides the direct benefits of being able to communicate with more people and in more ways, there are indirect effects: a quick google search suggests that these include reducing the cognitive effects of aging, "problem solving, mental flexibility, attentional control, inhibitory control, and task switching....creativity" (Wikipedia)

So, it wasn't the point of my original comment, but I would have no issue with another language being part of the very basic curriculum introduced early and expected to be mastered by all.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:48 PM on January 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


If only I had a penguin...: But since you asked about whether or not it's worthwhile: I can't think of a single occupation or life path in which it would not be useful to speak another language. I assume you can, but I can't even imagine what one would be.

I haven't found my second language (I only sort of had one, and I've mostly forgot it) to be useful in the sciences. You work with people all over the world, but you can only learn one or two additional languages, so you probably picked the wrong ones to work with whatever collaborators you actually get. Plus, it's almost a given that your collaborators will be better at English than you are at whatever language you learned, so all of the conversation just defaults into English.
posted by Mitrovarr at 4:38 PM on January 22, 2015


I haven't found my second language (I only sort of had one, and I've mostly forgot it) to be useful in the sciences.

I wasn't thinking of just work and insofar as I was thinking of work, I wasn't just thinking of the things that are directly work-related.

Knowing another language is useful when you're in another country and need directions (even in places were lots of people speak English, not everyone does), being able to offer directions to tourists lost in your own home, being able to speak to people who come to your home to do work (ai, if someone in my family only spoke Mandarin, the awesome things we'd be able to explain/ask our handyman to do!), or who you work with (even when they speak English, occasionally there's a thought best conveyed in another language, or which an ESL person lacks the nuance to convey in English. If you can understand their language, they can just say that one word or sentence in their language and you can understand), reading signs when you travel or in parts of the city where signs are not in English, reading the occasional journal article abstract in another language (it would take me forever to read a whole article, but I've found it useful to know what's out there published in other languages), speaking to your friends' parents and grandparents, speaking to the parents and grandparents of your kids' friends, speaking to neighbours, reading the original of a poorly translated menu, actually, translations of just about everything suck -- anytime you're capable of understanding the original you'll know more, expanding the menu of available media that you can enjoy (movies, tv, music, casual reading), making whole otherwise difficult to access parts of the web accessible (have an unusual hobby? Not that much about it online. Search and read in other languages and you have that much more to find). etc.

There's stuff everybody does for which it's useful to know another language. Not indispensable, but useful. You can totally go through your life as an English speaker in the US without knowing another language, but knowing another language would be useful here and there and make possible things that would otherwise be impossible or difficult. Put that together with the cognitive benefits and and I stand by my learning-a-second-language-is-useful-in-any-life path statement.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:13 PM on January 22, 2015


Though I don't care nearly as much that everyone be bilingual as my several comments seem to suggest, I can't resist adding this:

When someone is 5 or 6 years old, nobody has any idea what life path they will go down: What occupation they have, where they'll live as adults, whom they will chance to have in their lives. But that's the time for introducing new languages, if not earlier. At my publicly funded elementary school we had French, Italian, and Portuguese, starting in grade 1. Maybe lots of those people will never go on to use those languages frequently or to speak them fluently, but lo these many years later, I understand 5 languages and can make myself understood in three and get myself mocked in two more. It has proved useful to me. Rarely directly in my work, but here and there in my life. But if someone had decided when I was in Grade 1, when I we were all young enough that we could pick up languages relatively easily, that there was no point in teaching them, then there would have been no easy turning back later.

Given that you have to decide before you know where someone's life will take them and that kids that age can pick up languages, why not err on the side of enriching their lives, career opportunities, communication and opportunity for interaction?

Also, if you want to remove from the curriculum things that lots of people aren't good at, don't like, and will never use, I vote for gym. When am I ever going to play volleyball??

That was a joke. I'm fully aware that PE, like language learning, has lots of knock-on benefits and is an important part of the curriculum, even if volleyball did just make my arms hurt and I'm never going to do it again. And the cha-cha. When am I ever going to need to cha-cha?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:34 PM on January 22, 2015


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