Thursday, April 14, 2011

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


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?

19 comments:

GayProf said...

I am sympathetic to the idea that community colleges are not serving their students well. Nonetheless, I am not inclined to ditch the humanities because they allegedly serve no purpose to "real" work, like those employed in health. Being asked to grapple with literature, the arts, and history is (it seems to me) a critical part of an education. It prompts us to see the world through multiple perspectives and to come to terms with the fact that our individual experiences can't be transferred to all of humanity. Almost every job, moreover, requires an individual to be able to express themselves succinctly and clearly (at least verbally, if not also through writing). Finally, to be engaged with the humanities is to be an informed person operating in the larger world. And, if I had a choice, I would rather the person inserting my catheter had been asked to think awhile about the variety of human experience that might given them compassion beyond the pure mechanics of their job.

Jake Agan said...

This part is actually true: "It's a surprise we are able to pull ourselves together to pay our taxes every year."

Flora said...

Hmm...I am not sure that his description of an evening class is really all that different from how you could describe a morning or afternoon class. I have always found that if evening class students are groggy and tired, they are groggy and tired with a full day to talk about and integrate into the curriculum, whereas morning students are groggy and tired with a heck of a lot of apathy to integrate into the curriculum (generalizing...I have had some great morning students and some not-so-great evening ones as well).

Historiann said...

Great post. Unknowingly, I posted on a similar topic today (about the real cost of an intensive Liberal Arts education.)

I wrote a blog post on Professor X's Atlantic article when it came out 3 years ago. I agree with him that it's a shame that colleges offer just the dregs to working/nontraditional students, but his solution is no solution at all. One might wonder about his implication in this "corrupt" system. I guess it's worked out just fine for him, though, since he got a big-time magazine article and then a book contract out of it.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I teach at a school going through an identity crisis. On the one hand, we want to see ourselves as providing a high-quality well-rounded education to students, and we work to hire permanent faculty who are active in their fields as well as good teachers. On the other hand, there's a push towards producing "job-ready" graduates (seriously, that's the language used) that emphasizes training over education. Students, understandably, are more concerned with being able to use their degree as a ticket into a better life than their parents had. Faculty find themselves caught in the middle, wanting to give our working-class students the same quality as their more fortunate peers have, but increasingly unable to do so.

F. said...

If there was ever a group of people who didn't need to see this video it's you all; at the very least, pointing people to this video is a practical way to reach a great many.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

Susan said...

I'm with GayProf. I'd add that part of the purpose of education is to develop informed citizens: people who can critically analyze information and ideas. And in that sense, the dental technician needs that education the same way the government bureaucrat does...

Sisyphus said...

That article from a few years ago really bugged me; I haven't read the book (yet? not sure if I will take the time.)

What I took from his article is that he's --- if not a crappy teacher, then a completely mis-matched teacher to the situation. You don't have to be a genius to still read and get a little something out of literature; and if he thinks these working adults are too busy and stupid, does that mean we should give up on teaching literature in high school, where you surely have students who are the same range of abilities and motivation, who are similarly overworked and have even less maturity and attention spans?

I mean, I'm teaching future nurses and accountants and "I don't knows" who are about at the same level but have also just moved out and been introduced to alcohol for the first time, and I think my students are learning a lot in my class. Not enough to pass it this time around, for some of them, and not all of it will be measurable, but still, improvement.

If they aren't getting anything out of William Carlos Williams, maybe he should ask himself what they do need?

And I just showed a documentary about being an artist and the importance of creativity in one of my classes, even though they are overwhelmingly nursing and social work majors. Far be it for me to decide on their behalf whether they "deserve" to create things or appreciate literature.

academictacos said...

I guess its a decent argument (why bother teaching these people about fancy intellectual things), if you assume the ONLY purpose of education is vocational. However, I doubt most teachers, people who did it because that's what they wanted to do rather than because they needed some extra monies, would agree that training people to punch buttons on a cash register or write tickets to speeders is the purpose of an education. Those people will go on to do those things as part of their jobs. But, literature and critical thinking are something they can take to every aspect of their lives, which one hopes, include more than just punching the time clock.

Historiann said...

Academictacos makes a great point. Professor X's perspective is not that of the "daylight" faculty whom he appears to envy but whose values he doesn't appear to share.

A commenter of mine (Indyanna) is fond of saying that the only really valuable "outcomes assessment" of college can be done only 20-40 years post-college, or in one's obituary. The value of an education goes beyond its vocational application, surely.

Anonymous said...

I think he misjudges evening students. The sacrifices they make to be there show the investment they make in education. We can pick up a few candy bar wrappers on the way to the classroom or the chalk board and do our best to challenge them. I find evening students to be studious, serious, and to appreciate the value of a liberal arts education.

Perpetua said...

At the risk of sounding repetitive, I'd like to agree with Anon @11:08's comment, and to the critiques of Professor X by others. Moreover, just because an evening student (or any non-traditional student) doesn't write a grad-school-worthy paper, or struggles to pass the class, doesn't mean ze isn't learning anything. Sometimes those of us with PhDs reify the students who are the brightest, the most creative thinkers, the most fluid writers. Those students sometimes appear to be the most engaged and rewarded by college. But that's not necessarily true. Many great students are not interested in learning; they're bright, trained well, and know how to do well, even get As, without putting much effort in. And some students who get Cs or even lower sometimes care passionately, work hard, and are changed/stimulated/ greatly expanded by the experience of education. The whole idea that some people don't "need" college is suspect to me. While I understand from a broader perspective that this is true, the phrase itself is usually used at Prof. X uses it - ie, aimed at specific group of people who are almost always of a specific race, ethnicity, or class, suggesting that only affluent white people "deserve" or even worse can "appreciate" higher ed. We can see similar attitudes replicated all the time in the assumption that only "certain types" of people appreciate art, care about music or dance (only certain kinds of music/dance "count"), theater, etc.

Ado_Annie said...

I've had this argument multiple times over the years on the "use" or value of a Liberal Arts degree or for that matter the necessity of most higher academic education as regards a career path other than education. I accidentally found myself in an engineering field and worry at the profound disconnect I see between the thinking process of number crunchers and "fuzzy" thinkers (as they see me and my ilk). There seems to be very little appreciation for seeing beyond the present moment and current earning potential. I think this is a direct consequence of viewing higher education (or education at all) as simply a mechanical means to a focused end point rather than the basis of an appreciation for all the many facets of life, a foundation of critical thinking/problem solving and a more open outlook on many cultures of the world and their impact on everything around us. Add to that the simple and complex joy of literature itself, being able to read and understand what we read whether it is a technical manual in pursuit of job knowledge or the latest escapist thrill novel. It all holds context for our lives no matter where we find ourselves, in the daytime world or the evening.

Wow, I amaze myself sometimes. What I meant was I see Professor X’s idea of the problem of who deserves or needs certain education is actually the consequence of treating education as a means to an end rather than a lifetime pursuit. That is why my husband still calls me a hippy.

Anonymous said...

I have mostly taught at research universities, and I tremendously value a liberal arts education. It would be great if everyone could have one. That said, I have been thinking lately about community college from the perspective of a friend of mine, a martial arts teacher with a foreign high school degree, who feels that he needs a higher degree or certificate of some sort to get a decent job. He is totally overwhelmed by the requirements of liberal arts programs. He can't afford them, in terms of money or time. Sure, it would be nice if your dental hygienist could thoughtfully empathize with the vast range of human experience, but when you're someone trying to get a decent job, it kind of sucks when it will take you 5 years of night courses to become a dental hygienist because you have to study Shakespeare along the way. You have to spend those five years in a lousy job, trying to use that job to scrape together enough money to pay for night school. My friend would gladly study Shakespeare (or perhaps music composition or art history) at night once he actually had a decent job, that paid well enough that he could afford rent and school at the same time. And wasn't a restaurant gig, with a boss who changed his hours every other week. Etc. It would be great to make liberal arts education more available, but it disturbs me to hold people hostage to it by withholding decently-paying jobs with security and regular hours until they get one.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear Anonymous: I think you make a good point, and then the question for me is why higher education becomes responsible for doing the pre-sort for a labor force. We seem to be at an odd moment in the history of capitalism in which employers are making all kinds of demands on an educational system which seem to have the effect of degrading it further, bewildering its clients, and making it even more vulnerable to the contempt of the political classes than ever. The outcome of this contempt is that the political classes turn to business models to solve a problem that business itself is partly responsible for.

Strange.

sptc said...

I worked at a place like Zenith and sat on the admissions committee. The transfer students we took from "bad" backgrounds were still a lot more privileged / needed "Zenith" a lot less than the ones from here I'd like to send there now.

I think places like that are really and truly needed for bright kids who haven't had a lot of opportunities. If you were like me, going on study abroad in high school, taking college courses at an R1 in 11th grade, etc., then it's a lot less crucial where you go.

But: some good friends of mine who were actually poor, did go to places like Zenith and had a rough time because most students were well off; there was a lot they couldn't participate in because of lack of money / equipment and also their work hours. So I don't know.

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nash984954 said...

The educational systems are moving in a wrong direction, I think, and Democracy is no longer needed to have the entire country privatized and is detrimental to the process, therefore part of the reason for being more educated is to be able to sell yourself on the open market, otherwise known as market transaction neoliberalism, but the Rethugnuts want neoliberalism on steroids. They want the corporations and the wealthy in charge of all of life. "Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism, because it is the merger of the corporations and the state." by Benito Mussolini

Democracy is counterproductive to the market transaction neoliberalism that the right wing wants, where coporations, countries, individuals, cities, states, all human interactions and human actions are relegated to a market transaction, tracked more and more by smaller and smaller increments of time. For an excellent view of liberalism, neoliberalism, and globalism. http://web.inter.nl.net/users/Paul.Treanor/neoliberalism.html

Neoliberal systems have been in place for the last 40 years, however limited to the economic interests, but it is increasingly taking over all aspects of life, not just economics. The Netherlands are considering a law that would ban poor people from the cities in order to attract more corporations.
Education is becoming more and more a system in which everything is measured and the measurements are made simply due to the data crunching abilities brought on by computers. In the guise of efficiency, timesaving, or teacher abilities evaluations based on students perceived abilities as measured by rote tests. Measures are being made and done simply because they can be. Ever more smaller increments of time of one's activities are being measured in order to judge just how productive one is at their work and then, of course, comparisons are made relative to fellow workers and employer inspired self justifications for performance on the job and for even having a job. This is neoliberalism on steroids. Measuring just because you can. I'm new here, sorry if I mess up.

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