Since I began this blog a few months back, we have been discussing the purpose of schooling, particularly, but not solely, public education, K-12. This week, I would like to shift the focus to a different population, though the issue of the purpose of education is still involved.
Several people forwarded to me an article that appeared in the June Atlantic Monthly entitled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.” It offers a disheartening portrait of the “non-traditional” (or “remedial” or just run-of-the-mill) college student, a portrait common in mass media, and in high-brow media particularly.
The author, who is identified as “Professor X”, teaches Freshman Composition and Introduction to Literature at a community college and a small private college. His courses are required, and his students, by his description, are people “who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work.”
The purpose of the piece is to challenge the notion that everyone should have access to post-secondary education, and the professor supports his claim with a narrative of student incompetence. His students can’t write about Joyce’s “Araby” or Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”. They can’t write a research paper “elucidat[ing] the positions of scholars on two sides of a historical controversy. Why did Truman remove MacArthur? Did the United States covertly support the construction of the Berlin Wall?” They haven’t read a book in common. And so it goes.
The professor doesn’t come across as a bad guy, and he frets over the grades he must dole out. But what is so frustrating to people like me, certainly to those who told me about the article, is that the professor seems clueless about alternative ways to engage his students in the humanities and help them become more effective critical readers and writers. Nor does he seem to grant them much experience or intelligence that could be brought to bear on core topics in the humanities.
What troubles me more than Professor X’s particular narrative of failure is how frequently this type of story appears in magazines like Atlantic Monthly. We’ve discussed mass media in this blog before – and I am certainly not in the business of bashing the media – but it’s telling that such portraits come from academics or visiting journalists whose educational experience is, I’ll bet, quite different from the students before them. Their stance is one of shock or dismay or cynicism rather than curiosity and engagement. And their portrayals help shape public opinion about an issue and a population much more complex than their weary depictions suggest.
It is certainly accurate that a number of people do enter higher education poorly prepared. And we do need to think hard about what the current push for “college for all” truly means, how it can be enacted in an effective way, and whether or not it offers the best remedy for past educational inequality. These are important questions. Articles like “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” don’t help us answer them.