“Higher Education’s Cruelest Hoax”

There’s a wonderful article on college education in the June 2008 issue of The Atlantic. The June issue isn’t up on the web yet, but should be soon. The article is titled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” and is written by an anonymous adjunct professor of English 101 and 102, Professor X. The blurb before the article reads, “The idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. An instructor at a “college of last resort” explains why.” I found myself thinking Yes! Yes! Exactly! as I read this article.

No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass.

I’ve had some wonderful teaching experiences, but I also know what Professor X is saying. How are we to teach the designated composition curriculum to those who are barely literate? Or to those who have never used a computer? Sure, a student might think they need to get a degree, but if your reading level is such that you aren’t ready for high school, and you lack the schemata to organize new knowledge, then what? The student works hard, perhaps, but they can’t pass the class. In college, we should not be giving ‘A’s for effort. Students need to master certain knowledge and skills before moving onto other courses. I could say a more about this, but I’ll stop now for fear of offending anyone. However, do go search out Professor X’s article. He says it all better than I can.

The front cover of The Atlantic reads “Higher Education’s Cruelest Hoax.”

One thought on ““Higher Education’s Cruelest Hoax”

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  1. Response to the June 2008 Atlantic Monthly essay, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” by Professor X

    Disclaimer! The following is a VERY rough draft of thinking on the topic.

    I have just finished reading Professor X’s ‘Basement’ essay in the June Atlantic Monthly. His criticisms are spot on, so far as my experience, and that of many of my colleagues, is concerned. Nevertheless, and though I realize he’s trying to make a very specific point, it strikes me there’s something missing — or at least something Prof. X could analyze further — namely, the value gained by exposure to new or more sophisticated intellectual concepts and techniques.

    After four years of adjunct teaching at 4-year colleges, universities, and community colleges, I landed a full-time position at a community college. I knew what I was getting into, but I also knew that any full time job in my discipline, Philosophy, was not to be rejected. There were many colleagues equally, if not more, qualified for the job.

    Given my experience, I know well the experience of teaching a “college level” course that is populated by those who are virtually illiterate, or who should at least be in remedial English. Yet I also know that part of the tradition of a liberal arts education is to work toward transforming oneself. (And, I would argue, even occupational programs should have some ‘tincture of philosophy.’) In this way, Philosophy is particularly fortunate; it has obvious therapeutic, as well as purely intellectual worth. But so also does every other discipline. To borrow a phrase from Bertrand Russell, the ‘enlarging of the self’ that occurs with studying philosophy is part and parcel of education itself.

    Take, for example, the woman in Professor X’s essay who, X knew, would fail the course. To say the woman was naive is to be polite. She hadn’t a clue how bereft she was of the requisite skills for academic success. But, hopefully, she came to learn the VALUE of the instruction she received, and she began to get an inkling of the sort of work required. Community college tuition is, thankfully, fairly reasonable. If she was a student in one of Prof. X’s community college classes (and, I’d argue, even if she weren’t), she didn’t waste her money.

    It seems to me that, setting aside the insidious ways programs like No Child Left Behind works to create unthinking widget-makers instead of citizen widget-makers, and setting aside the disingenuous college administrators who admit unprepared students (at least at the 4-year institutions, since I believe all public community colleges are open enrollment), we instructors have an opportunity and a responsibility to change the way our students think about their education. If that includes an F in English or Philosophy, so be it. But, I hope, the F is the beginning, not the end.

    I have one soapbox topic in all my courses: the intangible value of education. (Students generally don’t know my views on anything else.) They do know that I think education has little to do with a better job or another sort of material reward for all their sacrifices. They know I think education is about becoming a better, more careful and thorough thinker. This is their chance to conceive their world anew. In the process, they may begin to conceive themselves anew, as well.

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