Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Dumbing of America

By Ted Pease

As students, teachers and parents celebrate the annual fall rites of readin’, writin’ and ’rithmatic, the question arises of whether we’ve lost our way, educationally speaking.

I mean, speaking as a teacher myself, are we doing any good, really? There are various persuasive indications that we (society as a whole, because this sure ain’t the fault of teachers alone) aren’t, and that the country is in intellectual decline. Is there any reason to wonder whether America as a whole—as gauged by yardsticks ranging from weighty scientific studies to the carping of lawmakers eager for reelection to what is probably a more accurate measure, gut feelings—is any stupider than it used to be? (Or should that be “more stupider”?)

Well, maybe “stupid” is a bit harsh. But what about students’ commitment to learning?

One indicator of our collective dumbing down that should be of particular interest to teachers comes from UCLA, which houses not only impressive basketball teams, but also is home to something called the Higher Education Research Institute (which sounds authoritative, although I can’t vouch for its won-lost record).

The UCLA report says that U.S. college freshmen “are increasingly disengaged from the academic experience.” According to this week’s U.S. News & World Report, that means college students nationwide “are more easily bored and considerably less willing to work hard” at learning than they were a decade ago. More than one-third of the students in the survey said they were “frequently bored” in their high school classes, and 65 percent said they had spent less than six hours a week on homework as high school seniors. None of which bodes well for their college careers, or for the professors who will attempt to teach them. Or, finally, for the employers who hire them and the society they create.

One of the dirty little secrets of higher education is that few of us who teach are much surprised by this finding. We see disengaged students day after day, and the job of getting them off the dime seems harder every year.

At the same time, test scores and grade-point averages continue to rise. That seems to indicate that America is getting smarter, and that teachers are teaching more effectively, but grade inflation is simply an artifact of the larger academic environment, a defensive reaction to public attitudes toward education these days: Academic won-lost records are measured in enrollment and graduation rates, career income potential and alumni giving, not in terms of knowledge and learning, so grades and academic and intellectual don’t necessarily mean a thing.

“During the last decade,” writes chemistry professor Henry Bauer of Virginia Tech, “college students have changed for the worse. An increasing proportion carry a chip on their shoulder and expect good grades without attending class or studying.”

Other professors surveyed by Bauer agreed that U.S. college students have become “progressively more ignorant, inattentive, inarticulate,” expecting that shelling out tuition (but not necessarily attending classes) should automatically guarantee them A’s and nifty careers after four years.

Parents and legislators and others who foot the bill at colleges and universities quite rightly have certain expectations about what they are paying for. They should take note of all this, because the UCLA report is not bunk, and Professor Bauer is not simply a cranky old fart. The fact is (speaking from the classroom trenches) that students have increasingly higher assumptions of their worth, and less willingness to prove it through hard work. Given that students pay our salaries and are increasingly demanding about what they think they are “buying” with their tuition dollars, professors and institutions are driven to acquiesce, to fudge on grades, to ratchet down their standards. It’s a demoralizing process.

But we do it. As Jacob Neusner, a rabbi and scholar formerly teaching at Brown University, says, college professors end up lying to their students and their parents, telling kids that they are smarter, more talented, motivated, challenging, interesting and engaging, than they really are.

It’s not that the potential quality of the educational product is lower than it once was, but it is true that professors are beaten down daily by the relentless indifference of students who snooze or chat or talk on cell phones in class, by students’ resentment of being expected to read and remember and employ facts and concepts, by the consumer mentality of students who assume that simple enrollment—with or without engagement—means they’ve earned (and learned) something.

People who teach do so for reasons that people in other careers usually don’t consider. Somewhere in there, whoever we are, lives a curiosity, a love of something—whether it’s Chaucer, or how chemistry shapes life, or what it takes to push a rocket from here to Pluto, or how this fall’s presidential race might affect the world—along with some kind of desire to ignite the same excitement in others. For people with those kinds of passions, it is intensely demoralizing to be faced with apathy, but a tremendous rush to be able to displace it, to wake up students who bring to the university experience what author and community college teacher Peter Sacks calls a “disengaged rudeness,” and replace it with a re-engagement of a 20-year-old’s attention, a new kindling of the same passions.

Sacks, writing about “Generation X,” worries that colleges have bowed to educational consumerism and, in the process, accommodate “a generation of students who [are] increasingly disengaged from anything resembling an intellectual life.” The implications of such capitulation are dire for both higher education and for the larger society and culture that knowledge should illuminate, and in which this fall’s newest generation of students—and the rest of us—will have to live.

1 comment:

Michael Julius Brown said...

"a generation of students who [are] increasingly disengaged from anything resembling an intellectual life.” Given the fact that this article was written more than ten years ago, its words today couldn't be truer. I mean Generation X was the grunge era a whole lot of throw away types, whatever. With the be-settings of public school norms and limitations the whole social aspect of high school is anything but intellectual. I mean you could even go as far to say American society as a whole has been "disengaged from anything resembling an intellectual life.” The things that resemble our life have become tired and cliche. In my opinion college is what will liberate me from that(hopefully).