Learning Something New

Image by Earlham College via Flickr

In the course of eighteen years as a full-time university professor, I have encountered the following situation many times. An irate student knocks on my office door to complain about a grade. Even when I show the student his paper, he complains, saying, “My teachers have always told me I’m a good writer. I’m real smart. You’re the only teacher who’s ever given me grades this low.” When the student leaves, I look over the paper again. There is not one coherent English sentence in the entire paper. It is so unclear I have to re-read it several times to get the point the student is trying to make. The paper makes multiple mistakes about a philosopher or philosopher’s actual position. There is no argumentation in the paper, only claims, many of them spiced with emotional tirades.

Some of my colleagues pass out a questionnaire at the beginning of each semester. One question is “What do you want to do when you graduate?” Students provide a variety of answers, including “I want to become a pediatrician,” or “I want to be a best-selling author.” Later, it turns out those same students read and write at a fifth-grade level at best, have poor math skills, and are C students or lower. How can such high expectations co-exist with such low intellectual ability?

One reason, I believe, likes in the American culture of entitlement, a culture that is reflected in the government school system. Grades K-12 are no longer about teaching basic skills such as reading, writing, mathematics, and a basic knowledge of science and history. Teacher education schools operate on the “mantra of the year,” and none of these mantras help teachers to educate students. A few years ago the mantra was “facilitative teacher,” which was more about letting the students run the show and teaching politically correct left-wing ideology than teaching children basic skills. Before that, the emphasis, which still is operative in the public schools, was on student “self-esteem.” Rather than encouraging self-esteem for real achievement, students were taught to feel good about themselves at the expense of academic standards. The result is a group of students who feel great about themselves but who are also, to put it frankly, “dumb as dirt.” They are taught that they can do anything, and are given the grades to prove it—but without grades reflecting real abilities, when those same students enter college or university, their dreams are shattered. Rather than taking responsibility for themselves and working on improving their skills, many students “blame the professor” and move to an easy major such as education or social work. In those fields, they can continue their “education” in self-esteem and left-wing politically correct ideology—and they will remain ignorant and uneducated in reality.

Such poison has infiltrated higher education in the form of “student-centered education,” which supposedly is better for “post-modern students” who cannot learn from traditional methods of teaching. Although there is nothing wrong with varying from the traditional lecture and using visual aids or discussion groups—I use those methods myself—the real goal of “student-centered education” is to ignore traditional methods of education such as lecture and memorization. And though I agree with student-centered education’s emphasis on getting students to think, they still require some content to think about—and this implies some lecture, reading, and memorization. Students do not automatically know what is best for them, and the rise of student evaluation of faculty and student influence on the curriculum coincided with the lowering of academic standards.

What can be done? First, education schools, which have been the source of much of the plague infecting the school system, should be replaced by an internship system. In this system, students would get a strong liberal arts undergraduate degree that emphasizes general education plus knowledge of a particular field. Then those students who desire to teach should go through an internship in the school system in order to develop their teaching skills and learn the technology. Second, no student should go through grades K-12 without being taught basic grammar—and I recommend some elements of classical rhetoric, perhaps a basic course in classical rhetoric. Third, students should be taught the history of the United States and of the world so that they know not only historical facts, but also geography and its effect on historical development. Fourth, students should be taught basic skills in mathematics and science. Fifth, school should emphasize real achievement and support high academic standards, including grades that reflect a student’s actual ability instead of high grades to promote “self-esteem.” Sixth, higher education should avoid the mistake the public school system has made and avoid trends toward “post-modern education”—there is still room for traditional teaching methods so that students learn the facts that provide content for thinking. And students, when they are old enough to think critically, should be taught how to reason from kindergarten through their university education. Only if we focus on the tried and true rather than the newfangled and false will the gap between expectations and skills be bridged.