Thursday, August 26, 2004

I'm the professor from New Hamster 

There is a review today on OpinionJournal of a book titled "I'm the Teacher, You're the Student" by Emory historian Patrick Allitt. Here's the table of contents and an excerpt; there's a big warning at the bottom not to excerpt anything, so go and read. Pretty entertaining. The WSJ review describes the book as a look at the life of a professor teaching an undergraduate class. Students are ill-prepared for university life because they are trained to take standardized tests, Allitt argues.
But the ignorance, laziness, sense of entitlement and lack of basic rhetorical skills are stunning. One student thinks that "books" and "novels" are the same. Another identifies the Granite State as "New Hamster." Few are familiar with the rules of language, many spell poorly and all are confused by tenses and apostrophes and complain bitterly when Prof. Allitt marks them down for grammatical errors.

...What's the matter? The problem, as Prof. Allitt sees it, is that the skills required to ace the SAT and post a high grade-point average are not the best preparation for a rigorous liberal-arts curriculum. Our secondary schools, public and private, have not only substituted Maya Angelou for Robert Browning but guided their charges in perfecting the art of passing multiple-choice exams, not drafting essays. No wonder they cannot write, or organize their thoughts, or marshal an argument, or identify the decade in which the Civil War took place. No wonder they confuse Theodore Roosevelt with his cousin Franklin D.

That's a standard complaint. I was visiting with a sociologist from a nearby school last night and she argued that both the writing and the work ethic of her students had deteriorated over the last ten to fifteen years. Sure, but the SAT and GPA were just as binding a constraint for admission to a good school thirty years ago as they are today, and there's no question in my mind that the quality of the student has declined since then.

The reviewer then strays into his own opinion, with which I vehemently disagree.

I came away from "I'm the Teacher, You're the Student" with a lingering sense of absurdity about college. For the career-minded, or for young scholars who know exactly where they're going, the training that a school like Emory provides is probably worth the cost. But what is the point of requiring future poets to master calculus or dragging engineers to Restoration comedies? To sharpen the intellect or stimulate the appetite? Maybe. But I am tempted to guess that, on the whole, it's in one ear and out the other.
At the time you take the class, certainly this is true. But often in education the subject matter is less important than teaching the habits of good scholarship, of critical inquiry. There's something you learn in calculus not about math but about how to think. I can't quote Shakespeare, but learning to read Shakespeare made me a better reader. The retirees who listen to Prof. Allitt when he moonlights as a lecturer "pant for knowledge, ask eager questions, argue passionately among themselves" -- when did they learn to pant, to ask, and to argue? At shuffleboard? Or in a literature class forty years ago, the books of which they have long forgotten?

Sometimes it requires a little faith to be a professor. Not every seed bears fruit immediately. But still you water and weed, and wait. In New Hamster.