Monday, May 07, 2007

Civil students 

I don't keep a home office any more; I used to hide in a glorified closet in the basement but after #1 son left for college I moved out into the family room. I'm sure I annoy the family with papers strewn on the floor from time to time, but it allows me to engage Littlest Scholar, who also has a desk in the family room. This allows me to keep an eye on her for bad websites -- so far, nothing worse than some cheesy YouTube'd manga.

Last night she was finishing her science project and went to print it. As it came off she said excitedly, "Dad, I have twelve pages!!" I bit my tongue on which the words were "but do they communicate the purpose of the experiment?" I said that was a lot of pages. "I have a mini-book here," she said in a very satisfied voice.

This week's Chronicle of Higher Ed has Thomas Benton's latest, on remedial civility training:

Every morning, after setting up all the multimedia components I'm going to need, I stand at the door of my 8:30 a.m. classroom in my jacket and tie and say, "Good morning" to each entering student.

Only a few will say "Hi" or "Good morning" in return. About half will give me a somewhat confused nod, not quite making eye contact. The rest will not even look at me; they look at their shoes and keep walking, exuding a vaguely suspicious and hostile air.

...I sometimes feel stung by students' rudeness. I try to make my classes interesting and relevant, and I care about their learning. I try to conduct myself in a kindly but professional manner. But, more and more, I think the student culture of incivility is a larger impediment to their success than anything they might fail to learn about Western civilization or whatever it is I am teaching.

I often hear a lot of talk about the academic weaknesses of new freshmen. Even at a relatively elite college, it's not uncommon to find 18-year-olds who have problems with reading -- so much so that almost no incentive can persuade some students to spend an hour with Shakespeare, Kant, or Gibbon.

Writing is an even bigger problem for many students. Most have never produced anything longer than a few pages. A serious research paper -- involving sources, citation, and maybe eight pages of thoughtful analysis -- has become almost entirely unknown before college. The fundamental skills that used to qualify students for admission have been eroded to the point that nothing can be assumed anymore.

But those deficiencies don't bother me all that much. I am here to help them become better readers and writers, as well as to learn the particular content of my courses. Even more than that, I want to cultivate in them a sense of pleasure in learning that will enrich their lives.

Of course, I think it is a serious problem that many public schools -- and private ones -- have just about given up teaching many of the academic skills that were once considered basic for every high-school graduate, not just the ones going to college. But what really troubles me is that schools -- no doubt, mirroring the broader culture -- have given up cultivating the ordinary courtesies that enable people to get along without friction and violence.

Littlest is quite shy and does not talk at all to people she doesn't know. But she's quite talkative at home and with her teacher. She is at a private school, by the way, but I'm not sold that this is a private/public thing nor that this is an argument for vouchers or what-have-you. Benton points to students' cynicism, and argues it to be built from ignoring the small courtesies, a sort of "broken windows" theory of education.

So how do you fix that? One observation from Littlest, also over the weekend: We went to church Sunday; we are still deciding between two churches to replace the one we closed last November. Yesterday's was the one not affiliated with her school. It has a large preschool and yesterday was preschool Sunday, so all the kids were there, had decorated the sanctuary and the vestments worn by the pastors. As we're leaving I ask her how she liked the service. "I don't like the children's handprints on the pastors' robes." Why? "That's not respectful or dignified."

I whistled lowly, and we hurriedly left the church.

The basis for teaching the courtesies is there. You just have to put the little extra effort in now.