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“I don’t like this whole idea of academic standards, Dr. Hendrix. Ever since I was in grade school, they’ve made me feel pressured and stressed out. I think academic standards are bullying. Whenever I have to deal with them, they bring back all these old bad memories. It’s like PTSD or something.”
So declared a student from one of my courses at California State University at Fresno, who had come to see me in my office about her progress and prospects in our class. I was a bit taken aback by her comments. More than once I have heard complaints about my courses being too hard, but this was a new one for me.
Earlier general critiques of academic standards as elitist or even inherently racist often came from a meliorist, social-therapeutic approach to education associated with the academic left. The backlash against those critiques was often built around the term “social promotion,” a phrase co-opted by the right as a bludgeon with which to whack the liberal left for supposedly cutting extra slack to nonwhite students.
In my own courses, however, I have encountered white middle-class students who are as unqualified and underprepared for college work as any student from any socioeconomically disadvantaged or historically oppressed group. Students of every ethnic and economic background have “benefited” from social promotion, a process that today is as much a product of the evolving “business” model of the academic right (“Output! Higher and faster graduation rates!”) as a product of the evolving “movement” model of the academic left (“Access! Access! College is the new high school!”).
The product of that process is embodied in the idea of the student as entitled customer, a descriptor often associated with millennials. That, however, was not the case with the student who complained to me that academic standards are a form of bullying. She was in fact a white woman in her 40s whose main academic deficit lay in the fact that her writing did not demonstrate anything like college-level competency -- a serious drawback in a writing-intensive, upper-division, general-education literature class.
Despite her deficits as a writer, the student in this episode nonetheless showed an undeniable shrewdness in her argument against academic standards. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has written frequently on campus life, has called the two versions of college currently most in vogue the therapeutic and consumer models of higher education. Through the therapeutic lens, students see colleges as environments that exist to heal them personally and nurture their advancement socioeconomically. Through the consumer lens, students see colleges as providers of quantifiable goods and services that ought to meet the expectations of the student as customer.
My student succeeded in marrying the left’s therapeutic model with the right’s consumer model. Perhaps, with her fine antennae for these things, she had also detected that faculty members who are trying to maintain academic standards feel pressured and stressed out, too, as anyone being played both ends against the middle by the left and the right well might.
Yet more than a few of us among the faculty still feel that our jobs are fundamentally about leading students toward the mastery of content and skills, including critical-thinking skills. Yes, we know full well that there are things that happen in the classroom that go beyond “mere” content and skills. We also believe, however, that were we to certify our students as knowing content they do not in fact know, and as possessing skills they do not in fact possess, we would be failing those students by passing them. We know that doing so would be academically dishonest. When we hear either “College is the new high school!” or “Higher and faster graduation rates!” what we fear is a further acceleration of the dumbing down of higher education, a further weakening of academic standards.
So, because I do not want to contribute to my students’ potential academic PTSD through the shock and awe of surprise, all of my future syllabi will grow larger by the addition of the following note: “Trigger Warning! Academic Standards Pertain -- and Will Be Maintained -- in This Course.”