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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


We're Destroying Higher Education for Future Generations

I read the news last week.

February 8, 2015

I read the news last week…oh boy…

On Wednesday, the New York Times asked, “Is Your First Grader College Ready?”

Also on Wednesday, we learned that if Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed cuts to higher education go through we can expect massive contraction of faculty and courses at the flagship LSU campus, which will get off lucky, because it will at least stay open, unlike some of the other colleges and universities of the Louisiana system.

Gov. Scott Walker picked Wednesday to try to undo over a century of the Wisconsin Idea by erasing it from the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin system. Walking (get it?) it back quickly, Walker blamed the changes on a “drafting error,” which deserves to join “mistakes were made” and “it depends on what your definition of is, is” in the Hall of Fame of political weaseldom. The kerfuffle over the language distracted everyone from the $300 million Walker wants to cut from the university, which is the far bigger story.

And finally, on  Thursday, we found out that according to the “National Norms” survey of American freshmen, more first-year students than ever report having experienced depression.

So, in sum, we have to make sure kids as young as six are concerned about matriculating to something that might not exist where they’ll spend their time being depressed and anxious.

That college students are increasingly depressed and stressed out is not news to those of us who interact with them. I teach writing, not work in a counseling center and it’s obvious even to me. In July 2012, I wrote about the increasing number of students crying in my office. In April 2014, it was the “Anxiety Crisis,” and in May I pleaded with the entire education system to stop “destroying” students.

I returned the first assignment in my first-year writing course last week, an assignment worth all of 5% of their grade, and for which they can get a mulligan if they improve on the second assignment, and still the uptick in anxiety was noticeable, despite my reassurances that lower-than-desired grades are common when making the initial transition to writing in the academic conversation.

Perhaps we should be investing in mental health counseling services on campuses to treat our increasingly damaged students, but I think a more efficacious solution may be to work at ratcheting down the pressure they associate with school.

A good first start would be to stop worrying about if they’re college and career ready in first grade. While some programs intended to expose students from less privileged backgrounds to the possibility of a college degree and the opportunity it offers are admirable, the primary function of such programs is to fire the gun starting the competition when children are too young to conceptualize the meaning of a college degree of the purpose of higher education[1].

The craziest take of them all is, unsurprisingly from a tutor and college planner from Westchester County, N.Y., Wendy Segal who, with an apparent straight face declared, “It’s sort of like, if you want your kids to be in the Olympics or to have the chance to be in the Olympics, you don’t wait until your kid is 17 and say, ‘My kid really loves ice skating.’ You start when they’re 5 or 6.”

Like I said, we’re screwed.

With weeks like the one past, I sometimes wonder if there’s reason to hope, if we can possibly turn our backs on this madness.

There’s some glimmers. The reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind legislation looks like it may lead to at least a reduction in the amount of standardized testing students are subjected to.

And President Obama’s proposal to make the cost of community college free to students at least allows us to debate whether or not we want to maintain access to higher education as a public good.

But thinking about what’s happening in Wisconsin, and Louisiana, and Arizona, where public universities are being dismantled, destroyed, or transmogrified into something that hardly resembles education makes me realize that once these institutions are gone, we stand very little chance of getting them back.

On the other hand, the economy is strengthening. Even Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell are worried about the amount of wealth flowing to the 1%.  Maybe this is the moment to reverse course.

Maybe we’re capable of doing better for the generations to follow[2].


[1] The Times article written by Laura Pappano is a masterpiece of sly commentary masquerading as straight reporting. The naïveté of the children and straight silliness of some of the college-related activities is exposed by her choice use of material from the children themselves, including quoting a young girl who wants to go to Harvard and become a doctor because “my mom never lets me go anywhere.”

[2] I’m not holding my breath.




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