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The Sense of College
May 10, 2008 - 5:32pm



"No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to [university] classes they cannot possiblypass," writes an anonymous adjunct English professor in the June 2008 Atlantic magazine (far as I know, it's not available online). He teaches in two "colleges of last resort," where local, often older, students, go to rack up credits so they can move along a career track.

But they can't pass the anonymous professor's required course, because it's not about memorizing practical vocational information. It's about thinking and writing coherently, and having a point of view of your own. Many of his students don't know how to analyze anything, let alone take a polemical
position relative to it. They can't use prose coherently, and they don't know what it means to set out a grounded, rational argument. Worse, the professor's other course asks them to write a formal paper about a work of literature. They've read almost nothing.

"The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces - social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need... [Yet although] more-widespread college admission is a [financial] bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment."

Despite the degrading and pointless activity many of his students find themselves in, the anonymous professor confesses to a bit of sentiment about the moral uplift of the literature he's trying to teach, a moral uplift he'd like these future police officers and nurses to experience, because it may make them more compassionate at their job: "I can't shake the sense that reading literature is informative and broadening and ultimately good for you." But serious literature isn't at all necessarily good for you; much of it conveys a moral complexity that borders on the immoral or amoral. And in any case, these students have already encountered The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird in high school; they've already gotten tons of lectures about interpersonal sensitivity, cultural competence, and the like.

Beyond marginal literacy, the professor's students "are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college."

Note what the author isolates as the key intellectual trait of authentic college students: They have already learned something by the time they get to college, and the most important thing they've learned is a sort of rough intellectual history, an early but functional sense of the categories by
which we organize and understand various human expressive acts -- this is literature and these are its traits; this is the legal tradition and these its salient features. The serious college curriculum builds upon this foundation by adding not merely more information to it, but more complexity to its categories. The best-educated college graduates move easily among categories to make important intellectual connections -- they put science and theology into play in order to think at a high level about empirical and non-empirical truth claims. They read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Mimesis in order to ask not merely what a particular theory or novel means, but what
the fact of our having evolved particular standards of scientific legitimacy, and a particular ethos for fiction, means.

This is what university education is about -- the disciplined assimilation of information into historically established categories which allow us to regulate and embellish thought about the world. This professor's English comp and Intro Lit courses are primitive stages in this education: they ask students to convey only the most basic sense of categorical awareness, the shakiest intimation that there are contexts that connect what would otherwise be arbitrary bits of information, random creative eruptions. A few of this professor's students will be able to do this, but most will not, and it is a cruel and expensive hoax to fail them repeatedly on their efforts.


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