*The opinions expressed herein represent the experiences of one particular instructor at one particular institution in one particular class. It is not the goal of this piece of writing to endorse any one political or pedagogical viewpoint.*
My students did really well on a map quiz today and I’m depressed. As I was grading today I looked at them and said out loud “I can’t believe I’m asking a group of 19 year olds to identify the Thirteen Colonies.” Even more, I can’t believe that I was impressed that they did well. Even more, I can’t believe there are students at a four year institution who can’t spell “Maine.”
As I have mentioned before, education runs deep in my family. I am fortunate enough to have been born to a group of people who emphasized academic rigor and gave me the support I needed to do well (even when that involved a humiliating experience with an algebra tutor when I was 13). But beyond that, my parents never dared utter the phrase “College isn’t for everyone,” especially Dr. Mom.
Dr. Mom’s family was sending women off to college as early as the Jazz age. They stepped off the boat and when my great grandmother showed some aptitude in her one-room schoolhouse they bought her a coat and put her on the train to the City. A couple years later she had her own one-room schoolhouse teaching poor-as-dirt Finnish kids how to read, write, and play baseball because by God she wasn’t a Swede and they weren’t Finns, they were Americans now and in America even immigrant kids get to learn, damn it! We take this shit seriously.
So imagine my surprise today when I looked at this pile of quizzes and said “Man, some of these kids probably shouldn’t be here.”
I hate the Randian, social-Darwinist attitude that the right takes toward education in this country. Hate, hate, hate it. School shouldn’t be a grueling war of attrition designed to weed out “weak” students and consign them to a life of menial labor, nor should it make the declaration that STEM fields are more valuable than the Arts. Ken Robinson (as I’ve mentioned before) hits the nail on the head here with what’s wrong with education in this country, namely that it’s obsolete in conception and implementation. I completely agree.
But even if I throw pitches so soft they don’t move I still watch these students step up to the plate and smash themselves in the face with their bat. Regardless of how obsolete our education system may be in this country, or how understanding I am of the low-income, first-generation demographic I serve at this institution, it is beyond belief that a student can even get into college without knowing how to spell “Maine.”
Imagine, if you will, a student who cannot tell you what he likes to do for fun. A student who has not heard of any major world event that is happening as you speak. A student who hands in a paper that is literally a cut and pasted chunk of Wikipedia, complete with . A student who cannot spell Maine, nor sees why it is necessary for her to do so. A student who actually falls asleep while you are talking directly to them.
I have a class full of them every year. I try to explain it to them: “Listen,” I say, “All the answers to this exam are on your study guide! If you can give me a two or three sentence explanation of what each of these terms means you will pass with flying colors! All you must do is read your book and write down what you see!” And they don’t. When I worry that the poor performances might indicate my poor teaching abilities, I realize that these students can’t (or won’t) remember ten phrases on a sheet of paper, and then I despair.
I know of all people that these students mainly do not come from environments where academic performance is valued. I get that they did not get help to address learning disabilities at an early age, or that their home lives may be difficult, or that they are emotionally stunted due to drug use, but I find myself wondering now more than ever why are they here? I can’t help them overcome those problems in any fundamental way at this point, and they would rather take the ‘F’ than do an hour of reading.
I want to help them succeed, but sometimes it seems like my options are to lower my standards or let them all fail. I am doing nobody a favor by letting them eke by with a D+ so they can go off into the world and “make bank,” because they’re not going to. They will get out of my remedial program, spend another 30 thousand dollars on a year and a half of school before dropping out because they cannot or will not open their text books and other instructors are less forgiving than I am.
It’s causing a good deal of inner conflict in me, because both in and out of the classroom I work with at-risk student populations to support them on their quest to improve their circumstances. The government SHOULD get involved with that. It is a GOOD thing to spend tax money on, and I am proud to do it. But how, how HOW do I impress upon these 18 year olds that it isn’t a one way street? You don’t deposit a few thousand dollars in the machine and get a diploma at the end! By 18 it is essentially too late to make them see how worth it the effort is, at least until they’ve been in a dead-end job for 10 years and decide to go back to school with a house and a family. I almost feel that I should tell them from the get go “If you’re not going to work at this, go home and try again in a few years,” but what sort of encouragement is that?
What would my great grandmother say?