Thursday, October 15, 2020

Education: Just Another American commodity?


     Inside a private banquet room of a swanky San Francisco hotel, a group of community college teachers finished their meal, poured wine, and started to relax after attending an intense three-day education conference. None of them could afford a room in the hotel or a seat in the restaurant if a state grant hadn’t picked up the tab.

     One teacher, a young Ph. D., political science, said he was stressed. He needed to get back to campus. Only three weeks left in the semester, and he was behind schedule. He’d have to rush through the material if he was going to “get it all in.”

Most agreed, nodding their heads, but for one, who asked, “What happens if you don’t finish the material?”

     Others at the table gasped, the question anathema in education. The first teacher answered, “We won’t finish the text.”

     “Then what happens?”

     “Well,” said the political science teacher, not sure if he was being punked, “if they go into politics, or want to talk intelligently about our political system, they won’t have gotten all the material.” The second the idea was out of his mouth, he realized how absurd it sounded.

     The teacher asking the questions pushed harder. The others listened. “Marv, you have, what, maybe 30 or 40 students? It’s a General Education course. How many students are political science majors, anyway, and of that, how many are going into politics as a career, or, for that matter, will need to talk intelligently about politics to survive in the future?”

     The table was silent. The political science teacher thought, then smiled, shyly, “Maybe four or five students are poly sci majors. Okay, okay, I get it. I just think it’s my job to make sure I cover all the material.”

     Someone else piped up, “In one seminar I attended, a Harvard researcher said multiple studies showed by the start of a new semester, most students forget 80 to 90 % of what they learned the prior semester, regardless of whether it’s a class major or not, even among Ivy League math and science majors.”

     When he returned to campus, the political science teacher queried his students. They told him it wasn’t the material that motivated them but the methods he used to teach them. He talked to his students who had transferred, graduated from universities, and were starting careers. They told him the dense material of political science rarely came up in their lives, but the ways they learned the material did.

     The above experience, where I was the one asking the questions, got me to thinking about students and parents stuck at home because of covid-19 and complaining how “online” education is failing. The thing is, for many low-income students, public education was already failing them before the pandemic, consider the rate of those leaving school before the 12th grade, or graduating and still not able to read, write, or compute numbers intelligently.

     Interestingly, some students excel whether in a live class or online. What they miss most is socializing, which they consider an important part of their education. They’ve come to understand the way to succeed in school is to not necessarily absorb the material but to manipulate the system, simple things, like sitting at the front of the class, asking questions, visiting the teacher during office hours, writing neatly, and showing an interest in the subject. They also master their teachers' methods of delivering the information, and they adapt to those methods. These students get the grades they want, and move on. 

     They also understand much of what they learned, they won’t retain very long, or just long enough to get the grades to get into the colleges of their choice. In education, we called them, “Those who learned how to play the game.”

     It is unfortunate, but this is what American higher education has wrought on society, especially today, where the wealthiest in society bribe universities into accepting their children for-- bragging rights, I suppose. 

     At a dinner party they can say, “My son-daughter is studying at UCLA, Princeton, Harvard, USC, Stanford…”  Higher education has become a commodity, and the university a store, not unlike Nordstrom, Sacks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany, Gucci, etc.

     The irony: those kids, whose parents paid for their admission to famed universities, once they graduate—or not, will inherit so much money they’ll never need a job, anyway. And if their parents paid up to $500,000 to get them acceptance into a brand-university, who is to say they won’t pay someone to do their class work?

     I once worked at a major university in California. A Republican governor (but I wouldn’t limit it to party), who used anti-Affirmative Action rhetoric, mainly in college admissions, to get him into office, thought nothing of requesting special consideration in admitting his nephew to the university.

     His nephew, the son of a wealthy real estate entrepreneur, barely had the grades and SAT scores to make it into the lowliest private college, let alone a premier public institution. As part of the request, the governor’s minion asked the university, if it could kick in a scholarship or two. Frustrated, my boss, the director of admissions said, sourly, “It’s the governor.”

     The kid never did graduate.

     As I read about K-12 students struggling to learn online, I thought back to my time in the classroom, and the academic wars—those professors who believed in doing it the old, traditional way, as opposed to those who said a change was needed. Education should keep up with the changes in society, good arguments on both sides.

    It makes me, even now, laugh, when I hear political pundits on the right, talk about American higher education as completely liberal, even socialist. Education might be one of the most conservatively entrenched professions in the country. Professors love change, in every field but their own.

     In my own discipline, English, we don’t really teach English but, I guess, "American", and not even as a language. What we really teach is reading and writing. Those aren’t languages but skills. Some creative-thinking teachers go so far as to say--writing is an art and should, perhaps, be taught as a craft, like painting, music, or sculpture. That discussion didn’t get far.

     The strictly formatted academic essay has been a mainstay in English, and most academic departments across the country for years. Teaching and evaluating this form of writing, the basis of most M.A. theses and Ph. D dissertations, remains much the same since the days of John Dewey’s 1916 ground-breaking book, “Democracy and Education,” which didn’t break a lot of ground but, at least, put a few cracks in it.

     Some of us in the department argued that few professions in the 21st century required that old, stilted type of writing. Why not teach the styles of writing our students will use most in their careers and daily lives? Those on the other side argued that until the universities changed the types of papers they required of students, we had to meet their standards. They had a point.

     So, students sit at home in front of their computers or phones and try to learn the various components of the college essay. But it isn’t only the writing. English departments demand that students also learn grammar, and not just functional grammar, as a supplement to their writing, but to hardcore grammar as if they are going to teach English.

     So, teachers follow the grammar books, spouting technical terms like dangling versus misplaced modifiers, participles, past and present, the subjunctive mood, active and passive verbs, indefinite pronouns and definite pronouns, infinitives and split infinitives…. You get the point.

     Imagine, kids who spend their days on phones, where they stream everything, news, music, movies, Tic-toc, twitters, Instagram, and who knows how many other sites, sitting through a daily grind of grammar, which, in most cases, has little to do with learning to write well. Then, they are ordered to write essays, using the old, outdated format.  

     I remember certain time of the academic year and sitting at tables with other teachers, a stack of student essays in front of each of us as we discuss the merits or demerits of each paper. I’d say, mostly, we agreed, but some teacher’s comments gave me insight into the educator’s mind.

     One teacher marked a student’s paper down a grade because the student dared to used the personal pronoun “I” once or twice in an otherwise beautifully written paper. The teacher said, “Expository writing can’t have a personal pronoun. It has to be objective.” Somebody else called out, “How can it be objective if we asked the students to argue a position?”

     On another occasion, a number of us agreed a student’s superb paper, even though it contained a few awkward sentences and a misspelling or two, typos, was focused, engaging, and intelligent. Another teacher didn’t agree. She couldn’t get past the few typos. She said, “Intelligence wasn’t in the rubric.”

     During other sessions, teachers argued even though a student had written a marvelous seven-page essay, since it didn’t explicitly contain, what English teachers call, a thesis sentence in the introductory paragraph, the student didn’t follow the rubric (the standards set down by the teachers themselves). Somebody else said, “The thesis is implicit in the paper. Anybody reading this essay would know the thesis.”

     The teacher who lowered the grade argued, “We said students had to put the thesis in the last sentence of the introductory paragraph. I don’t see it where it should be.”

     I recall arguing over an expository versus a narrative paper. The instructions were to select a topic and write a paper arguing your position. One student wrote a paper where she told a tragic story about rape, intricately weaving in both expository and narrative writing. When readers finished the story, the student had made it clear to all of us that rape was evil and should be an offense punishable by a long prison sentence. We graded the paper a “5”, the highest possible.

      “But,” argued one group of teachers, who gave the paper a “3”, barely passing. “it’s a story. She uses too much description and not enough exposition (explanation using evidence and abstract statements).

     I called out, “We all have our students read George Orwell’s short essay, “the Hanging.” It is narrative and mostly descriptive and leaves no doubt that capital punishment in the English colonies was cruel and often unjustified. If we tell our students Orwell was a great writer, and they model their writing after his, do we then punish them for it?”

     Another laughed, “Orwell would never earn a 5 paper in this group.”

     According to educator-critic Ken Robinson, the problem with education is that many professors and teachers teach as if their students are all going to be teachers. It’s easier to teach this way, to teach the way you were taught. The truth is, the future is changing so fast, no one can predict what will happen in five years.

     In the halls of academia, where, literally, many teachers stop to talk, a psychologist told me he was fed up with academic texts. “The whole text book business is a scam. The books are boring, long, and overpriced. I am embarrassed to even have to assign them. Tell you what, if I could assign Crime and Punishment to my students, I could teach them more about psychology than all the texts put together.”

     “Why don’t you?”

     “The Psychology department selected the text. They’d lose their minds if I didn’t follow policy.”

     Inside the halls of academia, whether K-12 or higher education, all of these discussions are taking place. I think about the kids sitting at home in front of their computer screens trying to make sense of it all. Probably, it doesn’t make sense to them because it doesn’t truly make sense to the people designing it all. I bet if they had turned it over to guys like Steve Jobs, they’d figure a way to make it work.


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