Hoots and Air Horns

Next Saturday is graduation and this year’s ceremony will differ little from those in the past: names will be read, air horns blasted, and smiles and empty diploma sleeves will be flashed before digital cameras. For the students this event is supposed to mark the culmination of all their “hard work.” For many of them it does, but for just as many it doesn’t. The dirty little secret of American higher education is that we graduate a lot of people who’ve been singularly unaffected by the experience.

Every year I watch students walk across the stage who cannot write a clear English sentence, draw a logical inference from a paragraph, or name one of Newton’s three laws of motion. Yet on Saturday we will mouth words about these people entering the “community of scholars.” This is certainly not exclusive to my institution. The meager nationwide data we possess on educational outcomes for liberal arts graduates is not heartening. Less than 11 percent of seniors and juniors are rated as “proficient” in critical thinking by the Measure of Academic Progress and Proficiency exam (MAPP).

The usual faculty response to this depressing data is to decry standardized testing, criticize how the tests were constructed or (the last refuge of a scoundrel) insist that our efforts simply cannot be measured or turned into a number. Get a few glasses of wine in us, however, and we will confess sotto voce (and after looking both ways to see who’s listening) that we too have our doubts.

Don’t get me wrong. Education works. I could not keep doing this job if I did not see many of my students' lives transformed by a college education, but I also see many who aren't changed. Perhaps the problem is taxonomic. We have only two categories to describe people: educated or uneducated. We seldom speak of the half-educated, those who can read but usually don't; those who can think but prefer not to. The existence of a large class of half-educated citizens is a relatively recent phenomenon. Historically speaking, most societies have consisted of a small educated elite and a mass of uneducated and often illiterate people. Ironically, the uneducated tend to have more respect for learning and culture than the half-educated. I guess a little familiarity breeds contempt.

You’ll have to forgive me if I seem especially cynical today. I was teaching until 10:20 pm last night to a room full of students who hadn’t read the material and couldn’t see the point of doing so. And I’ve tried every trick in the “active learning,” “student-centered,” “problem based,” “hands-on,” “learning styles” handbook. After a while you begin to feel as though you are perpetrating a fraud. You pretend to be teaching, they pretend to be learning, and we’ll all pretend that this is a legitimate enterprise.

Sociologists tell us that rituals are rarely dictated by logic or necessity. They simply reinforce the continuance of traditions. This strikes me as especially true this morning. I suddenly can find no reason why anyone would want to dress up in a funny hat to listen to empty platitudes on a fine spring afternoon. Grrrr. I hope my mood improves tomorrow.

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