What to do about all of those college students who aren’t qualified to go to college.

May 19, 2008 | By | 6 Replies More

What do you do about all of those college students who have no business being in college? If you’re a conscientious English teacher, you flunk them. And when you get incredibly frustrated that you really must flunk so many of them, as did “Professor X,” you write about your dilemma in The Atlantic.

The following excerpt is from the June 2008 issue of The Atlantic:

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

I am the man who has to lower the hammer.

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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    Didn't the onus once fall on the high school level English teachers to "lower the hammer"? But an instructor feels so much pressure to let a mediocre or terrible student slide! It reflects poorly on the teacher to have a large group of failures, and it reflects poorly on the academic institution. And most instructors probably feel some tug of sympathy for these struggling students, those failures who truly fail out of lacking skill, not lacking interest. The professor shouldn't have to lower the hammer; the illiterate apples should have been hammered-out years ago. But the other hammers have failed to fall. He deserves a lot of credit, I think, for having the nerve tell the painful truth. Who else will? Will these terrible students never realize their horrendous writing skill until their employer fires them for it?

  2. In the Fifties there was an intense push to create a superior workforce because of the space race with the Soviets. The G.I. Bill fueled some of this. Combined with the natural desire of parents to see that their children do better, we created a monster which has now resulted in this absurd "Must Have College Degree To Even Be Considered Housebroken" attitude in business and civil society. It's been a long time, but I was once rejected for a date because I had no college.

    It goes to what seems to be an underlying human desire to Be Accepted without having to demonstrate ability. The Old School Tie gets you through the door without need for qualifying tests or try-outs. No one seems to notice that a new job requires additional training regardless of academic background, but it seems also to be more important that everyone share a common experience (college) than that they actually be competent.

    This has cost us.

    And those parents who so lovingly nurtured this system into being now look at the country they helped create and scratch their heads and wonder why Americans can't actually seem to make things anymore. (Because the "trades" were seen as lower class—"I don 't want my kid to have to get his fingers dirty just to make a living!") The vocational education system was all but destroyed by the beginning of the 70s (it was seen as somehow discriminatory to "slot" kids into vocational tracks just because it appeared they couldn't handle academics) and industry began pitching over the side its most qualified people when they did not have degrees.

    I find myself in a peculiar position because of this culture. I am a writer. I've published ten novels, scads of short stories, and I'm now book reviewing for the Post-Dispatch. I have taught workshops. I am the president of a state-wide non-profit agency (Missouri Center for the Book). Etc etc etc. 99% of the jobs I can probably do I can't apply for because I have no college.

    The college degree has become the basis of a new kind of classism. Sorting people into groups—In or Out—seems to be human nature and now that we've dispensed with race, religion, or regionalism as valid markers, college/no college has emerged to take their place.

    This is one we could conceivably nip in the bud—or at least the stalk—before it really does undo us.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    A college degree is useful as an indicator to an employer that one can be taught. It is easy to coast through our K-12 school system without absorbing more then minimal literacy. But a college degree indicates that one can pay attention and learn by intention.

    I've met many degreed (and even certified) engineers who are clueless about how things work. But they can still be trained to be useful in a specialty. I also know un-degreed individuals who can design circles around some engineers, even if they only have an intuitive understanding of the principles so rigidly described in advanced math classes.

    Writing to spec is an acquired skill. College is more about learning to learn than about the particular material being presented. English is just a subject.

    As for Mark and his authorship: Many degreed authors paid for their school by writing. Crichton became a bestselling author to pay his way through school. Asimov is another example. These guys got advanced degrees in part because they could write, not the other way around.

  4. KennyCelican says:

    As a teacher at a secondary school, I have to disagree with Dan. College isn't, or shouldn't be, about learning to learn. College should be about acquiring as much advanced knowledge in a chosen field as possible. In short, getting the 'book learning' without which mastery of a field is far more difficult.

    I discuss this with my fellow teachers on a regular basis. Grade school (K-5 or K-6) is about learning to communicate and how to behave in a classroom. Students study reading, writing, and arithmetic, that last because it is the language of scientific study.

    'Junior High' or 'Middle School' (5ish to 9ish) is for learning how to learn. Geometry, scientific method, and basic research are (or ought to be) taught in Math, Science and English, respectively.

    Finally, in High School (which starts between 8 and 11 and caps off at 12) students should be absorbing the material which forms the accepted core values of our culture. Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Earth Science. Literature, Creative Writing, Reporting. Algebra, Trig, and Calc. History and Civics.

    Sadly, we see students every day who have been passed forward by instructors who were placed under a microscope one too many times for failing a large number of students. Those same instructors, now that they have learned to give a D- instead of an F, are no longer placed under the same scrutiny. If they have learned to produce the required administrative paperwork, that scrutiny often drops to nil. So we get students who are radically unprepared for High School. Our task becomes both teaching our own subjects and teaching the framework to understand those subjects.

    To return to college being a place to learn to learn; in college you should be studying the academic material required to fully understand the tasks you'll be performing in your day to day work activities. If you've got the abstract knowledge, learning those tasks will be relatively straightforward. You'll also have a good basis for both intuiting when to leave the pre-prepared script and how to do so.

    As to one of Mark's points; learning job skills quickly and understanding them well enough to apply them requires abstract knowledge. College is one place to learn them, but is by no means the only one. Many people pick that abstract knowledge up by themselves outside a classroom.

    As to another, I agree completely that the dismantling of our vocational training system has cost us. Individuals who have no desire to pursue academics are forced into them. Not only does that reduce the number of trained workers, it also lowers academic standards, as students with no desire to learn are substantially harder to teach, yet the pressure to pass those students is no less than the pressure to pass a student who genuinely wants to learn.

    Short version (I know, too late); the hammer has to start falling when students are still young enough to accept it as part of life. Grade school teachers and parents need to be willing to tell their children 'no, that isn't good enough, try harder'. In the end, those children will grow up to be happier adults, because they'll actually have a chance to achieve something meaningful, rather than languishing in terminal mediocrity.

  5. Kenny,

    With all due respect, I believe what Dan is referring to is not so much what college is supposed to be or do but what potential employers view it as. Also, in my own field(s) I've experienced the same thing Dan notes—college degreed people who don't know their own major in any real-world sense.

    I agree with your assessment of what the breakdown in school should be, but I don't think the majority of schools measure up to that. Certainly my experiences with the newly-matriculated have been a mixed bag, mostly comprised of cluelessness.

  6. Dan Klarmann says:

    Kenney-Bob embraces a popular view of college. He appears to equate it with a trade school; learning a specialty. College is a place to explore many fields, each in depth. Graduate school should be about pursuing a specialty.

    The liberal arts degree, in particular, is supposed to be about tuning the mind to learning and thinking, not about stuffing a head with focused factoids.

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