Friday, May 09, 2008

Learning to think....?

In the June issue of the Atlantic (which unfortunately isn't online yet, so I can't link to it), there's an article by "Professor X" who teaches English Comp at a private college, and a community college in the Northeast (both, of course, unnamed, though I'd love to know what the private college is). The gist of the article is that he teaches English Comp to adults, many of whom have been in the workforce for 20 years or more, who need some college credits to either move ahead in their current jobs, or their jobs are requiring them to take some Comp classes. A lot of them are even public service jobs, like sheriffs, or they're insurance billers, whose employers have decided these people need to learn how to write research papers for some reason.

It's a "college of last resort," according to Professor X, and many of these people, he says, are completely incapable of doing high school work, much less college work. A big part of his job involves failing hardworking individuals who have to take his class 2 or 3 times sometimes, but who nevertheless cannot construct a coherent sentence to save their lives.

One example he gives is of "Ms. L," a middle-aged woman he had to fail, and one of the few instances where he lost sleep over it, and briefly considered passing her for her own sake, but then decided against it. She was supposed to write a research paper on an historical controversy, but had never even sat in front of a computer, much less done research and written a paper. After sifting through several topics, she settled on gun control, though the professor warned her it could not be a paper about the pros and cons of gun control, but could be a paper about the historical significance of perhaps a specific piece of gun control legislation.

Needless to say, the paper she turned in was a discussion of the pros and cons of gun control. At least, I think that was the subject. There was no real thesis. The paper often lapsed into incoherence. Sentences broke off in the middle of a line and resumed on the next one, with the first word inappropriately capitalized. There was some wavering between single-and double-spacing. She did quote articles, but cited only databases-where were the journals themselves? The paper was also too short: a bad job and such small portions.

The professor basically goes on to say that some people simply aren't cut out to go to college, despite the elitism and snobbery that reeks of. He of course cites the British system, briefly, of its tracks of college or apprenticeship, which I, personally, believe isn't such a terrible thing.

It's so hard, though, for me to put myself in the position of these people. Reading, analysis, literature and writing have always been second-nature to me. But I'm terrible, terrible at math. In my Statistics class, I studied and studied and struggled and struggled, and still barely eeked out a C, but I know many people for whom doing math is like breathing. So who am I to judge? But I also don't think that I just "can't do" math. I think a lot of it is conditioning. I think a lot of it is learned experience, from having done so poorly at math my whole life simply because I wasn't interested in it, and therefor didn't really try, but it set in motion a path for failure. I convinced myself that I just wasn't a "math person," but that's ridiculous.

I have very mixed feelings about academia. I think it serves a valuable purpose, but not what most people might think, and not for everyone. The primary thing I finally learned in college (at St. Edward's; I can't really say I learned much of anything at the University of Arkansas or at the Art Institute, but again, that's my own fault) was how to think and express myself critically, which is not something I think I had a firm grasp on before I started school. I learned nothing, really, of facts, or from multiple-choice tests given by lazy professors, because I barely cracked open a textbook in my entire school career (despite paying hundreds of dollars for them). The only thing I ever learned came from doing research papers, and it was a gradual and continuous process. I really don't believe anyone can learn to write in one class; that's absurd. Perhaps someone can be given an appreciation of learning, and then go seek their own knowledge from one class, but again, it's doubtful. I had approximately 4 or 5 classes in over two years at St. Edward's where I thought the teachers did an outstanding job of actually teaching, and encouraging the students to think outside their own comfort zones and come to appreciate the art of questioning and seeking truth, futile as it might sometimes be, for its own sake, and not for the sake of memorizing useless facts for a final. And considering that I plan to enter a profession that involves a whole lot of thinking, introspection, seeking, and analysis, that worked out well, for the most part.

But I, and Professor X, acknowledge that's not for everyone, nor should it be. He writes:

America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone's options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.

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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