The Dirty Secrets of Higher Ed

An Atlantic essay by "Professor X," a pseudonymous community college English teacher, is an interesting and demoralizing read. The author writes that the vast majority of students he's taught over the years in "colleges of last resort" aren't able to read, write, or analyze at the college level, either because they haven't been adequately prepared by the K-12 education system, or because they simply don't have the ability. Sadder still, these students have often been sent back to school by their employers, who will not allow them to advance at work without a diploma and won't reimburse them for their classes if they get a failing grade.

There is a sense that the American workforce needs to be more professional at every level. Many jobs that never before required college now call for at least some post-secondary course work. School custodians, those who run the boilers and spread synthetic sawdust on vomit, may not need college—but the people who supervise them, who decide which brand of synthetic sawdust to procure, probably do. There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and so should our medical-billing techs, and our child-welfare officers, and our sheriffs and federal marshals. We want the police officer who stops the car with the broken taillight to have a nodding acquaintance with great literature. …

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.

No Child Left Behind and most of the popular education reform proposals out there are based around the idea of pushing all students to meet higher academic standards. Indeed, it's depressing to see that in many low-income schools, children are learning elementary school math in ninth grade, reading middle-grades books during senior year, and the like. Vocational education is profoundly out of style, which corresponds with the shrinkage of the manufacturing sector. But can't we do much more to realistically prepare people for the workplace, without assuming everyone should read Proust? I'm thinking about courses in personal finance, basic sentence structure and letter writing, and Internet research skills (not academic research, but how to find the answers to common questions, search for job listings, interact with local government via the Internet, and accomplish business tasks). Students who need them should be able to enroll in such practical courses in high school and beyond, while still being expected during the K-12 years to read literature, write essays, master basic math, and learn about the structures and history of their political system.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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