This is a guest post by Howard V. Hendrix, who teaches literature and writing at California State University–Fresno. He is the author of six novels and many short stories, poems, and essays.
A year has now elapsed since the events that prompted me to write “Professor, Say Hi To The Devil!” To really understand this blog post, you’ll need to read it in conjunction with that short article, which appears in the new issue of Academe.
I still teach literature and writing in the largest public higher education system in the United States (the California State University system), on a campus (CSU Fresno) with a student body that perennially ranks among the most underprivileged in the nation.
When I entered college nearly two score years ago, I too fell under that “underprivileged” designation–and was what is today called a “first-generation college student.” I suppose one reason I take education so seriously now is that I didn’t take it seriously enough then, and I hate to see students today making new versions of the foolish mistakes I made.
Alas, today I too often see students “walk” at graduation that I know don’t have the writing skills to merit a diploma. Now, at commencement, when I hear the opening strains of the second movement of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1, I ponder the following lyrics for that ponderous tune: Everyone starts with a B . . . / And Cs get degrees. / No need to learn skills or con—tent; / Just smile a lot, and pretend! Dum-dum-dum.
How did we come to this pass? Why have college diplomas devolved to the point that they have become increasingly indistinguishable from certificates of attendance?
There’s plenty of blame to go around. I believe most of the reasons I suggested in “Devil” remain on-target – and I’ll accept my share of the blame for not having had the courage to write about those reasons years earlier. Too many of our students are still too little prepared for college work and are still working too many hours outside college — or are engaged in other non-academic activities that have encouraged them to deprioritize academic effort. “You Can Have It All” generation, say hi to your “You Can Do Anything” children.
Out of easy cowardice, too, we in academia have ourselves failed to fight a growing cultural predisposition that sees higher education as primarily just a moneymaking proposition. Few of us have dared tell students, “If you enjoy spending paychecks more than reading textbooks, maybe college is not for you.” Universities, and much of our culture at large, have increasingly become “matriculation pushers”: Everyone must go! More students, spending more money, for more degrees worth less and less. Inflated grades in pursuit of inflated degrees at inflated prices, from universities paying inflated administrative salaries.
The negative educational impacts that have resulted from No Child Left Behind (as discussed in “Devil” — and that will be exacerbated in new ways by the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act) have not only continued but also grown stronger over the last year. Replacing “teaching to the test” with “Pass/Fail” or “checkmark” or “contract” grading — based on assignment quantity rather than quality – will not improve our educational situation. Everyone starts with a B, and Cs get degrees.
The same continuation/exacerbation trend is true of both the “entitled customer” and the “mass- and social-media impact” issues chronicled in “Devil.” Here I’d like to provide some systemic context for the first (and plan to address the latter in a separate piece).
In discussing the entitled customer in “Devil”, I did not have space to adequately address the larger cultural context of the academic right and left I alluded to there. Increasingly, we in public higher education must sail between the Scylla of the right and Charybdis of the left, each of which monstrosity is founded on a fundamentally flawed model of education.
The Scylla of the right is a corporate-state crony system that promulgates a bottom-line and output-driven “business” model of education that over-emphasizes more and faster graduation rates: “Who cares if they learn anything while they’re here, so long as they graduate in four years? The taxpayers won’t stand for students lingering and wasting taxpayer money!” The Charybdis of the left is an identity-politics patronage system that promulgates a quasi-meliorist, input-driven “movement” model that over-emphasizes access to higher education as part of a larger social project, even if expanding such access means admitting students to college who are seriously underprepared and unqualified for college work.
Intriguingly, these two systems have begun to synergize and hybridize over the last two decades, with the result that “social promotion” (a word once co-opted by the right as a bludgeon with which to whack the left) is now endemic. What film director Spike Lee has said of gun violence – that it’s not just a problem of the ‘hood but is increasingly universal in America – is also true of social promotion, which now applies to students of every ethnic and economic background. In my own classes I have encountered white middle-class students just as unqualified and underprepared for college work as any student from any socio-economically disadvantaged or historically oppressed group. The reasons for the particular social promotion may vary, but it’s all social promotion just the same.
Word to my friends on the Scylla side: The idea that a business model works for education is fundamentally false. I am not a clerk and my students are not customers. Following this model results in colleges with no business being in the education “business.” Digital diploma mills. “Asynchronous personalized learning” on the “education superhighway” and other such scams. Newsflash: Education ought not to be about monetizing classroom eyeballs so that corporations can divert public education funding to their private profit nexus.
Word to my friends on the Charybdis side: The idea that a social movement model works for education is also fundamentally false. I am not Subcommandante Hendrix and my students are not a cadre of the revolution. Following this model leads to the push for diversity and tolerance being coopted into institutional power networks, and an academic “social constructivist/constructionist” approach that has about as much to do with the pedagogy of the oppressed as Groucho Marx has to do with Karl Marx.
The pressure from college administrators and state politicians to lower admissions standards and raise graduation rates wouldn’t be such a fearful synergy if it weren’t for the fact that so many universities do not require or even provide remedial courses. Since so many universities won’t give credit for remedial classes, it’s not great shock to learn that students don’t want to pay for taking such classes.
Given too that part-timers and adjuncts have come to teach more than seventy per cent of all classes nationwide, it should come as no surprise that, in response to these access/input and graduation/output forces, ever more faculty are ever more dangerously exposed to all the grade-inflation temptations inextricably linked to contingent-employee status.
Sometimes I think the only thing that keeps so many public higher education institutions from collapsing, from utterly cratering in on themselves quality-wise, is the thin gristle of integrity — personal and professional – displayed by a surprising proportion among the dwindling ranks of tenured faculty and among those underpaid, overworked, untenured and unprotected “contingent employees” standing at the front of their individual classrooms.
Despite the fact that high academic standards in the classroom are ever more likely to get teachers punished rather than rewarded, there are still more than a few of us who feel that our jobs are fundamentally about leading students toward the mastery of content and skills (including critical thinking skills). That, were we to certify our students as knowing content they do not in fact know and as possessing skills they do not in fact possess, we would be failing those students – by passing them.
“Why do you take all this so seriously?” one of my students asked some years back. “It’s just a college class.” I remember saying something idealistic about how it is at least as important to make sense as it is to make dollars. Or that trying to be a prophet is at least as important as trying to make a profit. Something like that.
Fool that I am, I still believe it.
Articles from the current and past issues of Academe are available online. AAUP members receive a subscription to the magazine, available both by mail and as a downloadable PDF, as a benefit of membership.