Monday, May 30, 2016

Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!

Thomas Gradgrind
Consider this a sort of open letter to the American education system. It's been fourteen years since the passing of the "No Child Left Behind" law, and in my college classes, I now have students who've experienced its effects for much, if not all, of their primary and secondary educations. The neo-utilitarians have had their day, and here are the results: a generation of students who have learned the real lesson of the new regime: hunker down, follow instructions, and learn whatever is going to be on the test. Fiction is out; nonfiction is in; reading for pleasure is out; reading for content is in. After all, the only skills that matter are the ones that can be measured.

And they're not very good students. They're good people -- they have all the hopes, fears, and aspirations that my students have always had -- but as students, they're uniquely unprepared for college, at least on the side of the humanities. Their habit of scanning syllabi and readings to see what will be tested, what will be measured, makes them poor readers; when they encounter an ambiguity, or a difficult reading, they tense up in anticipation of being taken to task for some vague failure. My endeavor has always been to share my love of literature, to (I hope) instill in students an excitement, an interest, a sense of something personally significant for themselves, in everything they read -- but it's getting tougher each semester. Their curiosity has been hammered; their personal experience belittled, their idiosyncrasies ironed out. As a result, the pleasure of discovery of something new has given way to an anxiety about the unfamiliar; it's like a jungle out there, sometimes I wonder how they keep from going under.

Are they better prepared for the wonderful world of employment? Perhaps, so long as the employment they find demands repetitive goal-oriented work, with little room for innovation and frequent employee evaluations. They may, so long as they've had the prerequisites, do well in science, technology, engineering, and math -- though only at a rudimentary level. I can't see any new inventions, innovative theories, or speculative hypotheses coming from this generation, as anything they did or thought which deviated from the appointed path earned them the electric shock of a poor mark. In the humanities, they arrive with only the most superficial skills, and with what I find an astonishingly low level of motivation -- motivation here being defined as some strong desire from within one's own self to learn and grow. That desire seems to have been largely amputated, and in its place our brave new Benthamites have instilled a simple wish for nothing more than a clear set of instructions and evaluative rules. Learn, do, demonstrate. Wash, rinse repeat.

It's a sad day for me, and for college educators generally. We can't turn back the hands of time -- we'll have to do what we can to help these students regain their own self-confidence, to revive and replenish their ossified curiosity and shrivelled sense of self. It will be hard work, and until that work is done, the work that professors such as myself used to do -- of teaching our field of study -- will have to be postponed. It'll be like a pre-college program, only it will take up college time. We ourselves have been sent the memo; our departments, programs, and fields of study already have to produce the "documentation" of what skills and knowledge we add, and our "metrics" for assessing the "outcomes" of our labors. The madness of measurement has overtaken us all, and if anything resembling real education is going to take place, it's going to have to do so by flying under the radar of this new regime.