Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Failing to Teach

We already know that Johnny can’t count. We suspect that Janey can’t count either.

While a small cohort of American children excels at math and science, far too many others are lost when it comes to the subjects that hold the greatest career promise.

We also know that the college students who do poorly in their first classes in multivariable calculus are likely to gravitate toward less demanding liberal arts majors.

While many of these majors are indoctrination mills leading to nowhere—try getting a job with a degree in Women’s Studies—one likes to believe that they teach students how to read and write.

According to Jonathan Jacobs, chairman of the philosophy department at John Jay College in New York, such is not the case.

While some students can construct a reasoned argument in intelligible and grammatically correct English, this group is apparently very small.

To be clear, the fault lies with American educators, but also with the parents who do not seem to believe that they not have the right to question what educators are doing to their children.

To be especially clear, the American educational establishment is driven more by the demands of ideology than the demands of pedagogy. Invariably, the ideology is leftist. I will state confidently that America’s educators are not Tea Party patriots.

You cannot blame the big, bad right wing for what is going on in the schools. One awaits the day when the leftists who teach children start taking responsibility for the mess that they have created.

In his op-ed column Jacobs joins those who have shown that the problem begins in high school. When teachers mindlessly emphasize self-esteem over learning, children are systematically disadvantaged:

Large numbers of high-school students have faced so few challenges and demands that they are badly underprepared for college courses. Many who go on to four-year colleges seem to need two years of college even to begin to understand what it is to study, read carefully and take oneself seriously as a student. For many students, high-school-level preparation for college is a matter of having high self-esteem and high expectations but little else.

By the time they arrive in college these students are so far behind that they cannot profit from their education.

Jacobs explains:

Even after three or four years of undergraduate education, many students still cannot recognize reasoning when they encounter it. They have little grasp of the difference between merely "saying something" and constructing an explanation or formulating an argument. This is often reinforced by college instructors who urge students to regard all theories, intellectual perspectives and views as ideology—without acknowledging the differences between theories, beliefs, hypotheses, interpretations and other categories of thought.

And also:

Whatever your stance regarding the "culture wars" and the politics of higher education, it is undeniable that a great many graduating students have little idea of what genuine intellectual exploration involves. Too often, learning to think is replaced by ideological scorekeeping, and the use of adjectives replaces the use of arguments.

The results are evident in the comments sections of certain blogs, where invective passes for clever thinking and where ideologically correct opinion trumps scientific fact.

As Jacobs says:

Such blinkered thinking has serious implications for civic culture and political discourse. It discourages finding out what the facts are, revising one's beliefs on the basis of those facts and being willing to engage with people who don't already agree with you.

Political life suffers forasmuch:

It is one thing if people move too quickly from argumentation to name-calling; it is another to be unable to tell the difference.

It ought to be obvious, but perhaps it isn’t, that people whose mental capacity has never gotten beyond name-calling are most easily manipulated by demagogic politicians. Drop a few liberal buzz words on an issue and the lemmings will line up, armed and ready for culture war.

Children brought up on self-esteem rarely develop the discipline and perseverance to master job skills and to complete tasks. Worse, they end up knowing very little about anything.

Jacobs paints a bleak picture:

Many employers can attest, as college instructors will too if they're being frank, that many college graduates can barely construct a coherent paragraph and many have precious little knowledge of the world—the natural world, the social world, the historical world, or the cultural world. That is a tragedy for the graduates, but also for society: Civic life suffers when people have severely limited knowledge of the world to bring to political or moral discussions.

The consequences for a deliberative democracy will be dire indeed:

The cost to America of failing to reverse the trend toward trivializing education will be more than just economic. It will be reflected in social friction, coarsened politics, failed and foolish policies, and a steady decline in the concern to do anything to reverse the rot.

But that is not all of it. When young people fail to receive an education they are unable to conduct a conversation, sustain a relationship, get along with colleagues or manage a staff.

They tend to gravitate toward people who think as they think and feel as they feel. Unable to argue any point effectively and woefully uninformed about the basic issues they fall back on exchanging passwords that make them feel like they are enlightened. One likes to hope that they will wake up one day and understand that they are more benighted than enlightened, but that is starting to feel like a very optimistic hope.


flynful said...

I wouldn't worry. They are being prepared to fill "meaningful" government jobs.

Sam L. said...

I suspect it begins well before high school--this has been going on too long to just be high school.

jim sweeney said...

I think you meant to say value self-esteem over learning

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Indeed, I did. Thanks for pointing it out... correction made.

JKB said...

An amusing piece by someone who profited from the decline of education. True, however, and perhaps it is well that those of his ilk are starting to speak up.

First solution would be to dissolve the university English departments or at least remove composition from their purview. And force the change into the high schools as well. A competent literary theorist is not necessarily a good instructor of composition.

I read recently that they were having some success with robo-graders of essays. This is a bright spot. A way for students to get competent assessments of their work free from the ideological conditioning of the modern English department. For those who wish to be come competent essayists at least.

Anonymous said...


Perhaps you've overlooked that
SOMEBODY(or some committee)
programs the robo-grader.

If there is an agenda to "dumb-down" via the output of the robo-grader,
the Politburo...er...committee can accommodate that in their programming brief as well.

Technology cannot save a society
that cannot reason.


Dennis said...

Cannot what you state apply to the Humanities departments as a whole? And in a larger context most institutions of higher learning.
The quality of an education is in the people who provide it and that is where the problem begins for, given the quality of scholarship emanating from these institutions, is poor at best. One only needs to look at where the US stands in almost every indicator of educational attainment to be appraised of how far this country has fallen.
It appears that an undergraduate degree has been "dumbed down" to the point it is equal to a degree from hush school years ago.
Everyone should take a look at tests that we give, even in rural environments, a hundred years ago. I suspect that these tests would be difficult for a graduate of any Studies program.
We often hear about all those "dead white guys" who wrote the Constitution, but those people read books in the original language and wrote in a number of those languages equally as well. Want to guess how many people today who can do that including those who have PhDs?
"shoe" make a very cogent point, 'Technology cannot save a society that cannot reason." What makes us perfect for survival is our ability to reason and think "outside the box." An education system that spends far more time on feelings, indoctrination, political correctness, et al on hamper that survival.

Dennis said...

During the Revolutionary period students used to pay their professors directly. I wonder how many people in academe would make a decent living if that were true today? Would universities change appreciably if they had to meet the needs of their students?

Sam L. said...

And then there's this:

Dennis said...

For your further edification: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/358841/decline-college-victor-davis-hanson

JKB said...


Your Revolutionary period reference strikes a point. One big problem is that students are conditioned to not do more than is required by the teacher/course.

On the other hand, if they were hiring the teacher then they'd want the full measure instead of just the credit hours. It's a lot like what homeschoolers do now.

It seems to me to be a systemic problem created by the grade/graduation emphasis instead of knowledge/intellectual accomplishment. The latter is hard to put into a spreadsheet/database. I don't actually know what would be a viable solution while still providing mass education.