Sunday, February 27, 2005

S(ad) A(ss) T(est)

I saw an oxymoronically brief "in-depth" report on the the New SATs during one of the nightly network news shows. The College Board spokesman took great pains to suggest that the test was designed to be much more "familiar" to students from their coursework than those old-fashioned analogy questions. The text also includes a new and highly touted "essay component" (25 minutes) that is supposed to give colleges great insight into their applicants' critical thinking skills.

Color me skeptical. (What color is skeptical, anyway? Puce? Umber? Celery?) From what I see in my own students, they need to be more uncomfortable with anything having to do with college. I realize I'm embracing my own inner curmudgeon, but my students are too damn "familiar" with the work—at least they think they are—already. They resist adamantly my suggestion that they might engage intellectually with anything that doesn't fall neatly into a five-paragraph essay, or that writing might reflect complexity or ambiguity. Published writers are most frequently evaluated as writing pieces that are "too long," whose ideas are "too complex" and thus "not relatable" to the "average reader" (the level to which most of them, apparently, aspire).

I realize that my students are at the stage in their intellectual development where these are the natural responses to complexity (and yes, I know Perry has been discredited of late, and that there are alternative models, including, of course, the famous feminist revision, similarly subject to revision, called Women's Ways of Knowing.)

My point is not that my students are on the cusp of intellectual advancement, but that, with few exceptions, they are resistant to the idea that they need to advance--or that the college classroom might be a place to encounter things that are more advanced than they are.

Consumerism, I suspect, is high on the list of culprits that have made them tyrants of relatability--that is, everything they encounter is subject to an initial evaluation based primarily on their pre-existing level of comfort. In other words, nothing should challenge, discomfit, or disrupt their complacent self-confidence. I remember feeling on-the-edge-of-my-seat in most of my college courses, sure that even the dreariest lecture would somehow help to initiate me into a rich intellectual world. Of course, that's why I became an academic. But I can't help but feel sorry for my students, who can't imagine the value of knowing or understanding anything more than what they already know. For the most part, and with a few marvelous exceptions, they see learning as a process of pure knowledge transfer. They are not averse to me providing "facts" (which are unfortunately few in my discipline), so long as those facts don't interfere with their egocentric weltanschaung or challenge the centrality of how they "feel" about anything.

I doubt the new, comfort-fit SATs can do much to address this; in fact, for all the trepidation students naturally feel toward them, I suspect, without much evidence, that the new test will do precisely the opposite; that is, it will convince them even more that college should and will resemble a mediocre high school course.

I've worked with the College Board before, grading student essays, and frankly, I can't believe anything in their purview could work toward complexity of thought and expression. I suspect that the new essay component will merely solidify the triumph of oversimplification that is the 5-paragraph essay, and make it even harder for me to chip away at the edifice of Introduction-3 Examples-Repetitive Recap/Conclusion that defines their writing. And let us not even speak of the army of 'free-lance' graders who will be exploited to perform piece-work grading, via the internet, to score these essays.

In a recent post at Critical Mass, Erin O'Connor references Andrew DelBanco's piece in The New York Review of Books on the decline of American higher education. I was struck by these lines:
Today, as David Kirp points out in Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line, New York University, which has lately made a big (and largely successful) push to join the academic front rank, employs "adjunct" faculty--part-time teachers who are not candidates for tenure--to teach 70 percent of its undergraduate courses. The fact that these scandalously underpaid teachers must carry the teaching burden--not just at NYU, but at many other institutions--speaks not to their talent or dedication, but to the meagerness of the institution's commitment to the teaching mission. At exactly the time when the struggle to get into our leading universities has reached a point of "insane intensity" (James Fallows's apt phrase), undergraduate education has been reduced to a distinctly subsidiary activity.

Under these circumstances, one might expect to see students fleeing to colleges whose sole mission is teaching undergraduates. Fine colleges such as Swarthmore, Amherst, and Williams, which have significant endowments and high academic standards, do indeed have considerable drawing power. Yet these are small and relatively fragile institutions, and even the best of them are perennial runners-up in the prestige game, while other impressive colleges --such as Centre College in Kentucky or Hendrix College in Arkansas--must struggle, out of the limelight, to compete for students outside their region.

The leading liberal arts colleges will doubtless survive, but they belong to an endangered species. Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College, and Morton O. Schapiro, president of Williams, report that even now "the nation's liberal arts college students would almost certainly fit easily inside a Big Ten football stadium: fewer than 100,000 students out of more than 14 million." In today's educational landscape, barely one sixth of all college students fit the traditional profile of full-time residential students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. One third of American undergraduates now work full-time, and more than half attend college part-time, typically majoring in subjects with immediate utility, such as accounting or computing. These students, and their anticipated successors, are targets of the so-called electronic universities that seek a share of the education market by selling Internet courses for profit. A few years ago, the president of Teacher's College at Columbia University predicted that some wily entrepreneur would soon "hire well-known faculty at our most prestigious campuses and offer an all-star degree over the Internet...at a lower cost than we can."


My college belongs among those "perennial runners-up in the prestige game" and is constantly trying to entice students from farther and farther afield. Our claims to academic superiority are belied by our nearly 100% applicant acceptance rate, and our endowment has not kept pace with our students' financial needs, and our students work more and more hours, and live more and more of their lives away from campus, despite the administration's determined efforts to return to the liberal-arts college life of the 1950s.

All of these things seem related to me; my students have more pressure to be a part of the corporate, consumerist world outside the college gates—a world that reinforces the centrality and validity of their current ignorance. They don't believe they can afford—in time or money—the kinds of challenges that a college education might offer. Instead, they want an education that leaves them more polished, but essentially unchanged. The schools that are 'succeeding," in DelBanco's bleak view, are those that respect and respond to this vision of American students as workers and consumers—the very notion that liberal arts colleges, with their quaint old-fashioned emphasis on critical thought and educational breadth, struggle to counter.

It's not surprising, in this world, that my students resent a published writer who wastes their time with parenthetical counterexamples or confuses them with "too many commas." But it is sad—very sad.

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