Education vs. student anti-intellectualism
My recent post about Anna Nicole Smith continues to draw lots of traffic. A couple of days ago it finally drew what I had been expecting: a criticism. A commenter to my blog chose to remain anonymous and wrote in place of a user name, “You’re a pitiful teacher.” Then he/she left a very critical response to my post. Here’s what the person said, followed by my response.
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March 24, 2007
You’re a pitiful teacher…said,
You say, “I can tell you that … whenever I speak to my students, if I want to make reference to any sort of common object of knowledge in order to illustrate a point about the dramatic structure of stories, or about irony or other literary techniques, or about anything else having to do with books and literature – and it’s a daily necessity to refer to a common fund of knowledge in order to illuminate something we’re studying – I find lately that the only thing I can mention with any reasonable expectation of group familiarity is the Harry Potter phenomenon”.
First, that is one of the longest run-on sentences I’ve seen in awhile.
Second, if you think your students are so pitiful, I bet they know you think so, too. From what you say, it appears that it’s YOUR job to teach them something about the English language, the “dramatic structure of stories” and “irony”. The Missouri state standards mention all of these, no matter how poorly.
Get off your high horse and stop talking about how important you are, and do what you’re ostensibly paid to do
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Thank you for your comment. In your second point you hit upon an issue that I myself had actually thought about but hadn’t yet mentioned here at The Teeming Brain. The parallels between what you say and my heretofore unexpressed thought are positively eerie.
In the original draft of my Anna Nicole Smith post, immediately after the paragraph containing the sentence you quote, I said, “Of course there’s an obvious rejoinder that could be made to all of this. Somebody might say with a degree of validity, ‘Well, okay, let’s assume things are exactly the way you describe. Don’t complain about it. What, did you expect the kids to come into your classroom already knowing everything you think they ought to know? The whole point of school is to educate them! You’re the teacher, for God’s sake, so if you notice they’re ignorant about something, then just teach it to them!'”
I trust you notice the similarity to your own point.
The reason I deleted that comment/proviso/recognition was that although it occurred to me as a semi-valid response to what I was saying, I thought — and still think — that it mostly misses the point I was making, and the effort to explain why would have detoured the essay off into a distracting tangent. That’s why I appreciate your bringing it up here, since this gives me an excuse to explain why the objection is off-target.
What I was talking about in the ANS post was the fact that as my fellow teachers and I go about our jobs these days, we’re having to fight the surrounding culture. Formal education has always been a supremely difficult endeavor for both teachers and students, ever since our fundamental idea of it was first formulated among the ancient Greeks in and around the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The “deep” goal of education is not just to teach the “three R’s” of American scholastic folklore but to change a person’s deep-seated sensibility. It’s intended to inculcate an outlook and attitude characterized by reason, reflection, and moderation. I’m talking about the classical ideal of a liberal education, which, as Allan Bloom stated succinctly in The Closing of the American Mind, may be defined in a nutshell as the type of education that liberates. The purpose of a liberal education is to free a person from the tyranny of the immediate, the superficial, the shallow, the transient, and the trivial by training and instilling certain habits of thought and by informing the mind and emotions with profound and ennobling ideas through sustained examination of what Matthew Arnold famously called “the best that has been thought and said in the world.”
Okay, so all of this sounds pretty stiff and pompous by modern standards. But then, why the hell should that be the case? Answer: because of the types of things I railed against in my ANS post. Every day in the classroom, I and other teachers are having to fight against the overwhelming tide of contemporary mass entertainment culture with its reigning ethos of consumerism, celebrity worship, and technolatry. This makes what is already a difficult task for both teacher and student all the more difficult. It’s no exaggeration to say that almost every minute a student spends outside the school environment these days sees the prevalent culture undermining and undoing whatever has been accomplished in the classroom. Certainly, complaints about the clash between the goals of formal schooling and the influence of the surrounding culture are nothing new. But for the past fifty to eighty years we’ve been stumbling through new territory as the mass electronic media have lent a previously unimagined power and prevalence to the forces of distraction and trivialization.
Thus, to respond to my complaints in the ANS post by simply telling me to do my job is to miss the point that the job of a teacher in this type of cultural environment is ridiculously difficult. Everything about the educational experience, from the focus on books (gasp!), to the subject matter being studied in the core areas of English, mathematics, science, and social studies, to the very idea that sustained study, effort, and self-awareness are necessary to understand some really valuable and rewarding things, goes against the grain of what today’s young people have been taught to want and expect. School, traditionally conceived, is “off the tracks” for them. It lies outside anything they’ve been trained to think of as worthwhile and interesting.
J. Peder Zane, in his November 2005 article, “Lack of Curiosity is Curious” (from which I’ve quoted here in the past), describes exactly the same thing I’m talking about when he avers that in the face of growing historical and other types of ignorance, “our culture gives us a pass, downplaying the importance of knowledge, culture, history and tradition.” Thus today’s students, instead of being embarrassed by their ignorance of many things that were formerly considered rote, are “permitted to say ‘whatever.’”
Paul Trout also notes the same thing in his 1997 article, “Student Anti-intellectualism and the Dumbing Down of the University,” from which I shall now quote liberally:
“For well over a decade, college instructors have been complaining about students who are not only apathetic and unmotivated but who belittle and resist efforts to educate them.
“Students demonstrate this anti-intellectual mindset in a number of ways: by not reading the assigned works; by not contributing to class discussions; by complaining about course workloads and lobbying for fewer assignments; by skipping class; by giving low evaluations to instructors with high standards or tough requirements; by neglecting to prepare for class and tests and not bothering to do extra-credit work or take make-up exams; by not consulting material placed on reserve or picking up class handouts; by refusing to learn any more than is necessary to get a good grade; by boasting about how little time is spent studying; by ridiculing high achievers; by being impatient with deliberative analysis; by condemning intellectual endeavors as ‘boring’; by resenting academic requirements as an intrusion on free time, etc., etc., etc.
“These anti-intellectual behaviors and attitudes are now so rife on college campuses that motivated and engaged students are being squelched by them.
….“Of course, there always have been students who have hated studying, found classes boring, resented demanding requirements, and expected high grades for mediocre work. And there have always been professors who complained about them. None of this is really new. What has changed, however, is the number of students who exhibit these attitudes. Nobody can say precisely how many anti-intellectual students now sit in college classrooms, but the number appears to be growing and in some contexts seems to have reached a critical mass.”
Not incidentally, Trout attributes much of this college-level problem to prior problems at the high school level, which is the milieu where I spend most of my waking hours nine months out of the year: “Now that around sixty percent of high-school graduates go on to some form of higher education, colleges are importing the anti-intellectual behaviors and attitudes undermining secondary education . . . . American colleges could follow the same path as American high schools and become warehouses of anti-intellectual and anti-educational slackers. In the years ahead, the real campus war may be between those who think that students should adapt to the rigors of higher education, and those who think that higher education should adapt to the declining motivation and intellectual commitment of students. . . . Faced with growing numbers of high-school graduates who resent and resist the rigors, demands, and pleasures of higher education, colleges and universities have lowered standards to keep students happy and enrollments up.”
So all of that represents my response to your criticism. As for a couple of other specific points:
You admonish me to “Get off your high horse and stop talking about how important you are.” Sorry, but there’s nothing you can point to in my essay that indicates I’m full of myself or afflicted with an attitude of superiority, unless you’re inferring it from the overall tone of the piece, in which case the attitude of superiority you impute to me is still coming from you, not me. Far from being on a “high horse,” I consider myself one of the afflicted, and also one of the perpetrators, in this generation of mass media drones. I was raised in the 1970s and 80s, which makes me a full second generation child of television. I’m also a child of the narcissists Christopher Lasch wrote about. I’m a Gen-X-er. So generationally speaking, I’m part of the problem, and when I introspect I see in myself — in my cognitive and emotional life, in my basic affective cast – both a product and a cause of the cultural degeneration I decry.
You point out that the Missouri state educational standards do include some of the things I think students should know. But if you reread my words you’ll see that it’s not an ignorance of irony or the dramatic structure of stories or any other such thing that I was decrying, but rather the loss of a common fund of knowledge that can be referred to when trying to teach, illustrate, and discuss these concepts. Plus, Missouri’s state standards, just like every other state’s educational standards, and just like the national educational standards, are all now stated in outcome-based form. This means that in my subject area of English (now renamed “communication arts” by Missouri), there’s no actual content specified for me to teach, no novels, plays, stories, poems, etc. Instead, what’s stressed are skills in reading, writing, analyzing, and so on, all of which can be quantified and measured. This in itself is a major factor in the educational apocalypse that’s currently well underway. The very fact that all official educational standards are now stated generically in terms of transferable and quantifiable skills represents a travesty of real education. The flaw reveals itself largely on the level of student motivation, since the implicit message that it’s not really important what content you devote your time and attention to, since any and all content will serve equally well to hone the stated skills and facilitate the prescribed “learning outcomes,” is not lost on young people, who thus imbibe a fundamental and uncritical attitude akin to nihilism. The education system teaches them that no books, authors, or ideas really matter in and of themselves. Books etc. are just means to an end, namely, the acquiring of skills that will make you a productive and happy member of the global economy. If what I’m saying here seems a rather large leap from your mild gesture toward Missouri’s state education standards, then I ask you to look and think again, and to do so much more carefully.
Finally, and on an unrelated note, you called my quoted sentence a run-on sentence. That’s incorrect. It’s a common misconception that the term “run-on sentence” refers to any lengthy sentence that ought to be shortened for stylistic reasons. But a run-on sentence is actually a syntax error created by running two or more independent clauses together without a sentence break or other punctuation. An example might be, “This is a run-on sentence it should be broken in half.” It can be fixed by either adding a period after “sentence” and starting a new sentence with “It,” or else by adding a semi-colon or a comma plus a conjunction. If you’ll go back and reread my quoted sentence, you’ll see that it’s made up of several independent and dependent clauses, all of them melded into a syntactically and grammatically correct whole by the use of appropriate punctuation, grammar, and stylistic placement. Yes, it’s a very long sentence by modern standards. But it’s still fairly common in the academic types of writing that have influenced my own style a great deal. And in my English classroom one of my goals has been to accustom students to reading this more complex type of prose, since the absence of that skill effectively cuts them off from nearly everything that was written before the mid-20th century, thus rendering them cultural amnesiacs who depend on Hollywood and The History Channel to tell them about anything beyond the immediate historical present.