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.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

My response:

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.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on March 26, 2007, in Education and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I can see that generating the kind of interest and critical participation in media saturated culture would be difficult. An old adage is the ‘man is the message might be comparable to the History Channel as the best method to an historical education. In religion, Hinduism was not as important Gandhi’s example. The same could be said of Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen, or whoever. My point is the teacher creates interest and challenge. As in business management, one of the important hiring issue is can you motivate. That said, I find it difficult to conceive non-English majors having a very high interest level no matter how charismatic the teacher. What might help illicit some prolonged critical interest is to use controversy (-ies) to challenge and direct the flow of teaching/learning to the ultimate content and goals. Surely, pre-20th century authors addressed the controversies of their day and societies. Whetting the appetite is not just a culinary art. Lust, power, greed, poverty, oppression are still topics calling forth great debates.

    However, at the root of the problem that pains you, is not your subject or your profession. It is not even the nearly brain dead students–at least when it comes to academics. It the iour society’s systemic power struggle. I doubt that a liberal education is what liberals or capitalists envisions as important. Both have green power and socio-political control on their minds.

    I find it interesting that Puritan story books for children were written in adult level English. Maybe public schools could learn from them.

  2. Don’t give ‘anonymous’ another thought.

    What is that adage?

    “I cannot hear what you say, because what you are speaks so clearly.”

    Those that post insults anonymously are cowardly and often wrong. That’s why they don’t want to be associated with or take responsibility for their own thoughts.

    Your remarks about public education are intuitive and need to be addressed – everyone knows that.

  3. Grumpy Teacher

    I agree with Diane, but I’m also impressed with your use of an asinine comment to further your own argument while simultaneously expose your anonymous commenter.

    Clever man.

    Also, may I respectfully retract the comment about shins?

  4. Matt, if you quit teaching before the year 2015, I shall find a way to throttle you, I promise. We have two children to get through your Missouri school, and you and teachers like you are our best hope for teaching them to use those lovely little brains in our current educational system. That you struggle with the issues you do speaks to your commitment to excellence and your commitment (however painful) to your students.

    Thank you.

  5. Cardin,

    First, I would like to comment on the range of conversation that has occurred so far. I am most glad that your teaching technique has not changed significantly since I was in your class. As Cindy said above, as long as there are teachers like you who do not change what they know to be correct, we will all have a chance. The day the teachers of the world surrender to the demands of the student will be the day the word “teacher” as we know it passes out of knowledge. After all, students are not supposed to be making demands on the system; the system should be making the demands on the students.

    Second, I would like to say something to this “anonymous”. I was a student under Cardin and he was largely responsible for waking me up to the pathetic condition this world is in and where it is headed. You accuse him of just complaining and not doing; the truth is, he’s trying his best. If students are walking out of his classroom without anymore than what they came in with, it is not because he isn’t trying. He doesn’t just haphazardly log online and complain about what is going on; he only speaks his mind when he knows that he is doing everything he can to fix the problem, which is more than I can say for myself sometimes.

    I do agree with you that everyone only wants to see the positive outcomes of things today. You are correct: People have generalized reading “Entertainment” books, “Meaningful” Books, “Historical” books, etc. to just reading “Books”. Of course, it is obvious that a man will find much more meaning for life in reading books like the Bible than he will find in reading a cookbook or a phonebook, although the amount of material present may be the same. People seem to have forgotten and, as you have said, most people don’t care either. I wonder what will happen when the public at large begins waking up to see the mindless drones we are being turned into…

  6. A few thoughts after an initial skim:

    While I feel more than a little sympathy for the instructor who finds himself butting heads with students like the ones described, having been in that position myself when teaching Mathematics, one might do well to ask oneself if the attitudes described arose in a vacuum.

    Look at the complaint about education being treated like a commodity from the point of view of a student who has just paid an exhorbitant tuition, one jacked up at many times the rate of inflation, this being defended on the basis that the university is “letting the market set the price”, even in cases in which admissions of price fixing have been made. Today, the poor (or even middle class) but talented student is told to embrace the unfairness of life and accept that his background will limit his opportunities, while a less qualified but better funded student slides in to fill the vacancy he leaves. “Why shouldn’t I view a commodity as being a commodity?”, the student might well ask on being admitted, because in treating the collection of tuition as an opportunity to engage in capitalism at its most cynical extreme, the school has treated the seats in its classrooms as being just that – a commodity. If pure, mercenary cynicism is responded to with the same, where is the surprise?

    The example offered of the University of Chicago puts another issue on display – to an extent, one can see a present day lack of motivation as the product of a backlash against the exaggerated expectations regarding the level of student motivation in previous eras, followed by a job crunch that has often rewarded years worth of brutal overwork with a decade or two worth of inescapable poverty, with no end in sight for those affected. The University of Chicago gained just notoriety as a place where the students were frequently worked right into nervous breakdowns, and where far too many administrators and faculty members either didn’t care about this or worse, took a misplaced pride in the number of lives destroyed for no particularly good reason. The push you see to get the kids out of the Reg is not a push to get them to not study, but one to get them to take the very healthy measure of getting a little more balance in their lives. A sixty hour week should be plenty for anybody. An eighty hour week is unhealthy on an unsustainable level.

    What does it say about some of the good guys that they’d like to see those weeks come back? Maybe that the good guys aren’t always so good, or that some of them were asleep in Philosophy class when they came across that idea of “moderation in all things”. Push with excessive force and in time one will be greeted with excessive resistance, made all the more understandable when one considers the lot of the student working multiple jobs to raise a tuition which can only be explained in terms of a corporate-like institutional greed, who asks himself a realistic if forbidden question. “If I defer gratification in the form of the fun I’ll have at this party today, is this gratification that I can make up for later, or is this something I’m going to be passing on for the rest of my life”. If these four years are the only years one expects to have a chance to enjoy in this life before becoming an impoverished wage slave living in fear of the next downsizing or outsourcing, then for the student facing such an inhumane reality, an overabundance of frivolousness is not only understandable, it is probably sensible.

    Perverse incentives lead to perverse results. Regrettably, we live in a society in which as simple an idea as “life is to be enjoyed” becomes positively revolutionary, a thing to be struggled against, either by redefining “fun” in an act of oneupsmanship at the expense of those declining to join one in workaholic self-destruction, or by exaggerating any desire to enjoy any leisure at all into a desire to engage in nothing but leisure. The student ready to work the 60 hour week finds himself lumped in with the slacker with the bong who skipped finals, and wondering why he even bothers, finds himself bothering less and less, sometimes evolving into a slacker himself, albeit probably one without a bong of his own. One hopes. The negative consequences of such ingrained Puritanism perversely end up serving as a validation of that very Puritanism.

    Perhaps you might find some mild comfort in the long view. I believe the argument was advanced that the values being seen in the students were ones that would not do much for the health of this civilization in the long run. I would agree that they would not, but would ask if, in the long run, this is necessarily bad news. Can such an ingrained bit of dysfunctionality as that Puritan ethic get removed from a civilization as long as it exists? Or are dark ages a necessary part of the process by which civilization is renewed, the only means by which the reform of a society’s core values may be achieved? Perhaps the time for this one to fall fast approaches, and we should have the wisdom to shrug, enjoy what moments we can, and accept what must be. The students in their apathy are letting go of an American civilization that is perhaps no longer worth saving, and maybe really never was in the first place.

    “Misery for misery’s sake” was never much of a credo. Let us be properly amazed that a nation built on it got as far as it did, for as long as it did, but let’s also ponder the fact that in delaying the fall of this civilization, we delay the birth of the next. Look around at the one we have, now. Do you see any Shakespeares, any Beethovens, any Einsteins or Gausses coming out of it, any more? Do you see any real joy in its celebrations or any real love in its families and communities, or do you see a lot of play acting on the part of those who know what they’re expected to feel and say and put on a performance that fools nobody who pays much attention to the show? Sometimes civilizations outlive their usefulness, lose that hard to define spark that lead to the accomplishments that once made them worth remembering, and after that, one can only help to prolong the misery they bring.

    I expect you’ll respond to this with scorn. When I was in my career where you are now, I probably would have done the same, because the thought of graciously accepting defeat is so at odds with what makes an academic who and what he is. We like to think that we can fix anything, but, sad to say, sometimes we are reminded that we can’t when we most greatly wish that we could. Take a look at a 21st century in which allegedly progressive people can’t understand why torturing confessions out of prisoners is wrong (Burges, Chicago), in which Forbes Magazine can wax rhapsodic about the use of hunger as a weapon in the fight to make the workforce docile and the workforce itself doesn’t object – look upon this and so much else, and then try to imagine reaching souls so empty as these through anything that anybody could ever write on any topic, in any genre, and just imagine what another hundred years might bring and then another hundred years after that. The decline of a civilization is not always a cause for regret, and maybe when its people so lose their sense of motivation, what one sees at work is an instinct that tells them that the time has come for them to let go and let the natural cycle of destruction and renewal do its work.

    In the long run, the human cost of keeping a bad society going beyond its time is high, but of course, in the short run, one tends to see only one’s own thwarted efforts, on one’s own small scale and that always looks and feels bad, especially when one’s passion has not yet been used up. There are things worse than defeat, but it is not your time in life to accept this, I suspect. When that time comes, though, you may find yourself finding comfort in the strangest of things. Until then, think maybe about these words: “All I can do is try and since I did, what else should anybody ask of me – myself included?” If the answer is “nothing”, then take pleasure in a clear conscience and accept that what follows will most likely be for the best.

    The flaming may now begin.

  7. Oh, one other thing – linking to a cache is a mistake, because those get cleared. You might want to link to a copy of somebody’s article in the Internet Archive instead:

    takes you to the last archived copy, and*/

    takes you to a menu of archived copies, should that last copy be disconnected at the moment, which does sometimes happen.

  8. Sorry to be doing this in multiple posts instead in one, as I should, but my days and nights have been getting rotated recently and I find myself sleepily forgetting to do things I should have. Like, say, locating blog post length replies on my own space instead of helping myself to so much of yours.

    This is a trackback; click on my name and you’ll get to a brief post where I mention your blog and might post links to any later posts of my own expanding on remarks made, and to which I could easily relocate the comments I posted here, should you feel that I’ve abused the privilege, which would certainly be understandable.

  9. Thank you all for the comments. I’m afraid my response here will be brief and perfunctory. As you may have gathered from my failure to respond to any comments on my blog since last month, I’ve gone into relative hibernation recently. This is owing to a host of factors, not least among them the soul weariness that has set in during these final days of the school year. I alluded to the probability of this occurrence well in advance, during the first month or so of this blog’s existence last summer. Batteries are low. Inner inertia is high. Personal transformation into a collapsed star or black hole is imminent.

    But it’s only temporary. In any event, thanks again for taking the time to comment. I appreciate the thoughts, compliments, encouragements, etc.

  10. nicholasporter

    Dude i am writing your paper right now! I’m having a little trouble with navigating this site, but maybe you could help me?

  11. Sorry not to have responded earlier to your post, nicholasporter. Of course we both know that you have now successfully written the paper. I hope my moral support and verbal clarifications were enough to offset my lack of specific advice.

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