the circular runner

should everyone go to college?–OR–what education and torture have in common…

In teaching & education on August 4, 2010 at 10:42 am

It’s probably a cliche to say this, but I think writers are more productive when they’re a little (or a lot) unhappy. About three weeks ago, I quit teaching at the for-profit community college I’d been carping about for months, and at about that time, I dried up–at least as far as non-fiction writing goes. Since then, I have felt like I had nothing important to say, so I’ve kept quiet on the blog-front. That said, the world keeps a-turning, and I keep a-looking for things to make me sad and mad. Well, a few days ago, I read this disturbing article in The Atlantic and I am happy to report, there are still things that can make me unhappy enough to post.

To summarize: the article was written by an adjunct teacher of English who, after much head searching and soul scratching, answers the the question in my title with a qualified no. I know where the author is coming from. In one sense, I agree with his conclusion. There are some people who should not go to college. But I disagree with how the author comes to his conclusion. For him, the ultimate criterion is talent. For me, the answer can be found elsewhere: the need for ease.

After working at a sausage factory of a college where the bottom line is the bottom line, I sometimes did find people who were truly lacking in the academic skills department–some students were barely literate–but the only time a student’s problem ever became insurmountable was when he thought he didn’t have to work his tail off to make up for his lack of skills. I can’t say I can blame kids who hold that attitude. They were sold on education–sold being the truly appropriate word. Colleges like the one I taught for sell themselves to people by peddling ease. I can’t tell you how many times I heard about recruiters promising the moon to prospective students. Before they sign up, there is no difficulty the recruiter can’t surmount. Suppose the person has to have a major surgery sometime in the next month and will have to be confined to a bed for weeks afterward, “No problem,” the recruiter tells the student. “Teachers can take care of that and send you your homework in the hospital. Teachers really don’t mind if you you miss every class.” The student can barely read: “no problem!” the recruiter says. “Learning to read is easy. Kids do it all the time.”

If you think that this kind of thing only affects students who go to schools like the one I taught for, then think again. I am no social scientist, so I can’t really say why, but there is a pervading attitude in all of us that everything should come easy. Difficulty is to be avoided at all costs. This is the lesson of technology and, more directly, it is the lesson of consumerism. But teachers and administrators, if education is to remain what it always has been, should not and cannot take on that model as their own.

If you’re reading this and wondering if I mean to say that education should be about pain and suffering, then let me put your mind at ease: that is EXACTLY what I’m saying. Think about it: when you’re in school, you have to suck it up when people (often times bookish, socially inept people) correct you. Who likes to be corrected all the time? And let’s say you’re a sadist or a Buddhist with complete ego-control, then the criticism might not bother you, but how much joy are you going to get out of reading books that bleed your brain they’re so difficult and abstruse?  Even if you like reading, chances are you’ll find yourself in classes where you’re forced to read books that make you want to burn down libraries. And for all this, you don’t get paid a cent. In fact, in most cases, you have to pay for the abuse being heaped on you, and sometimes you have to pay a lot. Put simply, the educational process is all about discomfort: personal and financial, and that’s a good thing because it makes you grow intellectually an personally. It’s true that students of all different backgrounds have always pushed for that to change. The difference is that better schools are holding the line and not budging as much. Public community colleges are also trying to hold the line (as we see from the article) but what hope do you have when corporate-owned community colleges give in and trade in comfort and ease? It not only affects public community colleges by depleting their numbers; it also makes the students who remain ill-prepared for the challenge of learning because they keep seeing the ads promising life-change in 18 pain-free, smile-full months.

I can’t speak for the educator who wrote the article I link to above, but for me, I got into teaching to teach. If the student is willing to try, then I better find some way to get them to learn something. I may not get my students to write perfect thesis statements, but if I can get them to progress, then I’ve done my job. Perfection is an obstacle to progress, and I think educators who work with remedial students should keep that in mind. On the other hand, learning is hard–it’s hard for everyone–and students who go to college have to know that. For some, it might even be torture. Which brings me to the moral of my rant: if you want something easy, avoid college. If you think that education is worth the discomfort you will experience, then you should go to college and it doesn’t matter what your skill level is. Of course, there are a lot of good things about college, too. I know I haven’t said that, but those things are gravy–they aren’t the main course (pun intended).

  1. Interesting and bold. I like the “voice” that comes out in this one.
    A friend of mine just left her job as a university lecturer. Her students wanted something easy, and I think she felt more tortured than they did, because of their attitudes. She definitely didn’t feel like she was “making a difference” in her job, but leaving will make a difference for her, in a good way.

  2. I love this:

    I am happy to report, there are still things that can make me unhappy enough to post

    Anyway, back to the topic: I grew up praised and being told how great I am and constantly succeeding in everything… Which is pretty much the worst thing that has happened in my personal life. I wasn’t forced to do anything, and now I’m finding it extremely hard to stick to a plan / routine / habit / assignment. So I totally agree school and then college (but also parenting at home) should not be about comforting the ‘child’ – it should be a time and place to have an invisible safety net around the mistakes you’d make, the struggles you’d have etc. while learning the basics of stuff. Like a ‘warm-up’ for real life. Otherwise you become functionally illiterate (

  3. I’ve ended up writing a very long response, and because I wanted to include some embedded links, I’ve posted it on my blog. Hope you don’t mind clicking back. Thank you for your post, and for linking me to it.

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