Charles Murray has a thought-provoking piece over at the Opinion Journal. He’s concerned about the education system– actually, the education system for the intellectual elite. He’s afraid, and rightly so, that he intellectuals in our classrooms are not being challenged and that they are not learning some of the best life lessons out there– what it’s like to lose.
Charles fashions the idea that the brilliant among us, about 10% of the population he estimates, are never challenged growing up, so we get a few million intellectuals who are condescending and intolerant of the less intelligent. It’s hard to argue. In my classes I see the many of the students that he’s talking about. These students are those seeking to become doctors, scientists, criminal investigators, rocket scientists, biochemists, medicinal chemists, pharmacists.
And I am appalled at just how lazy these kids can be.
I know they are smart. Their test scores coming into my class are exceptional. But when they land in my class and I assign weekly reading and homework, I am treated to shoddy work. Then I am hammered on evaluations for “not giving partial credit on homework”. What’s worse is that I give one or two tough (but not that tough) problems on the homework, and many of the students just give up. Others complain that it’s “too hard”. Only a handful respect the challenge and go on to solve the problem, and fewer then come to my office hours for help solving the problem. And then I get students writing “he doesn’t make us learn” on evaluations. It’s frustrating.
Many are coming up through an elementary and secondary education system that doesn’t want to fail students. We hate to see people fail. But I think we can all agree that the best lessons learned in life were from times we failed. When I am working on research, if a system fails, it provides a wealth of information just because it didn’t work. In my graduate work, my entire project was a failure, and that’s not from lack of trying. Was I denied a Ph.D.? No. Why? Because I redoubled my efforts to attempt to solve our research problem. The Ph.D. recognizes that I know my field, not that I succeeded in my research project. I’ve seen people succeed in their research projects then stumble into a review committee not knowing the basics of their field. It’s embarrassing.
Applying the same ideas to the undergraduates I teach now, I understand the value of the “tough love” teaching approach. If someone doesn’t know their subject, then there is no reason to pass that student. Hard work is nice, fine, but if I’m training someone who’s pre-medical, then do I really want to be putting a borderline student into situations where he’s cutting others open? Or assigning them medicines they really don’t understand?
The major problem, as I see it, is that the K-12 years, for the smart, are not challenging. The K-12 programs are trying to get as many kids to graduate with an H.S. diploma as possible. The teachers (God love them) work their asses off to make sure the marginal are not marginalized. Struggling students are encouraged to succeed. But if that teacher is spending more time with the struggling, then who is spending time with the average and the gifted? What’s worse is that to make sure more students pass, standards have been lowered. I know for a fact that subjects I took in H.S. are not teaching the material I learned. Pre-calculus is no longer covers the natural log, for example. Writing is suffering as well. Students, supposedly the best and brightest, are handing in reports that have fifth-grade comprehension problems associated with them. Students can’t critically communicate the data learned in a laboratory, and that’s a monstrous failure at the secondary education level. Few can write well. But a strong majority cannot communicate in a written fashion.
It can be argued that students do not have technical writing skills coming into college. That’s fine. I agree. But I’m not talking about technical writing skills. I’m talking about sentence structure. I’m talking about misspellings. Hell, I know for a fact these kids are using MS Word, and that program is kind enough to underline in red common misspellings. But the students are so lazy they don’t correct the misspellings. These kids are sophomores in college and they can’t do a 5 minute proofread of their laboratory reports. I’m supposed to evaluate and hone technical writing skills, but when I spend an extra 20 minutes correcting misspellings, capitalization errors, punctuation errors, grammatical errors– it’s more than I can stand. I know for a fact these students have been writing essays for at least 10 years. Hasn’t anyone taken them aside and compared their paper to that of a fifth grader?
So, I’m off on a rant. Excuse me. But it’s frustrating on my end. As a faculty we are seeing an overall decline in the quality of our students from a statistics standpoint. What’s worse is that I know kids today are smarter than kids 100 years ago. But the kids 100 years ago were living in a pre-WWI era. Many struggled through hardships and they didn’t have the luxuries of life showered upon them. Few had manufactured toys. A doll was considered a prized possession. Now kids get “Bratz” complete with the Jay-Z “Big Pimpin‘” package or a cell phone that can play pirated music, take snapshots, and download porn while sitting in class.
Our best and brightest are not being challenged, and I can only wonder what the future generations hold when they reach positions of responsibility.