Thursday, May 15, 2008

"In the Basement of the Ivory Tower"

From the June 2008 issue of The Atlantic, an essay by Professor X:

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it — try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

I am the man who has to lower the hammer.
This essay is required reading for anyone thinking about American education. And it's available online:
"In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" (The Atlantic)

comments: 4

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link. I laughed out loud at parts of it.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating article, and very true. I hear the same sentiments voiced by a friend who is an adjunct at the same type of schools as Professor X.

But the problem begins even earlier. There are high schools where everyone is encouraged to take college prep courses, AP and IB, and everyone is supposed to succeed at them. The high school teachers are caught between a rock and a hard place - administrative demands that students not only pass, but earn high grades versus the reality that not everyone can.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed and agreed with the article. The ending sealed it amazingly well, though.

"I skip the denouement: the intellectually ambitious scarecrow proudly mangles the Pythagorean theorem and is awarded a questionable diploma in a dreamland far removed from reality. That’s art holding up a mirror all too closely to our own poignant scholarly endeavors."

Michael Leddy said...

This essay seems to be the occasion for laughter and tears — laughter at the absurdity, tears for the human toll. Thanks, everyone, for the comments.