The Diploma Mill

I am an instructor of English at a small, private
college near Cleveland, Ohio. With its tree-lined streets, gothic
architecture and sprawling quad, the college is an idyllic setting
and one that disguises some unsightly truths. Like a Hollywood movie
set, the college campus is all artifice, a make-believe world where
actors appear for a short time, recite their lines, and then exit
the sound stage of higher education forever. I say this because
the longer I teach, the more convinced I become that, in general,
a college education takes the form of a very predictable and tedious
script in which students are asked to memorize material and then
regurgitate that material on an exam, after which time they forget
everything they’ve just memorized (“learned” would
be too hopeful a word), only to repeat the cycle again next semester.
After four years of reciting various soliloquies in a plodding monotone,
students attend a graduation ceremony that in many respects mimics
the Academy Awards except for the fact that everyone, no matter
his or her level of competence, is given a diploma from the dean
and an ovation from the befuddled professors who seem a bit perplexed
by the whole event as if it were some kind of elaborate hoax. There
are, of course, many reasons for their stupefaction.

Recently, NBC Nightly News reported that 69% of college
graduates are functionally illiterate; that is, they cannot read
or comprehend complex material. Another study released by The
New York Times
suggests that 50% of Americans did not read
a single book last year. A third study claims that America has reached
its highest level of adult illiteracy in decades. Although I cannot
speak for education in general, I do believe there are several reasons
why we are experiencing a crisis at the college level.

The first is that college students are only required to take one
year of English, usually a semester or two of low level composition
classes, and because so many of these students are now graduating
from American high schools without the ability to identify nouns
and verbs (I’m not making this up), beleaguered instructors
are forced to spend the majority of their time teaching students
how to write simple sentences and paragraphs. As a result, complex
material is never discussed in class. There’s just no time
for a serious analysis of, say, an essay by Gore Vidal or Isaiah
Berlin when instructors must teach students the difference between
“there” and “their.” As you might imagine,
this is not good for morale among faculty members. Teaching a student
how to make sense of a front-page story in the Cleveland Plain
Dealer
is not the same thing as teaching a student the dramatic
power and existential themes of Hamlet.

A second reason for the crisis is that instructors of composition
courses tend to be adjunct faculty who are paid scandalously low
wages and are given no benefits whatsoever. Because they see no
future in this line of work, adjuncts tend to teach composition
for a few semesters and then leave college for greener pastures.
As a result, there is no quality control. While one instructor may
be quite dedicated, hunkering down in the trenches of composition
classes, another may be a bit more lackadaisical. There does seem
to be one common denominator among adjuncts: they’re all rather
stoic, mostly because they exist in a kind of intellectual purgatory.
Without any kind of safety net (no union representation and no possibility
of tenure) adjuncts find it difficult to challenge students in any
meaningful way. What’s more, they feel pressured to pass students
who are clearly unprepared for more sophisticated kinds of reading
and writing.

This brings me to a third point. As we all know, college has become
a business, and like all businesses, the management, in an attempt
to maximize profits, is always on the prowl for cheap labor. Last
year, for example, over 60% of the staff at Lorain County Community
College was adjunct despite attaining record levels of enrollment.
These so-called “cost cutting measures” by the administration
have not helped consumers in any significant way. Many parents are
now paying more than ever before for their child’s college
education, and they demand results, but as the sociologist Jane
Jacobs noted in her recent book Dark Age Ahead, Americans
are no longer paying for an education per se; they are instead paying
for an accreditation. In the end, what truly matters to
parents is that junior receives (rather than earns) a college
diploma so he can get a job and begin repaying some of those astronomical
student loans. Shakespeare and Faulkner are completely inconsequential
to this equation.

This brings me to the fourth reason for this crisis. English is
simply not important to students. Having completed one or two composition
classes, most students never take another writing class and are
never asked to write anything that will sharpen their critical thinking
skills. Some professors in upper-level classes might have their
students write simple book reports; that is, papers that merely
summarize rather than analyze and evaluate complex material. I know
this for a fact because each year a group of instructors, myself
included, get together to look over papers written by students over
their four-year college career. Time and again what we find is that
no progress has been made in a student’s writing skills from
his freshman year to his senior year. In fact, as the requirement
for critical thinking declines with each passing semester so does
the quality of the writing. Professors who have participated in
these reading sessions all agree that the problem has become a pandemic
in the sense that it is universal and spreading at an uncontrollable
rate. Because there seems to be no way to inoculate young people,
this infestation of intellectual apathy, like any disease, may need
to run its course and die out naturally.

The notion of intellectual apathy and, perhaps more importantly,
pragmatism brings me to my fifth point. Students today believe that
college is a minor inconvenience and, worse still, an unavoidable
evil that must be dealt with in order to get that coveted degree.
This attitude, I suspect, is the consequence of a new conservative
paradigm in America. For several years now, right wing political
pundits have been telling their minions that college professors,
seditious liberals one and all, are responsible for whatever problems,
real or imaginary, that face our nation. In a recent broadcast of
his fair and balanced talk show, Bill O’Reilly claimed that
college should be purely vocational rather than intellectual in
nature. He need not worry about this as most colleges have already
become vocational schools. Still, the cocksure O’Reilly argued
that literature and philosophy courses are all a big waste of time.
Kids have no practical use for things like psychology and art history.
What they need are more classes in business management and electrical
engineering. O’Reilly’s guest that evening, a soft-spoken
professor with a deer-in-the-headlights look about him, foolishly
tried to argue the importance of critical thinking but was of course
shouted down before he could complete a sentence.

No one would deny that Americans are a pragmatic bunch, but at
what point can a strictly utilitarian approach to education begin
to adversely affect an entire people? I would argue that we have
become not only a culturally isolated nation, but a culturally illiterate
one as well. Which brings me to my final point. The people of the
United States have so politicized ideas and the discussion
of ideas that professors are reluctant to speak about anything of
substance with their students for fear of offending them. Recently,
a member of the Ohio state senate, Ralph Regula of Navarre, accused
liberal professors of intimidating their conservative students (specifically
and significantly their conservative Christian students)
with leftist rhetoric. Regula sagely introduced new legislation
that would require professors with a liberal bias to give equal
time in their classrooms to opposing viewpoints, theoretically opening
the door to holocaust deniers, hate groups and religious fundamentalists
who take issue with fantasies and delusions like “science.”
The administration at Cleveland State University thought the senator
had a point and drew up new guidelines for instructors, thus bogging
down the concept of intellectual freedom with even more political
correctness and inscrutable bureaucratic legalese. Regula’s
point: a college classroom is certainly not the proper forum to
discuss substantive ideas of any kind.

The overall problem of American anti-intellectualism, now so much
a part of our national character, seems systemic in nature, and
there can be no single solution to so complex a problem. Simply
put, the most obvious solutions are the most unrealistic ones. College
administrators will never grant tenure to adjuncts, and they will
never scare away prospective students (who are, after all, potential
customers) with a requirement to take more than the bare minimum
of English credits. This is called competition. It also seems unlikely
that the Christian Right (which has now co-opted one political party)
will ever relent in its war against secular humanism and intellectual
endeavors in general, mostly because no one in a leadership role
has the courage to stand up to them and insist that human reason
is far superior to human fervor. This is called cultural suicide.

Americans outwardly profess a deep devotion to individualism but
secretly they crave some form of authoritarianism. Ironically, they
do not seek out those individuals who actually possess authority
in particular fields of study. Instead they opt for factious ideologues
who engage in hysterical proselytizing and demagoguery of the most
reprehensible sort. Of course now that the current administration
finds itself in an ever more untenable situation, both politically
and ideologically, all of this may begin to change, and we may yet
see a paradigm shift. Until then I will watch from my seat as college
graduates cross the stage to accept their diplomas and silently
wonder how many of them can actually understand the phrase “in
recognition of the satisfactory fulfillment of the requirements
pertaining to this degree…”

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