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…”