I just finished my first semester as a teaching assistant. It’s what I do in exchange for a fee remission and a small salary at the university. Now that final grades are turned in, there’s a little something I need to get off my chest.
Apologies to all those who have heard me rant about this already. Yep, it’s THAT topic.
During a discussion about War and Empire by Paul Atwood, I mentioned to students that I was surprised that the United States’ involvement in the Kosovo conflict was omitted from this book. This course was about research methods and I wanted them to think about how to evaluate books which make very strong arguments but leave out points that could introduce counterfactuals or undermine the author’s position. Atwood, starting with Columbus, goes through the history of what eventually became the United States, and argues that all wars in which it has been involved have been fought over expansion of empire – first territorial expansion, and then market power. He goes up to the invasion of Iraq, so I was surprised there was no mention of Kosovo whatsoever, even though the United States’ involvement was through NATO and not on its own.
Well, in both my classes, I had students who did not know what Kosovo was. Not just that there was a war, but that this was a place on the map.
This terrifies me.
Let me be clear, I am not blaming the students. If they could get into the top public university in their state and never encounter this, then there is something seriously wrong with the education system. These kids are smart, so something has gone wrong. The system has failed them, and inside every system are The Powers That Be, and The Powers That Be are people. A large group of educated, powerful adults has demanded so little out of public school students, that some of the best and brightest are unaware that Kosovo is a place. And obviously this is OK with them, or otherwise something would have been done about it.
We cannot blame all our shortcomings on budget cuts. It is a problem for all of us if American youth can reach 20 years of age and not find out, either through the classroom or newspapers or the simple independent thumbing-through of books that defined my childhood, where their country was involved in war during their lifetime. If this is happening, it is because of long-time, widespread failure of the people who are supposed to be upholding standards – who are supposed to be imparting knowledge to students.
What frightens me most of all are the excuses I hear people making for things like this. My colleagues in sociology say that it’s not a big deal. I think it is a VERY BIG FREAKIN’ DEAL INDEED if the people we are training to be tomorrow’s public leaders do not know these basic facts. “They were very young when it happened,” people tell me. I’m not buying it. Yes, they were young. But they’re not anymore. They should know the history of their own country. By way of comparison – I was in kindergarten when Desert Storm happened. I couldn’t have given you the history of Kuwait or the life story of Saddam Hussein, but I definitely knew at the time that Kuwait was a country, Hussein was a ruler, and a war was happening. And when I was school-age, I knew what it was. You don’t have to know every detail, but to not even know of the war’s existence? That’s inexcusable.
Another person admonished me with, “Julia, you can’t expect everyone to have had the same experiences as you.” Think about that for a second. I’m not supposed to expect students to know about a war their country participated in that happened during their lifetime. To me, this seems like a pretty basic thing. If I can’t expect this, then what CAN I expect them to know?
Then, even worse, I hear people say that we have to be aware that students from working-class backgrounds, of whom there are many in this university, do not read as much as their better-off counterparts and thus are less aware of current events. WHAT? Have a little respect for the fact that these students have brains – brains that got them into this prestigious institution in the first place. Respect their current abilities and their future abilities, and set standards high so that they can achieve. The school system has screwed them over their entire lives, so take a step toward fixing that and demand proficiencies. They can do it, and they’ll feel great about doing it, because they’ve been waiting their entire lives to be challenged. We can acknowledge that not all students are born with silver spoons, that many have had to struggle with difficult personal circumstances, unfair inequalities, and underfunded schools, without insulting them by lowering standards. When students are five or six years old, we believe all of them can achieve the highest success with the right support, encouragement, and challenges. We should not change our opinion when they become undergraduates assigned to our classes.
And don’t make blanket statements about what working-class students are like – they are a huge and diverse group. And there are things called public libraries. Lots of kids find their way into them at a young age, and yes, that includes kids from poorer families. I grew up solidly middle-class, but I was always at the public library devouring books because school didn’t challenge me. Your parent doesn’t have to have a lot of money to bring newspapers into the house or switch on the radio. To assume working-class students, at age 18+, don’t have the capabilities of wealthier students is downright insulting. If they’ve been swimming against the tide all their lives, then by college it’s time to give them some assistance, not accept this inequality as inevitable. Yes, there are structural inequalities that burden America’s poor and make it more difficult for kids to reach academic benchmarks, but that is entirely separate from the personal habits and cognitive skills students can cultivate WITH THE RIGHT TEACHING AND GUIDANCE. They won’t get anywhere if people say it’s OK for them to achieve lower standards. By the college level, the excuses need to end and the concentrated teaching needs to progress. Imagine how insulting it must feel for a college professor to assume you can’t do what the kid sitting next to you from Sherman Oaks or Redwood City can do, even though you both worked your way into one of the nation’s best universities. How insulting. How stigmatizing. How utterly ridiculous.
I read papers from students who are about to be handed their diplomas, and they don’t know the difference between “they’re,” “their,” and “there.” Are we really doing them a favor by letting them graduate without basic competencies? It’s NOT OK to shrug this off. We should feel ashamed of ourselves if a graduating student with English as a first language cannot coherently write an analytic paragraph. Making excuses – and I have heard plenty of them – will not land them the jobs they need to compete on a global scale. For every student with dyslexia, there are dozens who have simply been allowed to coast through their classes, believing that “good enough” writing is, indeed, good enough. No credible university’s teachers should accept “good enough” unless they are willing to state, hand on heart, that they are content with being part of a race to the bottom. If we are to be taken seriously as scientists, then sociologists must demand high standards from both themselves and the next generation of scholars. It may seem like just a small, nit-picky detail that I’m beating half to death, but it’s indicative of a culture that accepts mediocrity as just fine and dandy, and instead of making the effort to help students improve so that they can enter adulthood with the necessary skills, excuses them away and perpetuates the problem. These kids are obviously bright, so why don’t we demand more of them? If we say it’s OK that students don’t know about the war in Kosovo, then what next? It’s OK for them to not know the difference between Iraq and Iran? Or North and South Korea? See where this is going?
I feel like I’m from another planet sometimes. When I was a kid (which wasn’t terribly long ago), I learned lots of things outside the classroom. Truth be told, a lot of my teachers were incompetent dinosaurs who made no secret of the fact that they were unhappy with their careers. I had to do a lot of learning on my own. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten remotely near where I am today. Yes, I was lucky in that my parents had resources. They had money to buy books, but they also took me to the library when I was too young to go there alone. They subscribed to a newspaper. All these things seem pretty basic. Do young people no longer even look at the front page of a newspaper whenever they pass a street-corner box? That costs nothing. Do they not watch the news? That pops up in public everywhere you go. Do they never get curious about the rest of the world and pick up books to learn more? I admit it, I was a weird kid, but I lived on books. I wanted to know everything about everything, and books were the way I could do that. The world outside my immediate surroundings fascinated me and I couldn’t wait to grow up and be part of it. Don’t people just a decade younger than me feel the same way, or was I really that odd?
And regardless of class, every teenager is exposed to loads of media – do news headlines never flicker by? How is it that they can know what Kim Kardashian is wearing, but not know about current events? I don’t understand. I do not understand this at all.
I’m just perplexed. Utterly baffled that I seem to be the only one out of my colleagues who is shocked and disturbed by the dumbing-down of education. And that’s what it is, dumbing down. There’s no better way to describe it. Low standards, low expectations, low demands. It was happening when I was a student (we were reading books that were marked fourth grade level when we were in eighth grade – and this was in what was considered to be a good public school), it’s still happening now, and if nobody gets really, really pissed off about it, then it’s only going to continue. If other PhD students aren’t bothered and I am, then clearly we have different values – and I honestly thought that at this point, all my peers would be as shocked by dumbing-down as I am. I see this process perpetuating itself throughout the next generation. It’s absolutely terrifying. I can’t repeat this enough – what I’ve just described should horrify everybody with the slightest interest in the future of the country. I honestly thought things would be different at the doctoral level. It seems they’re not.
I’m also at the point where I think social scientists are the number one reason why people don’t take social sciences seriously – it’s because we don’t demand enough of ourselves and our students. We’re too busy worrying about hurting people’s feelings to suggest that something might need improvement. We are the problem and we’re largely in denial. Every time we as educators make excuses for mediocrity in the students we are grooming to be tomorrow’s civic leaders, visionary entrepreneurs, and groundbreaking intellectuals, we degrade ourselves. How can sociologists lecture about community if we shirk our responsibility to those we are welcoming to it as independent adults?
And why is it that my colleagues admonished me for stating that addressing a mixed-sex group of students as “you guys” is not a big deal, but none of them agreed with my statement that it’s inexcusable for students to not know what Kosovo is? I seriously can’t be the only person who thinks priorities are a bit skewed. Is this what academia is coming to? How on earth do we expect to be taken seriously? We are the gatekeepers now – don’t we remember what it’s like to be bored and unchallenged and aching to learn more?
Look, nobody rises to low expectations. We have to demand more out of students regardless of their background. If we excuse and shrug off basic deficits of knowledge, then WE IN ACADEMIA ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM. If we have double standards applying to poorer kids, then we are perpetuating the exact things we so self-righteously claim to be working toward eliminating.
Stop making excuses. Start teaching. Get angry. Stop telling people like me that we need to be “more understanding” of mediocrity, and start raising the bar.