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In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

A disillusioned professor questions the contemporary American push to get all kids into college.

(Page 2 of 2)



Yet students, “poignantly desperate for success,” continue to hock their futures with punitive loans because of the “wage premium for a college education,” and, more pointedly, “credential inflation,” that requires at least some college for an increasing number of fields (including nursing and state troopers).

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Professor X is dismayed by the irreconcilable conflict “between open admissions and basic standards,” which turns low-rung community colleges into “vocational schools on steroids,” filled with students sorely in need of remedial education. As a teacher of English 101 and 102, two courses required for graduation, he has become a reluctant gatekeeper, determined to teach and grade to college standards rather than dumb down the material or succumb to compassionate grade inflation – decisions that have led him to fail as many as 9 out of 15 students in a single class.

While Professor X’s memoir/diatribe touches on what he teaches and how, the agony of grading is a recurring obsession. In fact, in the avalanche of responses to his Atlantic essay, some of which he quotes, he was roundly criticized for focusing more on evaluating than on teaching.

While Professor X questions the value of a liberal arts education and familiarity with James Joyce’s Molly Bloom for someone pursuing a career in, say, medical technology, he fails to question his own standards, which may be calibrated too high: In his grading scale, Anna Quindlen would earn just a B-minus!

One can’t help wondering whether a shift toward thinking about community college as further education rather than higher education might ease the rub. If students enter at a ninth-grade level, wouldn’t improvement of even a grade or two over a 15-week course have some value?

In criticizing our “blind faith in the power of education,” Professor X asserts that Americans “think of educators as something close to saints, and school as impervious to bottom-line concerns.” Tell that to teachers struggling to hang on amid draculean budget cuts.

Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.

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