Monday, September 13, 2010

Why Is American Education Circling the Toilet Bowl?

A spate of articles appeared recently trying to elucidate the causes of the decline in the quality of American education. The conservative pseudo-journalists at Washington Post and the New York Times think they have found the cause: the current generation of students is crappy and has no values. This is what Thomas Friedman has to say on the subject quoting his colleague at WaPo:
“The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation,” wrote Samuelson. “Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform’ is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.” Wrong, he said. “Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited ‘student apathy.’ ” . . . In a flat world where everyone has access to everything, values matter more than ever. Right now the Hindus and Confucians have more Protestant ethics than we do, and as long as that is the case we’ll be No. 11!
Leaving aside Friedman's latent racism (the brown and the yellow people are coming to conquer us, oooh, scary!), I take issue with this journalist's desire to dump on the younger generation. Unlike Friedman, I happen to see students in my classroms and my office every single day of the week. Based on my experience with today's students in Canada and different schools in the US, I can say that the kids I teach are simply fantastic. They are extremely hard-working, curious, motivated, smart, kind, and a lot more open-minded than their parents. Un fortunately, our education system often has no idea how to tap into this great potential. This is the real cause of the apathy Friedman and Samuelson refer to. Blaming the students is easy, while addressing the true ills of the system is a lot harder. This would require a lot of hard work, that same hard work that Friedman believes his generation can provide in spades.

As I said before, when a person starts explaining how the current generations of youngsters are a lot worse than the previous ones, this is the surest mark of intellectual and spiritual old age for me, irrespective of the person's chronological age. There are innumerable problems in the American education system but blaming the students for being spoilt and lazy is not a way to address these issues. Every day after leaving the classroom, I feel very glad that our future is in the hands of these great kids. If we fail to put this potential to its best use, that's our fault, not the students'.


Anonymous said...

It's funny going to back to texts from antiquity and finding quotes from 500BC about students being useless and indolent.

It seems some people never learn from history. Always easier to blame those who really have little say in their education (the students), rather than the real culprits -- money poorly spent on sports teams, administrator salaries and useless buildings.


Lauren W. said...

Thank you!! I teach at-risk college students and freshmen, and they are incredibly motivated. I'm really frustrated with the anti-student sentiment I hear in the higher ed community. Seems like admins, faculty, and TAs can only agree on one thing, and that's how much students stink "these days." I think it must be some kind of desperate backlash against the budget crisis.

Clarissa said...

"the real culprits -- money poorly spent on sports teams, administrator salaries and useless buildings."

-And completely outdated textbooks. I just had a painful conversation with a student about why what I teach is often the exact opposite of what the textbook says. of course, I can't tell her the truth: that this completely outdated textbook has been imposed on me, I can't change it for the next 2 years because the university doesn't want to get a new one and doesn't know what to do with the copies of this one. I felt like an idiot talking to this student, which she probably thought I am. Now I feel really shitty.

Pagan Topologist said...

I often tell students that textbooks are less than perfect. They generally appreciate it that I am forthright about it.

I do think that students (at my university at least) became weaker in the 1980's and then in the early 1990's started getting better again. They tend to be really good and motivated now. I have no idea why these changes happened.

Richard said...

Actually Samuelson has a point. Learning is a pro-active engagement of the student with the material, it is not passive absorption by osmosis. If a student is not willing to actively engage a subject it is difficult to see how learning (knowledge transfer) can take place.
That being said it is silly to blame unmotivated students for the lamentable state of the U.S. Educational Establishment. Efficient institutions of learning incorporating good teachers serve as motivators of students; the corrupt and badly run institutions staffed by indifferent or incompetent teachers that appear to be the norm today are not going to inspire anyone to academic excellence.

NancyP said...

Money is the measure of all things in this country. The 1980s rightward trend of the political discussion stresses money over other values. Even the "values voters" ("fundamentalist" Christians and others) stress the anti-abortion and anti-gay themes over any themes that might reflect an ethic of service or generosity. "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" of the Kennedy 1960s is outdated. Idealism is passe. Anti-intellectualism is stronger than ever, fanned by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, O'Reilly, and other servants of the wealthiest Republicans and their politicians.

Education is seen as a commodity and as a marker of social class (both true) more than a personal and social good. I am not surprised that some students are interested only in passing the courses, not the courses themselves. The high cost of education also makes parents and students view education primarily as a commodity - how to pay those loans.

Students learn their values from their parents, peers, and surrounding society. If the parents view education as just getting a piece of paper that can lead to a higher income, students are likely to have the same views. If pop musicians get more "news" air time than scientific discoveries, and if popular radio personalities rail against "the elite" and the college professors, it is no surprise if the students pick up those messages.

Yes, old farts, from the ancient Greeks to the present, like to complain about students.

William said...

I'm a firm believer in my students. Yes, they are lazy. Yes, they are ignorant, under-read. Yes, they hate homework. BUT my generation is infinitely more lazy, and surprisingly just as under-read. In fact, my students have shown a remarkable dismissal of the present. Usually, you get the students who say "Why does this dinosaur lit. matter? This is the 21st century." Recently I've felt my students to have a distrust of the present. They want to go back to the beginning, to the lasting members of our history. I think the amount of students in my high school classes who have read The Republic by Plato actually exceeds self-proclaimed "readaholic" educators. I have kids who can't put a sentence together getting excited about Shakespeare. And they all hate the school! Some come in intoxicated and manage to add to the discussion. They're not regurgitating symbols or interpretation. They're engaging with the material, with King Lear. Underaged drunk kids providing interesting discussion on King Lear, I love it! The whole football team was speaking bardinese in my classroom. It was grand! Mind you, I'm working from an underfunded high school in a piss poor neighborhood (I'm allowed to say it because I live here. It is really piss poor). This new generation is something else.

geo said...

I found when tutoring (particularly middle school students) roughly 10 years ago in a reasonably "good" school:
1.) Roughly 60% of the students were - "average", 20% - clearly behind and 20% "well above average",
2.) The teaching was largely geared towards the average students,
3.) The above average students learned "well" - but would do so regardless of the quality there and oft times were bored,
4.) The - "clearly behind" students tended to fall behind further and further and generally didn't have parents coming to the schools to try to work with the teachers (for various reasons probably) and rarely sought help to try to get caught up - most probably having given up,
5.) The teaching tended to - teach "tricks" and similar, rather than helping kids think and reason and similar - and many kids were lost without the tricks,
Given that this was a "pretty good" school - I could only imagine how it would be in a "poor school" or a school with predominantly poor children.-

Richard said...

I think that Nancy P makes an important point concerning education as a commodity. It goes to the heart of the perennial controversy over the purpose of a university: should it be a trade school or a place of scholarship? Many young folks go to university specifically to enhance their chances for a higher paying job. I don’t know, but suspect a much smaller number go because of a love for learning or a fascination for a particular subject such as 19th Russian literature or German Idealist philosophy. This in turn impacts how a university curriculum is formulated that is practical (accounting classes) versus academic (history of the Byzantine Empire classes) courses. My personal feeling is that ‘practical’ subjects such as business administration, accounting, and public administration don’t belong in universities at all, but should be relegated to ‘business colleges’ offering two and four year degrees as well as the venerated MBA. Science and technology combine practical and academic features and really belong in the university.