Some Sunday Cheer

It’s been a hectic weekend, and there’s been no time for writing. Fortunately, our West Coast correspondent Jess Kaplan has sent along two items of interest.

The first is a report by a British journalist on the gathering consolidation of dictatorial power in Russia under Vladimir Putin. I will not comment here other than to state the obvious, namely that there is nothing happening there to bolster one’s faith in humankind.

The second item is an essay by an adjunct professor of English, a man whose job it is to teach writing and the appreciation of literature, in evening classes, to students who are often wholly unfit for college-level work. He describes his dingy corner of academia for us:

I work at colleges of last resort. For many of my students, college was not a goal they spent years preparing for, but a place they landed in. Those I teach don’t come up in the debates about adolescent overachievers and cutthroat college admissions. Mine are the students whose applications show indifferent grades and have blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go. They chose their college based not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on MapQuest; in their ideal academic geometry, college is located at a convenient spot between work and home. I can relate, for it was exactly this line of thinking that dictated where I sent my teaching résumé.

Some of their high-school transcripts are newly minted, others decades old. Many of my students have returned to college after some manner of life interregnum: a year or two of post-high-school dissolution, or a large swath of simple middle-class existence, 20 years of the demands of home and family. They work during the day and come to class in the evenings. I teach young men who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work.

My students take English 101 and English 102 not because they want to but because they must. Both colleges I teach at require that all students, no matter what their majors or career objectives, pass these two courses. For many of my students, this is difficult. Some of the young guys, the police-officers-to-be, have wonderfully open faces across which play their every passing emotion, and when we start reading “Araby” or “Barn Burning,” their boredom quickly becomes apparent. They fidget; they prop their heads on their arms; they yawn and sometimes appear to grimace in pain, as though they had been tasered. Their eyes implore: How could you do this to me?

Here in America we are told with relentless insistence that a college education is of paramount importance for anyone who wishes to compete in our new, data-driven workplace — and to be sure, there are a great many bright people whose intellectual talents are wasted solely because they, for any number of reasons, have not been properly educated. This is obviously bad, and it is in our society’s interests to do what we can to remedy it, though how best to do so is beyond my expertise (but I will say that I think paying close attention to, and sacrificing your own indulgences for, the well-being of the children you have spawned is probably the most effective approach of all.)

There are two issues here: one has to do with helping people live up to their potential, and the other has to do with the awkward, but starkly obvious, fact that some people simply have far less potential than others. As for the latter, there are clearly some who, no matter how much education is thrown at them, are never going to read and write well, understand complex ideas, or become competent critical thinkers. This makes them ineligible for full participation in an information-based economy, which puts them at a permanent disadvantage in terms of income and respect, and, they are now told on a daily basis, in terms of mattering. They don’t have to be particularly literate or intellectual to realize this, and when they do, it hurts. It certainly hurts the people struggling to get through English 101 — and failing — that we read about in this article.

The sad fact is that life, most of the time and for most of the people, is rather indifferently cruel. Some people — natively intelligent, and well-cared-for from birth — breeze through their higher education without undue exertion, and go on to a life of rich intellectual engagement and comfortable affluence. Others, simply by the luck of the genetic and social draw, are doomed to fail even if they try. And then, of course, there are the thousands of parents in central China who proudly sent their children off to school, only to see them crushed to death in an earthquake.

It’s all part of God’s plan, of course.


  1. Charles says

    The first link didn’t really whet my whistle, so I gave it a miss (sorry!), but the second one was more my cup of tea. Thank you for the very enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

    Posted May 19, 2008 at 5:37 am | Permalink
  2. bob koepp says

    And then there’s the matter of “credentialing” — basically, putting in the time and paying the tuition so you can put a couple letters after your name. What this accomplishes is nothing less than a semi-refutation of the Peter Principle; a “credentialed” individual can rise far beyond his/her level of incompetence.

    Posted May 19, 2008 at 8:00 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Charles,

    Well, we try to offer something for everybody here.

    Posted May 19, 2008 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Bob, that’s an interesting point. I’ve always thought the Peter Principle is a particularly brilliant insight, and while I would say ‘refuted’ goes too far, a college degree does indeed provide temporary immunity, and forces the principle to take hold in a within a different, higher, stratum (where, presumably, more damage can be done).

    Posted May 19, 2008 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  5. the one eyed man says

    There’s only ten kinds of people in the world: those who know binary arithmetic and those who don’t.

    Posted May 19, 2008 at 6:48 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    I think you mean 10 kinds of people, no? Or maybe you actually meant 1010…

    Posted May 19, 2008 at 11:55 pm | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    I dunno — I never learned binary arithmetic —

    Posted May 20, 2008 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

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