H. Education


Christmas greetings to all!

You have not heard from me in a while, because I have been on an academic holiday. Perhaps I should phrase it more formally than this and call it a "sabbatical." In late August of this year, I was telephoned by a local college administrator and asked to teach the subject of ethics. I agreed to do so and wound up instructing three sections of the course. Each contained approximately twenty-five students.

Hiring me was obviously either a last minute act of desperation by the college or the result of haphazard planning (probably both!), since the semester was to begin a few short days thereafter. The chairman of the department handed me the texts, smiled, and bade farewell. Little did I realize that these perfunctory gestures would define the substance of communication I would have with him for the duration of the semester. There was never a subsequent conversation to inquire how I was doing, to invite my impressions or comments, or to explore possible problems I may have been having. I was part of a diploma mill, pure and simple. Students were processed into and out of courses, and everyone received a periodic paycheck. Hey, is this not the essence of what academic administration is these days?

As the semester began, I found myself competing with students for a parking space every time I arrived on the campus. Once, when I happened upon a space a moment before another driver did, I received an aggressive digital gesture from her, reminding me of the stupid, mundane struggle in which I as an adjunct instructor was compelled to engage. Not only were parking spaces at a premium, but it appears that classrooms were as well. After about a month into the semester, my classroom assignment for one section was changed several times! The sense of chaos and disruption was palpable. After a final classroom assignment appeared to have been made, I often arrived at the school to find the door to my classroom  locked and my students waiting in the hallway. I then had to scurry to find someone to unlock it. "What a gig!" I thought. Did I complain about these inconveniences and disruptions? You bet I did. Were the problems resolved? Of course not.

All of this having been said, the facilities were state of the art. They were, quite honestly, some of the finest instructional facilities I have seen. The involuntary largess of taxpayers spares nothing! Considering the location of the main campus, the extraordinary buildings reminded me of a brand new, brightly colored Lamborghini parked next to a rundown apartment complex. There was something incongruous about it all.

About the students themselves. The top ten percent of them were, I would say, eager to learn. Another twenty percent were striving to satisfy a course requirement; if not motivated by an intellectual interest, they were at least tenacious. Another group, approximately thirty-five percent, were poorly motivated and eventually stopped attending class. (Some of them officially dropped the course while others walked away and thought nothing of receiving an "F".) The bottom thirty-five percent were uneducable and had no place whatsoever in a college or university.

Generally, with a few notable exceptions, the students who could write coherently were the more mature adult learners. They knew how to structure intelligible sentences because they had been taught how to do it. In conjunction therewith, they knew how to think critically as well.  Many of the younger students seemed comfortable and all too willing to memorize material for multiple-guess examinations and to give back, in a process of academic regurgitation, precisely what instructors or textbooks stated.

In my classes, there were no fatuous examinations or thoughtless exercises. The students were required to write and to think, not to memorize and to regurgitate. It was a challenging, sometimes painful, process for them too.

Let me emphasize that there is nothing intellectually deficient in most of these students that genuine education cannot remedy. Public schools have failed the vast majority of them. Many want to and can learn. The problem is that they have never been challenged to do so! Their parents have left schooling in the hands of second- and third-rate public school administrators and teachers, and have defaulted on assuming any role in their children's education.

I came to view many of these students as diamonds in the rough. They are raw and unpolished. They don't read books. They have little or no appreciation for classical music. Many have mutilated their bodies with tattoos and piercings. Some students, in an unwitting genuflection to the Third World, have even expanded their ear lobes. The young women tend to dress in a sexually provocative manner, much like whores. The young men wear tee-shirts and baggy jeans, which look as if they have doubled as bed clothes. The students are all relativists, as the late Professor Allan Bloom pointed out years ago. How dare anyone attempt to suggest to them that moral truth and aesthetic beauty are not simply in the mind of the beholder! Finally, most students come from broken or dysfunctional homes, in which the word "nurture" means nothing more than emotional, or even physical, survival.

Illicit drugs, rap music (or "graffiti with a beat" as I call it), Hollywood, television, and the spiritual malaise of the nanny state have all taken their toll on the young. Popular American culture is a cesspool, and kids are drowning in it!

Is there a solution? Certainly not a simple one. The restoration of traditional American culture, with its emphasis upon core spiritual values, is what's needed. Can there really be any doubt about that? Perhaps my proposal should be called "Back to Basics." Reading, writing, and mathematics should be stressed, and in a way that meet the student where he or she is. This means individual attention for each and every learner. Away with big, impersonal public schools, where students are imbued with secular progressive nonsense and are soon missing in action! The remedy I am advocating includes thoughtful parental involvement and guidance. This means a stable home-life where mutual love and respect abound, where questions of life and death are thoughtfully discussed, and where giving back to the community is practiced. What I'm talking about is lifting the country to stellar heights by enlightening the citizenry and providing it with a sense of civic virtue and responsibility.

My optimism wanes – no, it nosedives – from time to time. America is decadent. Its leaders are contemptible, and its citizenry fat and spoiled. The kids whom I taught this semester are symptomatic of much that is wrong. It's hard for me to contemplate the scope of this problem and not become dizzy with disappointment, dyspepsia, and defeat.

Yet the true, but bruised and embattled, spirit of Christmas continues to offer hope. The season, at its most profound level, is all about Christianity. But every value that is dear to traditional American culture – such as love, self-sacrifice, giving to others, and remembering the countless blessings of a beneficent deity – are among those which also take mystical and poetic shape in Christmas. Just as the Christmas story marks the beginning of redemption for the church, the story highlights values which have pervaded American public culture in the past and can do so again. It won't be easy, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

In this hopeful spirit, I say "merry Christmas to you all" and, in the immortal words of Charles Dickens' Tiny Tim, may "God bless us, everyone."

December 18, 2011