Friday, March 21, 2014

Want Better Writers? Don't Send Them to College

Once, when I was an adjunct English professor, the assistant dean of the college at which I worked told me I needed to dumb down my classes. Well, to be honest, she said, "Now I don’t want you to dumb down your classes, but . . ." and then she proceeded to tell me I needed to dumb down my classes. The reason? Because she did not want students coming to her to complain that they did not get an "A", though they had not done the work to get an "A". She told me that since community college students typically did not come to community college to learn anything, but rather to receive an "A" and credit for the class, that I should teach in such a way that the students would not have to learn anything, but could rather just be granted their "A" and their credit. Further, she proposed that I attend a workshop the community college offered that would teach me the best way to provide my students with this kind of contentless education.

Here is the crisis in education. It is taking place in not just community colleges, but in practically every university across the United States. Administrators do not want students to fail, because if they do fail (or if they do not get an "A" even), the school loses money. So students get passed, even though they learn nothing. In community colleges, the threat is more direct, since if students fail, they will not want to come back to that community college, complaining that "it’s too hard there." And fewer students also equates to fewer government dollars as well. Government dollars are attached to the number of students in each class, so there are incentives to not just retain students, but to create large classes -- wherein students are less likely to learn anything.

Ideally, teachers should be using grammar, rhetoric, poetics, and logic to teach students how to read, write, and think, but most professors use textbooks that downplay or even ignore all of these things, except very superficial discussions of rhetoric. But then, how deeply can you cover rhetoric if you do not cover grammar, poetics, and logic? For example, I have used the book, The Aims of Argument, which only teaches students about different kinds of arguments. You do not have to learn how to construct good sentences, you do not have to know logic, you do not have to write it well at all. All you have to do is be persuasive. Though the protagonist of "Thank You For Smoking" is a rhetorician’s rhetorician, he does at least know what the truth is. The community college I taught at wanted me to make my students unable to be able to do even that. I am not to challenge my students’ opinions, but only consider whether or not they have an argument. It is no wonder that one of my students told me that she loved my class because I did something the teacher in the English class she had before mine had never done: critique her writing for errors in grammar, facts, and reasoning.

If your employees are bad writers, this is why. When they went to college, this is the education they were receiving. Even when professors want to teach their students well, the bureaucrats won't let them. The choice is to conform and pass every student no matter what, to keep them in school, paying their tuition, or to get fired. One can imagine what most professors do.

Only if you understand what is going on at our colleges can you understand the problems you are having with your employees' skills you rightly think they should have. More, it shows that sending them back to college is hardly the solution.

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