Sunday Reading

From the New York Review of Books: Anthony Grafton’s review of/commentary on a whole mess of books about Higher Education, its flaws, and possible reforms; an excerpt:

Imagine what it’s like to be a normal student nowadays. You did well—even very well—in high school. But you arrive at university with little experience in research and writing and little sense of what your classes have to do with your life plans. You start your first year deep in debt, with more in prospect. You work at Target or a fast-food outlet to pay for your living expenses. You live in a vast, shabby dorm or a huge, flimsy off-campus apartment complex, where your single with bath provides both privacy and isolation. And you see professors from a great distance, in space as well as culture: from the back of a vast dark auditorium, full of your peers checking Facebook on their laptops.

It’s no wonder, in these circumstances, that many students never really internalize the new demands and standards of university work. Instead they drift from course to course, looking for entertainment and easy grades. Nor is it surprising that many aren’t ready when trouble comes. Students drink too much alcohol, smoke too much marijuana, play too many computer games, wreck cars, become pregnant, get overwhelmed trying to help anorexic roommates, and too often lose the modest but vital support previously provided by a parent who has been laid off. Older students—and these days most are older than traditional university age—often have to work full-time and care for children or parents, or both. Those likeliest to encounter these problems are also the ones who haven’t been schooled since birth to find the thread that can lead them through the labyrinths of the bureaucracy. They aren’t confident that they will see an invitingly open door, where a friendly adviser or professor is eager to help them, and they don’t have parents hovering, eager to find that helper for them.

Happily, many students not only survive but flourish in the teeth of these obstacles. Many faculty members and administrators do their best to help. University cultures, like politics, are local. Many state schools are floundering—for example, the much-ballyhooed Arizona States. But many manage to cap class sizes and keep professors busy teaching. Dropouts and graduates differ, but they’re not the drowned and saved. Some transfer to other universities. Some join the military, straighten out their lives, and come back, powered by the GI Bill, to graduate too late to be counted with their class. Some find secretarial positions to support their kids, and earn BAs and better jobs in middle life. But those cases are exceptional.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? The system runs, in part, on its failures. Administrators count on the tuition paid, from borrowed money, by undergraduates who they know will drop out before they use up many services. To provide teaching they exploit instructors still in graduate school, many of whom they know will also drop out and not demand tenure-track jobs. Faculty, once they have found a berth, often become blind to the problems and deaf to the cries of their own indentured students. And even where the will to do better is present, the means are often used for very different ends.

Check out the rest HERE.

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