While living in Germany three years ago, I talked my way into a job teaching high school students how to write fiction – in English. The administrator who hired me, normally a stickler about credentials like any self-respecting German bureaucrat, was willing to ignore the fact that I had never taught anything to anyone. In her eyes, I offered something far more valuable than a teaching certificate or classroom experience. I was a published American novelist. And so… Willkommen!
The dozen sophomores and juniors who’d signed up for the after-school class were fluent in English and able to write solid sentences, but they were initially a bit leery of me. When I tried to get them to create characters from whole cloth, to imagine problems for them, to dream up action that would dramatize how they grappled with those problems, the students balked. For nearly a dozen years they’d been conditioned by a system that rewarded them for doing things the right way. This school was a gymnasium (with a hard g), the highest level of high school, and these students would soon be taking the brutal Abitur, the week-long written and oral exam that makes the American SAT look like a pop quiz and which would determine which of them was worthy of the Holy Grail: a free university education. Understandably, it took these students a while to grasp what I was telling them: when writing fiction there are no right or wrong answers, only good choices and bad ones. This Amerikaner is standing up there telling us we get to make stuff up! Cool! Once they got it, they took to fiction writing the way birds take to the blue.
That experience was very much on my mind as I read In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, the chilling new book about the travails of an adjunct professor of college English who goes by the pseudonym Professor X. His students, at an unnamed private college and an unnamed community college somewhere in America, could not have been more unlike my German charges. While my high schoolers were gamely writing fiction in a second (and in some cases third) language, Professor X’s college students could barely put together grammatical sentences in their native tongue. The reason was that his students and the people who “prepared” them for college had bought into one of the most common and debilitating American myths – namely, that everyone has an inalienable right to a college education, regardless of their level of academic achievement.
“As my students drift into the classroom each evening,” Professor X writes, “I find myself feeling sorry for them. Many are in over their heads… They lack rudimentary skills; in some cases, they are not even functionally literate… Some are not ready for high school, much less college.”
So what are these people doing in college? Trying to get ahead, of course, trying to position themselves to get their slice of that big gooey pie known as the American Dream. And in one of those snake-eating-its-tail scenarios, as more and more Americans, both qualified and unqualified, enroll in colleges, more and more employers are able to demand that job seekers have some college education, even for jobs that patently do not require it. Professor X calls this “credential inflation” and he explains its existence this way: “There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and our medical billing techs, our county tax clerks, our child welfare agents, our court officers and sheriffs and federal marshals.”
And so colleges keep growing, enrollments keep expanding, and lowly adjuncts like Professor X toil away in the basement of the ivory tower – with little prestige, no benefits and no hope of tenure. But there is a price attached to this relentless expansionism. “This push for universal college enrollment, which at first glance seems emblematic of American opportunity and class mobility, is in fact hurting those whom it is meant to help,” Professor X writes. “Students are leaving two- and four-year colleges with enormous amounts of debt.”
About a trillion dollars worth, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid and Fastweb, which track student debt. The average debt of college students who took out loans and graduated was $24,000 last year, when student debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time. In 1993, fewer than half of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with debt; by 2008 the figure had risen to more than two-thirds. “In the coming years,” Kantrowitz says, “a lot of people will still be paying off their college loans when it’s time for their kids to go to college.”
This “debt-for-diploma” system would shock a German because in Germany college tuition is free – that is, it’s paid for with taxes. It’s also available only to those students who have proved, over the course of 12 rigorous years, that they deserve to attend. How utterly un-American. As Professor X writes: “In no other age but our own – idealistic, inclusive, unwilling to limit anyone’s possibilities for self-determination – would some of my students be considered ready for college. They have been abducted into college, sold a bill of goods… Without heaping too much solemnity upon it, college is something that one must ascend to.”
With these simple sentences – and especially with the loaded words inclusive and ascend – Professor X finally lets the cat out of the bag. To suggest that someone should be excluded from college because he or she is not equipped to ascend is to open yourself to the predictable charges of elitism, classism (love that word!) and, quite possibly, sexism and racism. These charges take me back to my teaching experience in Germany. I did not teach at some pricey private prep school; it was an ordinary public high school in a small town outside Cologne, yet the students were no strangers to the concepts of exclusion and ascending – or, if you will, elitism. After fourth grade, all German students are put on one of four tracks on the basis of teacher evaluations: main school, which can lead to a trade school at age 16; intermediate school, which can lead to such mid-level careers as secretary or draftsman; and college-prep comprehensive school or gymnasium, where performance on the Abitur will determine not only who can go on to university but what they’ll be allowed to study once they get there. The system is rigid but not unyielding. It’s possible for high-performing students to rise from one level to the next. But if they don’t perform, they don’t advance. Period.
Professor X does a nice job of explaining exactly why this is so un-American: “First of all, twenty-first-century American culture makes it more difficult to fail people. Our society, for all its blathering about embracing diversity and difference, really has no stomach for diversity and difference when it constitutes disparity. We don’t like to admit that one student may be smarter, sharper, harder working, better prepared, more energetic, more painstaking – simply a better student – than another. So we level the playing field…(but) our quest to provide universally level playing fields has made us reluctant to keep score.”
And he knows first-hand that if you refuse to keep score, if you don’t set standards, if you promote students simply for trying, you will produce mediocrity, or worse. Don’t take Professor X’s word for it. Emily Colette Wilkinson, my fellow staff writer here at The Millions, also spent some time in the basement of the ivory tower trying to teach English to unqualified students. In an e-mail she describes the experience:
Yes, I taught two classes at a community college in Southern California right after I finished my Ph.D. It was a temporary adjunct position for two classes, Advanced Writing and Advanced English Grammar (advanced, in this case, meaning 12th-grade level). They hired me about two days before the semester started and gave me no syllabus or text book or course description for either class. When the “department head” did get in touch with me two weeks after classes had started, he told me not to get my hopes up, that most of them would fail. It didn’t turn out to be most, but it was close, maybe 40 to 45 percent failed. And this was after I’d lowered the bar on the course expectations – in a big way.
The rage and sadness that resulted from this experience – an experience in which I failed as much as most of my student did – was not directed at them. It was directed at the college. The college had failed us all. The other enraging thing was that my students really needed English. I did have three students who were learning, whom I connected with. But if I’d known how deeply demoralizing the whole experience would be, I don’t think I’d have done it, even for them. I was scandalized and enraged by this shitshow masquerading as a school – failing everyone except the incompetent administrators who kept collecting their money from the state of California – the bankrupt state of California, no less – even though the enterprise they were supporting was worse than a joke. I think Professor X is right on the money. Of course there is the other side too: I know people who’ve had community colleges change their lives – set them on the path to become nurses and professors, helped them up the class ladder. But that isn’t what I saw.
A book that can profitably be read in tandem with In the Basement of the Ivory Tower is Matthew B. Crawford’s best-seller from 2009, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. This passionately argued and deftly written little book – part polemic, part manifesto, part philosophical inquiry – questions the values Americans attach to different kinds of work. Crawford, equal parts motorcycle mechanic and philosopher, argues persuasively that there has been a fundamental and disastrous disconnect in American life over the past century: thinking has been divorced from doing. He traces the source of this split to the industrialists of the early 20th century, most notably Henry Ford, whose automobile assembly line helped create the notions of white collar and blue collar – that is, it pitted mental work against manual work.
“These seem to be the categories that inform the educational landscape even now, and this entails two big errors,” Crawford writes. “First, it assumes that all blue-collar work is as mindless as assembly line work, and second, that white-collar work is still recognizably mental in character.” If you still think most white-collar work is mental in character, you have almost surely never seen an episode of The Office or worked in a beige cubicle, as Crawford and I have.
He points out that the American tendency to elevate the status of mental work while devaluing manual work has become institutionalized: “Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into ‘college prep’ and ‘vocational ed’ is overlaid by another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement.”
Again I was transported back to that gymnasium in Germany. Germans demand results while Americans demand opportunity, or, more precisely, the illusion of opportunity. Germans are willing to make determinations that lead to achievement, while Americans insist on freedoms that supposedly will lead to the realization of the individual’s potential. Small wonder that trade schools flourish alongside universities in Germany, or that German tradesmen are respected and well paid while German doctors and CEOs earn a fraction of what their American counterparts earn. In a country that has neither artificially inflated the value of mental work nor artificially debased the value of manual work, the distance between top and bottom is not so great, and the middle class is secure and well cared for. In Crawford’s formulation, Germans have embraced the value of craftsmanship – “the desire to do something well, for its own sake” – because all work done well is valuable.
Another way of saying this is that Germans tend to be serious in ways Americans are not. I don’t mean serious in the sense of humorless, solemn, staid, grim or dour; I mean it in the sense my dictionary defines it, “concerned with important rather than trivial matters,” that is, clear-eyed, willing to set standards and make judgments based on performance, and not inclined to buy into hollow myths.
Serious people would never buy into the most enduring American myths – that everyone deserves a college education; that everyone deserves to own a home, and real estate will always rise in value; that everyone can become president; that your slice of the pie is there for the taking, provided you’re willing to work for it. Those serious Germans, on the other hand, may not believe in pie in the sky yet they enjoy universal health care, excellent mass transit, free college educations for qualified students, six weeks of paid vacation every year, high wages and low unemployment, and many other goodies of a vast social network. And unlike their neighbors in Greece and Portugal – unlike Americans – they tend to live within their means.
People who are not serious, on the other hand, buy houses they can’t afford and run up credit card debt. They let the oil industry write the deep-sea drilling regulations that led to the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. They don’t insist that their government inspect their commercial airplanes, their levees, their bridges or their food. They rail against taxes and then devote more than half of every tax dollar to military spending. They argue that universal health care and strict environmental laws are evil government intrusions, and that “creationism” should be taught alongside evolution in public schools. They regard Sarah Palin and Donald Trump as valid presidential contenders. All this because the basement of the ivory tower is teeming with illiterates? Well, yes. A society unwilling to demand excellence of its students is unlikely to demand – or get – competence from its government.
It’s no surprise that people so lacking in seriousness would eagerly embrace another myth: that a college education will lead naturally to better-paying, white-collar work, and that that work will be more satisfying and secure than working with your hands. This myth is built on the belief that the rise of technology will require ever-higher levels of education. In fact, new software is reducing the demand for highly educated workers in a growing number of fields, including legal research, medical diagnosis and, yes, even computer chip design.
If your computer seizes up you will probably wind up on the telephone with someone in a cubicle in Bangalore who will sleep-walk you through a trouble-shooting checklist. But if, as Crawford points out, your toilet won’t stop overflowing or you experience severe chest pains, you will have to call on a plumber or a doctor. Some jobs, especially manual ones, can’t be outsourced. That’s why a plumber’s license has started looking very attractive to a lot of people during this recession, including a lot of under- and unemployed college graduates. Conversely, once-coveted advanced degrees have started looking less enticing. According to the Law School Admission Council, law school applications dropped 11.5 percent this year, to the lowest level since 2001. Why? Because young people don’t want to pile up thousands of dollars of debt so they can become unemployed lawyers.
The truth is that most employers who demand a college education of job applicants aren’t terribly interested in what those applicants studied or how well they performed. The corporate recruiter is looking for “pliable generalists unfettered by any single set of skills,” as Crawford puts it before taking us inside the mind of an applicant during a job interview: “He senses that what is demanded of him is not knowledge but rather that he project a certain kind of personality, an affable complaisance… There seems to be a mismatch between form and content, and a growing sense that the official story we’ve been telling ourselves about work is somehow false.”
Or, as Professor X says of college, that it’s all a bill of goods.
None of us – neither Professor X (M.F.A. in creative writing), Matthew B. Crawford (Ph.D. in political philosophy), Emily Colette Wilkinson (Ph.D. in English), nor I (B.A. in English) – are opposed to college education. I dropped out of college after two years, worked a string of brain-killing jobs, then went back and got my degree because I realized, way back in the 1970s, that “credential inflation” meant I would need a degree if I hoped to get even the lowly job I aspired to – as a cub reporter at a small-town daily newspaper. While it gave me nothing that was useful in my job, my liberal arts education did feed and foster my curiosity about the wider world, certainly a valuable asset for a newspaper reporter and absolutely essential for anyone hoping to become a novelist.
So while I don’t regret going to college, I do find myself agreeing with Professor X’s and Wilkinson’s claim that allowing unqualified students into college is a disservice to everyone, especially the students. And as college students struggle to write grammatical sentences while their debt piles up, I join Matthew B. Crawford in asking, “What the hell is going on? Is this our society as a whole, buying more education only to scale new heights of stupidity?”
(Image: graduation caps from whatcouldgowrong’s photostream)