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Where Courses are a bother, and Campus Culture lacks guidance…

Where Courses are a bother, and Campus Culture lacks guidance…

Students learn to skip and skim, not just their assigned readings, but everything. Everything is done at maximum speed and with the least possible effort.

Nazarul Islam

A few months ago, I taught a course in writing non-fiction at the state Community College, in Asheville. My students were juniors or seniors, mostly humanities or social science majors, almost all smart, a couple genuinely brilliant. All, needless to say, were ‘expensively’ educated and impressively credentialed. I assumed that they’d arrive with a fairly good idea of how to make an argument with an academic context and that I would be teaching them how to apply those skills to a very different set of rhetorical occasions.

What I soon discovered was that none of them had much idea how to make an argument in any context. Nor were they particularly skilled at analyzing the arguments of others. They didn’t know how to read; they didn’t know how to write; and they didn’t know how to think.

What do I mean? The syllabus consisted, for the most part, of short exemplary texts: a column by David Brooks, a blog post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and so forth. But whenever I assigned them anything a little more complex or sophisticated, it flew over their heads. These were students who were used to the idea that reading meant skipping and skimming.

Their writing skills were not much better. Most were competent at a basic level, but none had had any real guidance or instruction. One week, we did an exercise designed to help them make their prose more vivid and energetic. I had them read a short piece of writing pedagogy, then handed out a sheet on which I’d reproduced a single sentence from each of their most recent pieces that needed that kind of attention.

We set to work on the first, dissecting, pruning, and rewriting. After about ten minutes, we had it in decent shape; it wasn’t graceful yet, but at least it was concise. And then I said, “Okay, it’s taken thirteen of the finest minds in this vocal city, ten minutes to rewrite that sentence. This is what you need to do with every sentence you write.” They looked at me with horror and amazement. It wasn’t just the scale of the task that was rising before them. It was also the fact that no one had bothered to tell them that before.

It was then I finally understood something that my students had told me the first day of class. I had asked them to introduce themselves and talk about their strengths and weaknesses as writers. Many had said some version of “I’m good at writing naturally” or “I’m good at writing conversationally,” “but I’m not good at revising” or “I’m not good at editing”. What they had been telling me, I realized that day in the middle of the semester, was that they thought of writing as something that just happens, that they had never been asked to pay attention to their sentences as conscious constructions.

As for their thinking, they had the same relationship to their arguments as they had to their prose. They had just made them; they didn’t and really couldn’t think about them in a metacognitive way. They couldn’t recognize contradictions, anticipate objections, entertain alternative interpretations, make essential distinctions, or delineate the limits of their propositions. Remember, this wasn’t freshman composition.

This was an advanced writing seminar, attended by students of the most prestigious schools in the state.

However, it would be inappropriate on my part to say that the problems discussed above, were confined to institutions located at Asheville, North Carolina.

Again, in that same year, in a piece about the differences between the way his students read Shakespeare and the way that students used to, a senior colleague and an English Teacher, had shared the following:

“Even the highly gifted students in my Shakespeare classes at College are less likely to be touched by the subtle magic of my words than my class I had so many years ago— or even those students who were in my class in the 1980s”.

I am truly amazed. What has happened? It has been my personal observation that our students now lack verbal facility… In fact, they write with ease, particularly if the format is casual and resembles the texting and blogging that they do so constantly. The problem is that their engagement with language, their own or Shakespeare’s, often seems surprisingly shallow or tepid.

It has been rather disturbing for me to observe particularly….When I asked them to write a 10-page paper analyzing a particular web of metaphors, that would explore  a complex theme or amassed evidence to support an argument, the results had been  often “wooden” (a euphemism for “bad”.

It is a fact, even college students in the US, write with ease, particularly if the format is casual. As my students belonged to a reputed higher learning institution, they were able to write “naturally,” to write “conversationally”, but were certainly at a loss when it came  to writing formally, or to reading complex texts in ways that were more than “shallow or tepid”, or towards making arguments that are better than “wooden”.

That they had in the past, enjoyed their ability to “write with ease” despite having a “shallow or tepid” engagement with their own language, is only a small part of the problem.

Often, when I discussed these findings with my counterparts at a Seminar, the familiar explanations for these generational differences were limited to: the rise of the internet, the emergence of social media, and so forth. I strongly believe that my senior and learned colleagues, who are also inspiring teachers and writers, have somehow failed to address the fact that College undergraduates are supposed to be among the ‘exceptions’.

Most of my students in Shakespeare class have undoubtedly boasted of a median verbal SAT score in the upper 700s (out of 800). The large majority probably received a perfect score of 5 on the AP (Advanced Placement) English exam. If any group of college students should be capable of deciphering complex texts, writing incisive expository prose, and constructing compelling analytic arguments, it is they. But apparently they’re not.

To understand how this predicament came to pass, one needs to understand how students manage to get into America’s prestigious colleges in the first place. It is not by learning how to read, write, or think. It is by jumping through the endless series of hoops that elite college admissions offices have developed over the decades to winnow down their skyscraper stacks of application folders.

To win a place at a school of excellence students mostly receive top grades in a broad range of AP courses, and/or show evidence of participation in a dozen or more extracurricular activities—sports, arts, student government, et al.—demonstrate “leadership”, engage in “service”, and gather experiences, often through purpose-built programs, to write about on their personal essays, statements designed to convince the admissions officer of the existence of an actual human being beneath the credentials.

Obviously, in order to do all this, they were required to work without cease for years on end, sleeping little and foregoing the freedoms of adolescence.

Unfortunately in the US, it does not appear to me there is a system that has been designed to foster intellectual engagement. Students learn to skip and skim, not just their assigned readings, but everything. Everything is done at maximum speed and with the least possible effort. Curiosity and passion must have been actively suppressed. Students become experts, not so much in subjects as in working the system. There is simply no time to do anything else.

And this is not to say that things are better below the level of the elite. For many years, public education in the United States has been dominated by high-stakes assessment regimes. Schools, accordingly, “teach to the test”, foregoing the development of holistic understanding in favour of the grinding repetition of isolated skills (a practice known as “drill and kill”).

And since the tests essentially cover math and reading only, many subjects have been stripped from the curriculum, along with any opportunity for students to follow the wayward path of their own interests. The system might almost have been devised for the express purpose of destroying the love of learning.

If that’s the kind of education students have received by the time they get to college, do things get better once they arrive at their institutions of choice. Not usually. Old habits die hard. Elite students, are already competing for the next prize. They have continued to conduct their lives at the same frenetic pace. At the large mass of institutions below the level of the elite, the problem is less apt to be misdirected zeal than sheer indifference. Courses are a bother; campus culture runs to sports and beer.

Nor will students seem to have got much help from their professors. As I’ve travelled to several schools, and higher learning institutions, around Florida, Illinois and North Carolina I’ve been stunned by the sheer laziness of so much undergraduate instruction. Teachers on the tenure track have lacked the incentive to care about their teaching, and a great deal of incentive not to.

The adjuncts and other contingent instructors who make up the vast majority of the American faculty — underpaid, overworked, and sometimes teaching well outside their field — simply don’t have time to do a proper job.

The whole machine is creaking machine and is further lubricated by the magic grease of grade inflation. As of the early Sixties, 15% of grades at American colleges and universities fell within the A range.

By 2013, the proportion had reached 45%. To paraphrase the joke from the old Soviet Union, students pretend to work, and professors pretend to grade them.

It is within the context of these forms of scholastic merry go round that we can understand the one that is now the most salient: wokeism. Wokeism can be thought of as the opportunistic infection of a host with an already weakened intellectual immune system. Students haven’t learned to think, so they lack the means to spot its inconsistencies, its hypocrisies, its absurdities.

Perhaps…they haven’t learned to read, so they uncritically absorb its empty language. They know little of history, so they accept whatever tendentious version wokeism hands them.

Wokeism also satisfies important psychic needs, of the kind that education ought to address but does not. It provides students with an interpretive framework with which to understand the world.

For earlier generations of young adults, that function would have been performed by Marxism or Freudianism or feminism or liberal progressivism or American patriotism. All have long since been discredited except for feminism, which had itself been in abeyance and has now been absorbed by, and subordinated to, the new intersectional identitarianism.

Indeed, after decades of postmodernism, with its assault on the very idea of grand interpretive narratives, wokeism represents a return of the repressed — the repressed in this case being the ineluctable human hunger for meaning. For wokeism, like those earlier belief systems, offers a framework that is not only cognitive and historical, but also moral and existential.

It tells you not only where you come in, but also who you are and how you are to orient yourself toward others and the world. In other words, it offers purpose and direction.

I am not suggesting schools should play that role. They should play a better one: instead of telling students what to think and how to live, equipping them to work those questions through for themselves. But that’s a mission that institutions long ago had abandoned. It’s too hard; it requires professors to see themselves as mentors, with all the commitment of time and energy and feeling that entails; and it implies a level of self-confidence, a willingness to confront students with the idea that their education ought to be about something more than becoming as wealthy as possible, that colleges and universities no longer have.

In the absence left by that delinquency has flourished the careerism that has come to dominate the American collegiate experience. For many years now, students have shared how empty, how meaningless, their education feels. Which means that wokeism fills a void that’s ethical as well as intellectual. Under its ascendancy, campuses are once again alive with moral zeal.

In telling students what to think, wokeism also provides them with something to say. The value of this should not be underestimated, particularly in the age of social media. Having opinions — easily, instantly, on everything — is essential to the contemporary presentation of the self. The process of forming them is aided immensely if you already know where you’re supposed to stand on every subject, including ones you haven’t heard of yet.


Nazarul IslamThe Bengal-born writer Nazarul Islam is a senior educationist based in USA. He writes for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America. He is author of a recently published book ‘Chasing Hope’ – a compilation of his articles.