This is the first in a three-part series (to be published on Fridays). By analyzing the responses of his Survey of Literature students on their exams, Thomas F. Bertonneau, who teaches at SUNY-Oswego, offers insight into where education is failing today. The first essay sets the stage.
The first essay is a good read. Of course, you’d have to consider while reading it:
Is modern education succeeding? Or is it failing?
Is modern education being falsely accused? Or is it guilty as charged?
Do modern high school graduates have the facts and methods that they should to be considered educated? That they should to be prepared for adult life?
What is the evidence for failure and for success?
What is education supposed to do, anyway? What is the nature and goal of education?
Regarding his credentials, his experience in education, and a sources of evidence for his conclusions, Mr. Bertonneau writes in his article that he has, “since the mid-1980s,…taught a standard survey of literature course to undergraduates in California, Michigan, and most recently upstate New York,” which course “offers a useful occasion for the general observation of undergraduates.”
Mr. Bertonneau observed that when he started teaching in the 1980s “student interest in literature was low.” He found that “when it came to [students] writing a discursive [final] examination,” students would turn in “blue book after blue book of vapid generality, half-remembered lecture phrases, and boilerplate rhetorical devices learned (or half-learned) in high school.” Mr. Bertonneau says that students’ writing was competent/mediocre and the vocabulary was adult.
But the culture and the nature of education continued to change for the worse so that now we have
video games, an ideologically inspired de-emphasis of rigorous learning at all levels of education, and a pervasive attitude of entitlement that students now absorb into their deficient souls the way babies drink nourishment from a mother’s breast. Flashing lights and three-minute “rap” songs stultify cognitive development.
I must add here, regarding the “de-emphasis of rigorous learning:” Not my students!! And they’ll tell you their education is rigorous — it’s not just my imagination; it’s not just my emotion overcoming my reason; it’s not just my misinterpreting or bending or distorting the evidence to fit my conclusion. It’s fact. It’s a conclusion based on hard evidence and developed from demanding logic.
Mr. Bertonneau goes on to say:
The only books that most students have read are the politically correct parables that nowadays figure in the high school curriculum in place of what used quaintly to go by the name of the “classics.” If, at seventeen, I had taken Maya Angelou’s Why the Caged Bird Sings to represent “literature,” I might have developed no interest in books, either. Thus student reading ability remains extraordinarily low even when, in college, the instructor figures out, as I have, how to cajole them into doing it. Students typically cannot make reliable or secure statements about characters or describe events in the story or, much less, frame an interpretation of this or that legend or saga. (I say “typically” to allow for the exceptions.) But by and large, even when today’s representative undergraduate has painfully “read” Beowulf, he has less to say about it than his faking counterpart of 1987, and what he says he says in a version of written English that hardly ascends above a level of sub-literacy.
He is aware of the importance of reading classics to know who we are and why we live in the world and culture we do today:
I have tried to put a personal stamp on the Survey of Literature, which, at my college, bears the title Western Heritage. The course itself is a fortunate vestige from an earlier age when higher education entailed for the young a real coming-to-terms with the historical achievements of European civilization that have made their own lives of freedom and abundance possible. Insofar as educated people are what they know, then Western Heritage potentially gives students an opportunity to become the knowledgeable people that they ought to be. …
Yet a broad middle range of student responses to the final examination in Western Heritage shows an unsurprising but still disturbing imperviousness to traditional literate learning. The inability of many students to cognize even such basic elements as story—first “A” happens, then “B” happens, and so forth—is alarming. Once again, it has powerful implications for the future.
How can a student do well on the SAT or ACT without such basic knowledge of reading and thinking (as mentioned in the last three quoted paragraphs)? How can a student do well in high school and college without mastery of the ability to read and write — and without the ability to do the reasoning that such reading and writing would presuppose?
And how much enjoyment and independence will a student miss out on?
No Berton Braley. No Victor Hugo. No O. Henry. What a bleak life… (I remember students telling me, when I told them that I read, that I didn’t have a life. But those very students would watch TV a few hours a day. Who didn’t have a life??)
How could a high school grad logically evaluate what she read in newspapers or heard on TV? How would a graduate know how to do the reading and research — and the reasoning — he needed to do to find out, not what he was told, but what was true (or at least plausible)? How are these people going to form conclusions about politics, global warming, economics, gas prices, capitalism vs. socialism, Keynesian economics vs. Austrian economics, methods of education?
How will a student know she cannot dismiss Nietzsche because “he went crazy?” Such a “reason” is no reason, it is an ad hominem fallacy, i.e., it is a failure to reason, a failure to properly connect thought to reality. There might be good reasons to dismiss Nietzsche, but the dismissal must come by addressing Nietzsche’s ideas, not his psychology.
How will a student know that “begging the question” is not interchangeable with “raising the question?” And how will a student know why the two are not interchangeable?
How will a student know not to believe the malicious nonsense drooled out about Aristotle in most high school history texts?
How will a student know what Marx, Plato, Aristotle, Jefferson, Washington, Sappho, Abigail Adams, or Barack Obama believe if the students are unable and unwilling to read the people in their own words? What of reading, research, and reasoning?
As Mr. Bertonneau says: high school graduates must at least be able to identify and conceptualize the elements of a story and the fact that B follows A.
Even better if high school graduates can use logic and can follow — and make — chains of reasoning.
Mr. Bertonneau goes on to list the readings he assigns in his Survey of Literature class, to identify the basic themes of the class, and to describe the exam process (from his most recent semester).
He says his next two installments will discuss the middle range of the most recent final exam essays; he will not say much, if anything, of the best essays or the worst. He concludes his article by saying that the middle group of essays
demonstrate vividly (also in a bleakly funny way) the fog through which the typical undergraduate makes sense (or not) of written narrative and, as I would argue, of moral life and the world. By examining these responses, we can gain insight into the coming “post-literate” age.
Interesting. Read the whole article. And then read, research, and reason for yourself.