A Degree in Mediocrity (March 8, 2011)

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This past weekend, while performing my daily sweep of The New York Times‘ columnists, I came across this interesting piece by Bob Herbert. I confess that I often find Herbert’s work to be redundant (“We are screwing the middle class!” – Yeah, but what else?) and downright dull, but this column hit me with the thunderbolt of self-recognition.

Herbert makes a provocative argument in slightly less than 800 words. We find a lot of ink these days devoted to America’s sinking ranking as a first world producer of competitive, college-educated young adults. But what about the ones who do emerge in four or five years, degree in hand? How are they faring when pitted against the challenges of real life? Herbert’s assessment is damning: “Students are hitting the books less and partying more. Easier courses and easier majors have become more and more popular. Perhaps more now than ever, the point of the college experience is to have a good time and walk away with a valuable credential after putting in the least effort possible.”

A good portion of the blame, according to the column’s argument, lies with the students themselves. According to statistics quoted by Herbert, American university students are studying a full 50% less than their counterparts in the 1960s once did. By extension, additional underlying causes must necessarily be grammar and high schools that fail to introduce academic rigor into their charges’ lives, or the phenomenon of “helicopter parenting” which has left a large segment of adults overly-dependent on Mom and Dad.

However, Herbert does not stop there. U.S. institutions of higher learning are themselves culpable in the inadequacy of our graduates, according to the columnist. He cites results from a study conducted by the Social Science Research Council, which conclude, “that in their first two years of college, 45 percent of the students made no significant improvement in skills related to critical thinking, complex reasoning and communication. After the full four years, 36 percent still had not substantially improved those skills.”

Even allowing for a few percentage points of inaccuracy, it is more than frightening to entertain the idea that nearly half of our nation’s college freshman and sophomores are no better off, from a cognitive standpoint, than they were when they first arrived on campus. And the implications for a productive life, given this mediocre outlook, are clear. Herbert writes, “The development of such skills is generally thought to be the core function of a college education. The students who don’t develop them may leave college with a degree and an expanded circle of friends, but little more. Many of these young men and women are unable to communicate effectively, solve simple intellectual tasks (such as distinguishing fact from opinion), or engage in effective problem-solving.”

As I digested Herbert’s arguments regarding our enfeebled, inadequate graduates, I thought of my own experience as a student at a Big Ten University from 1996 to 2000. My stint as a co-ed at one of the country’s most renowned party schools may pre-date Herbert’s area of concern (methinks he was confining his observations to Millennials, though I can’t be certain), but I felt the cold shame of recognition.

Over the course of the last decade I have said more than once that I “stole” a degree from my alma mater. This is because, with the notable exception of exactly two semesters, I rarely ever went to class. Besieged by depression caused by a PTSD reckoning with an unstable childhood, as well as dissatisfaction with rural life, I withdrew from the game. Instead of becoming engaged with campus activities or rushing a sorority, I worked at a number of part-time jobs whose sole purpose was to stock my liquor cabinet. I met with an advisor one time throughout my four year undergrad career – the first time I ever registered for class, then never again. A regular check-in with a professor, counselor, or even a grad student just wasn’t part of the picture at this social-security-numbers-as-identity institution.

With few resources to prop me up, and very few instructors who factored attendance into final grades, I treated each course as an independent study. I went to class when I felt like it (usually not), and invariably steered clear of the many large lecture-hall style settings which compromised the bulk of my underclass course selections. I showed up on test days, turned in papers when required and invariably coasted my way to a very unsatisfying 2.89 final GPA. But hey! It was enough to graduate and get out right?

Well yes and no. I am aware that my profoundly depressive experience isn’t exactly what Herbert is referring to, but years later, my unearned degree in English Literature didn’t sit right. I knew I hadn’t done the work and felt like a fraud when I traded schooling notes with a new office acquaintance. Though I never meant to manipulate the system, somehow I had, and given that it wasn’t very difficult, I wondered how many others had done the same, intentionally or otherwise.

In 2005, I returned to school to earn my Master’s in English Literature, finishing my studies in late 2007. For many reasons, this second degree was of paramount importance to me, a way of redeeming myself from the extremely lackluster performance I had turned in half a decade ago. I am proud to say that I worked very hard for the M.A., and even prouder to declare that my second institution of higher learning held me accountable. My professors knew me by sight (whereas nearly all of my undergrad tutors could not have picked me out of a lineup), and checked in with my academic progress on the regular. The second time around, from my side as well as my school’s, was everything a satisfying college experience ought to be.

But how many graduates, skating by with an easily won B.A. or B.S. force themselves to return and acquire the critical thinking skills they missed the first time around? An even better question might be to ask ourselves that with the world’s most expensive education system, tuition and fees rising astronomically even before the onset of the 2007 Great Recession, what exactly are we buying?

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