"Will this be on the test?" Rough Seas Ahead

Randall Stephens

A couple weeks ago, William Pannapacker (going by the pen name Thomas H. Benton), offered up his thoughts on "A Perfect Storm in Undergraduate Education" in the Chronicle. He is one of the many Cassandras at the Chronicle, lamenting the state of teaching and the desperate situation in the humanities. Though, it seems, many academics do believe such prophecies of doom.

I just came across Pannapacker's essay. For my money, the most depressing bit has to do with "Declining academic engagement."

Pannapacker writes:

Students increasingly are pressured to go to college not because they want to learn (much less become prepared for the duties of citizenship), but because they and their parents believe—perhaps rightly—that not going will exclude them from middle-class jobs. At the same time, much of the academic program, particularly general education, seems disconnected from the practical skills needed to secure those jobs. In order to maintain that Potemkin Village, faculty members and students have entered into a "disengagement compact," in which they place fewer demands on each other so that other interests—research for the professor and social activities for the students—can be pursued with fewer distractions. Professors pretend to teach, students pretend to learn. That results in the cultivation of students' instincts, guided by checklist rubrics, for doing the least amount of work necessary to receive the desired level of distinction, in a context in which the A- is the new C. Even the brightest students have doubts about whether they should work toward genuine accomplishment if they're getting the same A as someone who barely tries.>>>

Yikes. . . . I'm not so sure about the extent of this phenomenon. I think the degree of this decline would be very different depending on the institution. Small colleges with limited resources, directional schools (Southwest Central _______ State University), community colleges, and the like certainly suffer from steep grade inflation and lowered expectations. But I can't imagine that the same could be said of America's premier colleges and universities. So, maybe in the future, as a colleague from another school suggested to me, elite schools will stand as islands of excellence and privilege in a increasingly troubled sea of mediocrity.