All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


14 July 2011

What exactly are they doing in school?

Let me start with a caveat: I know my own experience is not generally applicable, and that I shouldn't use personal anecdotes as a basis for setting policy. As legions of very smart people have told me time and time again, I don't count. I accept this.

That said, I was struck by a sentence I read this morning over at The Chronicle of Higher Education. This post isn't about that article -- it's just about the sentence. Here it is:

Many Americans learn at a two-year college most of what they will ever learn—in a formal setting, at least—about writing, critical thinking, the history of our culture and civilization, the environment, and human behavior.

I suppose this sentence is almost trivially true for certain values of the word "Many", but the implication is for a reading where many means something like "Lots -- more than you might think", not just "more than one or two."

Anyway, I was looking at this sentence and I found myself wondering, "What the hell did they learn in high school?" I learned most of my math in 6th grade and 9th grade. I learned most of my science in 7th and 8th grade. I learned most of my history in 7th grade and on my own, and I learned most of my reading/writing/critical thinking in grades 10, 11, and 12.

That's not to say college didn't matter. I learned a great deal in college and sharpened many of my skills there. But if what Rob Jenkins is saying is true, and two years of college is where "many" students learn most of their writing, critical thinking, and history, I'm forced to ask:

What the #%$&@!? were these people doing in high school? Or even in junior high? What the hell were 12 years of formal schooling for if most of what's important in an education is going to be delivered in two years?

Now, one easy answer is that Rob Jenkins is simply wrong. He's overstating his case in a rhetorical effort to justify his existence.

But even if that's true -- it's well-established that many students heading off to "college" require remedial work. (See here, here, here, and here just for a few examples.) As a graduate assistant who spends a large chunk of his time grading undergraduate papers, I know well what is considered college-level work these days; it's not always terribly impressive, and some of it is downright embarrassing for anyone with half of a sense of shame. (In my students' defense, some of it is quite good!) And I can only grimace at what must occur at the remedial level. (I otherwise fully confess my ignorance of what is covered in these classes.)

But students are sitting in chairs for 12 years. Twelve years. You can do a lot in twelve years. You can get two PhD's, if you're really on top of things.

What is happening in those twelve years?

I don't mean this as a rhetorical question, nor as an indictment of the "school system" (as if we had a uniform school system). I'm not concerned in this post with the intractables or the schools filled with criminals and whizzing bullets. Presumably those are completely separate problems. I mean my question as a literal, interrogative question about the students who are, we should think, "successfully" taught.

Time and money are being spent and diplomas are being delivered. There's something being done.

What is it? Because it's clearly not analytical writing skills or logical fluency. (And maybe it shouldn't be.)

If we can figure out what it is we're actually doing -- and I feel like this shouldn't be that hard -- then maybe we can figure out how to do what we want to do, if it turns out that's something different. But twelve years is a lot of time. I find it hard to believe that it's being totally wasted.

But on what is it being spent?

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