What drives this essay emotionally is not disdain for and disgust with dim-bulb students. X says he really identifies with his students and their struggles in life, and wants to help them along. “I could not be aloof even if I wanted to be,” he writes. But he can’t compromise academic standards out of pity or solidarity.
What it all boils down to, he says, is that a cruel hoax is being played on these students. “America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting someone’s options,” he writes. And he sympathizes with this ideal — but he’s the one who has to see how little it has to do with reality. His students aren’t college material. They don’t read (some of them can’t really read). They don’t share even the rudiments of a common intellectual culture on which to build. He says he tries to explain the basics of narrative to them in terms of movies, but they haven’t all seen the same movies. They are more or less well-mannered, hard-working barbarians. The only thing they all share is a sense that they are good people for being in college, and that they can be anything they want to be.
Prof. X says the whole system, premised on a false egalitarianism, is to blame here. One key question this excellent essay raises by implication is this: if quite a lot of Americans are incapable of doing college work, what does that do to the Thomas Friedmanesque understanding that in order to compete in a flattened, globalized world, US laborers are simply going to have to get retrained and better educated? What if there are natural limits to their ability to expand their cognitive skills? What then?
I mean, look, what if things were flipped, and the Friedmans of the world were telling the “knowledge workers,” for lack of a better term, that staying competitive in this globalizing world economy meant having a stronger back. Ergo, nerdling, you’re just going to have to start spending a lot more time at the gym to develop a longshoreman’s body, or get left behind. We’d laugh at this, because we have no problem grasping that nature has not endowed all of us equally well in terms of physical strength and capabilities. The nerdling would be able to improve his strength to a certain degree, but to tell him his physical limits are defined only by his desires and will to succeed is to play a cruel hoax on him.
Are we not doing that with some of the people who are in college now?
Read it all and make sure to check out the comments as well.