Friday, September 07, 2012

Professor X: In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

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I have a couple of theories about why Professor X chose to write a book about the problems with the American belief in the transformative power of higher education. The first and most obvious is that he is scared of professional repercussions, or of repercussions for the institutions where he works and came up with his theories about the failure of the system. The second theory is that after testing the waters with his article in the Atlantic Monthly, Professor X realized that his ideas were really too out there and that he was not going to win any favors with anyone, and it just might not work to use his name. Then we get into more cynical theories. One: Professor X truly believes in his ideas, but realizes he'll have a bigger splash as an anonymous writer than as a no-name adjunct professor at a no-name third tier school. I mean, who writes a treatise on education anonymously? That's quite a shtick, and it worked- got lots of attention. Two: Professor X found a good editor/PR person first with Atlantic Monthly and then with Penguin who said "you've got a seller here, let's really make it a seller." This is the interlude between ideas one and three. Three: Professor X is done teaching and done worrying about money (relevant if you read the book), and has no name recognition. Professor X is an awesome name. He never has to worry about money again, whether he believes what he wrote or not.

And you know what? I have no idea which of these ideas is true, because Professor X never tells us. In the big scheme of things, it's not a big deal, but as a cynical reader wanting to take in the Very Big Idea that Professor X has to offer, it's hard not to want the little credibility that a name gives. Hey, maybe Professor X has even written another book I'd like to read- he has a great style- but I'm pretty sure I'm not going to find it. And I can't register for any of his classes, either, and he's talked himself up like he's a pretty decent teacher. I'd like to refresh my sentence diagramming skills, and attend his writing workshops- Professor X will not be my man (assuming he's a man).

Okay, all knocking the anonymous thing aside, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" is a fascinating read with a challenging thesis: not every American needs to go to college. (I used thesis on purpose: Professor X teaches English 101 at various bottom-tier colleges and wants readers to know that very few students know how to find the main argument of a paragraph, let alone structure a paragraph around a main argument.) The Professor's argument is, of course, more nuanced than this and was, of course, written before last night's Democratic Convention, but he was speaking to exactly this type of mentality: "Help give two million workers the chance to learn skills at their community college that will lead directly to a job." Workers don't need college educations to get jobs, Professor argues, and worse, colleges are bad for many workers: they leave the student with debt and inflate job requirements in an unnecessary way. To wit:
American colleges would have us believe that the skills they purport to teach, the critical thinking and higher levels of reasoning and all that, are crucial to competent performance int he workplace. This is baloney, less a line of reasoning than a sales pitch rooted in academic snobbery- a naked appeal to our intellectual insecurities.
 Right in the preface the Professor lets us know where he stands. A college diploma is "a hand stamp that gains one entrance to a nightclub. They point to little more than a willingness to pay college tuition and complete degree requirements."

There's two (at least) sides to this. One is my track: the bachelor's education in the liberal arts at the prestigious institution. It looks good on paper, it sounds good when I say it aloud, and it probably has helped me get jobs. Jobs that have absolutely nothing to do with my fields of choice. It was unfathomable in my socioeconomic sphere growing up that I wouldn't go to one of these colleges. In a way, my life was preparation for college. I learned a lot in college, expanded my education in esoteric subjects and in writing essays and read books that I wouldn't have read and some that I would have and met other smart people. And then went on to a career in animal welfare. I can only think of one job that I did- teaching humane education- that even possibly needed a college degree. I'm not sorry that I have a BA, only acknowledging that I am one of the fortunate few that is not ridden with debt, and that if I were facing debt for the rest of my life, I might have sought something more practical.

The other side is the side that the Professor deals with: students in the "basement of the ivory tower," those striving to get better jobs, or make more money, or maybe catch up on the education they never got. The problem is, many of the students he ends up teaching aren't ready for college. They're done with high school or have their GEDs, but they're still doing high school work, or possibly below. "If you do ninth-grade work in a college classroom," he asks, "does it automatically become college work?" Year after year, he teaches students who not only can't find the thesis, they can't write a complete sentence. If I went to college to learn how to learn, or to learn to be a complete citizen, or some such baloney, what are students at these basement schools learning? The Professor describes aspiring nurses and cops taking required writing classes- they need to know how to write reports and charts. In theory, they also need the more grand goals that I was supposed to learn in my fancy school: intersections of race/gender/class, a stance on cultural relativism, and a love for learning. But the Professor finds that you can't instill this in the person who has never succeeded in school and is with him only for the credits.

Professor X knows what he's saying is controversial, and that no one is going to come out and agree with him, whether they do or not. It's considered snobby, classist, and racist to say that maybe some people should just go to vocational school, or that we're wasting money and causing another debt crisis by trying to send everyone to school. And although he doesn't touch on it, speeches like President Obama's last night touch on the jingoism of sending every American to school: we need to be The Most Educated country in the world if we The Americans are going to succeed. Do your part- go get a diploma! At times, Professor X is very convincing: he describes colleges as a successful business enterprise, which of course they are. "Of course the biggest winners in the game of credential inflation are the colleges themselves," whether they admit it or not. More pressure to go to college means more enrollments. Professor X admits this also means more teaching jobs for him.

He's also convincing in telling the reader just how poorly prepared his students are for college. This is also a pitfall in his argument: if his students really can barely write a sentence, don't they need education as much as I did? More than I did? Did I really need to write a hundred page thesis that no one will ever read? What did that prepare me for? I really do think everyone should be able to write a basic paragraph in their native language. If college isn't the right venue for this, and it probably isn't, then what is? Some sort of continuing education? Adult education? Professor X doesn't really go into this, and that is unfortunate. He also loses a few points by sticking with his program. Even though he says the system is broken, he likes being an adjunct (a system he also says is broken), he likes teaching at these poor institutions with these underprepared students with whom he only makes minor strides. It's hard to know exactly why he does this: where does the good anonymous professor stand? How much does he really believe in what he's arguing for? Not enough to put his money where his mouth is.


thb said...

THB liked this "tell-all" a lot because it was at least a start on the insight to what college is really like without being some snarky, humorous look at "youthful" foibles. When added to the huge debt being piled up in student loans, it makes you think about the $$ for education equation and the net value to society.

Anonymous said...

I KNOW WHO professor x IS: mendie the dead