On Evolution and Academia

This post is going to sound a little bit harsh, and I apologize in advance. I promise I'm not trying to offend anyone.

If you believe in evolution (I happen to, and think it can coexist with a belief in whatever Higher Being you wish), aren't you disturbed by the way humans are going? We're letting folks with serious genetically passed on diseases live longer (consuming resources) and procreate (propagating said diseases).

What does this have to do with academia or academic librarianship, you say? I'm glad you brought that up. I've mentioned in another post that telling students in K-12 that they are each a very special little snowflake who deserves the best and should never get disappointed is a crock of poo. What I'd also like to mention is that tagging kids via GPS to reduce truancy rates may be missing the point a little bit. The point being that some little monsters should not be in school. (As someone who taught at a high school for half a year, and attended a rather horrid high school myself, I feel I'm qualified to say that.) Stuffing overfull classrooms full of delinquents does nothing for our suffering education system. Oh, it maintains school funding, since public school funding is somewhat based on attendance and bodies in seats. But it doesn't help the teachers who spend more time telling Johnny and Katrina to be quiet/sit down/stop doing crack in back corners/quit having sex in the back row/etc (swear to God, those all happened in my high school classrooms, but names changed to protect the guilty - yay class of '97!) than actually teaching the rest of the kids who went to school to learn, and hopefully make it out to something better. School may me mandatory, but forcing everyone to be in class is not necessarily the best approach.

Going back to thoughts of evolution, there are now a number of ailments and disabilities for which education systems allow more time for testing. As it should be - I have no issue with this in the academic context - more power to those who are coming from a not-so-easy spot and making it through. What I do take issue with is the sense of entitlement we've engendered so that these folks also think it's okay to take extra time and/or screw up in real life with no consequences, or to get a free pass for accomplishing less. Take, for example, a good friend of mine. She is a wonderful person, and works wickedly hard, is brilliant and bright. But she's got severe ADHD. And now that she's out of pharmacy school - where she got extra time on her tests and harangued professors into upping certain grades because she "got stressed and just couldn't concentrate," she is now filling prescriptions. Occasionally she fills them wrong, which I know from another friend who works as her tech and has saved her bacon on occasion. I do not love my pharma-pal any less, but I do not ever allow her to fill my scrips. Ever.

At what point do we say, "I'm very sorry, I know you are brilliant, but you are working with a particular handicap that simply does not make you compatible with this kind of work?" Is that mean? I don't intend for it to be - I ask this is earnest.

At the college level, we see two branches of this sort of coddling at the K-12 level - we see the kids who don't want to be in college in the first place, and are going to make damned certain *you* know this is not their idea. Is it our job to force them to learn to love it? How many times does a recalcitrant student have to fail the intro comp class before we recommend that they might prefer to expend their non-effort somewhere else?

The second type we see are the kids who, no matter how much extra help and extra time they get, are simply incapable of performing at the college level. One professor came to me at the end of his rope. "I've given her extra time on exams. I've met with her on a regular basis for tutoring outside of class, and hold extra office hours just for her. I've even modified her exams per the instructions from the Disabilities Office. What else can I do? She is still failing - egregiously!" At what point - if ever - are we to suggest that perhaps the university is not the right place for this particular student? When this professor mentioned something to that effect about this student, whose genuine efforts at no point reached acceptable levels for a college student, he was told that his extra office hours, revised exams, and tutoring were simply not enough, and he would have to do better. Whaaaa?

Okay, let me stop a moment here. I am sure some of you are already composing comments in your head diatribing about how dare I say some people aren't capable, that everyone is capable if we just love them enough, give them enough extra time, and maybe allow a tutor to write some of their papers for them. (I keed, I keed. But not by much.) I am not talking about booting borderline cases, here. I am as familiar with the digital divide and people who are coming from behind in the education game. What I am talking about is the situation where you have someone who is fundamentally incapable of doing college-level work, or is unwilling to do college-level work. Many professors at public universities are already feeling this crunch, hounded by a disabilities office to do whatever it takes to get these students to succeed. I am all about student success. I'm a reference and instruction librarian, for godsake. I consider it my calling to take students and help them over the rough spots, teaching them the tips and tricks it takes to be successful both at their research and at life in general.

Still, I feel the need to ask, Is there ever a time when you have to gently inform someone that they simply cannot succeed if they can't perform at a college level? My argument is YES. There is. There has to be, if we are to retain whatever value the college degree has left. And not only is there no shame in that, there are a whole lot of worthwhile positions out there that not only don't require a college degree, but often pay more. (Ask my dad, who is still pissed I decided not to apprentice myself to a union electrician.)

I am not arguing that we give up on students wholesale here. I *do* think that we need to have progressive stages of help available, we need early warning systems that work in place, we need administrations that understand that shoving an unqualified student through college is no better than those who push illiterate kids through the K-12 system just so they can have a diploma. We need to make sure there's counseling that doesn't say that a college degree is the only way to be successful in life (wouldn't that just depress someone who is busting their tail to get there and simply cannot?) and counseling for the student along the way, so that when he/she leaves college, it's not with a bill for $25,000 or more, no degree in hand, and no idea what to do.

I mean, we can ignore this, too, which is what we've been doing in higher education, with a wink and a nudge from administrators who want their retention rates to look good. We certainly can wait decades to do anything about it. But where will you be filling your prescriptions? How much do you know about your doctors? Or lawyers? Or teachers? And doesn't the very idea of schlepping people through (in *any* field of academia) who aren't qualified horrify you, even a little bit? What about when the doctor performing surgery on your wife/daughter/son/father looks at you in desperation and says, "In class, I had more time!" What is higher ed evolving into when critical thinking becomes the first casualty to the political correctness of "acceptance of all?" And who can I trust to not murder me accidentally with the wrong scrip?


Conrad R. said…
Who is the 'we' you are talking about? We who are educated and successful and managed to get by without any special effort expended on our behalf? I agree, many people aren't capable of all tasks. However, if they wish to expend their money and their time in pursuit, who are 'we' to say that's not appropriate? Yes, there is a hideous mal-appropriation of resources in education. Yes, colleges nod and wink athletes, not to mention legacies, and sometime minorities through academic programs in order to maintain viability in competition, alumni donations, and legal compliance; yes, it is frustrating to see the same people come in again and again and fail again and again. I personally see it, and I feel sad for people who cannot seem to find the ground under them, who cannot cope with change and are left behind.

You say YES, we must exclude in order to retain the value of the college degree. We must exclude those who are not capable of the work involved, we must raise the standards in order to protect the society at large. I would caution against injecting evolution into this argument, as yes, people with serious genetic diseases are procreating and living longer than they used to. Efforts against this were called eugenics and have an unhappy history of forced sterilization and the more capable deciding how the less capable would live.

Yes, it is important to have high standards in critical professions (if your pharma-friend was not reported for making errors, then your other friend is doing her a disservice and is probably violating professional ethics as well).

To answer your question, there are times when I feel enough for a person to want to suggest that they are never going to succeed. I have worked with them long hours, offering multiple interpretations, offering suggestions galore. It is not my place to tell someone they cannot do it. It has been my job to tell people they have failed to achieve the required, but I have never told them they cannot achieve it. You can always strive for something more, and sometimes, the striving is all the person has and it is all that keeps that person going. Yes, it sometimes looks like a waste, and yes, society makes the achievement of the college degree a holy grail of success. But illiteracy is not genetic, nor is being born to poverty, nor is not being able to tell your parents no.

I seem to be rambling a bit but I am very worried about how you conflate genetic disorders and lack of collegiate success. Telling people they cannot is not the way, allowing them to fail is the harder way, and allowing them to persistently fail is more a mark of a society that does not consider helping those who are less capable to be a priority.
warmaiden said…
@C_Rader - You're right about a number of things. My own apologies because of the rambling (written on the fly, unedited)post - I would never condone eugenics...it was simply a line of thought that brought me to academia, and it was imprudent of me to include that. (But I'm not going to censor the original post and remove it, since that's cheating). (And to answer your question, the 'we' I am talking about are those of us in academia who are busting our behinds truly trying to help struggling folks through. I'll admit, I take liberties.)

My concern, which I did not at all get across well (that'll teach me to post on a Friday) is that colleges and universities are being treated like special education classrooms...only because they have neither the resources nor the trained personnel of a special resources institution, everyone suffers - some students are held back because of the remedial work required to bring others up to speed, professors are overburdened with trying to reach students they're not nearly qualified to deal with, and these students who need special treatment not only aren't getting it, but they're being set up to fail in the worst way while someone pockets their money. I find that truly offensive. It is nothing short of a *lie* when universities invite these students to campus, claiming that the disability or diversity or whatever office has the resources to help them, when the fact is that the resource they most need - teachers who are specially trained to deal with their unique situations to best help them actually *achieve* their goals - is simply not available at most universities.

Genetic disorders do not dictate college success, just as not having such a disorder dictates success, by any stretch of the imagination. However, in the regular university environment, we're encountering more and more students who cannot survive there, much less succeed. I am not saying they cannot get a college degree. I'm saying that allowing them to do so at the expense of other students is wrong, allowing them to attempt to do so without providing the right infrastructure is wrong, and encouraging them to continue to enroll when professors have made it quite clear that there is *no way* this person can pass is wrong. I suppose in the U.S. we have the right to be as wrong as we want to be and spend our money as we see fit - you are right about that. But it still seems awfully dirty to me.

You say allowing them to persistently fail is more a mark of a society that does not consider helping those who are less capable to be a priority - I couldn't agree more. But how to we make those less able a priority while still serving them a worthwhile education? Persistently failing them solves nothing. And the folks who are continuously unsuccessful get swept under the rug when we talk about higher ed, but they're bearing the same student loans and getting an inferior product for their needs. What do we do about that? Do we hire a whole cadre of professors who specialize in special ed? I'd be fine with that, because I tend to totally ignore the bottom line in favor of quality education, but I'm pretty sure admin won't go for it.

Your other comment, "Yes, it is important to have high standards in critical professions" I do have to snark at. Maybe I'm a snob, but I think it's important to have high standards in all professions. I thought that when I flipped burgers and scooped ice cream, I thought it when I was a secretary, when I was in sales, and now as a librarian. Not being a doctor doesn't mean high standards aren't necessary.
Conrad R. said…
I took a while to think about what you had written and read your response. I am glad to hear that eugenics is off the table. But to return to your other points...

I am a public librarian, so I often see people who are working their educations around other obligations, so I am sort of coming at this with the same background; I am a professional dedicated to helping people who want to better themselves.
I agree that some colleges and universities are treated as you describe. It may be that this is the case at your institution.
We recently had an employee who we were assured was capable of doing the job. We gave him a job, worked with him, trained him repeatedly, changed procedures to accommodate, and finally when we had to fire him, we got a lawsuit for our troubles. This is the way of the real world as well as academia. His parents were irrational in their demands, and refused to see what our concerns were. I fear that many times, it is easier to put up with a poor situation and allow failure than to demand excellence and get hit for being 'elitist'.

It's that line from the Incredibles: "When we are all special, then no one is". Is a more differentiated society better than a more homogeneous? Are people who grow up think that just enough is good enough make the country, or the world, better? We'll find out.

I like your expression "..we have the right to be as wrong as we want to be and spend our money as we see fit...". I am a Canadian by birth and I know there are other ways to do education than the last ten to fifteen years. I happen to think that teaching to tests creates a very good drone, but not much of a thinker. Economic policies and global trade has off-shored many jobs that were traditionally available to the non-college inclined. It is dirty, choices have been made by society at large without thought for the longer term consequences. I have no good answers and I see many, many people fighting their way through life with no guarantees.

Mea culpa on my high standards line. Yes, conscientiousness and professionalism is good to have in all professions. I made donuts, sold balloons, and worked many nights in hotels and bars. I think that's where I got all the customer service skills and patience from.
warmaiden said…
@C Rader -

Thanks for coming back! This is really something I struggle with, which is why I've been trying to articulate how I feel about it - even to myself. (Likely a bad idea to do on a blog, but meh. I'm willing to be proven wrong.) There's a tug of war between the genuine desire to help everyone achieve everything they can (or can afford to give the time to - we all have lives outside of academics), and there's a real frustration with knowing the areas we're failing at.

My apologies if I came off snotty :) It truly wasn't my intent. I love working with people and helping them on their way to wherever they may be headed. I just sometimes wonder if by trying to do it all, we aren't simply getting bogged down in accomplishing nothing, and that frustrates me more than anything. As long as there are folks who make themselves available to help in earnest, I'm hoping we'll be okay. Librarians (of all stripes - public, private, special) and teachers are at the forefront of that, but sometimes I wonder if that's not enough.

Ah well. Thanks for coming by, and I really appreciate your comments. Have a great weekend!
Conrad R. said…
@ Colleen - Well, you said you love discussion. :)

I think there is always the tension between what should be done and what can be done. As long as resources are apportioned the way they are rather than the way they need to be, and librarians and teachers have never been very effective in pointing out the failures of the system to people who can effect bigger change. In my experience, the response is something along the lines of "Well, why are you failing to do your job?"

I don't think you came off snotty. There are distinct differences in our service clientele, and the same problem exists, and we both get frustrated. More coordination and cooperation is always better. I know in public libraryland, I am hamstrung by the simple inability to coordinate with other libraries in my area, because we don't make time to talk to each other (myself included, although I did make the effort once). Duplication of effort is wasteful, but that's how the system works.

My latest thought on this is that college is expected but the intellectual rigor is not desired. The marketplace wants workers, not thinkers, cogs, not innovators. Anyone who can think and innovate, should be smart enough to get out of the system. I think that is the general societal thought. Perhaps the next bastion to defend are the Masters programs, because undergrad may be lost to the masses of the under prepared and the ill equipped.

The larger question is what do we want to do with our lives as a society? Do we want to follow the track which people assure us will lead to success and the ability to acquire things, to consume and join the problem, or are we going to value opting out and living, and what does that mean? Do we pursue the goal of greater economic growth, or do we make our surroundings better for us to live in? These are the bigger choices that will determine the directions things go. The last eight years has shown us what one path looks like, maybe we'll see another path beginning in Novembers.
Allison said…
On a lighter note, here's an anecdote from English Professor Boyfriend:

He had a student come in for a paper conference (or draft review, whatever. I don't remember now). The student's paper was just a bleeding bloody mess. No thesis, poor grammar, did not address the topic at all, read like the work of a six year old, etc. So being a good prof he marked it up and talked to the student about ways to improve the paper. At that point it's kind of like triage, e.g. "What is the absolute worst feature of this paper, that we must fix first?". So he started by talking about addressing the assigned topic, making an argument and all that. Then he noted the grammar and spelling errors, and encouraged the student to make changes and resubmit the paper (which by my standards deserved a flat-out failing grade) for a second chance. All very generous, right?

The student's response:

"But you didn't say anything POSITIVE about my paper."

Um, there was nothing positive to say. Kid should be lucky he had such an understanding prof who wanted to explain it and give him a chance to make a better grade.

To me, this was just indicative of the entire "you're a special snowflake" attitude that pervades K-12. Students expect high praise for even attempting the assignment, no matter how mediocre their product. And then they're shocked when their future boss doesn't give them an A for Effort in the workplace.
Conrad R. said…
My significant other perennially complains about the quality of writing in her classes. And spends time trying to help those who will make the effort of meeting her at least 10% of the way.

I have seen in other writings and blogs how some HR departments are adjusting to this need for positive reinforcement coming up in the educational ranks. There is even management retraining on how to provide this reinforcement in the workplace to keep this younger workers happy and productive. I, for one, welcome our new millenial overlords. I am a tired Gen X'er and their energy just wears me out.

All kidding aside, I am somewhat ambivalent. On one hand, yes, you have to do quality work and you have to be able to react to criticism in an effective manner.

On the other hand, why can't everyone be lucky enough to have understanding professors who take the time to explain where things go wrong. And not only professors, why can't we have an education system that does value all the children and their potential and is not the first thing up on the chopping block when corporate profits are threatened?

Don't get me wrong, I don't agree with the 'special snowflake' syndrome, but I do get tired of the mounting weight of cynicism in the public discourse. Why don't we value education more? Why is there widespread distrust of the intellectual elite? What are we hoping to become?

Back in the 80's, I could barely imagine what the 00's would be like. I never thought they'd be like this. Are you planning for retirement? or just until the end of the year? Right now, I'm on a yearly plan, and think about the future only when I get a windfall (and that's not called a Stimulus check either...)

I'm really sounding old here, but I have felt the acceleration of the world and I have felt my attention span narrow, and I have taken some big leaps in my life, made changes that many others would not, and I look at people who have more stable lives and wonder what their secret is. No secret, just less chances, sometimes smaller plans, and if I'm really being honest, less imagination and happiness, more willing to settle and accept.

If I keep up like this, I'll have to get a blog of my own...

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