Below is the introductory paragraph of a critical paper from a student in one of my intro to philosophy courses. The assignment was to construct a valid argument for the conclusion; we should not believe anything for which we lack sufficient evidence. Then using ideas from Plato or Descartes, James, and Clifford, defend or criticize the premises of your argument. Needless to say, this student lacks the basic writing skills to write a coherent paper.
“Decarte mentioned, Doubt “he said he doubted many things when he was young, but accepted them. He said he was opinionated on many situations, also. So he thought and believed in God, and questioned himself about the belief and existence of God, in which he believes. He stated he did not want to believe in anything false, or false things. Believing in God is a good thing to believe in , because he is the supreme God as he viewed life. His simple thought believing things that are not true, are believed falsehoods and evils. Believing God is a good thing and also there is a choice of doubt to which is better. To believe in what is good, rather than what is evil, it is a person choice.””
I no longer blame students for their lack of basic reading and writing skill. Their lack of skills is a result of a systemic failure. The fault is ours. If we want to change people we need to focus on changing the system. Even though we are getting our student from a source that we do not have any control over, we continue to accept them. We should not let students into the college/university environment without a good foundational set of skills. It is unfair to them. I should never have a person in my class that can only write at the level indicated by my example. If we refuse to accept students that lack the necessary skills they should have learned at an earlier level then educators in the earlier systems will be forced to change how they educate for success.
We need take a stand. It is time to demand that only students that have the necessary basic skills to be successful be allowed into higher educational institutions. We need to move beyond the business modal currently directing education and replace it with a modal that focuses on the intrinsic value of liberal arts learning, not the instrumental value favored by the economic modal. The arguments for the intrinsic value of a liberal arts education are not new and have been, and will continue to be, discussed on this blog. But there is a new source of pressure regarding how to measure success in education that can adversely affect the perceived value of a liberal arts education. Recently, decision makers have begun to question how successful higher education is by investigating the graduation rates. If graduation rates are only a small percenage of those that originally started the process, how good can this process really be? From a business/economic perspective such a process would be eliminated, or at least radically revamped, so that the numbers of people graduating would (more closely) mirror the number that entered the process. There are only two ways to accomplish this: 1) lower the academic standards so that more people pass and graduate, or 2) limit the number of students that are allowed into the process by maintaining high standards and admitting only these that have a good chance of succeeding. I favor the latter But, the fact that today’s students lack the necessary skills to perform satisfactorily in liberal arts course, not to mention business related courses; and are being admitted into college level courses indicates that the former is becoming the reality.
Learning and education is not supposed to be easy, nor do I think it always needs to be fun. Sometimes, it is a ‘royal pain in the ass,’ for both the teacher and the student. But the reality is that more and more students simply do not know how to study; how to manage time, how to read for comprehension, how to write coherent sentences, paragraphs and/or papers, or think critically. Furthermore they are not motivated to learn. As teachers we can continue to complain about this or we can do something about it. We can lower our own expectations of what constitutes academic success and dumb down the material and standards so that more people who start the process will graduate, or we can hold our students to higher standards of excellence and compel them to strive to achieve them. We need to take a stand and hold on to the belief that one of our primary objectives as educators committed to the importance of a liberal arts education is to develop good citizens. This can only be accomplished if we get students with the necessary skills to be successful at the college level that we can nurture and send out into the economic sphere as individuals who can manage time, read for comprehension, write coherently, and think critically.
Here are my two suggestions for starting to change the system:
1) In their first semester of college all students should be required to take a College Success course. This course will focus on fundamentals such as time management, reading and writing skills, note taking, test taking, critical thinking, communication, and diversity training. Students must pass this course with at least a 75% grade or be dropped from the institution. Students can test out of this course with an 80% grade on a comprehensive exam that covers the material of the course.
2) Give all incoming students a reading and writing skills test that demonstrates that they can read and write at the college level necessary for performing well in liberal arts courses. If a student fails this test then he or she must take a remedial course in reading and/or writing and pass with at least a 75% grade before they are allowed into any college level courses. I do not trust SAT’s or ACT’s as an adequate measure of a person’s reading or writing skills. I have had too many students who have done well on these tests who cannot write a coherent paragraph.
I close with this reminder of who we are allowing to graduate with college degrees. We all remember the recent commercial that states “without innovation the world would still be flat.” In all probability, the persons who wrote this and who decided it would make a great commercial have college degrees. Need I say more!