Saturday, December 26, 2015

"Excellent Sheep": One Side of the Collegiate Coin

William Deresiewicz: The most interesting thing about that phrase ["excellent sheep"] is that I didn’t write it myself. It came out of the mouth of a student of mine, and just seemed perfect. They’re “excellent” because they have fulfilled all the requirements for getting into an elite college, but it’s very narrow excellence. These are kids who will perform to the specifications you define, and they will do that without particularly thinking about why they’re doing it. They just know that they will jump the next hoop.

— From "The Ivy League, Mental Illness, and the Meaning of Life,"

The Atlantic on line, with the subhead,

William Deresiewicz explains how an elite education can lead
to a cycle of grandiosity and depression.

The quotation above elicited a response from me in the Comments section for the article in The Atlantic. I immodestly repost it below, with two additions.

            Ahem, from Jerry Farber discussing students at Cal State LA in 1968: "Even more discouraging [...] is the fact that the students take it. They haven't gone through twelve years of public school for nothing. They've learned one thing and perhaps only one thing during those twelve years. They've forgotten their algebra. They're hopelessly vague about chemistry and physics. They've grown to fear and resent literature. They write like they've been lobotomized. But, Jesus, can they follow orders!"
            Get rid of the "public school" reference — or take "public school" in the British sense — and you have your Ivy League sheep.

            My experience in 40 years teaching at a Big Ten school (briefly) and then at whatever the hell Miami University is (Oxford, OH), is that entering undergrads are pretty much telling the truth on the annual national surveys indicating that most are on campus for "the full collegiate experience" — or what one of my students called "College: The Four Year Vacation" — or for the paper. Education as a goal always came in a distant third behind getting useful credentials and having their last chance for a decent experience of a social life and community before going off to the alienation of even the elite American workplace, and the suburbs.

            And such attitudes are pretty much what all the politically potent groups want except some trouble-makers (including me) that think that as long as students are spending time on campus or at least taking classes on line, they might also try to get some education. (See Murray Sperber, Beer And Circus.)

            Things have gotten worse the last couple decades because it was a particularly bright and cynical student of mine who'd come up with the essay title, "College: Half-Way House to Adulthood" as opposed to nowadays when it's generally accepted that we can talk without condescending disrespect about "college kids." My slogan as a teacher was "College is for grownups," and so I see as a major reason for increasing problems in higher ed the socially-invited arrested development that renders far too many college students *kids* — and kids, of course, *should* follow orders.

            I'll throw in that talking about college kids makes clear that booklarnin' is childish and not really work for grownups (and incidentally reminds professors that what I used to do wasn't really "man's work" [the sexism on The Life of the Mind is complicated and contradictory]).
So also: Harrumph! Some of us curmudgeons have been griping in this fashion for decades. Meanwhile, though: Thanks for the article; as we used to say, "Keep the faith."


            Addition #1 is a quick clarification that I understand that Miami University is a "MAC school," where the Miami "RedHawks compete in the NCAA Division I Mid-American Conference," and, since Miami has invested heavily in athletics on ice, also compete in "the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and the U.S. Figure Skating Association." It's just that the phrase "an Ivy League school" indicates a whole lot other than athletics stuff, and "a Big Ten school" gives information about athletics and also other things. Big Ten schools usually run big-time professional (sic) sports operations, but equally usually can be found in respectable places in world ranking; there are Big Ten schools in the top 500; Miami University hasn't yet made the cut.

         Addition #2 is repeating a story of my first year teaching, at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in the mid-1960s.
         I was 22- or 23-years old, 5'2" tall (I've since shrunk as I've lost spinal discs), some place between 135 and 140 pounds in weight, and greeted by one of my students the first day with "You're the teacher?!" When my students and I went out for some beers on the last day of class, my students got pitchers with no problems and nearly pissed themselves laughing when I went to buy my round and was held up at the bar with demands for additional I.D.
         Get the picture? I wasn't exactly intimidating.
         Pretty much all my students were 18-year old frosh, and my experience working with 18-year old First-Years had most recently been as a fraternity officer in a house with a newly-strict pledge policy, a policy kept threateningly vague about what horrors an officer might visit upon pledges individually and/or collectively. So I was used to "positional authority" and receiving at least nominal respect from teenagers. What I wasn't used to was servility.
         More often than I found comfortable, I was asked, sometimes with just a hint of a whine, "What do you want," usually meaning — or the question was finished with — "What do you want me to write in my essay?" I eventually ventured to answer, "What do you want?" with "Let's start with some integrity. What is it you want to say?"
         I graded blind throughout my career — not looking at students' names — and pretty frequently had Departmental jobs where I dealt with issues of the ethics of teaching. I tried to be good, and I somewhat resented thinking my students would think I'd down-grade them if they didn't give me what I wanted in terms of what they had to say. (I damn well would downgrade for unambiguous errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling; and in College Comp classes, issues of style aren't often ambiguous — but agreeing with the instructor wasn't a criterion for grades.)
         Anyway, I was one of the teachers who taught Farber's satiric essay, "The Student as Nigger" when it got circulated underground toward the end of the 1960s, and I asked my students now and then to consider carefully what was impled in the imagery of "brownnosing" or "sucking up" for a grade. Indeed, one of the more poignant moments in class was when a student said he'd "say anything for an 'A'", then paused and said softly, "I guess that makes me a grade-whore."

So: We have over time and in a significant number of places an instance of The Partial Karmic Balancing of Nastiness. Even as far, far too many students show disdain and contempt for their teachers, verily, even so, too many are "excellent sheep."

         That's only a very partial balancing, however: "sucking up to" is manipulation, and if a student is acting like a whore s/he reduces the instructor to a "john."

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