U.S. Intellectual History Blog

anonymous Atlantic essay: "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower"

In the current (June 2008) Atlantic, an anonymous writer has published a rather scathing essay on an increasingly important dynamic in American higher ed. “Professor X” (he is apparently–or at least hopefully–unaware of the association of his nom de plume with the X-Men) argues that the increase in access to college in the second half of the twentieth century has not correlated with a similar expansion in the abilities of students to interact with material at the post-secondary level.

His evidence for this claim consists almost entirely of the incredible lack of interest and inadequacy of skills that characterize the students in his care. As a result, Professor X–an adjunct English teacher at two unnamed colleges in the northeast–sees himself unfairly charged with serving as the gatekeeper of the American dream.

I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

The article (you can read it here) is so damning, and so crystal clear in its argument, that I have little to add by way of commentary. I would think any of us who have ever taught at the “colleges of last resort” that the writer mentions (and there are many such schools, both rich and poor, public and private) would have to acknowledge that there is more than a grain of truth in the writer’s characterizations. But even if true as far as it goes, the point only serves as the beginning of an argument, not the conclusion of one. Does Professor X mean to suggest that fewer students should attend college? That universities need to rethink their missions? That high schools aren’t doing their jobs? That our culture itself is too ignorant to produce a large cohort of intellectually capable and curious citizens?

All of these very big questions suggest serious problems, ones far too large to be solved by an anonymous adjunct in the pages of the Atlantic. But observations like Professor X’s–observations that must be similar to those made by teachers at all but the most elite of institutions–lead directly to these questions, and I suspect that the time will come when the American academy will not be able to push them aside any longer.