Monday, July 28, 2008

On Stupidity -

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, "On Stupidity," Thomas H. Benton cites several recent books arguing that American anti-intellectualism has reached its peak (August 1, 2008). Some of these books blame the Internet for producing students incapable of sustained concentration. Benton notes that a new book by Mark Bauerlein (The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008)) provides empirical support for what older professors have observed anecdotally: "Americans are arriving at college with diminished verbal skills, an impaired work ethic, an inability to concentrate, and a lack of knowledge even as more and more money is spent on education."

As an English professor, Benton is obviously concerned about the current state of affairs. He notes several characteristics that he has observed among his own students:
  • Primarily focused on their own emotions — on the primacy of their "feelings" — rather than on analysis supported by evidence.

  • Uncertain what constitutes reliable evidence, thus tending to use the most easily found sources uncritically.

  • Convinced that no opinion is worth more than another: All views are equal.

  • Uncertain about academic honesty and what constitutes plagiarism. (I recently had a student defend herself by claiming that her paper was more than 50 percent original, so she should receive that much credit, at least.)

  • Unable to follow or make a sustained argument.

  • Uncertain about spelling and punctuation (and skeptical that such skills matter).

  • Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are vaguely understood.

  • Increasingly interested in the social and athletic above the academic, while "needing" to receive very high grades.

  • Not really embarrassed at their lack of knowledge and skills.

  • Certain that any academic failure is the fault of the professor rather than the student.

I have found these same characteristics among my own students, and I suspect most professors would tell you the same. As Benton duly notes, the top 6 bullet points can be addressed in the classroom, but the bottom 4 cannot be addressed without support from university administrators. Namely, he argues for "small classes, high standards, and full-time faculty members who are backed by the administration." Additionally, "we need to reverse the customer-service mentality that goes hand-in-hand with the transformation of most college teaching into a part-time, transient occupation and the absence of any reliable assessment of course outcomes besides student evaluations."

I wholeheartedly agree with Benton's diagnosis and prescription. I would add, however, that part of the behavior of administrators is conditioned by the expectations of state legislatures. Our legislators can make a significant contribution to the education of our future leaders by requiring high standards and sensible assessment tools, rather than the problematic student evaluations, from their state institutions of higher learning.

On Stupidity -


Becoming Me said...

Excellent post!

Tracy said...

I also think part of the problem is standardized testing. States have imposed so many tests in middle & high school that teachers are teaching to achieve good scores on the testing instead of being able to teach academically. I am not completely against standardized testing, but it is becoming a bigger part of the curriculum & that means other information is cut out.
just a thought.