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The Disorderly March XIV

January 28, 2011

The Orderly March is big news these days, whether in the form of the “Tiger Mother” who achieves parental “success” by verbally abusing her children and denying them the basic pleasures of childhood to ensure their overachievements, or in the rebuttal from Ayelet Waldman, the “Bad Mother” who lets her kids make their own way in life and who once said she loves her husband more than her kids (her husband being Michael Chabon, who, being about my age, wrote this fantastic hymn to the same kind of childhood I had, unscheduled and unsupervised). 

And it comes in the form of the shocking, shocking news that Childrens Don’t Learn, after all, or are at least “Academically Adrift.” 

An unprecedented study that followed several thousand undergraduates through four years of college found that large numbers didn’t learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education. Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.

It’s the last one that disturbs me the most – the idea that a college education leaves one no less susceptible to demagoguery than the average Palinite. 

The irony is that even as our governor wants to turn our university system into a trade school, funding only the programs deemed useful to corporations in their hunt for employees,

Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts, including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics, showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills. Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.” Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study’s authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning. That’s welcome news to liberal arts advocates.


The emotional health of college freshmen — who feel buffeted by the recession and stressed by the pressures of high school — has declined to the lowest level since an annual survey of incoming students started collecting data 25 years ago.

There’s no doubt we are having a national identity crisis, as happens from time to time, when the economy tanks and some foreign power looks to take us over economically – Japan last time, China now.  We look at the regimented nature of the lives of the academically super-successful abroad and say, we need to treat our kids that way too!  If we could crack the whip and threaten them with a life sentence working at Foxconn, they too would achieve!  If you don’t give them a moment to get anxious and depressed, look how far they’ll go!

But I question the value of this accomplishment.  Yes, being a grind will get you a “toll free” SAT score, and get you into the “best” schools, and so on down the March.  But…is being Grindier Than Thou really going to be that useful in the future?  In a world, an economy, in which grindwork is becoming more and more automated, where software writing and software testing and accounting and law are becoming the province of databases and “neural networks,” where is the real money to be made?  Why, in the creativity that can automate these processes, that can extract the essence of a lawyer’s research skills and codify it; in the creativity that comes up with one of those “why didn’t I think of that” ideas like Groupon; in the creativity that generated Facebook and LinkedIn and YouTube.  Just as a generation went to college to be programmers, only to find their jobs outsourced to India, so the next generation of grinds will find their jobs “codesourced” to a computer.  Denying children the freedom to experiment, to play, to fail, stunts creativity in them as ably as a monotonous repetitive job does in an adult.

I’m nearly finished with Admission, and I have to say that I’m more emotionally involved in the subplot than the plot – waiting to see whether a bright, possibly brilliant young man who “failed” most of high school out of sheer boredom will get admitted to Princeton or not.  I see so much of myself in Jeremiah – I too failed the classes in high school I didn’t give a damn about, I threw my hands up and said, well a good college won’t take me now anyway and I refuse to live with mom and dad two more years to go to school here, so why bother?  I’m hoping it’s not going to have a Howards End type resolution, with the proverbial bookcase falling on his head to punish him for his ambitions above his class.  I know that the resolution will comprise whatever statement the author wants to make about the college admissions process – is it fair, no, but is it just?  Is there room in higher education for someone who wasn’t suited to lower education?  Or do we only want “tiger children,” the world’s best at test-taking if not much else?


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