Sunday, August 23, 2009

The write stuff

Higher education has destroyed young Americans’ ability to express themselves on the page—or in their own minds

One student shouted indignantly, “I thought this was a course in public speaking!” There were murmurs of assent. I explained that, all things being equal, one’s thoughts were best written out before they were spoken. But the 30 or so members of the class remained upset. They wished to “wing it.”

That is the essence of the contemporary zeitgeist, which preaches spontaneous efflorescence born of inspiration issuing from a well of authenticity and soaring on the exuberant wings of conceit. It is the philosophy of ejaculation and orgasm and no Catholic guilt. These young people had not been taught to edit. They had not been taught self-criticism. They had been reared in an environment of self-esteem, even when this went unexamined and was unearned. And when they returned a week later with the fruits of their labors, I was appalled. I took the papers home and spent two afternoons and two evenings past midnight editing them.

I had to contend with an illiterate heaping of multisyllabic social-studies mush whose meaning was either obscured or contradicted by other heapings of academic mush, as indecipherable as they were ungrammatical. Illicit inferences lurked under false premises like salamanders under rocks. Logical connections did not exist. Non sequiturs were thick as chiggers. Do not mention grace or style. Of the 28 papers I labored through, only in two did I detect talent buried in the rubble. I had never seen anything so hopeless.

When I handed my University of South Carolina students their edited work, several shot up their hands and demanded to see me after class, to which I readily agreed. I sat down with each of them in chambers behind the lecture hall and went over the papers sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. This took a lot of time. I had scrawled in the margins, squeezing my comments between the typed lines of the text. I had tried to be charitable, but because of the limitations of space, I had to be blunt.

One fellow had nothing to say about the shoddiness of his work, except to ask me belligerently, “How much does the final speech weigh?” “Fifty percent,” I said, reminding him, “You are aware of that, it’s on the syllabus.” “Well, it’s unfair,” he protested hotly. “This could ruin my 4.0 average! You do that, and I’ll complain to the dean!” He stomped out, leaving me to marvel that anyone so deprived of the ability to express himself could fly such academic banners. 4.0!

When I proceeded to go over the essay of another young man, his voice caught in his throat and he broke down. I was taken aback. We hadn’t proceeded beyond the first page. His wasn’t the worst effort, either. But he wasn’t protesting my criticisms. To the contrary. “You’re right,” he kept repeating, tears flowing, “It’s awful. I can’t write my thoughts down. They come out a mess, I know!” And then he related a scandal. Not in four years of high school and three years of college had a single teacher expressed concern about his writing or offered to edit it. When he said this, other students spoke out to confirm cognate experiences. “What can I do now?” this young man asked me despairingly. “I graduate in two months!”

The dimensions of his doom and that of these other young people hit me with full force. Not once in their educational lives had they been taught to impose order on chaos, that being contrary to the central dogma of liberal-arts education in our country today. There is no such thing as choosing, as distinguishing between the false and the real, discriminating between good and bad. The cost of this heresy to our nation is beyond calculating: for two generations our businesses, professions, universities, and politics have been populated by moral illiterates who reject reason.

The art of writing is the soul of reason, from which all civilization has spun. If one cannot give expression to one’s thoughts, one is reduced to grunts. These young men and women were to be graduated in two months’ time. Yet they were functionally illiterate, as the saying goes—a hideous euphemism for being thrust into the adult world intellectually crippled. Several other students who crowded around me now claimed that never had they had their written work reviewed. I was incredulous. “Never?” “Not once!” came their reply. Two or three then claimed that in nearly four years of college they had never been required to write an essay. Examinations were multiple choice.

I had no answer for them. The laziness of the faculty disgusted me. Some of these students were studying to be teachers. My anger burned. It was not their fault that they were unable to think or write their way out of a paper bag. A whole generation was being defrauded. The final day of the course I advised my students that their parents should join in a class-action suit against the state’s Commission of Higher Education, and at the end of the second term, I resigned.

In the past 70 years, the American Dream has been reduced to owning one’s own home and other materialist satisfactions. No other dimension of human existence is allowed. That, of course, was never the American Dream. The American Dream was to be free. But one does not say these things in the Age of Obama, when government is no longer perceived as the handmaiden of tyranny. Paper money replaces gold, vice virtue. Sociology replaces merit, earmarks candor. Euphemistic language replaces plain speech with sentimentalized softening. Public figures do not lie; they misspeak. They do not cheat or transgress the law or do moral wrong; they make mistakes.

Communication suffers in this culture of moral and intellectual relativism, where standards, like the coin of the realm, are debased. One can be illiterate and graduate 4.0. Reality becomes virtual. Hard true thought —the primal condition of writing— which can be offensive, difficult, and unpopular, is rendered by academe in language of such bureaucratic opacity that, it is hoped, no one will be able to penetrate it, to discover that it is hollow, that Nero is wearing no clothes. Reality is euphemized, extenuated, attenuated, temporized, dishonored. One is not born to this; one is obliged to acquire the vice of fungible truth in our decadent society and our deeply corrupted educational system.

I do not exaggerate. Eugene Genovese, the grand onetime Marxist historian, has written a tender memoir on his recently deceased wife, Betsey Fox, whom it was my privilege to know. In the course of his reminiscence, Professor Genovese remarks that it required graduate school for his wife’s prose to be ruined. She was 11 years younger than he and a budding Marxist scholar when he was already an established figure on the red-hot Left. He had been impressed by her college papers from Bryn Mawr, but when she went on to Harvard for advanced studies, her papers lost all charm, directness, and style. Academic bloviations took the place of the hard-hitting analytical energy that she had given evidence of as a younger woman and for which she would later become renowned as a polemicist. He ruminated:
I reminded myself that most graduate schools seemed dedicated to the transformation of the English language into gibberish. In place of clear, straightforward prose, budding geniuses in graduate seminars have to impress their professors with the profundity that only bad writing and vacuous ‘theorizing’ can communicate.

With her husband’s help, Betsey Fox soon got out from under the baneful influence of academe. American scholars and professors of the liberal arts —along with sociologists, economists, and theorists of any discipline— may be the only class of intellectuals in which their ordinary social chitchat is superior to their polished prose. They are capable of saying, “Will someone shut the damn door?” or “Who let the cat in?” But when they write for publication—that is, for the admiration of their peers —our intellectuals seem to strap on impenetrable dullness like chain mail.

A certain defensive posture explains the vice. It is difficult for us laymen to understand the degree to which academics are twerps, nerds, doofuses, and dweebs, not to mention moral cowards. Academics who are not protected by tenure are terrified of exposing themselves as the second-rate minds that most of them are, as sloppy, lazy, superficial, and mean-spirited pseudo-scholars to whom the discredited concept of truth is of less concern than what is politically de rigueur. So they rig their prose out in dense, nearly impenetrable syntax. Relative clauses become cherished long-lost cousins. Hairsplitting becomes more important than getting anywhere. Our academics become unable to shut the damn door or put out the cat or parse a sentence or respect the sequence of a syllogism.

They are afraid of putting on plain display their biases, the ordinariness of their minds and spirits, so they take cover in jargon. Sure, to not one person in ten million is given originality of mind. An Albert Einstein or a Stephen Hawking does not come along every other day. Not one person in several hundreds of thousands is even given a first-rate intellect. We must accept the humbling edict of fate and console ourselves: we are all genetically unique and our experiences are also almost always singular. It is virtually impossible for us to sieve any subject through our consciousness without endowing it with a special, even an original, slant. We should take confidence in this biological singularity and never betray it by worrying over whether the stockholders will like what we say, or fearing that our analysis will not please faculty lounges at Harvard or Chicago or Stanford, or fretting that our opinion will fail to find favor with the establishment, whatever it may be. We must be true to ourselves if we want to write.

Do you wish to wrest order out of chaos? I pray you have not attended college or taken classes at some writing school. Instead, go to work, travel, starve, meditate, fall hopelessly in love and have your heart broken. The deadening hand of academia, of corporate culture, of Beltway correctness destroys not only one’s native ability to discriminate but also one’s powers of expression.

Writing gives thinking shape. It suffers fools badly. It discerns design where none is apparent: the writer’s founding assumption is that order, right order, exists. To write is to develop a nose for posturing and an aversion to the false. It is to be in awe, to apprehend the structure of the universe in the loneliness of the human heart. Writing is a gift, which does not believe for a moment it is unearned, unless no merit can be ascribed to the submission.


Are American universities giving you what you pay for?

During the economic slowdown, prices usually fall. But there's just one sector of the economy that's bizarrely insulated from reality: Academia. Tuition, room and board at Sarah Lawrence College just hit $53,166 per year. That's like buying a C-Class Mercedes every year - without the car. Other colleges are comparable, with even state school tuition rising to levels some parents find impossible.

We figure it's worth it. Universities offer students not just a degree that's valued in the marketplace, but a chance to broaden their interests and deepen their souls; to gain a solid grounding in the fundamentals that made our civilization. That's the theory. But what if universities began to neglect this basic charge, and instead turned into featherbedding, unionized factories that existed to protect their overpaid workers fire? What if these factories botched the items customers paid for, and spent their energy generating oddball inventions no one wanted?

That is exactly what happened in academia over the past 30 years, according to Emory University Professor Mark Bauerlein, whose American Enterprise Institute paper "Professors on the Production Line, Students On Their Own" explores the secret that most professors are paid based not on the quality (or even quantity) of their teaching, but rather on the volume of scholarly articles and books they can produce.

Laboring on the age-old axiom "publish-or-perish," thousands of professors, lecturers, and graduate students are busy producing dissertations, books, essays, and reviews. Over the past five decades, their collective productivity has risen from 13,000 to 72,000 publications per year. But the audience for language and literature scholarship has diminished. Unit sales for such books now hover around 300.

At the same time, the relations between teachers and students have declined. Forty-three percent of two-year public college students and 29 percent of four-year public college students require remedial coursework, costing $2 billion annually. One national survey reports that 37 percent of first-year arts/humanities students "never" discuss course readings with teachers outside of class. 41 percent only do so "sometimes."

Prestigious professors frequently have little interaction with students at all. Students must seek out professors in scanty office hours-at most, three hours per week.

Meanwhile, the research these professors are turning out--at least in the humanities--is increasingly obscure and often politicized. When dealing with well-studied writers like Faulkner or Melville, they pursue ever more oddball interpretations. Or professors switch gears and write about popular culture.

Too many universities have given up on providing solid guidance to students' choice of courses. Graduates of Ivy League colleges can emerge without having ever read Hamlet, the Bible, or the Declaration of Independence. At the pricey Sarah Lawrence College, a typical course on four canonical U.S. authors is "Queer Americans: James, Stein, Cather, Baldwin." Many leading schools offer similar fare.

It's essential to carefully scope out each college. Call the admissions office and ask the student/teacher ratio, and the percentage of classes taught by graduate students. Is there a core curriculum of solid classes in Western culture, American history, and great works of literature? Ask a professor how highly teaching (versus research) is valued in tenure decisions. After all, the teaching is what you're paying for. Leave the tab for all that research to those 300 people who actually buy the books.


No places for many would-be British university students

Further education colleges risk being swamped by school-leavers who narrowly missed the A-level grades that they needed for university and who want to retake the exams, The Times has learnt.

More than 140,000 university applicants were still awaiting an offer from any institution yesterday, although the clearing process is expected to go on for another week. The figures confirm fears that thousands of young people may not find a place on a degree course.

Further education colleges contacted by The Times said that they had had a surge in inquiries from frustrated school-leavers. Some of these colleges are already at capacity after a government rebuilding programme went over budget and left many institutions with half-finished sites.

Only a day after the A-level results were published, 383,000 people had been accepted by universities, 5,205 of those through the clearing process. While this is 33,000 more than at the same point last year, there are also thousands who have been less fortunate. This year 142,000 applicants do not yet have any offers, almost a quarter more than at the same stage in 2008.

Many colleges contacted by The Times said that they had received considerably more inquiries than at the same time last year. Pat Bacon, president of the Association of Colleges, said that some of the colleges offering higher-education courses were expected to pick up students through the clearing process. In terms of further education, though, she said: “There are some issues about capacity overall, not least because alternatives such as places in adult apprenticeships haven’t in recent times been a government priority.”

Some further education campuses are now more like building sites — with students being taught in temporary classrooms — after they were encouraged to apply for funds to revamp and extend their buildings under the Building Colleges for the Future (BCF) programme. The project pledged millions of pounds that it did not have, as no one at the Learning and Skills Council was keeping a running total. Only 13 colleges out of more than 160 affected have been shortlisted to receive emergency funding, if they reduce their overall costs.

There is some evidence to suggest that more school-leavers will choose to go on gap years this year and return to higher education next year after applying early. They aim to use the 15 months to work as well as travel, so that they can earn money and hone their employability skills. The head of Ucas, the admissions service, suggested yesterday that the clearing process might be equally competitive next year.

Anthony McClaran said: “We’ve now had two years of a 10 per cent increase in applications. The only thing that might affect it [future growth] is the downturn in the number of 18-year-olds in the population.” Mr McClaran said he expected the clearing process this year to last not much longer than a week. Since clearing opened, the Ucas helpline has handled almost 20,000 phone calls and there have been almost 1.5 million clearing-vacancy searches, double the number at the same point last year.

The most popular course searches were for law, economics, psychology, history, business and management. More than 160,000 students have gone online to check their clearing status, and the whole process is now fully automated.


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