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Our Unteachable Students

Postmillennialism —  2 Comments

PJ Media — “The honeymoon is over.” Instructors who award low grades in humanities disciplines will likely be familiar with a phenomenon that occurs after the first essays are returned to students: former smiles vanish, hands once jubilantly raised to answer questions are now resentfully folded across chests, offended pride and sulkiness replace the careless cheer of former days. Too often, the smiles are gone for good because the customary “B+” or “A” grades have been withheld, and many students cannot forgive the insult.

The matter doesn’t always end there. Some students are prepared for a fight, writing emails of entreaty or threat, or besieging the instructor in his office to make clear that the grade is unacceptable. Every instructor who has been so besieged knows the legion of excuses and expressions of indignation offered, the certainty that such work was always judged acceptable in the past, the implication that a few small slip-ups, a wrong word or two, have been blown out of proportion. When one points out grievous inadequacies — factual errors, self-contradiction, illogical argument, and howlers of nonsensical phrasing — the student shrugs it off: yes, yes, a few mistakes, the consequences of too much coffee, my roommate’s poor typing, another assignment due the same day; but you could still see what I meant, couldn’t you, and the general idea was good, wasn’t it? “I’m better at the big ideas,” students have sometimes boasted to me. “On the details, well … “.

Meetings about bad grades are uncomfortable not merely because it is unpleasant to wound feelings unaccustomed to the sting. Too often, such meetings are exercises in futility. I have spent hours explaining an essay’s grammatical, stylistic, and logical weaknesses in the wearying certainty that the student was unable, both intellectually and emotionally, to comprehend what I was saying or to act on my advice. It is rare for such students to be genuinely desirous and capable of learning how to improve. Most of them simply hope that I will come around. Their belief that nothing requires improvement except the grade is one of the biggest obstacles that teachers face in the modern university. And that is perhaps the real tragedy of our education system: not only that so many students enter university lacking the basic skills and knowledge to succeed in their courses — terrible in itself — but also that they often arrive essentially unteachable, lacking the personal qualities necessary to respond to criticism.

The unteachable student has been told all her life that she is excellent: gifted, creative, insightful, thoughtful, able to succeed at whatever she tries, full of potential and innate ability. Pedagogical wisdom since at least the time of John Dewey — and in some form all the way back to William Wordsworth’s divinely anointed child “trailing clouds of glory” — has stressed the development of self-esteem and a sense of achievement. Education, as Dewey made clear in such works as The Child and the Curriculum (1902), was not about transferring a cultural inheritance from one generation to the next; it was about students’ self-realization. It involved liberating pupils from that stuffy, often stifling, inheritance into free and unforced learning aided by sympathy and encouragement. The teacher was not so much to teach or judge as to elicit a response, leading the student to discover for herself what she, in a sense, already knew. In the past twenty years, the well-documented phenomenon of grade inflation in humanities subjects — the awarding of high “Bs” and “As” to the vast majority of students — has increased the conviction that everyone is first-rate.

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2 responses to Our Unteachable Students

  1. This is what happens when you confuse self-esteem with self-respect.

  2. during my years at college every fall you would hear many freshman complain about how hard the classes were. most in not the classes these freshmen are taking are 100 level. most of those classes are overview classes where you are going over many years of time in the subject. basically these students think that if they are taking college prep courses they would be ready college work and think that their grades would look like high school. high school is get everybody to pass the class and in college the students truly experience for the first time bell curve where in order to get the grade you want you have to put in a lot of hard work and time studying. i did better in college than high school because i was not challenged because in high school it was get the worst student to pass the class. that ended up leaving me bored and not really caring about my grades.

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