Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Things to Read

A new book is out by Professor X. Not the one from the X-Men comics, but rather the author of an essay in the Atlantic in 2008 entitled (as is the new book) "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower."

The essay, in case you missed it when it was first published (as I must admit to having done) is about the problem inherent with pushing everyone and their mother into college: some people can't do it. Professor X is an adjunct who teaches evening classes to the unlikeliest of college English students, people for whom an argumentative literary analysis is so far removed from what they'll ever be asked to do that it's almost comical. Does he think that society benefits from our policemen having read Of Mice and Men, our social workers having read Plath's poem "Daddy"? Perhaps not so specifically, but yes.

And when all is said and done, my personal economic interest in booming college enrollments aside, I don’t think that’s such a boneheaded idea. Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of value to anyone.

Yet he can't shake the feeling that something's wrong with admitting to college courses the students whose existence many wish to deny: those who simply cannot pass -- who cannot even acquire the skills to pass. The students for whom it is, in all honesty, a complete waste of time. Yes, they exist. And he laments it:

For 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.

I am the man who has to lower the hammer.

To stop me from citing the whole goshdarn thing, here's a link to the article.

And for as long as it works, here's a link to the NYT's review of the entire book. From the sounds of it, it's probably a worthy, if depressing read.

And of course I can't go without citing what may be the most wrong yet giggle-inducing simile from the NYT article, so here it is in full.

Yet many reacted angrily to Professor X’s article (he prints some of the nastier letters he received here) as if he were proposing — to paraphrase Paul Fussell in his book “Class” — the beating to death of baby whales using the dead bodies of baby seals. [emphasis mine]

I think that a) I need to read Paul Fussell's book "Class"; and b) I need to read Professor X's book "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" -- if only to read those letters.

Have a pleasant day, all.

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