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July 11, 2006

Those Who Can't Do...

Write books. I just finished reading Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America by Peter Sacks, which I assume is a pseudonym, since he speaks as a journalist who has gone undercover as a community college teacher. As a member of the so-called X Generation (Nintendo wave, born 1979), I was deeply offended by his bullshit expose.

Sacks left a career as a successful (Pulitzer-nominated) journalist in order to relocate with his partner, a doctor, and took a job teaching journalism at a community college somewhere in the inland West. He began with high hopes, but soon found that things had changed since he was in college. The students he encountered had below-college-level reading and writing skills, failed to show up to class on time or even at all, and refused to do any work that wouldn't directly influence their grade. Let me repeat, he was at a community college. People go to community colleges precisely because they don't have the skills necessary to succeed at four-year institutions. The whole point of community college is to get them up to speed so that they can transfer to other universities. And his students wanted to be able to succeed -- Sacks mocks them for wearing Harvard and Yale sweatshirts, signs that they do have academic ambitions, and refuses to help them learn the necessary skills that they will need in order to transfer to more prestigious universities. Instead, he derides this sort of teaching as "hand-holding" and "spoon feeding," expecting if he simply humiliates them enough in class, his students will magically learn how to write. Sacks also notes that his students are working an average of 20-30 hours per week, but for some reason this doesn't explain to him why they simply can't study any more than is necessary. He goes into his new job with the attitude that "those who can't do teach" and somehow figures that, since he can do, since he has been a successful journalist, that this should also make him a brilliant teacher, despite the fact that he knows nothing about pedagogy. So when his students give him deservedly-bad evaluations, he blames them, arguing that, as the postmodern Generation X, raised on Sesame Street, they expect college to be just another form of entertainment. Sacks spends much of the book critiquing this expectation of entertainment, but I think he has missed the distinction between entertaining and engaging. As a student, I don't expect my professors to sing and dance (actually, I really don't want them to sing and dance), but I do expect them to engage my attention. After all, even the most brilliant person in the world can't communicate a concept effectively if he fails to connect with his audience.

Sacks responds, first, by attempting to pander to his audience with his "Sandbox Experiment." He figures that, if his students are going to act like kindergarteners, he will treat them like kindergarteners. He also engages in the unethical practice of handing out undeserved As and Bs across the board. He is not surprised when his evaluations improve. For him, this experiment proves his hypothesis that students in the 1990s approach college with an attitude of consumerist entitlement: they are paying to learn and feel entitled to good grades without having to put in any actual effort. So far, I don't think he is too far off the mark, given that he is teaching at a community college, where students are, for the most part, paying for their own education rather than relying on Mommy and Daddy, and where they are working so hard to put themselves through school that they simply don't have as much effort to give as, for instance, I had as a pampered student at a private liberal arts college.

But his critique takes a sharp right turn into Reaction Land when he blames the culture of postmodernity for all his woes. He aptly describes postmodernity as a much-bandied-about-but-rarely-defined term, and goes on to attempt to define it. His definition boils down to the overthrow of the authority of the middle-aged white man. And, yes, this is an element of postmodernity. The culture of modernity, ushered in with the Enlightenment, was based on the definition of the white man as the bearer of reason, a quality which was denied women, children, and nonwhite people of all ages and genders. Postmodern scholars particularize modernity as a specifically European experience, one which depended on the conquest and subjection of the non-European world. After all, there could be no "modern" society until there was a "traditional" society with which to contrast it. Sacks equates modernity with scientific objectivity and rationality and postmodernity with its rejection. But modernity undermined itself: the Heisenberg Principle demonstrates the impossibility of scientific objectivity (the act of observing always alters what is observed); and the Holocaust turned the latest industrial technology to the task of destroying humanity. Knowledge is constructed by those in power (see Foucault); when higher education was democratized after World War II, new groups of people gained access to the knowledge-making process and, lo and behold, we found that there is not necessarily only one truth. Knowledge is situated. For example, historians had always written their stories based on documents found in government archives. But a history of, say, the Vietnam war based on government archives will look very different than one based on articles from the New York Times, which will look very different from a history based on my parents' diaries, which will look very different from a history based on oral testimony from Vietnamese combatants or refugees. Which one is more true? Sacks bemoans the fact that students no longer look to their professors as the gatekeepers of established knowledge, but professors are the ones who are creating knowledge. They are the ones who struggle daily with the uncertainties of scientific methods and historical archives, and I applaud the integrity of those who are willing to admit that the truth is not neither unitary nor self-evident. Recognizing that there is not one complete, true, and accurate narrative of the past (and to even present history in narrative form is a lie, since life does not unfold as a narrative), it would be an act of bad faith for me to get up in front of a class of undergraduates and pretend that there was.

In any case, postmodernity is a red herring in Sacks's book because it is not a product of Generation X. He equates postmodernity with the questioning of authority, but that was a slogan of his generation, not mine. It was his generation who refused to go to class in the spring of 1970 in protest of the U.S. government's invasion of Cambodia. My generation might be the first to grow up in the postmodern age, but we did not create it -- we are simply trying to come to terms with it, stumbling through a world in which we can no longer rely on the integrity or objectivity hallowed institutions that once served as the arbiters of truth and knowledge. We have seen our parents' marriages break up, we have seen our elected officials lie to us, and we have seen corporations manipulate our access to truth and reality.

Sacks does, however, make some valid arguments, though the things he critiques are not simply or unambiguously products of postmodernity. First, the overcommercialization of our culture. In the post-regulatory age ushered in by Reagan, everything is for sale. Corporations deal in abstractions. College students even sell their bodies as walking advertisements. My eight-year-old sister watches commercials on the internet as if they were the news. But this is a feature of post-industrial capitalism, not postmodernity (though, just as industrial capitalism was deeply imbricated and implicated in modernity, so too is post-industrial capitalism implicated in postmodernity). Second, the culture of entitlement. Sacks argues that students see their education as a commodity, something that they are entitled to because they are paying for it. Unfortunately, this is true: as universities lose public funding, they become more dependent on tuition dollars and begin to treat students as paying customers. The only way to get around this would be to eliminate the tuition-paying system, as is done in Ph.D. programs. Of course, someone pays my tuition, but I am so far removed from the exchange that I see myself as an employee, someone who works for grades (and, I must admit, for my stipend), rather than a customer. Again, this is not postmodernity, but late capitalism and the privatization of the public sphere and public amenities. Finally, grade inflation, or, as Sacks puts it, the elimination of standards, which he blames on the relativism inherent in postmodernism. Grade inflation is a serious problem. In my seven-year higher ed career, I have never received less than an A-, though at times I'm sure I deserved less. A professor in a top history Ph.D. program once explained to me the necessity of grade inflation: because his university can't fund all of its students' dissertation research, his students have to compete with students at other universities for outside funding, and they look better to fellowship selection committees if they have top grades. Sacks would argue that, if these students don't earn their top grades, they don't deserve the fellowships, and I tend to agree. After all, universities are turning out more Ph.D.s than there are jobs, and it doesn't do anyone any good to increase the population of the overeducated unemployed. But professors can't unilaterally end grade inflation -- their students suffer by having worse transcripts than do those students who only take classes from "easy A" professors, and ultimately the professor's reputation as an anti-grade-inflation crusader will hurt his enrollment. One solution Sacks proposes, which I think makes a lot of sense, is to record on the transcript not only the student's grade in the class, but also the average grade in the class, so that evaluators can see how the student did relative to everyone else.

While Sacks does make some valid points, his book smacks of reactionary elitism. He is nostalgic for the days when one had to be white and wealthy to even go to college, and is having trouble adjusting to the democratization of both higher education and American society more generally, however uneven and incomplete this democratization has been. The problem is not the X Generation but rather Sacks's own arrogance and fear of change. All I have to say is get over yourself.

Posted by eklanche at July 11, 2006 08:46 AM


Thanks for the discussion of (and link to) "postmodernity" - I find it interesting, on one hand, that postmodernity incorporates so much that's problematic, and on the other, represents a trend toward greater democratizatization - at least in so far as the disintegration of a unitary western, white, male-dominated world view is concerned. I've been looking for a way to start understanding the concept (having been more a student of modernity myself)and this gives me a foothold. Great thoughts to ponder!

Posted by: khilfman@earthlink.net at July 13, 2006 01:50 AM

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