Tuesday, May 27, 2008

“In the basement of the Ivory Tower”

A good title for an interesting article in the June 2008 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The tease asserts that “The idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. An instructor at a ‘college of last resort’ explains why.” This rather overstates the breadth and cogency of the article, but it is a good reminder that not everyone is suited for education that (to me, anyway) seems easy.

One of the scary and little reported trends of post-industrial society is the widening income gap (and even health-measures gap!) between the educated and the not educated, with educated now meaning some post-secondary schooling. The usual solution is to make secondary and post-secondary education more accessible and more necessary (as Professor X writes about). I’ve often wondered, though, if (at some point) post-secondary education is pointless, if what we’re seeing is, at least in part, a gap between the educable and the not.

Even to wonder that feels, to me, uncomfortably elitist. I often say that everything good that ever happened to me happened because I went to university, and I went to university precisely as the beneficiary of a huge and expensive programme of making post-secondary education broadly available to Ontario school-leavers. My parents were high-school drop-outs, but I have a graduate degree and the income to match; shouldn’t these same benefits be available to other unfortunate folks?

Of course. But being available to someone doesn’t mean they should avail themselves of it. The most poignant part of the article Professor X’s description about one of his students:

“I can’t believe it,” she said when she received her F. “I was so proud of myself for having written a college paper.”

She most certainly hadn’t written a college paper, and she was a long way from doing so. Yet there she was in college, paying lots of tuition for the privilege of pursuing a degree, which she very likely needed to advance at work. Her deficits don’t make her a bad person or even unintelligent or unusual. Many people cannot write a research paper, and few have to do so in their workaday life. But let’s be frank: she wasn’t working at anything resembling a college level.

In her own mind, Ms. L. had triumphed over adversity. In her own mind, she was a feel-good segment on Oprah. Everyone wants to triumph. But not everyone can—in fact, most can’t. If they could, it wouldn’t be any kind of a triumph at all. Never would I want to cheapen the accomplishments of those who really have conquered college, who were able to get past their deficits and earn a diploma, maybe even climbing onto the college honor roll. That is truly something.


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