Wednesday, May 28, 2008

At Sea

I read this article in the Atlantic. (Who-hoo! I get to say I read an article in the Atlantic! Don't I sound SMART!) (And how about my arch parenthetical aside, allowing me to demonstrate self-awareness while STILL publicly flaunting the fact that I did, in fact, read an article in the June edition of the Atlantic?) (Note the awareness of the self-awareness. META!) (How many levels of distance can I achieve from my point before you stop reading?)

I read an article in the Atlantic and I am not ashamed! Well, I am ashamed, about a lot of things, but not about this! The article is called "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower." It's written by Professor X, a harried adjunct English professor at a Community College, the type of professor whose Sisyphean task it is to teach people who can't write to write. I've given away the article's thesis with my adjective: our professor posits that the American education system, drunk on a heady cocktail of optimism and greed, now encourages people to go to college who simply are not capable of college-level work.

I've already referenced shame, so I'll confess that when I read this article, I experienced the same queasy thrill you feel when someone who irritates you gets dumped. There's the empathy, the Schadenfreude, the self-disgust. I've always had the sneaking suspicion that native ability counts for far more than we in the education profession are willing to admit. Some students are capable of more; some students are capable of less, and to think otherwise, to believe that everyone should achieve the same standard (NCLB, hello?) instead of falling along a nice, shapely Bell curve is naive.

On the other hand (oh, that other hand, with its snaky, sinister reach!), one could argue that Professor X has a naif's understanding of truth, in that he automatically assumes that if something is true, we must base our actions upon it. It's an unusual attitude for a professor of English; if books teach us anything, it's that truth exists in a complicated, frequently dysfunctional symbiosis with life. It may be true that you're hopelessly in love with your best friend's wife, but it's probably best that you not act on that truth. There's a real chance that you'll die in a plane crash, but that truth oughtn't to ground you.

It is almost certainly true that Professor X's students will never write at the college level. It doesn't necessarily follow, however, that he ought to fold up his tents and cease all attempts at education. If our actions do not owe automatic allegiance to truth, then they are free to respond to subtler imperatives. The incremental gain, for example. The sedimentary accumulation of progress; the joy of the attempt; what we owe to one another.

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