A Mild Rant about North American Education

It has been a very hard year for students everywhere, it seems, and in ways peculiar to each person. As I grade final papers, I am sympathetic toward the students whose stories of COVID-19-related woes I know, and toward the many I don’t.

And yet.

My spies in StudentWorld tell me that ‘way too many students have gotten too used to the grace extended by professors since this time last year, and have already adjusted their efforts to the lower standards, lengthier extensions, and general slackening of expectations. And I’ve just marked another class of papers from students who have taken courses with me before—nice students, smart students, generally attentive students—and ‘way too many of them are terrible. Not just a little disappointing, not just a little sub-standard, but exams one could have written with about half-an-hour’s cramming. I literally can’t pass some of them, and others barely make it across the line.

“THIS?” I want to shout. “THIS is all you got from 12 weeks of considered and capable lecturing? THIS is all you harvested from hundreds of pages of carefully curated reading? THIS is all you learned from hours of class discussion with your bright peers? THIS is what you have to present on some of the most important issues you will ever consider?”

I recognize that many university/college students today are enrolled in higher education because of the manifestly stupid decision made a generation ago to require a degree for many jobs that used to require only a high school diploma. I am convinced that high schools generally do a worse job than they did a generation ago: stupidly “streaming” kids into a single program that does not serve those who used to go into trade education early nor those who are bright enough for (real) university education—and not even the middle of the bell curve, who graduate from Grade 12 with smatterings only: smatterings of history, smatterings of math and science, smatterings of English grammar and usage, smatterings of geography.

They know nothing systematically, even as they have all been thoroughly indoctrinated that environmentalism is good; racism, sexism, homophobia and bullying are bad; and suicide is to be avoided. Those are all good lessons that a single theme week ought to suffice to imprint. But find their way on a world map, or a timeline of western civilization, or a list of great authors, or a chart of basic chemical processes, or a 1000-word essay exercise? Largely hopeless.

I blame a generation of stupid governments informed by stupid university faculties of education in league with stupid teachers’ unions. These generally mediocre minds have substituted ideology for evidence-based pedagogies, and our children, our universities, and our labour markets are reaping the paltry results. How much more interesting and satisfying it apparently has been to preach virtues rather than to teach subjects and impart skills.

And today it’s just more of the same as we ramp up anti-racism and trans-rights-consciousness and climate-change-alarm—all concerns I happen to share, just to be clear—while students can’t make nouns and verbs agree, do enough mental math to notice mistakes on their tax returns or shop intelligently, spot logical errors in propaganda and advertising, and recognize the latest nonsense from the cynically slanted media yelling untruths at them by the score.

This ought to be the best-educated generation in history. It isn’t. And that is a slow-burning, civilization-weakening, standard-dropping, economy-harming, culture-eroding scandal. 

I’m going to keep doing my best to teach whatever students come into my classes. I love them and I know that their general incompetence is not their fault. I know that they can improve, and many do—some remarkably and gratifyingly. 

Today, however, I’m mostly disappointed by the stress of the virus’s shadow provoking the best efforts of only a few, and reduced effort and expectation of far too many. I mourn that this graduating class of university students has been lamed by this year-plus of slap-dash approximations of what we normally offer. And I can only hope that we will not just rebound in the academic year to come, but press harder to improve education all the way down.

And especially here in New Brunswick.

And don’t get me started on the general foolishness, the tragicomical waste and confusion, of the French immersion programming in Moncton…

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