Here’s a message I wrote for my Phil/Crim 380 students, “Philosophical Issues in Criminal Justice,” while waiting for their final papers. I wrote it after one student emailed me to ask where the readings were located–nine days after the official end of the semester:
Remember that you’re supposed to come to class on Tuesday the 20th (3:15) and hand in a hard copy of the paper.
I would like to think that by now you all know where the readings for the class are located. You might want to use some of your own research skills before sending me an email asking where they are. An email of that kind basically says: “I haven’t done anything in this class so far, so why start now?” It’s a good question, but it’s not mine to answer.
Honestly, if the work I got from this bunch of students is any indication of the future of American law enforcement, American law enforcement has no future (feel free to take a look for yourself by clicking the link at the top). My only hope is that the antecedent of the preceding conditional is false–not that I’d bet on it.
This isn’t the voice of end-of-semester despair, by the way, but of mid-career acquiescence to reality (well, I’m assuming it’s mid-career). I don’t think I’ve ever taught a 300-level course that felt more like teaching ninth grade. But every semester has come to feel like this, alas: my institution may have gone from college to university in name, but it seems to me to have gone from college to high school (or junior high school) in fact. I somehow doubt that I’m alone in this sentiment,* and wonder how long this state of affairs can last. How long can we continue to teach students who are uninterested in learning–and who spend tens of thousands of dollars learning next to nothing?
For all of the ink spilled on the “root causes” of the problems with higher education, I wonder how much has been written on student attitudes as among the most fundamental of those causes. Could it be that students have something to do with student academic performance? Perhaps Meno should have asked Socrates not whether virtue can be taught, but whether the desire to learn can be. Standing in front of a classroom of zoned-out zombie-students day after day after day, I find myself wanting posthumously to ask Aristotle why it is that if all men desire by nature to know, so few of my students follow nature’s dictates. Are my students a counter-example to the Aristotelian principle, or an instantiation of it? If I were to accept Aristotle’s principle, would I have to deny their humanity–or declare them monsters?
Functionally speaking, my students are tabulae rasae: they can’t read, write, think, or make a cogent public speech; they know no math, natural science, social science, literature, history, law, or philosophy. And they don’t seem particularly eager to change any of that. Unsurprisingly, the task of educating them seems more Sisyphean than Socratic: the harder I seem to work at it, the less I seem to accomplish. I guess I’m just giving anecdotal expression here to what “the literature” has said in a more formal vein (see this as well), but I wonder how a person 22 years into the profession is supposed to respond to that situation, except to find a way out of it.
As The Temptations put it decades ago: “Nobody’s interested in learnin’–but the teacher.”
*My agreement with this essay is limited to the short paragraph on the “high schoolization” of college. Much of the rest of it strikes me as nonsense.