MAGIC BULLET

Posted in Rants on February 8th, 2015 by Ed

A tale from a relative-of-close-friend who teaches Special Education. For narrative simplicity let's call him Don.

In many high schools now, policies exist to push students on the path to college. Don's district requires every student during junior year to choose a few colleges (2 or 4 year) as target schools for continuing their education. Even though many of them may not want to attend college or would not be able to do well there, the students are universally put through this "college preparatory" routine. I suppose it makes parents and legislators feel better to think of every high school student being funneled toward higher education.

Don's students, in general, are severely impaired. Many cannot read. Most cannot do basic things like eat a meal or use the bathroom without substantial assistance. A reasonable goal for their education would be to acquire basic literacy and develop some skills that might enable them to live with some degree of independence. And every year, Don must usher all of these students through the charade of choosing a college and making post-secondary plans. The mantra of College For Everyone extends even to them. Everyone means everyone.

This is an extreme example but an instructive one. "Go to college" is so widely considered the answer for everyone and everything that it is even applied to students who literally have zero chance of doing it successfully.

One of my colleagues recently said something that summarized a lot of the frustrating things about teaching in a way I haven't been able to verbalize before: our biggest problem is not that the students are "entitled" or lacking skills (although either of those things may be true in some cases) but that they resent being there. It varies across institutions, I'm sure, but currently I deal with a student population that seems to have a great deal of resentment. They come from wealthier areas and some of the best high schools. They have basic academic skills. But they don't want to be here. They don't want to be in any college. College – you might want to sit down – might not be for them. They resent the fact that their parents essentially forced them to go. They resent having to put enough effort into courses that do not interest them in the slightest to get grades good enough to keep the ire of their parents at bay.

This puts a lot of things into proper perspective, at least for me. These are kids who have no idea why they're in college. They went because everyone at their high school was going to college and because Mom and Dad refuse to suffer the shame of having a child who did not go to college. There's no intellectual component to it – some of these kids are very smart, some are not. But they have in common a lack of desire to do what they're being asked to do.

That's tough to deal with. We can deal with students who lack skills, because skills can be taught. We can deal with laziness, as motivation and desire can be improved upon. But I, we, have no remedy for students who are only in college because they were caught in a vortex of parental wealth, social pressure, and the belief that college is for absolutely everyone. It shouldn't be an insult to say "Hey maybe college isn't your thing." It doesn't mean "You are not smart enough for college." It means maybe you should do something else with your life that would be more to your liking and more productive for you. It's fine. Join the Navy. Learn how to fix something. Pseudo-apprentice at a small business with the goal of starting your own someday. Or just get a normal-ass job and live your life. It beats wasting five years and a ton of money trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

I couldn't put my finger on the nature of the general malaise here, and I think this is it. It's not anger or even boredom. It's the kind of resentment one senses in a roomful of people who have been forced to show up for jury duty. It's the predictable result of forcing teenagers – a demographic notable for its sulking skills – to do something they don't want to do. Nothing personal.