How illiterate is university education? Erosion: Standards of reading, writing and thinking are in peril except among a small elite.


President Clinton hoists the banner of Education! Sports pundits regularly chastise athletes who bypass college for the NBA. Yet amid the culture wars and canon wars, theory wars and education wars besieging universities, there's a crisis in the classroom where Johnny can't read, can't think, can't write, and has yet to discover history.

As Frank Kermode, a literary critic, remarked during a University of Chicago symposium marking the 10th anniversary of Allan Bloom's landmark study "The Closing of the American Mind," "We should get back to teaching students to read."

Educational standards have deteriorated further since Allan Bloom had mourned of students, "They have not learned to read. It gave them no delight." The other panelists at the Bloom celebration, Joyce Carol Oates among them, shifted uncomfortably in their seats. No one followed up. This was a truth too dangerous to acknowledge.

What's really happening at universities beyond the elite happy few is that students often don't understand what they're reading, and can't recognize a complete English sentence. History is a foreign country to them. Even at the best institutions, student skills are deteriorating; a Princeton English professor told me recently that he found student writing appalling, and student reluctance to attend a writing center for improvement the norm.

Worse, as paying customers, many students behave as if the mere paying of fees entitles them not only to a degree, but to an A, or, at the very least a B. As Anne Matthews writes in "Bright College Years: Inside the American Campus Today" (Simon and Schuster, 288 pages, $23), "You have to shoot a dean these days to get thrown out."

The causes of this erosion of university education are manifold. This economy at the millennium does not promise students rosy financial futures; their teachers can no longer argue credibly that hard work and excellence will catapult students onto the ladder to success. Generation X students know that they will be less well off financially than their parents.

pTC Why then worry about whether a complete sentence should follow a semi-colon? Meanwhile many universities are in dire financial straits, with the result that administrators don't support faculty who apply standards, Matthews suggests, for fear that this will cause the customers to stampede for the door.

The approach to the student as consumer of a product has led, Bill Readings writes in "The University In Ruins" (Harvard University Press, 238 pages, $31) to the very disappearance from universities of "the idea of culture."

Teaching has become an administrative function. Knowledge is "administered," Readings says, in "manageable doses" and textbooks "become shorter" and "require less of the student." Thought has become "more and more difficult, less and less necessary."

The consequences are predictably depressing. It is now

standard procedure, Matthews notes, for the first two weeks of a semester to be a "shopping period" in which students wander in and out of classes in search of those with the fewest requirements. She quotes a professor saying, "I am outraged at the level of incompetence we tolerate," and another who admits, "Students have no idea their work is so poor."

In her survey of 400 campuses, Matthews found "undergraduates at mid-term will stop taking notes or start skipping lectures." Her statistics are devastating: "80 percent of undergraduates now study anything they want, too much of it warmed-over high school" and "only 35 percent of first-years do six or more hours of weekly homework, as opposed to 44 percent in 1987."

A Duke T-shirt caught her eye; "You can lead me to college, but you can't make me think." Matthews notes of contemporary students: "Many hate print." Many "can't write an error-free letter."

The quality of learning seems indeed to have reached crisis proportions. Yet the educational default of American universities, and their failure to make up for the collapse of elementary and secondary education notwithstanding, professors are continuing to write books about internecine department warfare between professors of theory and professors of literature or between professors and administrators.

Ignorance embraced

Lawrence W. Levine in "The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture and History" (Beacon Press, 212 pages, $20), ++ expresses a self-satisfied delight that he and his cohorts have at last largely succeeded in overthrowing the canon of dead white males.

Levine, whose book offers nary a scene of classroom life, finds all well with university education that has expanded "students' understanding of the diverse cultures and societies around them."

Ignoring the precipitous drop in basic skills, and the concern of many that students can't read, Levine treats the problem as one of content.

The crisis at universities, he believes, myopically, is one of a power struggle between professors: Your tradition or mine. As Levine claims that multiculturalism has restored the university to a new vitality, one can only wonder how much time he has spent recently in an undergraduate classroom.

In fact, a recent study shows that works about "neglected peoples," the new "diversity, pluralism and multiculturalism" 0' have, perhaps not coincidentally, been accompanied by a drop in literacy, and an ignorance of history.

In "Manifesto of a Tenured Radical" (New York University Press, 243 pages, $50), Cary Nelson, like Levine a proponent of the new cultural studies and theory, insists that "it is not the same to teach English when our economy is impoverishing millions of our students." Yet he nowhere examines what the theory he applauds offers students.

Politicized classrooms

Admitting that theorists undermine the idea of objective historical knowledge just as they deconstruct literary texts, he fails to perceive that this view has produced a generation of students with no sense of historical context, knowledge of or respect for history.

Meanwhile Nelson urges politicization of the classroom, a required course in African-American literature beside Shakespeare. Any approach with which he disagrees is labeled "anti-intellectual."

He argues that the canon must change because "new social movements and new immigration demand it," not because of the merit of the alternative texts, although these may indeed have merit, as he demonstrates with Edwin Rolfe's wonderful poems of the McCarthy period. Nelson does not examine what happens to their education when students are given what they want.

So foundering students in humanities departments meet professors of the left whose distrust of history deprives them of the lessons of the history of the political Left, even as Nelson cannot imagine a left free of the totalitarianism of Stalin.

Nelson himself seems blind to the fact that the ahistoricism of the theory people who now dominate English departments has led to a generation of students with no sense of history.

The most disturbing moment in his book comes when Nelson suddenly admits that students lack fundamental skills only for him to justify their ignorance, as if he too does not want to offend the customer. "They know other things," he claims. They have "special areas of interest and passion" and survival skills, which is dubious. Nelson embraces no mission to teach them what they don't know.

Nelson predicts, accurately, "higher education's hierarchical future" with Chicago, Harvard, Hopkins, Princeton, Yale on one thin end of the spectrum" and "everybody else heaped together on the campus of McDonald's U."

Meanwhile, parents, indeed all of society, might ponder those forgotten characters in books like Levine's, Nelson's and Readings'. These are the undergraduates who are now in dire educational peril, waiting for someone to teach them how to read and write.

Joan Mellen's most recent of her 13 books is "Hellman an Hammett," recently out in paperback. She is professor of English at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Pub Date: 8/03/97

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