Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Are College Students Today Scholars or Clients?

By Nicholas Stix
September, 1994
“Cultural Revolutions”
Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture
(Essay originally had no title; in the “Cultural Revolutions” section, in the front of the book, nothing ever did.)

STUDENTS are becoming clients at an increasing number of public colleges. Indeed, staff members consider them “caseloads.” Programs such as “Economic Opportunity Funds” (EOFs) exist as pork barrels, doling out patronage to middle- and upper-middle-elass employees, enforcing racist and sexist personnel policies, and acting as politburos. Administrators and staffers openly display their feelings of superiority toward instructors, as well as an equally aggressive anti-intellectualism. Such programs have introduced a social work mentality to colleges that seeks to do away with any concern for academic standards, fairness, or merit. As with social workers in the field, instructors and administrators put off issues interminably—at taxpayer expense—rather than force students to take responsibility for their own success or failure. EOFs and allied programs have institutionalized the ideology of victimhood within a burgeoning college welfare bureaucracy.

As the heart of the college welfare bureaucracy, EOFs claim to help students who are “economically disadvantaged,” a code for “black and Hispanic.” For 20 years these programs have dispensed money based on skin color and ethnicity, independent of economic circumstance. EOF staffers and administrators have a proprietary interest in their students and freelv meddle in their personal and academic affairs. EOF administrator s and staffers have been known to use their power to carry out vendettas against professors whose polities they don’t like. They simply override student course decisions or encourage complaints by student malcontents.

The unwritten personnel code of EOFs is “no white males need apply.” It is simply assumed that upper-middle-class members of affirmative action-protected groups possess magical insights into the needs of poor black and Hispanic kids. The immediate power of EOFs derives from the millions of dollars they control at each school in student aid money and staff salaries. A secondary, and ultimately more substantial, power source inheres in the millions of patronage jobs controlled by the “academic” programs that buttress each school’s EOF: English as a Second Language (ESL), “academic foundations” (remedial or basic skills) programs, and peer tutoring centers.

College-level ESL and remedial instruction didn’t exist before the 1980’s. [Correction, October 26, 2021: The City College of New York introduced remedial English classes in 1965.] Now two-year associate degree programs have been bloated into five-year plans, while academic quality has declined precipitously. Increasing numbers of students (and not all foreign-born) spend their first two college years exclusively in non-credit ESL classes, often after years of “bilingual”—more accurately, nonlingual—education in the public schools. These students do not become literate but rather support an elaborate social structure that has become the biggest (tax) money-maker in the open-admissions college world. ESL programs are notorious for the poor quality of their texts and the blase attitude of their instructors.

After two years of ESL classes, students go on to at least one additional year of non-credit “basic skills” classes: remedial, or “developmental,” reading, writing, and arithmetic. The texts for such classes are based on the premise, decimated by E.D. Hirsch, that thinking can be taught without any facts or ideas and that reading can be taught without literature or vocabulary.

If students fail at basic skills, no matter. They will not flunk, but rather obtain additional intensive help from peer (!) tutors in a “skills institute.” At the community college level, once students have been certified literate, they go on to two years of “real” credit courses such as “College Survival Skills” and “Critical Thinking.”

Many sections of courses for credit, such as Sociology 101 and Macroeconomics, are still taught in Spanish.

At least until World War II, a college education was considered a privilege. Recently, it has gone from a privilege to a “right” and now to an “entitlement.” It is no longer the education as such that is considered an entitlement, but the degree. A college degree—at least where “minority” students are concerned—has attained for many progressives, liberals, and multiculturalists the automatic status of a Social Security card. Considering that such advocates believe reality can be defined away, why not save billions of dollars by simply redefining a high school degree as adequate to enter polite society?

The pedagogical side of entitlement ideology is the policy of “social passing.” Like ESL and basic skills programs, this practice entered “higher education” via grade schools. The program was originally smuggled into practice under the guise of protecting students' self-esteem. Its proponents argued that holding a failed student back from his peers would hurt his feelings. So everyone was promoted. Thus, the idea of merit—and the self-respect that derives from true accomplishment—was killed off with that of failure.

Practices such as social passing involve a constant lowering of standards, so as to accommodate the worst students. Such policies have ushered in a counterrevolution of sinking expectations: lower classroom standards produce graduates who understand so little in the way of the cultural stock that they will read no books or only the simplest kind. This, in turn, leads publishers to narrow what they will publish and writers to water down the references and allusions in their works.

I see in the college practice of social passing yet another affirmative action-style entitlement program. In a world where, regardless of their members’ effort or competence, certain demographic groups must be guaranteed success in order to make up for past injustices, just showing up has become equated with doing the job. At an increasing number of colleges rampant absenteeism has become the only way to flunk classes—unless, that is, a student has a really “good” EOF counselor.

—Nicholas Stix

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