Monday, August 27, 2007

Coddling underachievement, neglecting genius

In my grandfather's day (actually, even in my 90-year-old father's day) it was not expected that every youngster from the midland farms or urban centers was destined for a liberal arts degree. When you look at the time frame during which liberal arts colleges began popping up like poppies across the country, you can see how relatively recent the expectation of such a college education is. Only for the last two or three generations has nearly every parent expected his children to complete a college education. My prognosis is that this expectation will be relatively short lived, and the possibility of fulfilling the expectation briefer still.

Have any of you who are educators noticed how many memoranda from the administration these days carry attachments with protocols and programs for students with disabilities? I'm not referring here primarily to those with unambiguous disabilities such as hearing impairment or confinement to a wheelchair, about whose conditions I have little question. I'm referring to those, often self-diagnosed, who claim disability status in terms of ambiguous quasi-medical expressions like "attention deficit disorder," "dislexia," "text anxiety syndrome," and the like, which, I'm sorry to say, seem to cover a multitude of sins from sloth, lack of preparedness, and simple intellectual incompetence, in addition to, in some cases, genuine psycho-medical problems. Have you noticed how many otherwise ordinary and able-looking students approach you with forms notifying you of various disabilities and disorders they reportedly have? Even among your otherwise "normal" underachievers, have you noticed how many of their parents pummel you with irate phone calls when their children fail, when, after all, they say, they have paid full tuition for them? (Never mind the fact that they've slept through most of their courses hung over from their nocturnal frat parties constituting their actual raison d'etre at college.)

A recent issue of Time magazine carries an article by John Cloud entitled "Failing Our Geniuses" (Time, August 16, 2007 online; August 27, 2007, print). The subtitular description reads: "In U.S. schools, the highest achievers are too often challenged the least. Why that's hurting America -- and how to fix it."

The good news is that of the 62 milion school-age kids in the U.S., 62,000 have IQs of 145 or higher. But the good news stops there. According to the article, one study shows that 40% of the top 5% of high school grads fail to finish college. Most damning, however, is the fact that U.S. schools spend $8 billion -- that's eight BILLION dollars -- a year educating the mentally retarded, By the most generous calculation, says cloud, we spend no more than 10% of that on the gifted. What kind of sense does it make to spend 10 times as much trying to bring low-achievers to bare proficiency as we do to nurture those with the greatest potential? In fact, it's worse than that: those with the greatest potential are practically marginalized, on the assumption that they will succeed willy-nilly, but all too often merely left to fall through the cracks. It's not merely that the intellectually gifted have emotional needs as real as those of anyone else, including the mentally challenged. It's far worse: motivated by a false sense of compassion, we are pouring the greatest part of our national educational resources massively into programs for our mentally handicapped and disabled, while neglecting our gifted with whom our national future lies. I'm no Darwinian and I don't cotton to the Zarathustrianism of Nietzsche, but this faux compassion has no future.

I once had a student who earned a failing grade in one of my classes. Whe was incapable of putting together a coherent sentence in an essay, let alone a paragraph. I mean this literally: my two-and-a-half-year old can put together words to form a proper sentence with grammatically correct syntax. This student could not. Yet this student challenged my decision in the school's appeal system on the grounds that she had received "A" grades in other college courses -- courses in which, as I learned later, she had only objective tests and quizzes (true/false, multiple choice, matching) and was permitted, because of her claimed disability, to have these tests and quizzes orally administered to her, and was never required to submit any assignment in writing. Umm-hmmm ... You see what I mean. In the college appeal process, a prominent citizen took her part as a legal advocate. She had at her disposal every legal and financial advantage. But then, at the last hour, she was required to undergo a clinical psychiatric test and was found to suffer from significant mental retardation. What was she doing in college in the first place? What, in fact, have nearly half of my students at Lenoir-Rhyne College been doing in college over the last decade? At best, most of these should have been in community colleges undergoing training in a marketable trade. Liberal arts courses are demanding. At least they require reasonable intelligence. Students with extraordinary endowments of intelligence deserve more support than they often get -- especially at the preparatory, pre-college levels of education.

Of related interest:

Average U.S. SAT scores at lowest since 1999 according to Yahoo! News. AP Education Writer, Justin Pope reports, in "Report: Average SAT Scores Dip Again" (Yahoo! News, August 28, 2007):
Combined math and reading SAT scores for the high school class of 2007 were the lowest in eight years — a trend the College Board attributed largely to the good news that a more diverse pool of students is taking the exam....

Scores also fell three points on the writing section, which is still in an experimental stage ….

But the College Board, the nonprofit membership group that owns the exam, insisted Tuesday that the declines were within normal historical fluctuations and not significant.
[Hat tip to E.F. for Yahoo link.]

No comments: