In the interests of full disclosure, I should note at the outset that from the age of four, I have sat on one side or the other of a desk in a Catholic school (sometimes on both sides at the same time). I have often lamented the lowering of academic standards in our Catholic schools, comparing present benchmarks to those I faced (which had already been lowered from their heyday). My undergraduate teaching has all been in Catholic institutions, with the majority of the students coming from Catholic high schools and, yes, I have often been disappointed with the lack of knowledge or even desire for knowledge.
Recently, however, I have been teaching some courses in philosophy, world religions and Latin at a local community college. My students now are almost all graduates of the so-called “public” schools (I generally resist using that adjective, preferring “government” or “state” schools, which is a more accurate descriptor); indeed, in five semesters, I have had only four graduates of Catholic high schools since, presumably, Catholic school students usually go on to four-year colleges immediately; I am happy to say that all four of them had strong backgrounds, comparatively speaking. Having thought the level of learning was low for Catholic school alumni, I was totally unprepared for the abysmal situation with alumni of the government schools. I should note that these young people have attended upper-middle class, suburban schools, what people are wont to describe as “good” schools.
What is said here should not be seen as a negative reflection on community colleges or even of four-year colleges; it is a narrative of what higher education is receiving as clientele from the elementary and secondary schools paid for from tax dollars.
On the first day of class, I tell my students that when I shall be identifying their mistakes, they should not be offended since most of their educational “gaps” are not their fault; they have been cheated. I go on to observe that, in all likelihood, their experience of school to this point has been one of no discipline, no standards, grade inflation, uninterested and lackluster teachers. This litany caused one boy to exclaim: “You must have been to my high school!” I also inform them that I view my role as that of helping students who are interested in playing “catch-up ball.”
I then present them with some rules and policies.
Rule 1: Some banned words – “feel” (“think” is the word for the life of the mind); “basically” (it’s a filler); “like” (no, something “is” and has a definite character and definition); “awesome” and “amazing” (hyperbole, usually void of meaning, signifying someone who is “nice”).
Rule 2: Since feeling and opinion don’t matter in this class, you must express your point of view with supporting facts. And then, an important fact: It takes the same energy from me to form the letter “A” as it does to form the letter “F”; therefore, whichever you earn is what you will get. Just as it wouldn’t faze me to give everyone in the class an A (if deserved), it would not faze me to give everyone an F (if deserved).
Now, onto a distressing laundry list of educational lacunae:
1. A student who thought “whom” was a misspelled word.
2. An entire class that had never heard of the “parts of speech”; when explained, they could only name nouns and verbs.
3. Most students have never learned cursive writing.
4. Most have never learned the multiplication tables.
5. Not a single person in one class had ever heard of Winston Churchill.
6. When asked to identify the medieval philosopher who made Aristotle acceptable in a Christian culture, one scholar blurted out, “Socrates!”
7. When asked who were the four evangelists, one proffered: “A new rock group?”
8. As I painstakingly went through the catalogue of errors I found on their first written paper, one individual cried out, “Is this a philosophy class or an English class?” My reply: “It’s called ‘education’!”
9. Almost no one can pick out the main point of a passage; all things are of equal value.
10. A nearly universal habit of “group-think” and “group-speak”: If it is said often enough by enough people, it must be true.
What are my students expected to do during the course of the semester? Submit ten outlines summarizing the material of each chapter; be prepared to take ten pop quizzes; produce two reaction papers; give an oral reflection every other week on some current event. How does all this fly with the students? A couple have complained to those higher up the food chain (of course, never to me personally). Not a few drop the course after a while. What about those who stay? At the end of the term, I ask them for their feedback. Two questions elicit rather interesting, telling responses.
“What did you learn of most value?”
• Correct grammar.
• To accept others’ thoughts and reasoning, even if I do not agree with it.
• More than memorizing material, I learned now to participate as a member of our class.
• How to write a paper.
• Everything in life has a philosophical element.
• Philosophy plays a huge role in our everyday lives.
• To just stop and think before I speak
• I got a better understanding of free will and was especially intrigued by how I could live up to it in my life.
• The concept of really thinking about things that are taken for granted, as opposed to accepting them without “filtering”.
• Be prepared.
• The importance of grammar.
• How to think critically.
• Don’t split infinitives.
• To agree or disagree with others’ points of view was the highlight of the class.
• To think outside the box.
• How to debate and talk about situations in a mature, professional way.
• It’s not “like” something. It is, or it isn’t!
• Always read the text and take diligent notes.
• Learning about other religions gave me new perspectives.
• I have learned to be more open-minded, not just about religions, but in life as well.
• How to stay on top of studying.
• I found faith.
• How to produce a proper outline.
“How would you describe your experience of this course to a friend?”
• Study, and you will do well.
• Extremely beneficial.
• Worth taking.
• Hard, but interesting and worth it.
• Interesting but tough.
• The professor knows exactly how he wants things done.
• Stimulating, but not for someone looking for an easy grade.
• I really enjoyed this course. This course could benefit the average person more than 90% of the other courses here.
• You must be determined and to get an A, you need to put in 100% effort and can’t be half-asleep.
• Hard class, but I learned a lot.
• Beneficial and fun.
• Interesting subject. Teacher very funny and knowledgeable.
• The class opens the door to a new topic that changes the way you think.
• There’s a lot of work but if you do the work, you’ll be fine.
• It was fun to take what we’ve learned in class and apply it to outside work.
• A very in-depth class.
• Professor isn’t bad. Smart guy. Read the book.
• I enjoyed it and learned a wealth of knowledge. I found that I am more interested in philosophy than I thought and will pursue it extracurricularly.
• Father Stravinskas is very knowledgeable and has a good sense of humor. He helps us think critically by asking plenty of questions. I would suggest this class to my friends.
• Follow along; don’t slack.
• Professor has a lot of interesting stories relevant to the discussion.
• The class requires you to be there to do well; it is also rewarding when you do well.
• A great experience.
• The class expands your horizons and widens your gaze on life and principles.
• It got your mind to think of new things.
• The professor really wanted us to learn.
• This was my favorite class because the professor was willing to help and answer questions.
• One of my more important courses and the most challenging, but I like knowing that I worked and earned my grade.
• This class is more personal. The teacher knows everyone and is friendlier than other teachers.
• Great teacher, great class; take a shot and take philosophy.
• Tough but informative.
• Pay attention.
• I’m really going to miss this class even though I didn’t get the best grade. It was my most enjoyable class.
• The only class where I actually learned something.
• Good course, but you had better study.
• It’s an awesome class (!!), and Father Peter is very helpful; just make sure you study.
• This was my favorite class. I had mixed emotions at first, but it has renewed my desire to go into religious studies.
• The professor is very fair and helpful. He seems to want us to do well and understand the material.
• If you don’t do well on pop quizzes, don’t take this course.
• This course has pushed me more than other classes.
• I very much enjoyed the course; I hope nothing changes.
• It’s a good class with a good teacher, but the pop quizzes are tricky.
• The professor gets me to want to learn more.
• If you want to learn, take this class.
• Decent amount of work needs to be done, but it’s a very informative class and the professor is one of the better ones I have had.
• A class every student must take.
• He is a great professor and has much wisdom to offer. The class was very structured; the grading and everything was very good.
• Certainly a tougher course but, if you do the work, you’ll be fine.
The feedback sheet also asks the students to suggest the grade they think they deserve and to do the same for the professor. Their honesty is refreshing. Not only do they usually assign themselves the grade they have truly earned, with fascinating regularity a student who claims a C or D for himself suggests an A or B for the professor!
So, what has been the point of this whole discussion? First, we must realize with Pope Benedict XVI that we are in the depths of “an educational emergency.” However, one must not presume that this has occurred overnight or that it has emerged full-blown from the brow of Zeus. Way back in 1943, the eminent French philosopher Jacques Maritain delivered a series of lectures at Yale University, in which he leveled a scathing critique of what was passing for education in America then. The New York Times and other commentators accused him of issuing an undeserved attack on the nation’s “public” schools. That lecture series is collected in book form as Education at the Crossroads – which should be required reading for every educator.
In 1987, Allan Bloom, in his blockbuster, The Closing of the American Mind, documented the demise with painful detail and accuracy. He, too, was castigated for his negativity. Truth be told, though, the very relativism he found objectionable in the students he was getting in college, he exhibited himself.
More recently, Mark Bauerlein upset the bureaucracy with The Dumbest Generation. The road from Maritain in 1943 to Bauerlein in 2008 has not been a long and winding road; it has been a direct and inexorable decline because the nation’s educational establishment have been hell-bent on repeating their mistakes, all the while clamoring for yet more money to support the failed experiment. Need we recall the classic definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results?.
A Latin proverb informs us: Discimus docendo (We learn by teaching). What have I learned these past five semesters? That the teachers’ unions have gotten away with academic murder in their refusal to accept responsibility for the massive ignorance of at least two generations. That Catholic elementary and secondary schools are, for the most part, the only game in town at present, requiring them not only to hold the line but to up the ante. That most students don’t want to remain “dumb” (to fall back on Professor Bauerlein’s adjective) and that they are willing to respond to the challenge when it is presented.
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