The Big Lie

Why have today's students become a bunch of grade-grubbing morons?

By Michael O'Donovan-Anderson
January 26, 1999 8:50PM (UTC)
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Teachers, as you may not know, complain a lot. There is, after all, a great deal to complain about, and teachers, being smarter (and having more flexible hours) than the average malcontent, fully exploit their opportunities. Class size (too high), pay (too low), culture (too little), the administration (too administrative), government (too corrupt), pay (still too low), vacation time (never you mind, I work hard!). Among favorite topics, however, nothing comes close to students (too much to fit between parentheses).

Most of the griping is summed up by Miss Parker: "You can lead a
horticulture, but you can't make her think." But some of the mutterings to
which I am privy suggest something worse: whorses who cannot even be led to
culture. Having taught philosophy, history of science and ancient Greek
literature at schools from 400-student liberal arts colleges to Ivy League universities, I think I know what they mean.


I recall one student in particular who had done rather poorly on a writing assignment and had come to office hours to talk me out of her grade. I explained what I expected from such a paper, what was fruitful, what was unlikely to be so, and tried to get her to see the demand for thoughtful writing as a way to come to terms with issues that she cared about.

Me: Let's talk more about this paragraph: Why do you think that Antigone's
obligation to her brother is the most important factor?

Her: Is that wrong? Did I lose points for that?


Clearly, something about this approach was deeply puzzling to her, and we
replayed the same conversation until she suddenly realized what it was I
was having trouble seeing.

"You don't understand," she announced with a trumpish air. "I need this class to balance the GPA in my major." Well, why didn't she say so before?

Perhaps it has always been thus. As I have just complained about my students to you, my colleagues complain to me, and Augustine and Epictetus complain to us all. Poor Socrates tried dialogue after dialogue to teach philosophy to the budding politicians he attracted; all they wanted was rhetoric. But the present bout of chronic student malaise among liberal arts students seems different and deserves more than nostalgic name-dropping: Why would it make sense to a student to argue for a grade she doesn't deserve in one class by citing her poor performance in another? What failure of education leads to the complaint (from one of my teaching evaluations) that "he seemed to grade with some objective standard in mind"? And what accounts for the level of disdain necessary for a student to hand in, as his own, a photocopy of someone else's paper?


It's the economy, stupid, here and everywhere. When it comes to questions of the value of an education, we have gradually adopted a disturbingly anemic vocabulary. Discussing the benefits of education, the U.S. Department of Education mentions only the following: "higher earnings, better job opportunities, jobs that are less sensitive to general economic conditions, reduced reliance on welfare subsidies, increased participation in civic activities, and greater productivity."

It's not that these claims are trumped up: Higher education is the most predictive precursor of a long and lucrative career. So who can blame schools for using placement data, salary averages and tuition-to-earnings "value" to market and sell the education they offer? And why shouldn't parents also pay attention to this data in guiding their children toward certain schools or certain majors? The problem now, however, is that such economic standards have become increasingly central to students as well.


The American Council on Higher Education reports that more than 50 percent of students chose their college because "graduates get good jobs" (a close second behind "very good academic reputation," at 54 percent, and way ahead of the next reason, "size of college," at 34 percent). And although a solid 60 percent of students listed "to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas" as one important reason in deciding to go to college (a number that has held relatively steady for the last 20 years), more of these students are in fact hoping to receive this "appreciation of ideas" through the study of business. Indeed, the business major is the only category of enrollment that is rising -- at the expense of law, medicine and all the humanities and sciences. This, I suppose, is due in large part to the fact that fully 75 percent of students report that it is "essential or very important to be very well off financially," up steadily from 39 percent in 1970.

In response to the pressure on universities to make their graduates
immediately employable, increasingly they do. As a result the new
philosophy of educational management -- that universities function as
businesses responsive to business needs -- is quickly becoming a
philosophy of education as well. When the university becomes continuous
with the market, a centralized training ground for homo economicus,
it is only a matter of time before education is viewed as a product like any
other. Indeed, according to Newsweek, hundreds of colleges across the country
offer free courses to alumni whose company is displeased with the training
they received, and some, for instance St. John Fisher College in New York, go
so far as to offer refunds on any diploma that does not operate to the
customer's satisfaction.

This is the Big Lie, expressed succinctly when, as a chemical engineering student, I asked the purpose of a particular assignment. "This will enable you," the professor intoned, "to make a lot of money."


Why is the promise that a university education will lead to a secure livelihood "The Big Lie"? It is, after all, true -- and furthermore a good job is a genuine good, a precondition for many of the goods of human life. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with promising, and designing a system to deliver, a practical and economically powerful education. A primarily vocational education is one important way of serving the economic and technical needs of a powerful nation. The problem arises with the notion of a liberal education. While it is true that a liberal education sometimes results in material comfort, it does not follow that liberal education is for material comfort.

In fact, the guiding principles of a university education often clash with its most widely advertised goal. Traditionally conceived as an institution insulated from the labor market, allowing its members freedom of thought and nonproductive exploration, the university houses manifold disciplines, each aimed at inquiry of a distinct kind. Indeed, it is one of our culture's guiding maxims that an education consisting of such rarefied intellectual pursuits is unlikely to help one earn a living. What, after all, are you going to do with it?

Driven by the increasing tendency of universities to market themselves based on the bottom line, teachers compromise between the students' vocational goals and the university's educational ends by using lucrative employment as a motivator for intellectual learning. But such slights-of-mind end up substituting the external good of employment for the internal goods of a liberal education. The students don't know why they are learning any given
subject, because they haven't been taught the inherent value of that
discipline in itself. This substitution is the essence of the Big Lie.


Imagine the following scenario. A mother wishes to teach her daughter,
Karen -- an average little girl with a sweet tooth -- to play the piano. She must play a certain amount of time each day, and perform in recitals. When she has practiced a certain number of hours, or a recital is especially good, she will be given some candy. Early on, Karen will almost certainly play because of the candy. Of course, candy has nothing to do with the internal rewards of playing the piano. But unless Karen is exceptionally gifted, if the only reasons she is given for playing are external, she may never feel the piano extending through her core, or have the strangely religious experience of contacting an audience through living music. And perhaps the fact that her teacher "seemed to grade with an objective standard in mind" will strike her as odd, unfair and unfathomable.

Imagine, now, that Karen turns out to be a gifted musician and she wins a college scholarship in music. She understands that if she continues to get high recital evaluations, she will probably achieve a comfortable living as a pianist. But this arrangement comes at a price. In addition to her classes in performance technique, music theory and music history, she must take a number of courses that will be relatively useless to this career: calculus, writing composition, ethics and analytic chemistry. She will be evaluated in these classes as in the rest, and her performance will in part determine the course of her career. What's more, unless she maintains a certain minimum standard in these unrelated courses, her musical training will cease. But when her teachers and parents use Karen's music career to motivate her performance in chemistry class ("you have to learn to calculate electron shells if you want to make a living playing piano"), is it any wonder that she sees it as a kind of threat?

When chemistry has been placed like an obstacle between a student and her career goals -- a class that, insofar as it is not expected to have intrinsic worth functions only as an obstacle -- it is no surprise that she confronts the situation with some hostility. And perhaps she will look for a way around it. If all her reasons for taking chemistry are external, why shouldn't she cheat? If she will not cheat, what reasons will she give? Are they good reasons?
Do your students know what it is they will get from music, or literature, or mathematics that makes it better than a pyramid scheme? Clearly not all of mine do, and every student who arrives in a college classroom in this state has been failed by the educational system that has forgotten its essential purpose.

It is not only students, but also teachers and the disciplines themselves that suffer the effects of the Big Lie. Once the primary good of any enterprise has been determined, coherence demands that the practices within it be related to that primary good. Thus have the arts and humanities been called upon to detail their contribution to the primary good of gainful employment. We all know the familiar answers: English teaches people to write, philosophy teaches "applied ethics" or logic and music, we are told, makes you better at math.


What is so disturbing to me about these stock answers is that they make
what are in fact ends in themselves into mere means to "higher" ends. When
an English professor, for example, attempts to shape her discipline into a
means to employment, she has no choice but to recast the reading of Chaucer
and the writing of personal essays as steps on the road toward corporate
business deals and company memos. But of course, few professors ever face this
tension with the directness it deserves. Instead, they unknowingly participate
in the Big Lie by blithely continuing to teach as if nothing in contemporary
liberal arts had changed. And this bait-and-switch only leaves our students
more upset and confused.

Impractical disciplines do have practical justifications. The arts and humanities are often deeply practical -- they crack open the world in all its pleasure and pain and invite us to grapple with the unfathomable, the absurd, the difficult, the truthful. But we need to assert these essential goals, reconnecting practice with pedagogy.

If you believe that the goal of thinking is to write a contract to protect a
client's interests, a program to avoid Y2K mishaps or an efficient
manufacturing scheme for stick-pin production, then -- by all means -- clearly
proclaim it so. (I won't attend your college, but then again, you wouldn't want me.) If, however, you hope to help your students step
outside of their belief structure, think beyond the known or expected,
question their own viewpoint and see from someone else's, then don't talk of
jobs but about the beauty and meaning of learning to think for oneself.

If the ultimate aim of education is to encourage human flourishing, the arts and sciences must embody a vision of human life that transcends the economic. If we are true to this vision, we all have a great deal to gain. But if we refuse to see and convey the distinct fruits of each discipline, our students will never learn to savor them, and we shouldn't be surprised when they drag through classes, calculating their GPAs like so many 401(k) statements.

Michael O'Donovan-Anderson

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