They can’t read Foster Wallace or Didion or Baldwin.
They can’t read the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights.
They can’t read Lincoln or King or Morrison.
They come to Foothills Community College with big-box dreams, which they pay for in advance with shaky credit.
When they leave, they are sometimes angry or sad but not awake; their illusions are cracked, not shattered.
This is all so wrong.
But they keep on coming.
The open-admissions idea, an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, opened college doors to thousands of hopeful undergraduates – young people whose earlier schooling and/or life experiences had not directed them to the academic track, but whose developing sense of their own potential drew them toward a dream of higher education.
The idea had an antecedent in the GI Bill, a post-World War 2 initiative that invited veterans to enroll in college at public expense, and so brought countless would-have-been factory workers into the white-collar and professional worlds.
It also gave veterans the option of not enrolling.
And many chose not to enroll.
Content with their lives (strong unions, good wages, great benefits, affordable mortgages, new cars every few years, and pretty good schools for the kids) they stayed working class, stayed tuned, and quietly stockpiled cash for their golden years.
Open-admissions offered similar opportunities to a new generation, a new demographic, the children of those who had been denied their rightful place in that earlier scenario on the basis of race.
It made sense; it was timely; it worked. For awhile.
But higher education opens the door to critical thinking, and before long, the critiques from within had begun.
Minority students, not all of them beneficiaries of the open admissions policy, were nonetheless perceived as disadvantaged, underprepared, and poor. They resented that.
Then some traditional-demographic students, perceiving their minority classmates in precisely those terms, stumbled on the idea of “reverse discrimination,” and they resented that.
Right about the time those two groups were getting solid (black guys with brains and a grievance; white guys with brains and a grievance) another demographic swarmed through the gates: women with brains and a grievance.
The resulting discord is way too complicated to describe in a single diary.
But its legacy continues in the ever-metastasizing culture wars, and one of its most unfortunate outcomes is the breakdown of public education.
Thirty-some years later, the Foothills freshmen roll in every August, bright-eyed and ready for adventure. Their common dreams are (in large part) as follows: they will graduate; they will become crime-scene investigators or fashion designers; they will become rich and famous; they will then turn 26.
Those who have been ill, or witnessed illness, intend to become physicians or nurses or scientists. Those who have been arrested or seen people arrested expect to be lawyers or state troopers.
And those who have grown up in foster care, or in families torn apart by addiction, plan to become counselors.
But they cannot read.
And they cannot focus.
They cannot sit still and listen, and they have no experience with being asked (in any meaningful way) to do so.
And when we ask them to read dense, necessary texts, and to discuss the contents of those texts, and to write, in turn, dense texts of their own, they resent that.
And it’s not because they’re simple.
And it’s not because they’re slow.
And it’s not because in our day, we didn’t have cable or the Internet or anything better to do than read our schoolbooks.
I think it’s because, actually, we’ve got too many cooks in the educational kitchen, and for about 30 years they’ve been drinking way too many martinis from that pitcher on the drain board.
So here’s what happened.
Before this party train rolled out of the station, American elementary schools were predictable and similar.
Some were richer or poorer, but in general, first graders read about Dick, Jane, the parents, the cat, and the dog. In the pictures, humans were white, dwellings single-family, mothers kept house in high heels and dresses and fathers wore fedoras to work.
They didn’t look like most people’s families.
What mattered, in Grade One, was that every child learned to read the words printed underneath the pictures.
There was a chapter that went something like this:
“Spot has the ball.”
“Look! Look! Look!”
I read it in Catholic school.
My best friend read it in public school. My cousins in the Bronx and my mother’s friend’s daughter in San Diego read it in their schools. My college friend who went to the school for Negro kids in Jackson, Mississippi read it, too.
We all thought it was a dumb story.
But we all could read it, sometime before mid-September in our first grade year.
Likewise, in third grade we memorized the multiplication tables, and in fifth grade we learned all the states and their capitals, the basics of regional economies, and more than we wanted to know about the Civil War and the industrial revolution.
We had quizzes all the time, and tests on Fridays. We memorized stuff. We had memorization contests. Some memorized more than others. But there was a baseline, and not meeting it meant repeating a grade. And nobody repeated a grade.
In seventh grade we got a sketchy introduction to the origin of babies, and in high school, we either learned to type or took up a foreign language.
In other words, we had a core curriculum. Not any more.
Today, some first graders learn to read by phonics (the Dick and Jane system). Others learn by whole language. You can pretty much guess which schools do which if you understand the simple fact that Chomsky had a hand in starting the whole language movement, and phonics is viewed as the traditional approach to teaching reading.
Most young kids are taught that people live in families. You might assume that by age six, they would just know that much, but it gets better. Some learn that families take various forms. Others learn that families start with one man and one woman. Thus, the culture wars enter the social studies curriculum.
It goes on; families live in communities.
Some learn that communities are diverse, that communities sometimes expand and become tribes or nations, that tribes or nations have interests and agendas, and that the world is, well, complicated.
Others learn to understand history as the story of their school’s dominant ethnic or religious group Against the World.
Some kids learn the states and their capitals, the basics of regional and global economy, and more than they want to know about human sexuality, drugs, addiction, and obesity.
Others learn to spy on their neighbors.
Some read a little bit of Shakespeare in high school. Others watch the video of Crash and read themed novels written expressly for teens who will have to write themed essays about novels on standardized tests.
Very few learn vocabulary, spelling, grammar, geography, math facts, what Lincoln did, or that Dr. King was a recent historical figure. Fewer know when to use to instead of too, or there instead of their.
It would take a considerable psychic talent to know for certain what the world will be up to in ten or twenty years, and how young people might best prepare to survive and thrive in it.
But we have reached a point where the option of not enrolling in college is on life support, where too many unskilled jobs require post-secondary credentials. Yet students arrive at college so ridiculously inconsistently prepared as to be unteachable, at least in groups.
In any time or place, kids, for the most part, are smarter than a lot of people think. An orderly K-12 curriculum, consistent across schools and geography, that sets them up with the skills of literacy, numeracy, and reasoned thought is something most kids can manage, if given the chance.
For all our good intentions, during the past few decades, too many have not had that chance.
(Copyright 2011 by the author)