I’m totally swamped with a release deadline tonight, but I noticed that Stuart Schneiderman linked to this article earlier today and I thought you might like it. I chose an excerpt that talks about the well-known problem of students attacking TAs and professors after they get poor grades in order to make them change the grade – without doing any make-up work.
This pedagogy of self-esteem developed in response to the excesses of rote learning and harsh discipline that were thought to characterize earlier eras. In Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Mr. Gradgrind, the teacher who ridicules a terrified Sissy Jupe for her inability to define a horse (“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth … ”), was seen to epitomize a soulless pedagogical regime that deadened creativity and satisfaction. Dickens and his readers believed such teaching to be a form of mental and emotional abuse, and the need to protect students from the stigma of failure became an article of faith amongst progressive educators. For them, the stultifying apparatus of the past had to be entirely replaced. Memorization itself, the foundation of traditional teaching, came to be seen as an enemy of creative thought: pejorative similes for memory work such as “rote learning” and “fact-grinding” suggest the classroom equivalent of a military drill, harsh and unaccommodating. The progressive approach, in contrast, emphasizes variety, pleasure, and student interest and self-motivation above all.
It sounds good. The problem, as traditionalists have argued (but without much success), is that the utopian approach hasn’t worked as intended. Rather than forming cheerful, self-directed learners, the pedagogy of self-esteem has often created disaffected, passive pupils, bored precisely because they were never forced to learn. As Hilda Neatby commented in 1953, the students she was encountering at university were “distinctly blasé” about their coursework. A professor of history, Neatby was driven to investigate progressive education after noting how ill-equipped her students were for the high-level thinking required of them; her So Little For the Mind remains well-worth reading. In her assessment:
The bored “graduates” of elementary and high schools seem, in progressive language, to be “incompletely socialized.” Ignorant even of things that they might be expected to know, they do not care to learn. They lack an object in life, they are unaware of the joy of achievement. They have been allowed to assume that happiness is a goal, rather than a by-product.
The emphasis on feeling good, as Neatby argued, prevents rather than encourages the real satisfactions of learning.
Of course, the progressive approach has advantages, not the least of which is that it enables university administrators to boast of the ever-greater numbers of students taking degrees at their institutions. Previously disadvantaged groups have gained access to higher education as never before, and more and more students are being provided with the much-touted credentials believed to guarantee success in the workforce. Thus our universities participate in a happy make-believe. Students get their degrees. Parents are reassured that their money has been well-spent. And compliant professors are, if not exactly satisfied — it corrodes the soul to give unearned grades — at least relieved not to encounter student complaints.
I can remember when I was doing my Masters in computer science a few years back when I was taking a course in Network Security. Somehow, I botched the midterm so badly that I ended up with a 14 out of 20. I was disgusted with myself, and pleaded with the professor to give me something – anything – to help me get my grade back up. He gave me a programming assignment that was harder than the midterm, and it took about 20 hours to do. I gave up my weekend and got it done. He raised my grade. Professors are usually willing to give you a break if you want to demonstrate that you have the knowledge. But when you just go in there and complain to get the grade changed without learning anything, it’s just not right.
When you get out into the real world, either you have the skills, or you don’t. Your transcript doesn’t really matter. It’s rare for interviewers to even look at transcripts anymore. Instead, they want to see what you’ve actually done. I once had to do a 20 hour implementation of a multi-user clustered cache for one interview with a CRM company. I had to pass several interviews before they gave me that independent study, and they looked at my code line by line. It was a lot of code, too. Grades don’t matter in the real world. What matters is what you can do. If you can’t do the job that companies expect, they will find someone else – maybe in another country – who can do it. That’s why students should not put so much emphasis on grades. You’re only cheating yourself if you really can’t do the work.