Most students enter college barely able to string three sentences together—and they leave it that way, too. With protracted effort and a rhapsodically engaged instructor, some may learn to craft a clunky but competent essay somewhere along the way. But who cares? My fellow humanists insist valiantly that (among other more elevated reasons) writing humanities papers leads to the crafting of sharp argumentative skills, and thus a lifetime of success in a number of fields in which we have no relevant experience. But my friends who actually work in such fields assure me that most of their colleagues are borderline-illiterate. After all, Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook Friendster profile bragged “i don’t read” (sic), and look at him.For this she has been pilloried. Quoting only from some of my Facebook friends:
It struck me that the author of the first of these comments, and both the people who liked it, are very well paid, tenured professors, and that the author teaches at a school with unusually good students. Part of Schuman's point is that she isn't paid enough to do the hard work of teaching mediocre students how to write. So there's that. But let me get out of the way the criticisms that seem accurate and then move on to what Schuman gets right, or at least is right to bring up for discussion.
Of course she's bitter. See here, for instance, if you want to know more about that. Selfish? I don't see evidence for (or against) that here. I think he means lazy, but there is reason to believe that's not true. See here, for instance (worth looking at anyway, as it's a response to some of the misguided pillorying (and for another response to that see here)). Does she seem to miss the point of what college should be about? I don't think so. One of her points is that college is not what it should be. More on that below. She does generalize, of course, and simplify, and she has not tried literally everything. But she has tried more than you might think from just reading that one essay (see the last two links above in this paragraph).
So what is she right about? She's right that a surprising number of students manage to get into college despite being more or less illiterate. In graduate school, when I was at a very highly regarded "public Ivy" university, I taught students who apparently could not write a single sentence without a grammatical mistake in it. I'm told by a colleague that we have students here (in a college that has produced two Rhodes scholars in the last fifteen years) who cannot comprehend a newspaper editorial. That is, given an editorial in the Wall Street Journal they were unable to read it with enough comprehension to answer even the most basic questions about it (like: what is it about?, which side of the debate does it support?, etc.). At less prestigious schools these problems must be even worse. If it were one or two special cases that would be one thing, but it isn't. There are a lot of these people. The obvious response would be to admit fewer illiterate students, to help those who can be helped as much as possible if they are admitted, and to flunk those who are admitted but don't respond well to the help available.
This doesn't happen. If colleges and universities did not admit illiterate students then they might not have enough students to stay in business. They certainly wouldn't be able to field competitive sports teams or to keep alumni with illiterate children happy. Once the academically weak students are in they cannot be flunked out because attrition is bad for a school's US News & World Report ranking. And professors who give Fs and Ds aren't popular. Unpopular teachers don't get tenure at teaching schools. And unpopular majors have their departments shut down. Unpopular adjuncts, of course, just get fired. Everyone must be kept happy, but there is no incentive for anyone to help students learn how to read and write. Or almost no incentive.
Here's what we do at my school. Every student takes two semesters of composition and then two more writing-intensive courses. There's a Writing Center to help students with problems, but the people there don't proofread student papers, they only give general advice and instruction. Any other writing that students have to do is up to individual professors, as long as their department heads approve of what they are doing, and as long as what they do is deemed good enough to get tenure. Teaching people how to write is not something most of us have been trained to do, it isn't in our job description, it takes time away from teaching our subjects and doing research, and it isn't what students want. There is no incentive to do it, in other words. And writing-intensive courses require a lot of writing, but they are not courses in composition. Papers need not be graded on anything so mundane as grammar or spelling, and these courses are not taught by people with any training in the teaching of composition. I mention all this because I suspect it is pretty typical, not to take a dig at my school. In short, the only courses that students have to take that are aimed at improving their writing are those two first-year composition courses, and as far as I can tell it isn't possible to teach students how to write in that time.
Schuman's suggestion is that professors teaching required (but, presumably, non-composition) courses should not assign traditional essays in their courses because it will just be an exercise in frustration. I think she has a point. The conclusion I draw is not that those professors should not assign essays, but that everyone else should assign them too. And we should be prepared to give Fs to the students she describes who simply don't turn major assignments in. That means not caring so much about popularity and rankings. Which means caring about education, not money. Which means it isn't going to happen. But if the schools we work for don't care about education, why should some professors work hard to educate when many of their colleagues don't bother with the more onerous parts of the job, and when they aren't being compensated by their employers for doing it? Shit is fucked up and bullshit, to coin a phrase. And that, I take it, is Schuman's point.