Of Hammers, Nails, and “Deficient Students”

Oy, these kids... They don't even know what II plus II is.
Oy, these kids… They don’t even know what II plus II is.

Lately, I’ve been a part of several discussions where faculty colleagues have lamented our students’ unpreparedness for college. And by ‘lately,’ I mean ‘my whole career,’ and by ‘several,’ I mean ‘mind-numbingly constant.’ But recently, though, these discussions seen to have acquired an extra edge of frustration, whether it’s in the articles I’ve been reading online or the meeting and hallway conversations at my own institution. Some of that I can chalk up to end of the semester angst. LOOK AT THESE FINAL ESSAYS DID THEY NOT LISTEN TO A THING I SAID WHO ARE THESE ILLITERATE HEATHENS. Some of it comes from external stressors, like budgetary climates that are only slightly less hostile than Syria. And maybe I’m just in the middle of a weird cluster of anecdotal data. Whatever the reasons, though, recent opinion seems clear: our students are deficient. They don’t know stuff. They’re unprepared. Their high school education blows. They don’t even have basic, functional literacy in math/composition/science/history/whatever field my degree is in and thus is most vital.

I find it hard to believe that the college freshmen of today are worse than those of, say, 1990–mostly because I was a freshman in 1990, and I was awful. But as a historian, I can also attest that how bad the ‘students of today’ are depends on when ‘today’ is: if the observer was a student ‘yesterday,’ then the students of ‘today’ will suck. It’s as sure as the earth’s rotation. As long as there have been students, there have been teachers complaining about students. Plato’s Republic is peppered with complaints about the shortcomings of the rising generation. The Roman Sophist Libanius vividly described the unruly students he confronted in his lectures. Hell, somewhere in Iraq is a buried cuneiform tablet with an Assyrian tutor’s kvetching about the damn kids not being able to recite the epics properly. Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t significant problems that we encounter as educators, nor is it to claim that there aren’t unprepared or under-prepared students matriculating at our colleges and universities. But some folks I’ve heard and read lately make it seem like a rampaging horde of unwashed, illiterate hottentots are streaming onto our campus, their paths lit by the flickering glow of burning algebra textbooks. THEY’RE CLIMBING THE WALLS! DEPLOY THE BURNING OIL! RELEASE THE ALLAN BLOOM!

Enough, I say. This myth of “deficiency” is sloppy logic, bad history, and lazy generalization. In other words, it’s the same thing we would skewer our students for if they did it in a paper.

It’s also poison for teachers.

Pushing all the blame onto students’ being unprepared to succeed in our courses lets us dodge any questions about how we taught the material. Bemoaning their lack of preparation in the basics of our disciplines is the rationale for more prerequisites, which means more courses, which means more FTEs, which means a better argument to the dean for that extra tenure-track line. Painting students as “deficient” lets us treat them with thinly-veiled contempt, and their failures vindicate our defense of all that is virtuous and good in higher education. KEEP THE HOI POLLOI OUT OF MY LECTURE HALL WE DO SMART THINGS HERE.

Abraham Maslow famously observed that if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. Well, if your default characterization of students is that they’re Deficient, your efforts at instruction will only make them more so. How many college faculty lament the lack of respect from their students, but then treat those students as if they wouldn’t trust them with anything sharper than string? Yes, students don’t know everything they need to know for college when they get here. That’s why they’re continuing their education. The important question is: what are we going to do about it? Are you a gatekeeper or a guide? None Shall Pass, or Come With Me And See This?

The Myth of Deficiency is an insidious, seductive untruth. It allows those who should know better to abdicate their responsibility to help students overcome whatever shortcomings they bring with them to college. If you declare that you will only teach students who are perfectly prepared for your classes, be prepared to impart your wisdom to a sea of empty chairs. If additional prerequisites and roadblocks are your go-to curricular move, or if you see your classes as a way to weed out rather than draw in students, ask yourself how you got drawn into your field–and if that’s what you’re offering to this generation of collegians.

If we only taught the students we want, we wouldn’t be teachers. We need to teach the students we have, and help them become the students we want. Instead of deficiency, see room for opportunity. Instead of lamenting shortcomings, remedy them.

Quit looking for nails. Put down the hammer.