City Journal Winter 2016

Current Issue:

Winter 2016
Table of Contents
Tablet Editions
Click to visit City Journal California

Readers’ Comments

Jerry Weinberger
Fill In the Blanks « Back to Story

View Comments (34)

Add New Comment:

To send your message, please enter the words you see in the distorted image below, in order and separated by a space, and click "Submit." If you cannot read the words below, please click here to receive a new challenge.

Comments will appear online. Please do not submit comments containing advertising or obscene language. Comments containing certain content, such as URLs, may not appear online until they have been reviewed by a moderator.

Showing 34 Comment(s) Subscribe by RSS
As I understand it, NCLB was designed to force schools that paid scant attention to their ill-prepared minority students to take their obligation to all their students seriously. I have no doubt it has failed miserably---student achievement in K-12 continues to erode, especially among minority students (Asians largely excepted). The failure of students to read either for entertainment or for information and understanding is very old. I remember when I was in the 4th grade most of my classmates did not read what was assigned, and when they did read they did not comprehend---except those fortunate few who had been read to and were in the habit of reading from before school age. The situation continued through high school. My guess is that American children who are not ready to read, not in the habit of reading, and not able to make sense of what they read make up a greater portion of the student population now than any time in the last century---and, unlike their counterparts from a hundred years ago, they have no practical skills or grasp of the world's demands to compensate for their ignorance.

It has been long true that undergraduate education is in decline, in part due to diminished standards for admission and lower thresholds for certification of achievement, all caused by the influx of ill-educated high school graduates. At every level this is the result of liberal demands that institutions of learning be inclusive even to the detriment of those they are supposed to benefit. In preparatory education government programs such as NCLB are understandable attempts to correct a situation created by the first assumption that ‘government has the answers’. We who are in touch with reality know it does not. If Americans want to help new generations acquire knowledge and understanding, then the politically inspired ideas of ‘social justice’ (redistribution of wealth) and ‘cultural fairness’ (the belief that the achievements of western culture are at best no more respectable than any other tradition) must cease to be the objects of education and be replaced with a curricula emphasizing knowledge and understanding. The toxic propaganda now commonly delivered from 1st grade through graduate school is purposed to convince Americans that liberty consists of freedom from responsibility rather than the freedom to invent and work in the interests of one's self, one's family, and one’s community. It is, after all, these personal interests education is supposed to enable and enhance.

As for Professor Weinberger's disappointment that his students do not take seriously his request that they read Hobbes's and Locke's major works, perhaps all of them would benefit more from careful, articulate summary analyses of those lengthy and digressive books (at least in the case of Locke) than from pouring over their details and attempting to perceive the differences between their views of Man and the World. The essence of teaching is to convey the distilled meaning of study and experience, not to torture one’s students as one has been tortured in a rite of passage.
Roy T. Matthews June 29, 2011 at 8:45 AM
Jerry is a friend and former colleague at MSU. I was in the Humanities (a gen ed program) and History Depts. I saw this coming before I retired in 1996. But the situation is now worse. Jerry covers many reasons and another one is that many presidents of universities and colleges now speak of customers (not students). The young people want a degree, not an education and administrators have encouraged such attitudes. This frame of mind manifests itself throughout higher ed. To me, these attitudes and changes are consequences of consumerism and materialism in a rampant capitalist society.
Roy T. Matthews June 29, 2011 at 8:43 AM
Jerry is a friend and former colleague at MSU. I was in the Humanities (a gen ed program) and History Depts. I saw this coming before I retired in 1996. But the situation is now worse. Jerry covers many reasons and another one is that many presidents of universities and colleges now speak of customers (not students). The young people want a degree, not an education and administrators have encouraged such attitudes. This frame of mind manifests itself throughout higher ed. To me, these attitudes and changes are consequences of consumerism and materialism in a rampant capitalist society.
Very interesting, scary perspective. I suppose this is just one of the unintended consequences of tying rewards and penalties to simple metrics.

At the same time, there seems to be a divergent trend of academic grinders - the "organization" kids who bring textbooks on family vacations and schedule an extra AP class rather than having a lunch period.

Perhaps education, like so much else it seems, is becoming heavily dualistic?

(FWIW, I was at MSU in the late 1980s, and studied English politics with yourself and Prof. Press during the 1988 Poli Sci in London program. Even during such a "lark" I recall you assigned nothing but papers and essay exams - no multiple choice!)
Kevin W. Cornell June 13, 2011 at 5:38 PM
As a college student, I agree with the last paragraph. I believe government intervention turned the academy into a collosal big-business machine, that the damage is largely irreversible, and that, as Charles Murray has said, many people who attend college simply should not be there and wouldn't be there if a college degree wasn't seen as a prerequisite to work a regular nine to five. The misallocated time, energy and capital invested in this big business machine is beyond regrettable. The United States can never return to its position of world prominence without a fullfledged demolition of its farcical educational system. It's time for conservatives to become revolutionaries on this matter.
In defense of your A student with the "never-read" book. I love my books to pieces, sleep with them in my bed, underline them and fill the margins with notes.

When my husband gets a new paperback, he uses his special "book-opening method" so that he can read it multiple times without cracking the spine, he always uses bookmarks of a size and shape designed to protect the book's integrity, and he only makes notes in notebooks, to keep the text 'pure' for each new reading.

It's possible that your mysterious A student was just as fanatical as my spouse. And I did have at least one professor who felt that marking up books was a tragedy and took me to task after seeing the state of my Jebb Antigone. (And, looking back, he's right. Those collegiate margin notes really DO annoy and embarrass me today.....

On the larger issue-- I don't think it's just the "Helicopter Parents" --- while teaching high school, I realized that the bulk of the middle and upper class kids of this generation don't remember a time when they weren't in a regimented, institutionalized setting. Most of the kids were potty-trained at age 2 in their daycare center, and spent the rest of their lives on strict schedules with no unpredictability or variation---they can't handle not knowing what comes next.

It was most poignant when the school went to Mass one day and came back to find the highschool building locked and the janitor unreachable. No one had keys, and we had to spend an hour outside on the grass. The kids who HADN'T spent life in daycare pulled out a hackysack and started a game, or pulled out novels and read. (It was a glorious spring day --75 and sunny.)

Most of the kids freaked out. They couldn't enjoy the unexpected freedom because they didn't know what was coming next--what period would we have when we got inside? Would there still be homework? What if we missed TWO periods?????? They literally spent the entire unscheduled break begging for answers from any adult in the vicinity.

These are the kids who you're getting in college classes--they've been in daycare their whole lives. They need lines, rules, and rote. Anything original or unexpected is a crisis.

I thought that you might enjoy reading this article, particularly in light of our recent discussion with Roger Pennyman. Sis
Ayn Marie Samuelson June 09, 2011 at 6:36 PM
The antiquated bureaucratic system has to go. It fails to educate individual students, alienates professional teachers and confounds parental and community input. Even some so-called reformers are part of the political-bureaucratic ed system, as they actually help to enhance the system because they benefit from it.
During research for the book, Exposing the Public Education System, I found similar educational problems throughout the country. We need grassroots support for more democratically run, well-funded community schools, not more federal government and bureaucratic control.
Rebecca Bessette June 08, 2011 at 2:55 PM
Great article! I am an undergraduate at Thomas Aquinas College, a Great Books school in Southern California. All of the homework assignments are readings from original texts. All of the classes are seminars. All of the finals are essays. It's all about learning how to think. I am afraid that when I graduate I will be thrown into a world where my peers know how to fill in the blanks, answer multiple choice questions, and memorize...anything but truly think. I hope that someday colleges and college students all over the country will rediscover the goal of true education.

"Although wonderful films, having some movies to choose from that show academic excellence driving the story would be oddly refreshing."

Then you'll need to confine your selections to films made (or at least set) sometime before 1940. Or maybe look under "Science Fiction" or "Fantasy".
I'm an EFL teacher in China, and from time to time show movies to my college classes. In wanting to use educationally focused films, I've noticed the theme of 'troubled inner-city school kids doing well against the odds' has become dominant. Although wonderful films, having some movies to choose from that show academic excellence driving the story would be oddly refreshing.
Part of the problem is the bureaucracy that runs every level of public education in this country. I'm enduring a "class" this week on teaching to the ELL population in an elementary school district. We've spent 2 days going over the newest revision of standards and objectives written by people who've never spent a moment visiting in a classroom with children, let alone actually attempted to TEACH children. As a teacher, I've heard this week that EVERYTHING I've done for the past 15 years has been wrong, that it's completely my fault that second-language students aren't learning academic English in a short-enough time span, and that if I just fill in the right lesson plan template with the right objectives coded correctly, my students will soar. In a word, bullsh*t.

Idiotic policies are part of the problem. Foolish politicians using public schools to further their own political agendas are part of the problem. Standardized tests are part of the problem. Helicopter parents are part of the problem. Thoroughly disengaged parents who could care less what their kids do between 7:30 and 3:30 are a part of the problem. Spoiled rotten children who are accustomed to having their every whim met on a moment's notice - problem.

There is no magic curricular program or secret code to teaching; it's hard work, dedication and perseverance on the part of a teacher, a student and his or her parents. All 3 parties need to work together to help students succeed without having to be spoon-fed every little morsel of knowledge.

Public education in this country is in a state of emergency. It's horribly disheartening as a teacher and as a parent to see what has happened to our once-fine educational system.
The article discusses a problem that is much more serious than most people realize. Political philosophy students are learning less than they used to, but so are scientific and engineering students. Collapsing bridge anyone? We have graduated from college several decades of students who have no sense of the culture they inherited or of the subject they are supposed to be experts in.

However, standardized testing is much more a symptom than a cause of what is a complex and vexing problem. I retired early five years ago because my students were increasingly unmotivated and unprepared, and almost proud of it. And this was in engineering, a major in which the students used to be known for grinding it out and studying to excess. Standardized testing was barely a blip on their radar.

In my opinion, we must pull back and look at our culture as a whole. Standards are falling, motivation is rare, less is accepted, and honor and integrity are disappearing. K-12 education demands less and less of our students (see studies comparing American students to the world) and universities have had to adapt. If I had maintained my standards, I would have flunked more and more of my students and that was simply not acceptable to the University. The situation is dire, but standardized testing is just a small part of it.
This is an exceptionally thoughtful article. As one who is pondering the possibility of a future in collegiate teaching, I am realizing that this is the current state of the student body. I am (sometimes detrimentally) an overachiever and always assumed that other students studied as hard as I did. The future of the professorship is in flux and articles such as this help to sort the issue instead of just blaming the students or the system. I wonder, how can I be an effective teacher to these students?

Thank you again!
I want to say that I agree with almost all of what you have written. As a mother of a rising college sophomore, however, I do want to comment on the "study guide" issue. While I completely understand that 'teaching to the test' is inappropriate, my son did run into profs last year who expected him to know *everything* they had every spoken in class and *everything* (down to minutiae) from everything assigned as reading material.

And, while he tried, when you attend a school where the "Great Books" are emphasized, which has strong general education requirements, where you are carrying a 6 class load, and where attendance is required in class, that can be a lot of material. A LOT.

So, in such a case, it is very nice at the end if the professors can give the student some handle on what to emphasize in their studying. When all 6 profs want you to know *everything*, it can be very challenging.

BTW, my son has a 3.9 GPA, and has been on the Dean's list both semesters. He *does* try to read everything, and it matters to him that he get an *education*, not just pass (which is why he chose a school that had such intense General Ed. requirements.)
Professor Weinberger's assessment of the education problems in this country are the very reason why I decided to use a combination of private classical education-based schools and homeschooling for my own children. In my military reserve job I work with the best and brightest high school students in the country applying for entrance into one of the academies. Even the top students in the country need remedial English and Math courses when they arrive at school. Something in their educational background is woefully absent. I am currently working on becoming a licensed teacher in the State of VA and am taking courses at a local community college for some of the required coursework. I am very disappointed at the course requirements thus far. Out of nine courses, only two professors require anything beyond memorizing a study guide. Most do not even write their own tests, but opt for the textbook company's canned multiple choice exams. I already have a master's degree from what I consider the "old era" of learning--where you actually have to do work and think critically about the material. As the "old lady" in the classroom, I was also surprised by how many students believe a "C" is a good grade because everyone else got an "F." The students are definitely part of a system that has failed them. I hope to contribute in some way to reversing the "dumbing down" of the learning process, if even only in my small community.

P.S. I am a Michigander by birth and a fortunate recipient of an excellent public school education back in the day when the property taxes helped to fund the school systems. My friends who teach in Michigan say this is no longer the case.
"Is preparing for standardized tests replacing learning?"

No, because there wasn't any learning going on before the standardized test came in, either. There hasn't been any actual learning going on (except by accident) in America's public schools since the early 1960s, and damned little of it in the private schools. There has been lots of indoctrination, psychotherapy (some of it for the teachers) and nutrition counseling. There has been an endless succession of educations fads, most of which replaced methods that worked with theories that didn't. The system has done wonders in imparting self-esteem without ever passing along any skills or knowledge that might *justify* self-esteem. And ever since the products of the first-cohort produced by this system became teachers themselves, the drop-off in actual education to be derived from time in the schools has entered a death spiral. Today's teachers are like faded photocopies of the ones who preceded them, and the generational loss gets worse as each new graduating class of expensively ill-educated morons cycles through the Ed Schools and returns to inflict its own damage on the next group.

The current nosense of NCLB and the tests is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. Unfortunately nothing short of the abolition of public schools and education degrees will ever fix the actual problem. (Hint - hire writers to teach English and scientists to teach science. There are lots of retirees who would be delighted to pass on their knowledge and skills for little or even no pay. Mid-career types and academics might also consider taking a sabbatical year to return to the classroom. If the Educrats and the Unions didn't lock out the competition.)

When I consider where we are and what it would take to rescue today's students, I weep for our nation.
Unfortunately this is definitely the case. There is no trust in education at the local levels and "they" don't understand what it's doing to our populace. Teachers are held accountable for scores, not, you get what you ask for.
I wonder what the percentage is, of people who can follow the author of this articles writing? Not only has life become a Cliffs notes version of literary classics and test taking, but an absurd amount of people don't even read books that they find interesting. Our society is full of people who think Maxim magazine is a great read!
to add further.
i feel the home is the first place to set standards for life. that includes school and work. if no guides are forthcoming then kids are just wild and have no discipline to navigate through life. we see it everyday in the store where the kids are controlling the parents.
this is extremely worrying.
alas we see the results on the streets and in the work place.. i dismay for this country because they are falling behind the world.
Pretty awful situation, although I'm not entirely certain it can all be blamed on standardized tests. How many distractions are there at Michigan State and other schools? The article cites bars, but that is only part of it.

My son just graduated from college. He was in the science program, majoring in biology, and worked like the devil - we would call on Friday and Saturday nights and he would be studying. He had to since he was competing against top quality students, many if not most of them from Asian backgrounds. So, his social life was put aside, for the most part, for four years. His roommates, English majors, watched endless amounts of television, played video games, partied and did as little studying as possible, relying on course outlines. Yet at the end of the day his grades and their grades were comparable, even though their courses included the worst sort of nonsense. One of his roommates is headed on to law school. Based on my own experience in law school, where the use of course outlines substituted for reading textbooks, he should do well.

Perhaps the lesson here is a concerted effort to make the "softer" courses at colleges more like hard science - with more memorization, actual learning of facts
and less analysis. It won't happen for a million reasons. The loss is to the student, ultimately - who will never know the pleasure (yes pleasure) of learning and sense of accomplishment. But one has to ask, where is this all going? What happens when it gets worse, or when the students raised in this environment replace the current teachers at university?

1. All of life is a unending series of tests. 2. The curriculum used to be based on academic standards that required demonstrated levels of proficiency in factual information. 3.Since educational institutions have demonstrated that they are no longer capable of producing teachers that can meet those levels of proficiency, the obvious solution is to change the curriculum to a social conciousness base. 4. When standard tests are introduced to reinstitute the previous fact based curriculum, the educational institutions respond by dumbing down the standard tests. 5. When parents criticize this progression, the response is to further remove the center of power from the parents(or local control) and vest that power in the bought and paid for political elements at the state and federal level.
Having taught at a so-called 'prestigious' university, and from the experiences of my colleagues in the same boat, I can only say that this article is right on the money. The 'smart' kids now are the ones with high test scores who can't necessarily think for themselves. Interesting connecting to NCLB; high-stakes bubble-testing can never be a good thing, if you want students to be *educated*.
Father Joseph, SJ June 07, 2011 at 10:08 AM
Excellent, excellent
I disagree with Weinberger at so many levels, I don’t know where to begin or where I’ll end.

1. He complains that students do not actually read Hobbes and Nietzsche. But the fact is both authors are nearly incomprehensible. To really understand Nietzsche, he has to be read in German, not English. Hobbes uses the English that was current nearly 400 years ago. “Reading” them does not mean you will understand them. It means you will struggle with linguistic complexities, obsolete rhetoric and ponderous prose that massively interfere with understanding what the author is saying. This is an utter waste of time.

If you are or are going to be a specialist in political philosophy, then you definitely should read the originals (and, in the case of Nietzsche, you must have a reading ability in German). But if you’re an undergraduate student, a “summary” rendition of their main ideas is all you really need. (Nietzsche sounds positively silly and long-winded in English).

2. The author has the annoying habit of consistently presenting female students to illustrate his point. This is pandering to the culture of “I’m ok, you’re ok” he presumably is unhappy with. Doesn’t he have any male students that are worth quoting? Any Nordic types at Michigan State? Anybody like me?

3. MSU may be a “terrific institution” but any institution that offer a course such as English 354 - Native American Literature (a course about a non-existent subject) - is worthy of ridicule, in my view. Check out this MSU webpage for a list of “courses” that are, in a word, laughable.

I imagine you can even “major” in “Native American Literature”. And what exactly are you going to do with that? Teach at Window Rock, Arizona at a reservation for the rest of your life? Gimme a break.

I’ve known several of these quacks claiming to be experts in this field with PhDs in some aspect of “Native American Studies”. I always ask them which Native American language they are able to speak? Navajo? Hopi? Ojibwa? I have yet to meet a single one of these frauds who didn’t have an excuse why he can’t even order a cup of coffee in an Indian language. What a joke.

4. Like most professors who deny it (which means most professors), Weinberg’s contempt for his students and his institution and the state of contemporary American “education” is quite palpable if you can read behind his lines. His “subtext” is one of rage. I don’t blame him.
My guess is that much of this fecklessness can be traced to the helicopter parents who micromanage their kids through planned and adult-supervised activities from the cradle to the day they depart for college.
At the University of Connecticut, each fraternity had current copies of every mid term and final exam each semester. They were run off on a mimeograph and one of the offices and it was a pledge's duty to start going through the trash week before mids and finals to get the masters. This began in the early 50's and was still strong when I graduated in 1960.
With Tweeter and Twitter, and other forms of communication I imagine the answere are sent through cyberspace as one takes the exam.
I wonder how much of this is due to NCLB, and how much is really due to the rise of ever-present access to the Internet via phones, etc. With such an ever-present distraction, few people have the patience to read longer works.
Nothing new here -- Unfortunately, I have seen and heard all before. The yearning for the infamous study guide, the BIG question of what they should read to get the right answers - and more. Sad, sad, state of affairs. The dumbing down of American education.

Prof. Weinberger claims, “For the past decade or so, the dominant trend in education reform has been the rigorous use of standardized tests to measure student performance.”

That is incorrect. The, “dominant trend in education reform remains grade inflation, replacement of knowledge and skills with emotion and self-esteem and squandering billions of dollars on Taj Mahal schools while abandoning disciplined learning.

The Prof. glows with, “I’ve enjoyed the undergraduate classroom immeasurably. He might be reminded that professorship was not contrived for “enjoyment” by professors - but teaching youth, which if properly accomplished, including failing laggards – which is often not enjoyable.

Weinberger praises a professor whose, “ … students complained about the unfairness of her attendance policy, which accounted for 10 percent of their grade. Weinberger seems unaware that Students should never be given marks for filling a chair.

Weinberger mentions a woman student. “with a stellar GPA”. He appears unaware that feminist academic indoctrination, opposition to reason and sabotage of ‘the canon,’ subverted humanities and arts education.

Weinberger blames, “helicopter parents,” “a privileged sense of entitlement,” and students who, “want their tickets punched.” He allocates no blame to trendy and shallow curriculum, packing colleges for profit or smug and lazy professors. He warns of, “Still more ominous, though, is the inability of more and more students to tie their own intellectual shoes. Again he allocates no blame to teachers and professors who promoted those dolts from primary to high schools to college to graduation.

Weinberger’s mea culpa: “I’d correctly assume that the students had read the texts more than once and as carefully as could be expected from undergraduates. Should I do that today, I’d probably incite a riot, and perhaps as many as 20 percent of the students would flunk.”

He might display integrity in his professional mission and return on his substantial income, by not promoting incompetents. In the 1970s, my students delivered a pass rate of 70%; by 1996 their failure rate exceeded 64%. After management repeatedly demanded a higher pass rate, I retired early.

According to Weinberger, the true enemy of education is the ‘standardized test’. Such tests – like SAT, GRE, etc. - essentially reveal IQ and indirectly, teacher incompetence and empty curricula. Overwhelming evidence on the frauds of secondary and college education policy may be found in, Robert Weissberg’s “Bad Students, Not Bad Schools” (2010)

If Prof. Weinberger intends to improve the quality of education, he might fail all the slackers and dunces.

Ayn Marie Samuelson June 06, 2011 at 8:06 PM
Prof. Weinberger states that "the bachelor’s degree is becoming the workforce equivalent of a high school diploma." That statement is corroborated by a 2002 high school graduate who was home schooled for three years and is now working on his PhD dissertation in electrical engineering.
Additionally, from my research for the book Exposing the Public Education System, it was easy to find examples of dumbing-down the annual standardized tests and lowering the pass or cut scores so more students could pass, along with examples of cheating on the tests. Further, "teaching" to the tests and practicing taking the tests inhibits real learning and distorts proficiency results. Yet, knowing all this, we are being lead toward national and global standardization in education standards, curriculum and testing. National standardization is occurring through the push of the federal government and Gates/Buffett funding, along with educational elites who are benefiting from the initiative.
Check out the Common Core State Standards in your state that have come down from those noted above. Parents, communities and teachers will see a more one-size-fits-all approach to education. This is not what most Americans want for their children.
Amen and amen! My daughter was in the public school system teaching social studies/geography to 9th graders. After three years she was asked to resign or her contract would be terminated. Reason? Her room was too messy. Real reason? Parents and Administration were upset that she did not follow the worksheet curriculum lock-step. She created interactive geographical and geopolitical projects from scratch, designed to challenge the students to apply what she was teaching them about these systems. Her principal got chewed out by one upset parent who claimed that she was too hard and she did not "like" the students because she did not carry them around on a silk pillow...she actually expected them to study, think and apply knowledge! The scary part here is that she taught in a supposedly stellar school system in Texas.
Enjoyed you article Jerry. The rot begins in elementary school.