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Race to the Finish

with 2 comments

It’s the start of a long week-end, and for reasons that are too complicated for me to go into here, I’m going to spend it going over and over and over a column by Paul Krugman in an attempt to make sure it’s going to be comprehensible to a group of people who don’t want to read it in the first place.

This is very hard to do.  If you don’t care, you’re not likely to be paying attention.  And most of my students don’t care about the kind of thing Paul Krugman writes about.

This is not a matter of political orientation–they wouldn’t care about “income inequality” from any point of view. 

If they think about it at all, they tend to think it’s both natural and inevitable. 

Those who had heard of the Kelo decision didn’t think there was anything remarkable about it.  Those who hadn’t, having had it explained to them, were upset about only one thing: that the private development project had fallen apart in the end, and the neighborhood left as a burned out hulk.

As if that whole mess would have been all right if only the project had succeeded, the private developer had made a lot of money, and the city of New London had collected its higher taxes.

Most of my students are not conservative in the usual senses of the word.  Most of them support an expansive welfare state, since many of them have families that rely on it. 

Students who do not have families who rely on it oppose it, and that can lead to some interesting conversations in class–the students who oppose welfare state programs often don’t know what they do or what the rules are for obtaining benefits. 

Once they do know what the rules are, many of them make lightning fast changes of position.  as if the punitiveness of the system somehow makes it all right.

My students are, almost universally, conservative socially, which is especially true if they come from South America or the Middle East, which a lot of them do.

All the exceptions I can think of have been white, born in this country, and female–I have no idea why that is. 

I would think it was just that the left assumption of politics-follows-identity for once actually worked, except that I have lots of other kids who fit the description and are still as socially conservative as the kids from Honduras and Guatamala.

The Krugman has the advantage of being short, which I think is going to be absolutely necessary to a first class on how to analyze nonfiction. 

On the other hand, it’s Krugman, which means it’s both absolutely predictable and mind numbingly boring.

I still say that there ought to be a rule somewhere that says that as soon as you say “in the 50s, we had a better standard of living because we taxed people more,” you’re banished from the conversation until you can explain why it was taxing people that did it and not the fact that the US was the only functional industrial power left on the planet after a devastating world war knocked out all the others.

But none of that is going to matter, because my kids won’t care one way or the other. 

The new textbook is full of politics, on the assumption that this will be “relevant” to the kids and speak to their interests and concerns.

What it really speaks to is the issues and concerns of the people who write textbooks, and to an extent to the people who assign them.

This is true even when the textbook editors are being scrupulous about presenting “all points of view,” which the editors of this one tried to do.

And even mostly succeeded.

There is no fiction in this list, and will be none.  Advanced Composition is meant to teach students how to write college papers for upper level courses, and the assumption is that none of those papers will be written for English classes, because after they leave my room they will never take another English class.

That assumption is perfectly true. 

In fact, as I learned on the first night, it is now possible for students to go all the way through college and get a degree without taking a single course in which they are assigned any work of fiction.


Forget Robert’s RRL.  None of these kids will have to struggle for a single moment with any short story or any poem.

What I have available to assign instead are essays, some of them quite long and very complicated. 

The evil side of my brain that just wants to mess with everybody’s head considered beginning by assigning Susan Sontag’s “In Plato’s Cave,” an academic essay on the esthetics and social impact of photography that is impenetrable if you don’t know a lot about–well, Plato, to start with.

And it’s Sontag, so it just gets worse. 

You can complain about this new book on a number of levels, but being not really college work is not one of them.

My students, in the meantime, have their own problems, and those problems are not about to go away.

Most of them have very little money, and they’ve just shelled out close to $100 for a textbook, most of which they won’t even be able to read. 

They don’t want to be in an English class, not because there’s a RRL they don’t like, but because, as far as they’re concerned, it’s completely irrelevant to anything they want to do.

The smartest of them are headed for nursing, radiology, and other medical sub-specialities. An ideal classroom experience for them would be another semester of physiology of pharmacology.

If I ask them why they think they are required to take a course like mine, most of them will be entirely frank, at least toward the end of the semester–this is the way the college makes money, by requiring them to pay for totally useless courses that have nothing to do with their majors.

This is something they both resent and fear. They resent it because they feel they are being ripped off.  They fear it because getting even a B in one of these useless courses can mean being rejected by the nursing program, being forced to downgrade their ambitions from RN to LPN or even lower.

They’re practical people, my students.

Disregard the bottom tenth–the ones who are forced to be there as a condition of parole or probation, the ones with richer than average fathers who are threatening to throw them out of the house if they don’t go to school–and what I’ve got is a group of people for whom school  has always been the same: at the best, a boring waste of time; at the worst, the place they come to be told that they’re stupid.

They have been a revelation to me over the past 13 years, they really have been.

It will always be absolutely incredible to me how common it is with some people in this country to throw their kids out on their own because mom’s got a new boyfriend and they don’t want the company or the kid isn’ bringing home enough money to pay for his keep or…

The number of my kids who are living in their cars instead of in houses is truly amazing. 

So is the commonness of high school teachers (and sometimes guidance counselors) who feel the need to tell kids that they’re just too stupid to go to college, they shouldn’t even try, they’ll just fail.

And when they do better for me and I tell them I think they’re more than bright enough, they don’t change their opinion of who and what they are.  They’re still convinced they’re “stupid.”  They’re just also convinced I “like” them.

And I do. 

I grew up in Fairfield County.  I went to very good and expensive schools, and even when I went out to the Midwest to graduate school to a public university, the public university in question was the high end of that.

I’d never in my life met people like this before I came here.  And in all likelihood, if I ever leave here, I won’t meet people like this again.

Some of what I see would make any sane person want to commit murder.  I think I’d start with the entire faculty of a certain high school in Waterbury.

Some of what I see has made me realize that our practice of calling everybody under 18 a “child” hasn’t change the fact that some people are very dangerous very young, and probably always will be.

Some of what I see is just heartbreaking.

But every once in a while I have a win, and more often than that I have those determined, entirely practical kids who have plotted a course and stick to it. 

So I’m still here.

Written by janeh

August 29th, 2014 at 9:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Race to the Finish'

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  1. The sad thing is, the kids’ attitudes make sense. The beliefs and attitudes reflect the world as they know it, and I’m not even shocked or outraged anymore.

    The kids have spent their lives watching rich, influential people use government the way I’d use a crowbar–and if you think that’s the natural order of things, the only thing upsetting about Kelo IS the waste.

    They’ve watched education up close and personal for years, and they’ve concluded that much of it is an organized rip-off. From what I used to hear in a faculty lounge–decades ago in a state university–I can’t even say they’re wrong–though they may be wrong about particular courses. Students are milk cows, and even to the extent schools are preparing the for something, I’d have to say that colleges and universities are less concerned about having their names on defective products than are the makers of washing machines and refrigerators.

    And if a conservative is a liberal who got mugged, maybe a social conservative is someone who got mugged by those “lifestyle choices” like “self-fulfillment” in the form of drugs and lovers to the detriment of work and family.

    To get kids with different attitudes, you’d have to raise them in a different world. That’s not a bad idea.

    Ah. “My” RRL–not mine! Really and truly not!!–and mostly a high school thing. I use “the” RRL to describe the sort of Platonic reality behind all the not-nearly-different-enough reading assignments and the attitude behind them which started in 7th Grade and finally ground to a halt 13 long semesters later with Freshman Lit & Comp. The same semester was Trig & Analyt–and THEN I was finally really out of high school and could go about preparing myself to earn a living and support a family. Not so different–History major or no–from your very practical people.

    Good luck with them, and I hope whatever they think now, some of them have cause down the road to be grateful they can put an argument together in a coherent form and muster facts to support a case. We need more people who can.

    P.S. MY real proposed RRL–Jane’s seen it–ends with high school. But it covers a far wider range of literature than high school English departments seem comfortable with, and by senior year the students will be picking out themes and reading criticism. There is a serious difference between showing a young person what his options are while giving him some useful interpretive tools and conducing idolatrous worship of the great god Literature. Most of the mixes I know of are heavy on idolatry and seriously light on range and skills.


    29 Aug 14 at 7:01 pm

  2. Its been a half century since I left grad school so I will not comment on the US education system (or lack of one).

    I gave up reading Paul Krugman long ago. He may once have been a Nobel prize winning economist but these days I consider him a public relation hack for the Democrats.

    One thing bothers me. Every once in a while I hear a liberal speaker say “He wants to take us back to the 50s.” I went to high school and University in the 50s. What was so terrible? We didn’t have “White flight” and bankrupt cities and states. We also managed to start building the Interstate highway system. From what I’ve been reading, the present generation is letting that fall apart.


    29 Aug 14 at 11:52 pm

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