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The tyranny of academic mediocrity

Does anyone still believe in education?

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The tyranny of academic mediocrity
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The kids are not all right. This is true in at least two senses.

First, the quality of higher education has declined over the past generation. Educators regularly lament deteriorating academic standards in America’s colleges and universities. This is a topic of perennial conversation in the faculty lounge, at departmental meetings, and among academics on social media. Publications such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education routinely publish essays on the subject. Book-length jeremiads about the absence of critical thinking, the dearth of quality writing, and the overall waning of academic rigor have become a cottage industry.

In all but the most elite academic institutions, fewer and fewer young people now arrive at school prepared to flourish academically. Grade inflation is rampant in high schools, while standardized tests are at best an imprecise measure of academic ability. Greater numbers of freshmen need remedial courses, especially in math and writing. Academic support services are stretched thin. Students are often at their wits’ end because they struggle to keep up. For their part, faculty are frustrated that too many collegians seem incapable of undertaking college-level work.

Second, a growing number of students and their parents have embraced a transactional vision of higher education where the main purpose is job preparation. The students are customers who expect colleges to provide a service. Those students or their parents pay significant money, often after taking out considerable loans, for the sake of job credentialing. When there is some sort of roadblock along the way, such as an inability to earn a desirable grade, it’s the fault of the professor and ultimately the school.

Nearly every faculty member has a story (or ten) about disrespectful emails from students or angry phone calls from parents. “If the course assignments were more reasonable, I would’ve passed the class.” “Dr. Smith doesn’t like my son and that is why he failed the course.” “You have to give me a ‘B’ in this class, or I will lose my scholarship.” “I came here to play ball, and if you fail me, I will lose my eligibility.” “I thought this was a Christian college—where is the grace?” (We hear that last one a lot at my university.)

Sometimes, these two senses collide, resulting in controversy. Such is the case with Maitland Jones. According to a recent article in the New York Times, Professor Jones is a distinguished scholar who retired following a career at Princeton University. He authored a widely adopted textbook in the field of organic chemistry. Many of his students are preparing for careers in medicine. In other words, he is exactly the sort of professor you would expect—and even want—to be challenging in the classroom.

Some courses and even entire disciplines are difficult to master. Not every student is cut out for every course of study.

Since his retirement, Jones has been teaching organic chemistry on contract at New York University. Last spring, almost 25 percent of the students in the class signed a petition alleging the material was too difficult when they failed to pass the course. Jones stood by his high standards. Many other students and most of his departmental colleagues defended him. However, the university’s administration disagreed. The students who failed were allowed to withdraw retroactively from the course, effectively wiping the failure from their record. The administration declined to renew Jones’s contract for this academic year.

To be sure, having unreasonable expectations is a mistake more often made by new instructors trying to prove themselves than by seasoned faculty with years of experience in the classroom. By all appearances, Professor Jones was a conscientious instructor rather than a recalcitrant curmudgeon. He was pedagogically creative. He adjusted the course requirements and revised the assessments to try to serve students as effectively as possible. He was sensitive to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student learning. In the end, none of this was good enough. Too many students complained. The administration sided with the students. This is the tyranny of academic mediocrity.

It’s important that colleges and universities provide adequate academic support services to help students succeed. Many schools are under-resourced in this area, to the detriment of student learning. But increased student support should not come at the expense of academic rigor. Some courses and even entire disciplines are difficult to master. Not every student is cut out for every course of study. This is self-evidently true and ought to be uncontroversial.

Higher education should matter, not just for career preparation, but for intellectual formation. In every discipline, faculty need to stretch students intellectually, preparing them for success beyond college—regardless of their career aspirations. Administrators need to support the faculty rather than cravenly siding with disgruntled students and angry parents. Students deserve more than academic mediocrity. They deserve an education.

Nathan A. Finn

Nathan A. Finn serves as provost and dean of the university faculty at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C. He is a research fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and writes widely on Baptist history and thought and Christian higher education.

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