For the past semester, I've been teaching Freshmen writing (composition). I hadn't taught it in a while (2 years), but I was especially interested in teaching a "frosh comp" this semester because Brian's daughter started college this year, and I was curious to see what the kids her age looked like, thought like.

I have learned several things about them: I have learned that no one has taught them history; even the "history" that they've lived through (the events of the last 5-10 years) is more or less mysterious to them. I have learned that they violently reject being made to read slowly and carefully and that they are inclined to read entire essays without looking up a single word, or re-reading even once (or reading the essay all the way to the end once) even though failure to do so means they don't understand the essay and do abysmally when they're asked to respond in writing. This blows me away because it means they are comfortable living in a mental landscape of unfinished thoughts and half-considered views, of partial understanding based on assumptions -- that in the end are not correct, but they'll never know that -- a mental landscape of ignorance masquerading as assumption: they are very much inclined to see a text as what they assume it will be (the actual ideas presented, be damned), and they always assume it will be something very boring. I mean, I might not mind them just "making stuff up" so much if what they made up were interesting and original. But it is a sad world they live in, where ideas are shallow, indistinct, and unoriginal. 

Very much related: I have learned that essentially none of my students came into my classes able to identify the subjects and main verbs of their own sentences. (When I quizzed them on this, and yes, I gave them a week of warning, 3 students got it right out of two classes -- which is about chance. Later tests showed the students who got it right the first time couldn't come through consistently.) My students were labeling anything "subject": prepositions, random words from subordinate clauses, the verb, anything. This is a basic bit of linguistic understanding it is necessary they have, frankly, just so that they may be taught more things. It is difficult to impossible for me to explain to them the errors and awkwardness they need to avoid in their writing if they don't understand what I mean when I say "subject" and "verb" (let alone, "preposition" or "clause"). Nor can they understand ideas expressed in writing that rises above elementary structures, writing with any nuance. In this sense, their educations have been retarded since elementary school.

One of the texts they were assigned this semester (as part of a campus-wide reading project) was Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed -- a book written at an 8th grade reading level. A minority of students acknowledged that it was an "easy read," but a majority found it difficult. And trust me, this book is about as basic a read as they come. But they found it difficult.

The main thing I've learned about this group of young adults, though, is that I like them. They are an interesting group of people. They are both hopeful beyond reason and cynical beyond comfort. They have been done wrong by the only education system they'll ever get, but they themselves are not deficient. And they are not, as a group, very timid: they are outspoken, in fact, often just plain LOUD, and they are very open to ideas, once they understand them. (One would guess that in a world as devoid of ideas as theirs is, ideas that break the understanding barrier would hold particular power -- word to your propagandist.) Yet the truth remains that the average young adults entering the world today (I'm sure your Harvard and Stanford freshman classes look different) are less prepared than ever: worse, their level of preparation fell off, in many cases, some 10 years ago or so -- and so they are not only under-prepared, they are bored into a state of stubborn torpor, a state so stubborn they must be shocked into noticing that they are now, in college, actually being challenged.

Of course, not all teachers will try to shock them. In fact, many teachers will shake their heads sadly and decide it is time to -- once again -- dumb down the material. Make that test take-home or open-book/open-note or online, or based only on material that was hand-fed to them in class. And the students will roll through half-comatose, barely registering the fact that they've taken the class at all. Or, we can do the harder, more important thing: we can make them realize that they live in a world of ever-expanding knowledge and wider-encompassing ideas, a world that is interconnected and full of talent and accomplishment, and that they can be a part of that, but that being a part of it means changing the way you think, and the way you think about the world. 

I believe this is a natural stage in the evolution of a society that has passed its peak: the hard-workers who got us somewhere are dead or dying. Their children, who benefitted from a strong education and a sense of entitlement did very well. Their children's children, whose educations faltered but whose sense of entitlement grew to fill the space left behind, did a good job of lowering our standards and shifting our values, so that even politicians vying for the leadership of our nation were judged on whether or not you'd want to have a beer with them. And now there are these kids: the great grandkids of "the greatest generation." They have neither an education nor much of a sense of entitlement -- nor do they have a sense of the stakes they're gambling with. They're just bored. It's our job to wake them up.

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