Columnist Susan Wozniak questions whether schools are serving next generation


Published: 9/21/2017 8:22:19 PM

September is the traditional back-to-school month, which makes it a good time to ask whether schools — from kindergarten to college — are serving the next generation.

I was a member of the class of 1969 and, like other women of my generation, I faced parental opposition to my attending college. I knew women who were struck or disowned because they chose education over immediately entering the work force.

As an adjunct professor, I heard from students whose stories were the opposite. They didn’t want to go to college. Their parents made them.

My daughter, who, like me, tested as reading at the college level in the sixth grade, said at 14, “I don’t want to go right on to college after 12 years of school.” “Then don’t,” I answered. We examined alternatives based on her interest in languages. She went to France for a wonderful year as an au pair.

Her brother, who envisioned studying biology, worked at the New England Aquarium during his gap year.

While teaching remedial writing at a community college, I saw students with third-grade reading levels. About one-fourth of them could not find the verb in a sentence. Some just needed more time. Others had behavior problems. I had a group of boys who I stood next to while lecturing to keep them quiet and female students who spent the class texting.

Many, perhaps most, simply were not prepared. I opened each remedial class with the question, what is a sentence? One girl answered, “Four words.”

When I taught “freshman comp,” at both two- and four-year schools, I saw not just a reading lag but a basic information gap.

Of course, school is just not about memorizing data. However, there are definitions and concepts — economic, philosophical, legal — and certain milestones in history and science that should be known.

I developed an anonymous questionnaire, distributed on the first day of class. I asked what is a(n) editorial, feature story, news story, character, setting, plot, theme. Out of the 40 (or more) students each semester, sometimes just one could define an editorial, although almost all could define a news story. One student knew what a feature story is. Everyone could identify character and most knew what a theme is. Many, at least one-third, confused plot and setting.

When I taught writing about politics and religion in America, I asked students to identify Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation, American exceptionalism, the Enlightenment. Of the 20 students, about four knew Luther and the Reformation. No one knew the last two.

Science Daily, a website which repackages data, claims 68 percent of two-year college students and 40 percent of enrollees at four-year schools are taking remedial classes. The data is old and questionable as many four-year schools deny having remedial classes.

There were no remedial classes when I entered college.

Remedial classes often do not work. A community college, eager to raise the graduation rate, attempted to solve the completion problem by removing a bridge class between remedial and college writing, then used its curriculum as the curriculum for the first college writing class (ENG 101). The curriculum for English 101 then became the curriculum for the second composition (ENG 102) class. In other words, it diluted the standards.

A four-year college banned the use of fiction in freshman composition classes. But, there are parallels between a research paper in literature and a research paper in the social sciences.

Think what students traditionally wrote about novels in the 1960s and earlier. Apply that method to the range of human knowledge. Papers in all subjects can be written about how the personalities of leaders affect their fields, just as one writes about a character in a novel. The plot is a time line of events, or the creation of a law, or the movement of soldiers on the battle field. Aren’t themes found in political movements or, for that matter, business plans?

More to the point, why would a university throw out an approach to learning? On a visit to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, I was approached by a couple. We chatted easily until they told me their son was majoring in computer programming but they did not understand why he had to “waste time” in classes outside his major. I told them that writing teachers also teach problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. They physically stiffened and wished me a good day.

The failure of remedial classes has come to the attention of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). It suggests changes to be conducted at the college level. It also asks for more data which will be applied to developing those programs.

Reading the NCSL proposal, I remembered “old saws” about “closing the barn door after the horse is out.” Those kids were given diplomas. Solving the problem once they’re launched does little to help them.

Nor is lowering standards helpful. In fact, if a college is not presenting college material, should it continue to be certified and grant degrees?

Susan Wozniak, of Easthampton, is a retired journalist and writing professor who writes a monthly column.


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