What's Wrong With Students: A Guest Post by Dennis Fried
By Bryan Caplan
I just read your article in Atlantic magazine and was blown away by the
brutal honesty displayed there, especially coming from someone whose career depends on the very system being criticized. I
taught philosophy at several public and private colleges and universities in the 70s, and I chose to leave the
field in 1980 because of the degradation in education that was taking place even then. I often said that, in my experience,
out of a class of thirty students only about five would normally possess the minimum requirements for a college student: the ability to read and write with competence, and a modicum of intellectual curiosity.
I clearly remember two moments that crystallized for me my decision to leave
Appalled and shocked by the illiteracy displayed in my students’ papers, I once
began a class (comprised of freshmen through seniors) by writing on the board three words: cats, cat’s, cats’. I
then asked if anyone could explain the difference. About ten seconds elapsed before one (very brave) student raised her hand,
began “I think …” and then proceeded to explain the difference correctly. I said, “This is third grade stuff. Why
do most of you not know it?”
Several said they were never taught it. I then asked, “Didn’t your high
school teachers correct this sort of thing on your papers?” to which several responded, “We never had to write any
papers in high school.”
“What did you do in English class?” I asked. Answers: Listened
to records, watched videos, talked about movies and current events.
Second crystallizing event. I had a young man in my Intro to Philosophy class
who got so little right on his mid-term exam that it was hard to believe, even more so because he attended class, stayed
awake, and seemed to take notes. So I asked him to come in to see me. I asked to see his notes, and they seemed to be hitting
the main points. I was stumped.
Well, maybe he just didn’t study for the exam. So I asked him if he had.
“Oh, yes.” A “yes” with conviction. I don’t know what
prompted me to ask the follow-up, but I did: “How long would you say you studied?”
“Well, the night before, I studied probably pretty close to an hour.”
And with that the scales fell from my eyes.
“An hour? Do you realize that when I was in college it was common to start
studying for big exams a week or more before?”
“Gee,” he said.
And, as your article and other sources make very clear, in the past thirty-plus
years it’s only gotten worse.
In any case, with no irony intended, I wish you the best of luck!
Dennis Fried (Osprey, Florida)