Wednesday, September 10, 2008

On Stupidity

by Thomas Benton

The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 1 and September 5, 2008

There are some hefty slams at conservative politics in these articles, but I encourage you to muscle past them if necessary to hear his perspective. If you care about education, if you are working with children to equip them for the future, you'll find food for thought.

Part I: A cartload of recent books suggests that it's time to reverse the customer-service mentality plaguing academe:

"The abilities and attitudes of students affect my life on a daily basis. It is my job, as I see it, to combat ignorance and foster the skills and knowledge needed to produce intelligent, ethical, and productive citizens. I see too many students who are:
  • Primarily focused on their own emotions — on the primacy of their "feelings" — rather than on analysis supported by evidence.

  • Uncertain what constitutes reliable evidence, thus tending to use the most easily found sources uncritically.

  • Convinced that no opinion is worth more than another: All views are equal.

  • Uncertain about academic honesty and what constitutes plagiarism. (I recently had a student defend herself by claiming that her paper was more than 50 percent original, so she should receive that much credit, at least.)

  • Unable to follow or make a sustained argument.

  • Uncertain about spelling and punctuation (and skeptical that such skills matter).

  • Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are vaguely understood.

  • Increasingly interested in the social and athletic above the academic, while "needing" to receive very high grades.

  • Not really embarrassed at their lack of knowledge and skills.

  • Certain that any academic failure is the fault of the professor rather than the student."

Part II: Exactly how should we teach the 'digital natives'?

"Essentially I see students having difficulty following or making extended analytical arguments. In particular, they tend to use easily obtained, superficial, and unreliable online sources as a way of satisfying minimal requirements for citations rather than seeking more authoritative sources in the library and online. Without much evidence at their disposal, they tend to fall back on their feelings, which are personal and, they think, beyond questioning.

In that context, professors are seen as peevish bureaucrats from whom students need to extract high grades on the road to a career in which problems with writing and critical analysis will somehow not matter."

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