The Viet Cong Professor

December 14, 2012

I had to register in the Selective Service System, but I think they ended the draft lottery in 1973, the year I graduated from high school.  So I didn’t go to Vietnam.  But it was very much in the news back then, of course, and each decade brings its own new forms of remembering.  For example, I felt that Good Morning, Vietnam was an excellent way to bring that era into the present, circa 1987.  But not everyone seems to have agreed.  America decided that we needed to go into Afghanistan to make the memory fresh once more.  Me, I still prefer the movie.

The title of this post is “The Viet Cong Professor.”  I chose that title because of its connection with the Baby Boomers in ‘Nam, up in their Huey helicopters, watching over their troops on the ground.  We are speaking, here, of the helicopter parent, hovering above their young ones in their undergraduate studies — and of their enemy, the college educator.

Needless to say, there are variations among parents, students, professors, departments, and schools.  What is presented here is not so much a blanket rule as a disturbing theme or tendency.  Among many such persons and places, research and experience suggest, there are ample causes for concern about the difference between an alternate (i.e., former or hypothetical) universe and the one in which we live.

In an alternate universe, the educator would be the parent’s friend as well as the child’s benefactor.  That would be a universe where parent and teacher agreed that actual learning was the main thing.  If Johnny couldn’t read or write or calculate very well, his grades would say so; his parents would be concerned for his success in life; and there would be efforts to rectify the situation.  In our universe, by contrast, the main thing is the sheepskin.  It does not matter what Janie learned in college; what matters is that she possesses a diploma testifying that she surely must have learned something, along with a high GPA to show that she’s smart.  Here, an instructor who would give anything other than an A is an adversary.

I don’t mean this as a complaint about grade inflation.  We’re well beyond that.  Grade inflation is where an instructor who should have given a 65 gives a 73 instead.  We are in a different paradigm.  With due regard for variations among schools and fields, we now occupy a space in which students can receive high grades without even having basic skills — without, for instance, the ability to write a simple paper or do elementary-school arithmetic.  These days, a college degree need not have anything to do with learning.  It may, in fact, represent a retrograde level of training, insofar as it can teach people that the most important skills are those that involve fooling the prof, mastering shortcuts to what the exam will cover, maybe cheating a bit.  Such behavior doesn’t contribute to knowledge of the subject, but it certainly can contribute to a better grade — and that’s what it’s all about, right?

A conversation with a student from a foreign country once reminded me of what it had been like for me (even in the late 1970s) as an undergraduate at Columbia College.  She told me the grades she had received on the midterm and on various assignments, in a class that both of us were taking.  I said it sounded like she was going to get a B for the semester.  This brought her to tears.  Further discussion revealed that she had worked very hard, diligently reading and sometimes re-reading the voluminous assigned texts each week.  She had no doubt learned a great deal.  In her homeland, such learning might have qualified her for an A.  But the grades for that course were not based on that sort of knowledge.  They were based on the sophistication of her American classmates, who were able to read the instructor and know, pretty clearly, that most of the assigned reading was nonessential.  Grades would largely be based on students’ attention to the professor’s pet topics, emphasized in his lectures.  Students who homed in on that limited amount of material gave the professor the impression that they were right on his wavelength.  It was like being among a bunch of actors, all of whom could deliver a convincing portrayal of life on an assembly line — and then here’s this one poor schmuck who actually does work on an assembly line, but just doesn’t look the part.

We can’t be surprised at what happens when students are socialized to this sort of learning environment.  After such training, it can feel alien to land in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) course.  Not that there’s not grade inflation there too; but putting on a good show in such disciplines tends not to be very relevant.  You have to work, keep up, and actually learn something.  Those of us in other parts of academe don’t necessarily have much experience in that.  It can feel inappropriate.

Many successful businesses observe the adage, “The customer is always right.”  That adage doesn’t declare the intelligence of every cockamamie assertion issuing from a customer’s lips.  It just means that, if you want people to keep giving you money, you have to treat them as though their goofy ideas were brilliant.  The university, as a business, cannot afford to alienate its customers.  If parents want grades of A for all of their children, in all of their classes, that’s substantially what they’ll get.  For the helicopter set, college is a Disney movie:  there may be some drama, but it always turns out well in the end.

So, to return to the Viet Cong analogy:  imagine what happens when someone knocks very firmly on that regime in Saigon or Kabul — when someone puts this young person to the test, that is — and yells, “Hey — is this thing solid?”  In the end, Washington cannot relocate itself to South Vietnam, and the helicopter Boomer, stage-managing everything to maximize his/her offspring’s “success,” ultimately cannot transplant him/herself into the student’s life.  Not surprisingly, we have these reports of young people who have no idea of how to stand on their own feet, take responsibility for their own success, and cope with those inevitable times when it does not all go swimmingly.

Some suggest that employers will simply have to adapt to this kind of worker.  But the employer can’t be a nonstop handholder.  Life is full of the unpredictable.  Employment often calls for initiative, improvisation, and other attempts to make a go of it, in uncertain conditions.  It is true, though, that employers are not the university’s primary clientele.  Except where employers are able to outsource jobs to other countries, or replace them with automation, they may indeed have to accept what students and assertive parents are demanding from universities.

And what are parents of my generation demanding?  On balance, they are not demanding even the traces of Old World standards of academic achievement and discipline that many of us encountered in the classrooms of the 1960s and 1970s.  What they seem to be demanding, rather, is an opportunity to convey an impression of superficial success.  You often hear Boomers expressing pride in their kids as college students or graduates.  These are things that parents can contribute to:  paying the tution and, sometimes, pressuring faculty and administrators.  It is less common to hear Boomers bragging about their children’s development of specific knowledge or character.  Those might be achievements independent of, and possibly contrary to, parental influences; they might reflect positively upon the student him/herself, rather than upon Mom and Dad.

One cannot be surprised that Baby Boomers, as parents, would be actively constructing a kind of university in which they would be getting their way, even to the point of corrupting the educational enterprise.  All our lives, we of the Baby Boom have tended to take everything we can get.  Again, obviously, there are exceptions.  But as a group, we took what our parents offered, and in many cases expressed ingratitude; in midlife, we consumed like there was no tomorrow; and more recently, we have been firing warning shots about Social Security.  We are going to have it all, including things that belong to other generations.

Small wonder that many Boomer parents seem to be treating their kids as extensions of themselves.  This pattern became visible years ago, when the first of those kids found themselves in Little League games that parents converted into all-out fights for victory.  And the pattern is visible now, among parents who think it makes sense to raise kids according to Hollywood adages like “failure is not an option.”  Failure is not an option because it could reflect poorly upon the parents, in the eyes of their peers.  It could be embarrassing for helicopter Boomers if their children should fall down and have to pick themselves back up.  We are going to make South Vietnam safe for capitalism, by God.  We are paying the money, and we are going to get what we want.  We will not plan for contingencies; we would rather be forced into a complete pratfall at the end.

To conform reality to the wishes of such parents, we now have college courses where everything must be very neatly packaged and predictable, where scores must be high and expectations easy, so that virtually everyone can convey an impression of success.  If you want to freak people out, try a teaching approach that requires initiative, resilience, or improvisation.  Try imposing some uncertainty.  You learn, pretty quickly, that there are students who will thrive in any conditions, and then there are those who would find some reason to be miserable even if they were suddenly transplanted to Buckingham Palace.

The Viet Cong were not pleasant adversaries.  On average, though, they surely cared about Vietnam more than the average American general did.  They may even have shared, with many American soldiers opposing them, a preference that people their age be allowed to live in peace, with their own beliefs.  Anyway, we lost, and yet the Vietnamese are our friends now nonetheless.  In other words, the professor may be saying things we profoundly dislike.  S/he may stand for things that we vigorously reject.  And yet the professor may not be the real villain.

There are a couple of possibilities for improvement of this situation, sooner or later.  Those university programs that now resemble Potemkin villages — designed, that is, to manipulate impressions rather than embody substance — may become more like places of real education, either by their own choice or (more likely) through regulation and/or market forces.  Competitive pressures from the market and from universities abroad may lead to innovation, fragmentation, and development of forms of higher education that do prioritize learning over putative credentials.  Such developments could yield some backbone, some determined pushback against those who would corrupt the process for their personal glory.  Another source of potential change is that, regardless of whether that happens, this generation of parents and students will eventually pass; it could give way to another that values learning more highly.

The analogies of Vietnam and Afghanistan suggest that, at some point, it may no longer be feasible to prop up a facade facilitating weakness and corruption — and that, when the facade cracks, change can be sudden and dramatic.  It is not always going to be possible to earn straight As while remaining ignorant.  Education does have real purposes:  to train people for employment and for life, for instance, and to inculcate and encourage curiosity, a lifelong love of learning, and other positive intellectual traits.  After years in which such purposes have been increasingly suppressed for the sake of paper credentials, it is possible that we are entering an era of beneficial if tumultuous change.

Whether talking about Afghanistan and Vietnam or about the struggle for control of higher education, one may ask whether all this was necessary.  Maybe, in a sense, it was.  America had money and time and half-baked ideas.  Maybe we needed to fritter away our strengths with these sorts of things — with pointless military adventures and counterproductive university practices.

On the positive side, the folly of the past can become a point of comparison for the future.  Whenever we do finally graduate to a more effective form of higher education, our experience in recent years may provide a strong, bitter reminder of why we will have opted for a better approach.  We may never want to go back to the bad old days, and that determination may stick for some years — until we forget what we learned last time around.

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