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My Experience Teaching Apathetic Students at a School with Open Admissions

Since 1970 I have taught history at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, in Kenosha. This campus admits 95 percent of its applicants and boasts in newspaper ads that acceptance can be granted almost immediately. In the fall of 2000, only 8 percent of its incoming freshmen ranked in the top ten percent of their high school class. A whopping 42 percent ranked in the bottom half of their high school class.

Parkside's graduation rate has been woeful. In 1989, of all the incoming freshmen, only 28 percent graduated after six years. For the class of 1992, the number fell to 20 percent. Two years later, the number of all incoming freshmen graduating after four years was a mere 12 percent.

Parkside inhabits Tier 4 of the U.S. News and World Report evaluation of Midwestern universities, the only campus among the thirteen in the University of Wisconsin System to be rated at the bottom of the pecking order, alongside the likes of MidAmerica Nazarene College in Kansas, Ferris State University in Michigan, and Northern State University in South Dakota. Only one other campus in Wisconsin inhabits this netherworld, tiny Edgewood College, a Catholic institution in Madison.

Created in 1968, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside was designed, along with a sister campus in Green Bay, to be on a tier with the huge and internationally known University of Wisconsin in Madison. The initial plan predicted 25,000 students and a thriving graduate program. In 1972, the University of Wisconsin System was created, and Parkside and Green Bay fell into the ranks of old state campuses at Oshkosh, Stevens Point, Whitewater, and elsewhere. In the fall of 2,000, Parkside had 4,921 full and part-time students, making it the second smallest campus in the system. Low enrollment exacerbates its already chronic financial deficiencies; in the system, as almost everywhere else in academia, body count equals money.

Student morale at Parkside is miniscule, as is widely understood in both Racine and Kenosha, the communities in Southeast Wisconsin that Parkside serves, and the campus boasts little prestige. Only three percent of Parkside graduates contribute financially to the campus, one of the lowest figures in the nation. Many of the more productive and ambitious faculty members seek mightily to go elsewhere, only to learn, especially in the liberal arts, that the better campuses do not recruit people (with or without publications) from what is sneeringly referred to as Academic Siberia.

While the most popular major at Parkside is business (true of college students nationally), the area of study that seems to attract the best students is science, in part because of a pre-med program that has been effective since its inception. The liberal arts attracts many who are preparing to be public school teachers and a great many who simply sign up for courses because they are offered at a convenient time. Most Parkside students live at home and have jobs, many of them full-time, and must design their college experience around the demands of their occupation. This is quite typical at open admissions institutions serving urban areas.

Teaching American history for more than thirty years at Parkside has given me the opportunity to learn much about the dynamics of open admissions in higher education. Speaking with other faculty, locally and at similar campuses across the country over the decades, in my own academic discipline and in others, I've become convinced that my experiences are by no means unusual. There is a relatively small literature on the subject, at the head of which is Peter Sacks, Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America, which recounts the author's experiences in a community college. I thought it useful, at my retirement, to expand the accounts of others from my own perspective. (Click here to read a brief summary of the history of open admissions.)

What I have seen going on in the world of open admissions education I call "The Classroom Game." Since I teach two introductory survey courses every semester in American history, let me begin there.

One quickly learns that the young people signed up for 101 and 102 (the chronological break between the courses at Parkside is 1877) know virtually nothing about the history of their own nation. They have no grasp of colonial America (I've been asked, "Is the seventeenth century the 1700s?") or the nation's constitutional machinery. All religion baffles them (no doubt a tribute to the secularism dominant in modern public schools), all intellectual history eludes them, and politics bores them. Even after instruction, they often confuse World War I and World War II. All the presidents before Clinton are a blur; Franklin D. Roosevelt sometimes shows up on exams in the Gilded Age and U.S. Grant in the twentieth century. Almost all of the students simply refuse to memorize the Chief Executives in their proper chronological order. In fact, they choose to ignore dates of any kind; written exams rarely contain any. More than one student has told me frankly, "I don't do dates."

This proud ignorance rests on a seemingly invincible anti-intellectualism. The blue collar families from which the Parkside students normally come do not stress reading, and the students are generally first generation college. (I can empathize, as I was the first in my family's history to graduate from high school.) These amiable, polite, almost invariably likeable young people read little or nothing. In a class of 50, not more than one or two read a newspaper daily; what tiny grasp they have of current events comes from television news. Reading books and magazines outside the classroom is not something they would even consider doing. In short, they have no intellectual life and see no need for one. They can talk about several things, including their jobs, television, sports, and Rock, but they are often baffled and sometimes irritated to hear from their professor that there is more to life. If that "more" requires reading, they aren't interested.

On the first day of class, you learn that only a minority of the students has purchased the textbook. The others have either not gotten around to it (a few never do) or are waiting until they size up the professor. If he or she seems demanding, some make a hasty exit. I spend the initial period talking about the joys and uses of history, study habits, how to use the textbook, and how to prepare for quizzes and exams. I distribute a carefully prepared syllabus (on colored paper so that it will not be lost), a guide through the course that contains general course information, including my office hours, exam dates, and options for extra credit. I urge the members of the class to go to work immediately and not fall behind. I feel obligated to go through all of this, year after year, even though I know I have few serious listeners. High school was a breeze, they tell each other, and this can't be much different. Several invariably ask me later for another copy of the syllabus, as they have lost theirs.

How much reading should be assigned? I have dropped my standards over the years by two-thirds. Still, I am routinely described as extremely demanding. In 101, I now assign under 40 pages a week of textbook reading. Students often complain bitterly, and most simply refuse to read that much. I recently assigned Stephen Ambrose's brilliant Undaunted Courage and gave the 101 students ten weeks to read it. Not one did. On the exam, one young woman wrote proudly, "I did not read that book."

Yielding somewhat to the pressure, in 102 not long ago I assigned 20 pages a week in my own textbook, a brief history of America in the twentieth century. A senior sociology major informed me angrily that no one else among her professors that semester was so demanding. Twenty pages a week. The experiment in minimal reading ended in failure: students still wouldn't complete the assignment.

I strongly urge students to mark their books, assuring them that the re-sale value is the same whether the volume is marked or not. (A great many students sell their books immediately after the class. Some sell them before the final exams, a practice the campus bookstore has long encouraged.) I show them how to look for and mark the most important material. But most of them refuse to use their book in this way. Of course, many do not mark their textbook because they don't read it. Others, over my pleas to the contrary, depend upon the marking of the person who previously owned the book.

A major reason for having a professor teach a class in person, as opposed to offering the course on television, is the give and take between student and instructor. In my classrooms, and despite my fervent appeals, there is virtually no classroom discussion. While light banter about extraneous topics sometimes occurs, questions of a substantive nature are almost never asked. Of course, you can't ask questions about material you have not read and care nothing about. So the classroom becomes a monologue, a series of lectures by the professor. One lectures day in and day out in an atmosphere of sullen silence. (I should add that I am generally considered to be an above average public speaker. That isn't the problem.) Notebooks begin to slam and coats begin to be put on as the clock even approaches the end of the period. An early dismissal is greeted with glee, a joy surpassed only by the cancelled class.

Recently I offered extra credit for meaningful classroom discussion of the assigned material. Nothing happened. The students simply sat there, generally irritated by having to be there at all.

For many years I left classroom attendance up to the discretion of the students, assuring them that they were adults capable of making the most of their time in college. Almost everyone showed up regularly. Within the last decade, however, as the intellectual quality of the students seems to have fallen, many faculty have taken to requiring attendance. On a given Friday, half or more of the students would otherwise be absent. I permit my students two unexcused absences in a fifteen week semester. After that, each unexcused absence is supposed to lower the final grade by one third. Nevertheless, many skip class regularly, and not wishing to fail any more than necessary I do not strictly enforce the policy.

In 102, I recently added an Internet requirement. I devoted considerable time to finding relevant web pages, many containing photographs and films of major people and events covered in class. Since young people spend a great deal of time at the computer, I assumed this would prove popular. Most of my students simply refused to do it. I could generate no interest in the assignment at all. Many young people, apparently, do not consider education a valid function of the Internet.

I always provide recommendations for extra credit, usually involving the reading of an extra book. At times I've offered credit for seeing relevant movies. In a class of 50, no more than two or three will avail themselves of the opportunity, and they are usually the better students.

For many years I had classroom debates in the survey courses, picking a topic and dividing the class in two, flipping a coin to see which side would take the affirmative and negative. I assumed that this would enliven the class period by involving the students directly and providing a welcome change from the essentially secretarial chore of attending a lecture. I was wrong. When participation in the debate was voluntary, over half of the students chose not to become involved. When I required participation, the top students dominated the debate, leaving the great majority to serve largely as passive spectators. When the topic was Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, I could not persuade class members to watch a film on him outside of class.

I always show films in the survey courses, three or four from the great "America" series created by Alistaire Cooke. The few good students take copious notes. Most sit passively. Some put their heads down and sleep. Two students in one course recently slept through the lectures as well. Every day.

I have generous office hours, making it clear that I will go to any length to help those having trouble. Almost no one shows up. Perhaps one reason is that I ask the students to bring their textbooks with them, as I want to see how they are marking. The few who do appear invariably show me books that have not been marked, accompanying the admission with something like "Well, I haven't read ALL the assignment."

Knowing that most students do not complete the required reading, and do not even seriously tackle it until shortly before an examination, I always devote one classroom period, just before an exam, to a "review" of relevant identification and essay questions. I have the students make a list of such topics from open books. I write the items listed on the chalkboard and talk about each, providing hints about what might and might not be on the test. Contributions from the students are usually made by two or three people in a class of 50 while the others copy the list. I'm often asked after class if the exam will include anything not on the board.

Written exams, which I require, terrify many students because they are required to reveal the full extent of their knowledge. After lectures on the Reformation (which students often confuse with the Renaissance), John Calvin, Puritanism, Cotton Mather, John Winthrop, and others, I ask on the examination as an identification question: Puritanism. Typical answers state simply "Very strict" and "Very religious." One semester I was never able to get across the meaning of Anglicanism to a 101 class, although I tried repeatedly. The identification of Anglicanism with the contemporary Episcopal Church (which most had never heard of) was forgotten no matter how many times I explained it.

One semester, to see what would happen, I went to multiple choice tests provided by the textbook publisher. (Many professors in many disciplines use multiple choice tests because they are easily graded and popular with students.) I eliminated some of the tricky double negatives and added several questions on matters raised in lectures. The result was disastrous. With a possible score of 100, average scores were in the 30s. Many failed to reach that height. The students had not read the material and thought they could guess successfully. One disconsolate young man told me, "I just wasn't lucky enough."

The drop-out rate in my classes has normally been about 30 percent, which is not unusual for the campus. In recent years, however, the rate has escalated. A 101 class recently dropped from 30 to nine, a class that failed to produce a single "A" student. The average grade of those who stay in my classes is in the "C-" range, an evaluation that includes much professorial charity. (This excludes the failing grades that must be given to the many who disappear without dropping the course.)

The Classroom Game, then, is about gaining academic credits while successfully resisting education. Passive, ill-prepared, and anti-intellectual students want to know exactly what irrelevant "stuff" (as historical materials are sometimes labeled) they must memorize, often the night before a test, in order to pass a course. The stuff must come largely from class notes, as the reading assignments are largely ignored. The professor, fearing the student evaluations that are taken seriously by many faculty and administrators at this level of academia, and increasingly weary of clinging to intellectual standards long abandoned by colleagues in their quest for popularity and security, often winds up caving in and giving the students what they want, including high grades. (The sciences are less likely to succumb than the liberal arts and social sciences, but the "dumbing down" is in evidence everywhere.) There is no dialogue or intellectual excitement in The Classroom Game. And very little learning.

On the final of History 101 and 102 I ask identification questions covering the entire course, usually questions that have been asked on earlier exams. (It's a way of giving students points.) Several years ago I had to begin passing out a list of these questions when I realized that students had completely forgotten what they had written about just a few weeks earlier. Upper division students admit routinely that they have forgotten the material in survey courses, and must be introduced to it all over again. In counseling students, I've often noticed that many cannot recall anything about the contents of a course they have taken, let alone the name of the instructor.

The Classroom Game can be seen as well in the upper division classes filled with juniors and seniors, usually history majors. The students are Game veterans and expect you to follow the unwritten rules. Recently, an upper division student informed me openly in class that her job did not permit her to read 100 pages a week. Soon, the others made it clear that they were not about to do all of the assigned reading. No one did. In order to keep them from failing, I handed out a take-home exam for the first mid-term. One student said in class that all her professors were doing that now. As conditions worsened, I was forced to distribute the questions that would appear on the final exam. The students skipped class routinely throughout the semester. Discussion of the assigned materials, quite naturally, did not occur.

Despite constant pleading, the term papers by seniors and juniors are never started before the last two or three weeks of the course. They are usually based solely on two or three library books of often dubious quality. Knowledge of footnote style is noticeably absent, even though many have taken the course in Research Methods. Research in primary sources, even if required, is very rarely achieved. Offers of assistance from the first week of class are not accepted. Asking for professorial help is not part of The Classroom Game.

The Game decrees that majors will receive good grades, regardless of their effort. Disciplines need majors. Without them, the Department members would be teaching nothing but survey courses and would be less able to successfully request additional funds and faculty.

If students so adamantly resist being educated, why do they come to colleges and universities at all? There are many reasons, of course, but studies show that foremost in their minds is the desire for wealth. The U.S. Department of Education reports that in 1998 the median annual income of male high school graduates working full time and year round was $31,477. Women with those credentials earned $22,780. Men with bachelor's degrees, working full time, earned an average of $51,405, and their female counterparts received $36,559. Students are well aware of this disparity and seek a higher income. They are unprepared, however, to face the educational requirements involved in obtaining a college degree.

Fortunately for the students, graduation requirements have continued to drop in recent years all across the nation and at all levels. Only two percent of the colleges and universities require a history course of any kind. Introductory science courses often do not involve laboratory work. Politically correct propaganda courses abound and often serve as substitutes for more serious courses. Untold numbers of courses designed to assist athletes and others uninterested in intensive study cheapen college catalogues. The History Department at the University of Illinois now offers a full-credit course on Oprah Winfrey. And who takes a foreign language any more?

The destructive impact of Open Admissions and The Classroom Game on the quality of higher education should be obvious. The demonstrable drop in educational standards over the past forty years has been tragic. But what about the effect on students? What about the countless thousands of young people who flunk out or drop out every year when they realize that they cannot handle even the minimal standards that face them. Their loss of self-confidence is no doubt more serious than their bitterness about the waste of time and money. Perhaps even worse, what about those who survive the process by playing the Game? While they are often proud that they have beaten the system and received a diploma without undue effort, in fact they have been cheated out of one of civilization's greatest blessings: a sound education and a lifelong passion for learning.

In this new century politicians wax eloquently about the need to raise standards in the public schools, and rightly so. But little is said about the quality of America's thousands of colleges and universities, most of which are scuffling for students of any quality in order to stay afloat. For the good of higher education and indeed the whole nation, which can never obtain enough genuine learning and wisdom throughout all of its institutions, academic administrators, Boards of Regents, trustees, accreditation boards, state legislatures, and faculty members should somehow summon the integrity and courage to raise admission standards, destroy the Game, and restore serious requirements for graduation. Indeed, why not make graduation examinations a prerequisite for a diploma? Faced with such a challenge, Game players might well be forced to begin reading.

This article was first published by Academic Questions (Spring 2001), vol. 14, 65-71. Reprinted by permission of Transaction Publishers. © 2001 Transaction Publishers.