Becoming an Educational Leader, or Preparing to be Disliked

sdrcMy leadership story is inspired by those students with whom I’ve worked who function at the college level, those students who blow my mind with their intelligence, diligence and insight. But more so it is inspired by those students I have worked with who don’t do any of this. Who think that higher education is something bought and paid for. Who think the only purpose for college is to make some money when they get out.

Now money is important. I know that because I have am working on my second terminal degree, and I still don’t have any money!

But what I also know that these students don’t is that being an engaged, thoughtful, critical and persevering human being is what will help me make some money and more importantly make some good.

The reason my students don’t know those things I just mentioned is because their educational and home life experiences did not prepare them for college.

Remedial college courses are more common than ever, and they are also a cash cow for colleges, because they extend the time and financial commitment to the college of each student who places into them. They also provide a faulty bridge that allows students who cannot in a 3 month course make up for a knowledge deficit a lifetime in the making and be magically ready to matriculate into college-level studies. But once over this bridge, many are passed through a system plagued by grade inflation as long as they pay their tuition.

You might wonder why would schools accept underprepared students, charge them more for being underprepared and then inflate their grades so they can pass through to graduate? In the late 1990’s Mark Edmundson anticipated these issues before they manifested and answered those questions in an essay called “On the Uses of a Liberal Education.”

He explained, among other things, that the national agenda to route everyone into higher education was not advanced for the sake of equality through enlightenment as we might hope, but rather to fill the empty seats left in the wake of the baby boomers, many of whom attended on the GI bill.

The need to fill these empty seats ushered in the consumer education model, where the customer is always right. The need to court seat-filling students – which should mean college ready minds, but instead means paying bodies – led to lower admissions standards and more support systems for unprepared students in the college infrastructure.

To be clear, I support the goal of having all citizens reach college thinking, writing and reading levels. I believe that a great education that leads to a great mind is the key to individual success and by extension a kind of societal success that is not defined by GDP.

But I do not agree that every kid should go to college. Now, “should” here is not intended to qualify worthiness or to suggest some innate deficiency that prevents one from ever being “college material.” Should, in this instance, is meant to separate those who aren’t academically ready from those who are.

Maybe this sounds harsh. Maybe it sounds like I don’t know what it’s like to be a first generation college student with no money or cultural capital. But maybe I do.

My father was educated to high school level (which admittedly in the 1960’s was more advanced than today’s bachelor’s degree), and my mother attained an associate degree at an open enrollment junior college.

I received zero guidance for college applications beyond a 10 minute conference with a guidance counselor, who on that occasion I was meeting for the first time. I had no tutors or SAT prep classes or even a clue what one would have to do to take an ACT or AP test. But I did manage to apply to 4 schools, be accepted to 3, and decide where I would go based on which one cost the least.

I went to college in 2001. I did not have a computer. I did not have a cell phone. For books, I had about a hundred dollars a semester from my mother who took on a second job in the shoe department at Bradlees to give me that money. I paid tuition with a PELL grant and student loans. I made sandwiches in the dining hall basement on work study.

I had a hard time making friends because I didn’t have a computer, which meant I didn’t have AIM, and it was not socially acceptable to give people your dorm room number in lieu of the cell phone number I did not have.

I had no idea how to navigate a university system that was larger than my hometown. I had no cultural capital to speak of besides the fact that I knew how to read at a college level and I was white. Even so, being white and sheltered hindered me at college, because for the very first time, I encountered violent crime. Robberies and stabbings happened in the building where I slept regularly. Rapes occurred in the bathroom down the hall from me, and I was scared as fuck.

So at UMASS Amherst, with a 3.9 gpa in the middle of my sophomore year, I dropped out.

Then I did a lot of drugs and drank a lot of alcohol for years to follow while I worked full-time as a typist and later a title insurance underwriter. I paid my own way to live with roommates whose parents paid their rent. I attended a smaller state college part-time on and off. Eight years later, I graduated with a BA with honors even though I had failed out of a handful of classes, sometimes because of my work obligations and others because I was high or hung over.

I graduated from this small state school with honors and a selective award for seniors in the English department (one awarded per graduating class) because as a child my parents gave me books to escape into while they abused each other and sometimes my brother and me in fits of maladjusted fury born of their own histories with abuse.

I went on to get a master’s degree because I did my homework while my grandfather died of cancer on our living room couch.

I published creative and academic works because while my grandmother walked around our house naked in a confused Alzheimer’s induced confusion, I was at Annie’s Book Stop leafing through used copies of volumes by Leonard Cohen, Anias Nin and Sylvia Plath.

I navigated my way into a doctoral program because I read and I questioned, and I knew there was something different than that shitty apartment in Taunton, MA where I lived as a struggling and at times failing undergrad; where junkies’ needles were strewn on the sidewalk and impoverished parents beat their kids in the street until cops came to haul them away to the drunk tank.

I am sharing this story with you because I read enough to know that there was something beyond the trailer where my mother’s parents lived, and something different than the teenage pregnancies I saw my cousins through. I am doing this work with you all who have your own complex and important stories, because I knew even as a first-generation college drop out that I could think and create and wonder and make something good in the world.

And I knew all of those things because, my parents, for all their faults, were readers who believed in personal accountability and who supported whatever path I chose.

I knew those things because I was fortunate enough to have attended great schools. I was lucky enough to graduate high school with the knowledge requisite for life. Because my schools were good enough that even a B- student like me could graduate knowing how to read, think, and write. Because I did these things in abundance both in and out of class, but MUCH more so out of class than in.

Fifteen years ago, I was admitted to college because I was academically prepared to be. Now, as a professor, I know that many, many students who are admitted to college are not academically prepared to be.

Unlike some of my students now, I was not a student who showed up to the first day of a writing class and said without shame that I do not read, and I do not write unless I am made to in a class. I was not so ignorant to think that these behaviors were okay. I knew how to construct grammatically correct sentences and how to use punctuation (mostly), because I was a high school graduate and I should know how to do these things. I knew that knowing these things was important.

I did not ever blame my teachers for my failure, and I did not ever think it was reasonable to say I didn’t read an assigned article because I couldn’t understand it immediately. I did the work of understanding with a dictionary and the Internet at the library that I had to walk over a mile to. I was not passed through high school, and I did not for one second think that paying my tuition entitled me to a passing grade. I did not care more about my grade than I did my growth, and I certainly never asked my teacher to calculate my grade for me.

Although I am an introvert and really not inclined to occupy a leadership role, I am here because I am dumbfounded by people who wonder why so many college students aren’t retained at “acceptable rates.”

I assure you it has nothing to do with a lack of a support system, because in today’s higher ed there are reporting systems aplenty and chance after chance after chance given to unprepared students, who we euphemistically term “underprepared.”

By contrast, I did not meet with a college advisor until my senior year when it was mandated in order to file for graduation, and let me make clear that no one contacted me or my parents when I failed a class because I stopped showing up.

The reason these students are not successful is because they are not prepared. They are admitted with 8th grade reading levels, graduated with little growth from there, and sent out into the world believing that they are ready. The reality is that no bought and paid for college degree will make them capable of securing a job that will cancel the debt they accrued.

I shared my story of perseverance and triumph to say that individual accountability is tantamount to success; to say that I know, at least in part, what we are up against and I know what is possible.

I also know my story is nothing compared to that of men like Frederick Douglass who made it his personal responsibility to teach himself to be literate and to, with his autobiography (among other works), produce some of the most enduring and important testimony of human will and triumph under the violent and oppressive conditions of slavery.

I also know that the buck does not start and end with the individual student.

Faulty education systems where high stakes standardized testing and myopic views of what it means to be educated that narrow significantly the range of the learning endeavor are to blame.

Parents who don’t take the time to have meaningful discourse in the home with their children, or to encourage reading by modeling it are to blame.

Communities that do not encourage in their children wonder and questioning and reading and challenging are to blame.

Socioeconomic inequities that prevent parents and community members from having the leisure time to do these things are to blame.

Work and political environments that do not allow for disenfranchised people to bring their voices to the table in a way that meets with positive ends are to blame.

But none of that negates the fact that not all students are academically prepared for college. Higher Ed is not for everyone IN THEIR CURRENT CONDITION.

There are, as we know many, many, many reasons why students are not prepared to read and think and write at the college level, but there is only ONE reason that these students enter college, and it is that admissions offices accept them when they shouldn’t.

I am here working to become a leader, because I only want admissions offices to admit students who are academically prepared, and I want all students to be academically prepared.

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