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Disorder in the Schools

by Will, George F.

Too many college students have neither the aptitudes nor the attitudes needed in college

EDUCATION, THE SHAPING OF AMERICAN MINDS, IS much on Americans' minds. A spate of recent news stories about higher education should direct attention to what it is higher than--secondary education. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports rising anxiety in the professoriate about declining decorum in classrooms. Students' incivilities include coming to classes late and leaving early, eating, conversing, reading newspapers, talking on cell phones, sleeping, watching portable televisions and directing verbal abuse at teachers. The Chronicle reports that such problems have become common across the country.

Scruffy professors who dress slovenly and vent politics do not help. Coats and ties and other accouterments of dignity at the front of the classroom might be infectious. But the problem cannot be cured by Brooks Brothers. Neither can it be cured at the college level.

Academics being what they are, student incivility is producing a bumper crop of theories to explain the general coarsening of American life and various distortions of academic life. For example, one professor tells the Chronicle that when a student sits 60 rows back in a cavernous lecture hall, in a crowd of 300 other students, such mass production of college credits is an incitement to disrespect for the setting. Furthermore, fewer and fewer students are receptive to the idea of the dignity of learning for its own sake. They respect only what they consider relevant to preparing them for the job market. Only 25 percent of undergraduates are liberal-arts majors. Twenty-five percent are business majors, and most of the rest are on vocational tracks such as health care and primary and secondary education. A professor says:

"Consumerism is taking over college campuses. I'm hearing more students saying, 'After all, I pay your salary, and since I pay your salary, I should be able to tell you when I want to come to class and when my paper should be due.' Students live in a Wal-Mart society, where it's convenience that counts."

But the basic problem is that there are too many students who have neither the aptitudes nor the attitudes that should be prerequisites for going to college. More than 6 million students attend the 2,819 four-year institutions full time, and 2.6 million more part time. One in four freshmen does not return as a sophomore. Half who matriculate do not graduate even in five years. Still, colleges are churning out more graduates than the job market really requires. Anne Matthews, author of "Bright College Years: Inside the American Campus Today," reports that a third of Domino's pizza-delivery drivers in the Washington, D.C., area have B.A.s, and an ad seeking a warehouse supervisor for the Gap reads, "Bachelor's degree required, and the ability to lift 50 pounds."

The vast majority of colleges and universities are, Matthews says, so hungry for students, they are lowering admissions requirements, discounting tuitions and advertising sushi and waffle bars in student unions and prime cable service in dorms. Rigorous institutions are more apt to have respectful students, but Matthews reports that the average student does 29 hours of schoolwork a week, down from 60 hours in the early 1960s. And some of it is remedial work--learning that should have taken place in high school.

The Los Angeles Times reports that in the Cal State system, which has 344,000 students, almost half the freshmen need remedial work in math or English or both. At some high schools not a single student entering the Cal State system passed the basic skills tests--even though a criterion for admissions is supposed to be a ranking in the top third of high-school graduates. There are many reasons that many high schools are not properly preparing students, but one glaring reason is this: because most institutions of higher learning have, essentially, open admissions, many high-school students feel little incentive to exert themselves.

Necessity can be the mother of improvement, so if colleges got out of the remediation business, would high schools be jolted to become more demanding? That is not clear. What is clear is that as colleges become more thirsty for students, that thirst drives them to become less selective among applicants and less demanding of those admitted. So there is a trickling-down of sloth and mediocrity from higher education into secondary schools, which are not pulled toward excellence from above.

Last year Californians passed Proposition 209, barring the use of race and ethnicity as determinants of college admissions. Last week the University of California system announced a significant decline in the numbers of black and Hispanic applicants for next autumn's freshman classes. At Berkeley, blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, who were 23.1 percent of 1997 admissions, are 10.4 percent of 1998 admissions. At UCLA the decline was from 19.8 percent to 12.7 percent.

Because an expanding middle class is a source of social stability, and because a college degree is a ticket to the middle class, it is desirable to increase minority enrollments. But it is imperative to do this without doing violence to the Constitution. And as Thurgood Marshall wrote in 1954, in the NAACP's brief in Brown v. Board of Education, "Distinctions by race are so evil, so arbitrary and invidious that a state bound to defend the equal protection of the laws must not invoke them in any public sphere." The post-209 decline of minority admissions proves beyond peradventure that there has been systematic discrimination against whites and Asian-Americans.

The decline also proves that the primary problems of American education are at the secondary-school level, and in society beyond the schools. For whatever reasons, too many high schools serving minorities are failing to equip their most promising students for the most demanding institutions at the next level. Better high schools would enable colleges to be more selective and demanding, which in turn would require high schools to become yet better. By the time uncivil young adults are destroying the decorum of a university, it is too late to do much about either them or it.

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