(The following article appeared in the 2 November 1999 edition of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch and is copyrighted by them. It is reproduced here only as a temporary measure for educational discussion purposes and will be removed as soon as the Post-Dispatch indexes it electronically for free public retrieval via the Internet.

We Fail Our Students When We Don't Challenge Them

by Michael Erickson

"I'd like to learn, and someday I want to be a teacher, but I don't want to learn right now," says a junior at Webster Groves High School as quoted in Time magazine.

Time selected Webster because it is so average, so typical of what the high school experience is like in America. There are the dedicated teachers who arrive early and leave late every day. There are Honor Society students and students who sleep through their classes. There are a football team and, of course, cheerleaders.

There is an "in" clique; money and privilege still talk, and yet there is some mixing between class and race. There is the heightened post-Columbine security. There are concerned, involved parents, and absentee parents who let the kids throw keggers in the back yard. There is casual sex, even a mom who cheerfully hands out condoms, and there are students who abstain. There is school credit for community service, credit for work experience, credit for running errands for teachers. And also, throughout the five-day Time report, there is the recurrent statement by students that school is not academically challenging.

"I'd like to learn," says our student, "but I don't want to learn right now." If not now, when?

Students boast of being able to do their homework in 15 minutes, or less. A student says he received a B+ on a test about a book he never read. To many students, the independence that work buys them is more important than studying. An administrator argues that assigning more homework to "lower-level" kids would cause them to fail and eventually drop out. A few acquire the critical thinking skills they will need in life; others get by on the pleasure principle. Almost all will graduate, but the story doesn't stop there.

I'll see some of them in my university classes. They come from Webster, St. Louis and around the country. Many share a common trait: They've never been challenged academically. They have not known the sense of pride and accomplishment one feels after mastering a difficult subject. They have a superficial acquaintance with their own culture and little knowledge of its roots. Many cannot tell the difference between an opinion and a fact. They have learned to write about their feelings, yet cannot assemble a coherent persuasive argument. So little has been expected of them that college often comes as a shock. They have not learned how to learn.

Today, many colleges offer remedial courses covering subjects students should have mastered in high school. It's either that or lose the students. "Every year I dumb down my classes," a colleague once told me, "and every year it's not enough."

I have seen students drop the part-time jobs and become serious about their studies. I have seen them party less and come to class more. It does happen. But the pressure on schools and teachers to lower standards is always there. Just as it's possible to skate through high school without doing much work, it's also possible to skate through college without doing much work. Colleges too have made their accommodations.

A few years ago I met a vice president with the Ford Motor Co. at a reception for a new play of mine. When he found out I taught at a university he asked me why college graduates can't write. He said Ford was so frustrated with the inability of new management hires to write at the corporate level that they had decided to hire in-house writing instructors.

I guess we are all guilty of passing our problems along for someone else to deal with. The fact remains, we learn and grow from our challenges. Believe me, no one wishes more than I that we could learn and grow from giving in to pleasure all the time.

When we lower our expectations, we not only lower our results, we lower the aspirations of our students. We enter into a cycle that results in high GPAs and low SATs. If our students do not learn to read, think and write critically in school, where or when will they? To the student who says I'd like to learn, but not now, we should say, "Sorry, that's unacceptable." That's the real challenge.

Michael Erickson is an assistant professor of English at Webster University.

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