It's not wise to promote student mediocrity

Students who can barely read and write come to colleges and somehow it is the responsibility of faculty to get them through the curriculum.

By Michael Karson

Published: Mon 29 Jan 2018, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 29 Jan 2018, 10:42 PM

I enjoy dumping on millennials as much as the next teacher does. "Snowflakes," "dainty darlings," "china dolls": bring it on. It actually serves a purpose, the same one served when parents rag on their children. It goes better with affection, but even without that tempering influence, it unites the authority structure, vents frustration, and invites a comedic perspective. And you know they deserve it, living their lives not only as a video game but as an easy video game, looking for cheat codes rather than mastery. But I can't indulge myself for long before I remember that we-my generation of boomers-made them that way. (Oh, please: you know I'm not talking about all of us or all of them.) How attentive we were, examining their poo for auspicious signs. Okay, we didn't go that far, but we chose music to play in utero to augment their brilliance and declared every piece of crap they ever smeared on paper to be prize-worthy. When they banged on a piano, we said they had Schoenberg's genius for atonality. They should never have to stay in key or otherwise fit in, of course, because reality is virtual and should bend to their needs. God forbid we tell them they have to, *gulp*, adjust to the expectations of others. Of course, they knew perfectly well that other kids require such adjustment, so they came to ignore us for declaring how special they were.
Now I see the process repeating itself in graduate clinical training and (via friends) in colleges. Students who can barely read and write come to colleges and somehow it is the responsibility of faculty to get them through the curriculum. In graduate school, even on a track where students will likely be submitting reports to courts of law, they get As on papers that have grammatical errors, not even to mention weaknesses in critical thinking and ignorant assumptions about the content. We assign a lot of "reaction papers," which means that you read something or attend a lecture and you write about your reaction to it. The student's reaction is promoted to the point where, for one thing, we can no longer refuse to give the paper an A because the paper fulfils the assignment by perfectly capturing the student's dull, uninterested, and pedestrian reaction and, for another thing, we communicate that the precious personal response is more important than actually understanding something.
The preeminence of the personal response leads to admissions essays that don't reflect on the meaning of clinical work in the life trajectory of the applicant but instead report - never passionately - the "passion" of the applicant for the field. Even applying to a programme like ours that has an 11 per cent admit rate, they think the only variable that matters is what they really want, as if they are selecting our programme off the menu in a restaurant. We give them As to encourage them and then we act surprised when they complain about any class that actually requires them to learn something. Yes, yes, only some of them, but it's hard for the real students to stay properly oriented in a cohort of undifferentiated "validation" of the ignorant and puerile attitudes they might otherwise try to improve.
Included in "bad" is the unpleasant experience of realizing you've been doing something wrong or that your cherished ideas about yourself and the world are incorrect. No wonder so many of them turn into therapists who never challenge their patients' cherished ideas.
Again, the solution is not complicated. Grades should be recalibrated so that an A means actual mastery of the material and not relative mastery and certainly not the default grade for merely completing assignments.
The coddling is concerning in a clinical training program. I am far from sanguine about people becoming therapists who will treat suffering and complicated patterns of behaviour when they got to their positions with excessive assistance. When they don't understand metaphor or psychological-mindedness or conditional probability, instead of telling them to work harder, we make allowances for their culture-they're military, or diverse, or ethnic, or white. Is that how you want to think your own therapist got the degree? With allowances? We refer to graduation as "walking" since the students not in wheelchairs walk across the stage to get the diploma. Maybe we should stop carrying them.
Michael Karson is a professor at the University of Denver's Graduate School of Professional Psychology
- The Psychology Today

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