Freddie has been complaining about the Atlantic and other media organization’s coverage of higher education, in particular he thinks they’re too quick to blame the institutions. In contrast, he presents this quote from Tyler Cowen:

“In contrast to earlier in the twentieth century, who today is the marginal student thrown into the college environment? It is someone who cannot write a clear English sentence, perhaps cannot read well, and cannot perform all the functions of basic arithmetic. About one third of the college students today will drop out, a marked rise since the 1960s, when the figure was only one in five. At the two hundred schools with the worst graduation rates, only 26 percent of the students will finish. The typical individual in these schools– much less the marginal individual– is someone who struggled in high school and never was properly prepared. It also may be the student who, whatever his or her underlying talent level may be, comes from a broken and possibly tragic home environment and simply is not ready to take advantage of college.

Educating many of these students is possible, it is desirable, and we should do more of it, but it is not like grabbing low-hanging fruit. It’s a long, tough slog with difficult obstacles along the way and highly uncertain returns.”

This, he rightly says, is “sober, it is measured, and it is self-limiting”, therefore he claims it would never be published by the Atlantic. I think Tyler’s point is an important one, and I think Freddie is correct to praise Tyler, but I’m not sure the Atlantic deserves the ire he directs at it. In fact one of the first stories that came to my mind when I read this blog post from Freddie is an excellent story from the Atlantic called “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower”. I didn’t go searching for a single story to disprove Freddie, it’s just that when I think about the plight of the marginal college student and his or her educator, I think of this story.

Here is one typical passage that conveys an honest, sober, appraisal that of the type I think Freddie is looking for:

The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces—social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students—that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty. No one has drawn up the flowchart and seen that, although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment.

The professor’s portrait of the students is a sympathetic one, almost heartbreakingly, which in turn lets you empathize with the professor. The story even demonstrates self-awareness of the criticisms Freddie is making, seen here in the author’s struggle over whether to fail a middle aged woman who returned to school to better herself but was clearly not capable of college level work:

I thought briefly of passing Ms. L., of slipping her the old gentlewoman’s C-minus. But I couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be fair to the other students. By passing Ms. L., I would be eroding the standards of the school for which I worked. Besides, I nurse a healthy ration of paranoia. What if she were a plant from The New York Times doing a story on the declining standards of the nation’s colleges? In my mind’s eye, the front page of a newspaper spun madly, as in old movies, coming to rest to reveal a damning headline:


Illiterate Mess Garners ‘Average’ Grade

Adjunct Says Student ‘Needed’ to Pass, ‘Tried Hard’

This story acknowledges the difficulties higher education institutions face when it comes to marginal students, and it recognizes the friction between this challenge and the American ideal of college education, an ideal the author himself holds. Importantly, yet dishearteningly, he doesn’t provide any easy answers. I know Freddie is working on a wider critique of the Atlantic, but I think this piece fits pretty squarely with what he’s looking for.

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