Write about what you know: It is both what Professor X preaches to his students of college English and composition, and what he practices in his new memoir based on a noteworthy essay in the Atlantic. And writing about what he knows is both the strength and weakness of “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.”
Based on his reports from teaching as an adjunct instructor in both a pseudonymous small college and a junior college somewhere in middle America, he makes a convincing case that higher education is not for everyone. In fact, one begins to wonder if it really is for almost anyone he has to teach, where his role, largely, has been trying to repair woefully students’ inadequate preparation in written English at the secondary—and even lower—levels of education.
The author cites the great failure rates of entering college and junior-college students, at the same time—whether they graduate or not, they saddle themselves with heavy debts they may not be able to repay. Meanwhile, businesses and institutions raise the educational-credential requirements for their employees, and politicians—including the President of the United States—stump the country arguing that any American who wants a college education should be able to get one.
Sadly, as a society we are not examining the fitness or the adequacy of college education to specific opportunities. Professor X argues that not only is higher education not for everyone, our wasteful system may actually be inflicting damage on individuals who are not prepared to meet its challenges.
Along the way, the author recounts how his own dream of growing up his young family lured him into the housing bubble. He and his wife have avoided foreclosure, but at the price of his years of labor in the community-college “basement” of the Ivory Tower: be careful what you wish for! (Maybe book royalties will help.)
“In the Basement” is fine as far as it goes, but fails in offering prescriptions that cast too small a net, hinting at but not engaging the biggest questions about American higher education. It is difficult to think about them without despairing: when politicians talk about education, often they really mean training, and when boosters of higher education make their case they talk as if that is so. We talk about how much to subsidize institutions of higher education as if we are investing in job-creating machines, as if the intention is to produce employees, not foster the growth of human beings and citizens.
Now back to the particular tragedy of poor preparation in English: One cannot excel in one’s education without learning to write well, but the “mysterious mix that makes a good writer,” says Professor X, “may be (1) having read enough throughout a lifetime to have internalized the rhythms of the written word, and (2) refining the ability to mimic those rhythms.” As for remediation, the author understatedly observes it is “very difficult” to achieve in a semester college course.
“I try to find books familiar to everyone,” the author mourns. “This has thus far proven impossible to do. Many of my students don’t read much, and though I tend to think of them monolithically, they don’t really share a culture. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’? Nope. … ‘Animal Farm’? No. …”
As for the wider net, let’s cast it this way: Those who cannot write will not learn to think. Those who do not read cannot write. And increasingly, people do not read. There, despairing yet? As a democracy, how are we doing in fostering humanity and citizenship?
In both public and higher education, we seem obsessed with “competence,” when perhaps we should be talking about mastery. Though mastery is a harsh mistress, “competence” is a companion who inspires no one. Anyone who excels must learn the lesson that achievement is only made possible by having the stomach for repeated failures along the way.
That is a lesson that should have been learned far earlier than college, before (in the author’s words) “Unsuccessful students grow up thinking not just that their work has no value, but that it never can have any value, and thus they cannot put in the wholehearted effort that college demands.”
A few pages earlier, he drops this potential bombshell when he observes that not only the ranks of students but those of faculty are filling with women: “Strong winds of compassion blow across campus quads. Women are more empathetic than men, more giving, simply more bothered by anyone’s underdog status.” But, perhaps less likely to throw the first punch in a bar fight, they also “may not be quite as inclined … (to) mark an F in the grade book.”
Fact is, just because not everyone cannot excel in college does not mean that they cannot excel at something. And for too long, America’s young people have suffered from the “by now” syndrome—that if one does not achieve certain benchmarks by certain stages, one’s future is forever lost. And a far greater tragedy than “everyone” not getting a college education is that for some of the most promising that opportunity may be too far out of reach financially or that they may be deflected too soon onto an arid, soul-sapping career path.
This sometimes disorganized and often redundant book is at its most eloquent when the author communicates the deep pleasure when teacher and students, sometimes gently sparring, are truly engaged in learning. But for an antidote to this country’s current fuzzy thinking about education versus training, the values of both and the varied circumstances that foster them, I suggest the memoir of a real old tank-town fighter, the late author Louis L’Amour, whose “Education of a Wandering Man” (1989) communicates the passion of one who lusts after knowledge and, in seeking it in absolutely his own way, achieves excellence. Into the complex equation of education L’Amour reintroduces the values of common sense and courage.
“In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic”
By Professor X
Viking, 284 pages, hardcover, $25.95