"Is you the Professor?"*

This is really an essential article, if a depressing one, about the collapse in literacy for college graduates.

"The first survey had been taken in 1992 using a sample that accurately represented the entire adult population age 25 and up. The NAAL grouped respondents into four categories, below basic, basic, intermediate, and proficient according to their reading abilities. These were tested in three categories of literacy labeled prose, document, and quantitative. Prose literacy denotes the ability to search, comprehend, and use information in continuous texts. Document literacy means the ability to do these same things employing noncontinuous texts in various formats. Quantitative literacy involves having the knowledge and skills to work with numbers and figures, a figure that changed very little between 1992 and 2003 when the second assessment was made.

The other two categories showed a precipitous decline in literacy among college graduates aged 25 and older. In 1992 40 percent of all graduates were found to be proficient in prose and 37 percent demonstrated proficiency in document literacy. In 2003 the percentages were 31 percent and 25 percent respectively. Over a period of eleven years the proficiency of all approximately 37 million college graduates had declined sharply, in prose by nearly a quarter and in document literacy by almost a third. (The performance of high school graduates declined as well, from 5 to 4 percent in prose and 6 to 5 percent in document proficiency.) Apart from the oldest graduates having died the addition of ten, or at most eleven, graduating classes to the pool of college graduates, meant that the members of these classes had to have scored very badly indeed to drag down the averages of the entire population by so much."

Of particular importance is its clear-eyed assessment of one big part of the problem, which is the Big Lie of the way the whole system works, or doesn't:

"Accordingly, publicizing the NAAL results would force universities to admit that they are charging students and their families more and more to learn less and less, an ugly truth that seems to be in everyone’s interest to ignore. Not surprisingly students seem content with a system that fails to prepare them for life in the work force but offers them four or five years of enjoyable irresponsibility. Murray Sperber, whose Beer and Circus (2000) is must reading on this subject, calls this arrangement the faculty/student nonaggression pact, according to which instructors pretend to teach and students pretend to learn. Everyone gets good grades or evaluations and presumably goes home happy. Further, since new buildings are paid for with bond issues and do not come out of the regular budgets many universities have spanking new dorms and student facilities, which mask the reality of deferred maintenance, lessened security, and other expedients. Wage slavery is disguised also, since students can rarely tell the difference between adjuncts and tenured faculty members.

So we have the modern public university on the undergraduate level, where grade inflation is rampant, student skills diminish with every passing year, what passes as teaching is conducted by exploited adjuncts and faculty members who no longer care about standards—for students, that is, the drive for ever-more qualified professors continues unabated. It is a central irony of our situation that while mediocrity among undergraduates is tolerated and even encouraged, the professoriat demands excellence of its members, and of graduate students too as they are potential members. It appears that the only people responding to this crisis are employers, who increasingly require college graduates applying for jobs to take writing tests, on site so they can’t cheat—a sad measure of our failure to teach either skills or ethics."

* a question actually asked of me the first day of class a couple of years ago. My response was "Is I the professor?? I be the Professor." That made me chuckle, though later I thought it could have caused some problems if only the student had recognized what was going on.


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