Adding to the growing list of attacks on the entrenched postmodernist position, Peter Sacks gives us a stunning account of his experience at a typical American college. The first half of the book consists of his trials and tribulations and the final part places his confrontations into a broader cultural context. Because Sacks (a pseudonym) still teaches at the college in question (referred to only as “The College”), he changes all the names and places to protect not only himself, but the school from further embarrassment.
The game he chooses to play (called “The Sandbox Experiment”) is his attempt to prove that the colleges of today sanction and reward (with tenure) coddling, the lowering of standards, and pandering to the lowest common denominator. Coming from a journalistic background, Sacks is meticulous in the gathering of evidence, providing quotes, anecdotes, and classroom data to demonstrate how education has been so co-opted by business and entertainment values that what learning takes place is entirely accidental.
At every turn, the intellectual idealism once possessed by Sacks is betrayed by fellow teachers, administrators, and the entire college community. Told to “take it easy” and give the kids a “good show” (one faculty member even suggests that he take an acting class to be more effective), Sacks discovers quite early that in order to satisfy the tenure committee, students must not get bad grades (only an “A” or a “B” will suffice) lest they drop out (thus reducing the cash flow of the university) or file a lawsuit (not uncommon in today’s litigious society). Tenure is largely determined by student evaluations (where the criteria for success is whether or not the student had a good time and found the instructor “friendly”) and an excess of negative feedback will keep him/her from achieving “success” in the field.
Sacks rightly points to a decline in personal responsibility and the “consumer-oriented approach” that has engulfed education at all levels as major factors in the rapid destruction of American education. The intrinsic value of education is long gone; replaced by functional, “useful” learning which is more interested in economic relevance. Because students pay for their education, they assume the habits and attitudes of consumers, which of course come with a host of arrogant, self-righteous assumptions (i.e. the customer is always right, I am in control, you work for me).
Student-centered learning (an old concept to be sure, but now institutionalized at all levels of the game) has stripped all authority from the instructor, reducing him/her to the level of a “facilitator” whose only mission, apparently, is to “guide” students in a cooperative learning process. The assumption that the teacher is more knowledgeable (elitism in our schools? the audacity!) is no longer acceptable as it threatens the fragile self-esteem of the student and creates an “oppressive” hierarchy that might promote exclusion.
Even more disturbing is the second half of the book, where Sacks sadly reveals the unavoidable truth that American society is increasingly turning away from the tenets of modernism (objectivity, truth, scientific standards, rationality) in favor of a “feel-good” postmodernism where all opinions are valid, myth and superstition are acceptable alternatives to science, and grades are inflated because the input of the instructor is just that, an “opinion,” and is thereby not binding or relevant. Bad grammar is “creative,” the inability to write legibly and coherently is a “lifestyle choice,” and laziness in the classroom a “reasonable” response to a classroom not tailored to the values of excitement, flash, and show business.
Rather than teach our children how to think, we throw them time-killing worksheets which only measure a student’s ability to scan texts and fill in the blanks. Rather than assume that teachers are a valuable resource of experience and knowledge, we turn the class over to the kids, asking them what they would like and whether or not it fits their particular mood. Homework? Merely optional. Tests? We’ll water them down by giving them the questions beforehand and if necessary, allowing re-tests until they get the grade they desire. Essays and papers? Let’s require the bare minimum, eliminating the idea of a thesis or supporting evidence and instead promote “creative learning” (a euphemism if there ever was one).
Sacks writes with bitterness to be sure, but he also manages to slip in a welcome sense of humor (probably as a sanity-saving device). As he points out, “The College” is by no means atypical; it is all too representative of the prevailing winds in American academic life. Disengagement, celebratory ignorance, apathy, and anti-intellectualism all rule the American campus as we begin a new century, a fact too depressing to contemplate. Hofstadter warned us of the coming crisis almost forty years ago; Sacks has given us the post-mortem.