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The tyranny of academic mediocrity

The children are not well. This is true in at least two senses.

First, the quality of higher education has declined over the past generation. Educators regularly lament the deterioration of academic standards at American colleges and universities. It’s a perennial topic of conversation in the faculty room, at departmental meetings, and among scholars on social media. Publications such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education regularly publishes essays on the subject. Book-length whining about the lack of critical thinking, the lack of quality writing, and the general decline of academic rigor has become a cottage industry.

In all but the most elite academic institutions, fewer and fewer young people arrive at school ready to thrive academically. Grade inflation is rampant in high schools, while standardized tests are an imprecise measure of academic ability at best. More first-year students need remedial classes, especially in math and writing. Academic support services are under strain. Students are often out of breath because they have trouble keeping up. For their part, professors are frustrated that too many college students seem unable to undertake college-level work.

Second, a growing number of students and their parents have embraced a transactional view of higher education whose primary focus is preparation for employment. Students are customers who expect colleges to provide a service. These students or their parents pay a lot of money, often after taking out huge loans, to get credentials. When there is some kind of obstacle along the way, such as the inability to achieve a desirable grade, it is the fault of the professor and, ultimately, of the school.

Almost every faculty member has a story (or 10) about disrespectful emails from students or angry phone calls from parents. “If the course assignments were more reasonable, I would have passed the course.” “Dr. Smith doesn’t like my son and that’s why he failed the course. “You have to give me a ‘B’ in this class, or I’ll lose my scholarship.” “I came here to play ball , and if you let me down, I’ll lose my eligibility.” “I thought it was a Christian college – where’s the grace?” (You hear the latter a lot at my college.)

Sometimes these two meanings collide, resulting in controversy. This is the case of Maitland Jones. According to a recent article by New York Times, Professor Jones is a distinguished scholar who retired from a career at Princeton University. He is the author of a widely adopted textbook in the field of organic chemistry. Many of its students are preparing for careers in medicine. In other words, he’s exactly the kind of teacher you expect — and even want — to be a challenge in the classroom.

Some courses and even entire disciplines are difficult to master. Not all students are cut out for every program of study.

Since retiring, Jones has taught organic chemistry under contract at New York University. Last spring, nearly 25% of the students in the class signed a petition alleging that the subject was too difficult when they failed the course. Jones lived up to his high standards. Many other students and most of his colleagues in the department defended him. However, the university administration disagreed. Students who failed were allowed to withdraw from the course retroactively, thereby erasing the failure from their record. The administration declined to renew Jones’ contract for that academic year.

Certainly, having unreasonable expectations is a mistake more often made by new instructors trying to prove themselves than by seasoned teachers with years of classroom experience. To all appearances, Professor Jones was a conscientious instructor rather than a recalcitrant curmudgeon. He was pedagogically creative. He adjusted course requirements and revised assessments to try to serve students as effectively as possible. He was sensitive to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student learning. In the end, none of it was good enough. Too many students complained. The administration sided with the students. It is the tyranny of academic mediocrity.

It is important that colleges and universities provide adequate academic support services to help students succeed. Many schools lack resources in this area, to the detriment of student learning. But increased support for students should not come at the expense of academic rigor. Some courses and even entire disciplines are difficult to master. Not all students are cut out for every program of study. This is obviously true and should not be controversial.

Higher education should be important, not only for career preparation, but for intellectual formation. In every discipline, faculty must intellectually stretch students, preparing them for success beyond academia, regardless of their career aspirations. Administrators should support faculty rather than side with disgruntled students and angry parents. Students deserve more than academic mediocrity. They deserve an education.