November 19, 2012

It's Not Just the Athletes Who Can't Read and Write

Tar Heel alums may be embarrassed over the scandal involving the amazingly low academic standards for "student-athletes" at the University of North Carolina, but for the rest of America, it is the gift that keeps on giving for its insights into the true priorities of our higher education leaders.

This recent article in the Raleigh News & Observer nicely summarizes the mess at Chapel Hill. We learn among other things that Mary Willingham, a "reading specialist" employed by the university to help athletes, says that she knew from their diagnostic tests that many of them simply were not able to do college-level work. Some admitted "they had never read a book and didn't know what a paragraph was." Yet one of America's "public ivies" so felt the need to pile up wins on the gridiron and basketball court that it admitted students who by objective standards ought to have been returning to about fifth grade after graduating from high school.

Some other student-athletes were better prepared for college, but just wanted to save time on academic work to have more time for their sports. When Willingham told one student that a paper she wanted to submit in a class was a plagiarized "cut and paste" job, she was told to look the other way. The student "earned" a B.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to think that the problem of ill-prepared students who don't want to be bothered with reading and writing is confined just to athletes. Evidence abounds that this phenomenon is widespread.

I recently finished reading The Shadow Scholar by Dave Tomar. He admits - without any apparent remorse - that he wrote thousands of college papers for students over the span of a decade. His business of enabling students to cheat began while he was an undergraduate at Rutgers, a university that U.S. News rates as "more selective." But Tomar found many of his classmates to be pathetically weak in their basic academic abilities.

One of his first clients was "Rich Kid Sid." Sid regarded himself as better than Rutgers. He intended to transfer as soon as possible to a more prestigious school with the long-run goal of getting into law school. He didn't want to waste his time with the expository writing course required of all freshmen. The problem was that his initial in-class writing assignment had been graded as No Pass. Sid needed to do better, but wasn't interested in accomplishing that himself, so he paid Tomar to rework the assignment.

How bad was the writing of this typical (and non-athlete) student? Tomar writes, "It was a jumble of words slapped together uncomfortably, standing next to one another with an air of remoteness, like strangers in an elevator.... Punctuation dotted the landscape of his work almost randomly, as though he had written the paper first and then gone back through it indiscriminately inserting dots and dashes."

Sid thought he was a good writer. Tomar observes that no teacher had ever told him otherwise. That's a common problem with young Americans. Many of them coast through twelve years of schooling without ever learning how to write, as Ellen Finnigan, an online writing coach, explains here. In college, a few improve their writing, but many others get by with cheating or just because professors don't want to take the large amount of time necessary to work with students on their writing. Professor Murray Sperber made that point during a Pope Center event last year.

College leaders say that they're committed to educational excellence, but their actions speak otherwise. They admit many students who are hardly ready for high school, much less college, and then allow them to graduate even though they have made scant progress in basic skills like writing.

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Published by the Manhattan Institute
The Manhattan Insitute's Center for the American University.