This post is a continuation of yesterday's, in which I discuss an article in the June issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
A main point of Professor X's article, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower", is to discuss the implications, including the "morality", of admitting students to classes that the students are apparently incapable of passing. This is a fascinating topic because it gets to the heart of some cosmic societal issues related to who can have, should have, and/or must have a college education, and what makes a course or experience 'college level'.
Students who have poor reading comprehension and/or writing skills cannot pass Professor X's introductory-level writing and literature classes. Despite being angst-ridden about the subjectivity of grading student papers, Professor X has a specific set of standards for what is required to get a passing grade on the assignments in his class, and some students cannot meet those standards. We could argue about whether his standards are too strict, but I'd rather keep this discussion more general.
Professor X points to the supposed financial gain for a college if a student has to take a course over and over, prolonging the time during which the student is enrolled at the college, and he mentions that administrators at his colleges don't seem to care that many of the students in his classes fail. Issues such as these provide some of the motivation for asking whether it is ethical to continue teaching students who fail. The question is particularly relevant to Professor X's colleges, which he describes as "colleges of last resort".
Professor X writes: "We [Americans] are not comfortable limiting anyone's options." That describes how I feel about the issue. If the alternative is to limit access to college classes, that is more disturbing to me than the situation in which students fail the same courses repeatedly. It's bad enough that some students don't have access to higher education owing to lack of ability to pay the tuition, fees, and other costs. Various colleges have various admissions standards, but I think there should be some colleges that accept anyone who is able to meet the most basic requirements of class participation, in person or online.
Earlier this year, I was traveling in a country that has long had excellent universities in its major cities, but is trying to expand and strengthen its higher education system in smaller cities and other areas. This is controversial, and a widely expressed opinion in the urban universities is that this expansion is a mistake because the regional universities won't be any good; the faculty will be mediocre and the students will be those who aren't good enough to attend the elite universities.
Broadening the university system sounds like a good plan to me. Why not increase access to higher education? The elite universities won't be harmed -- no resources are being taken from them -- and people who for various reasons can't attend the elite universities will get a university education. I like the organization of the U.S. system, in which there are many options in terms of university/college size, programs/emphasis, location, and admissions standards.
There will always be some students who can't succeed at the 'college level'. But is it immoral to let them try (again and again)? It is immoral if the educational system is dysfunctional and consists primarily of an accounting office to take your money so you can hurl yourself at impossible tasks taught by an implacable instructor.
If, however, a student makes a good-faith effort to pass a class, if the college has educational resources to help struggling students, and if the instructor makes a good-faith attempt (within the limits of what is reasonable in terms of time and effort) to help students succeed, it would be immoral to limit someone's access to a college education on the basis of their being unable to write a research-paper "grounded in history" (as required by Professor X).
10 months ago