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The Unteachables: A Generation that Cannot Learn

“The honeymoon is over.” Instructors who award low grades in humanities disciplines will likely be familiar with a phenomenon that occurs after the first essays are returned to students: former smiles vanish, hands once jubilantly raised to answer questions are now resentfully folded across chests, offended pride and sulkiness replace the careless cheer of former days. Too often, the smiles are gone for good because the customary “B+” or “A” grades have been withheld, and many students cannot forgive the insult.

The matter doesn’t always end there. Some students are prepared for a fight, writing emails of entreaty or threat, or besieging the instructor in his office to make clear that the grade is unacceptable. Every instructor who has been so besieged knows the legion of excuses and expressions of indignation offered, the certainty that such work was always judged acceptable in the past, the implication that a few small slip-ups, a wrong word or two, have been blown out of proportion. When one points out grievous inadequacies -- factual errors, self-contradiction, illogical argument, and howlers of nonsensical phrasing -- the student shrugs it off: yes, yes, a few mistakes, the consequences of too much coffee, my roommate’s poor typing, another assignment due the same day; but you could still see what I meant, couldn’t you, and the general idea was good, wasn’t it? “I’m better at the big ideas,” students have sometimes boasted to me. “On the details, well … ”.

Meetings about bad grades are uncomfortable not merely because it is unpleasant to wound feelings unaccustomed to the sting. Too often, such meetings are exercises in futility. I have spent hours explaining an essay’s grammatical, stylistic, and logical weaknesses in the wearying certainty that the student was unable, both intellectually and emotionally, to comprehend what I was saying or to act on my advice. It is rare for such students to be genuinely desirous and capable of learning how to improve. Most of them simply hope that I will come around. Their belief that nothing requires improvement except the grade is one of the biggest obstacles that teachers face in the modern university. And that is perhaps the real tragedy of our education system: not only that so many students enter university lacking the basic skills and knowledge to succeed in their courses -- terrible in itself -- but also that they often arrive essentially unteachable, lacking the personal qualities necessary to respond to criticism.

The unteachable student has been told all her life that she is excellent: gifted, creative, insightful, thoughtful, able to succeed at whatever she tries, full of potential and innate ability. Pedagogical wisdom since at least the time of John Dewey -- and in some form all the way back to William Wordsworth’s divinely anointed child “trailing clouds of glory” -- has stressed the development of self-esteem and a sense of achievement. Education, as Dewey made clear in such works as The Child and the Curriculum (1902), was not about transferring a cultural inheritance from one generation to the next; it was about students’ self-realization. It involved liberating pupils from that stuffy, often stifling, inheritance into free and unforced learning aided by sympathy and encouragement. The teacher was not so much to teach or judge as to elicit a response, leading the student to discover for herself what she, in a sense, already knew. In the past twenty years, the well-documented phenomenon of grade inflation in humanities subjects -- the awarding of high “Bs” and “As” to the vast majority of students -- has increased the conviction that everyone is first-rate.

This pedagogy of self-esteem developed in response to the excesses of rote learning and harsh discipline that were thought to characterize earlier eras. In Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Mr. Gradgrind, the teacher who ridicules a terrified Sissy Jupe for her inability to define a horse (“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth … ”), was seen to epitomize a soulless pedagogical regime that deadened creativity and satisfaction. Dickens and his readers believed such teaching to be a form of mental and emotional abuse, and the need to protect students from the stigma of failure became an article of faith amongst progressive educators. For them, the stultifying apparatus of the past had to be entirely replaced. Memorization itself, the foundation of traditional teaching, came to be seen as an enemy of creative thought: pejorative similes for memory work such as “rote learning” and “fact-grinding” suggest the classroom equivalent of a military drill, harsh and unaccommodating. The progressive approach, in contrast, emphasizes variety, pleasure, and student interest and self-motivation above all.

It sounds good. The problem, as traditionalists have argued (but without much success), is that the utopian approach hasn’t worked as intended. Rather than forming cheerful, self-directed learners, the pedagogy of self-esteem has often created disaffected, passive pupils, bored precisely because they were never forced to learn. As Hilda Neatby commented in 1953, the students she was encountering at university were “distinctly blasé” about their coursework. A professor of history, Neatby was driven to investigate progressive education after noting how ill-equipped her students were for the high-level thinking required of them; her So Little For the Mind remains well-worth reading. In her assessment:

The bored “graduates” of elementary and high schools seem, in progressive language, to be “incompletely socialized.” Ignorant even of things that they might be expected to know, they do not care to learn. They lack an object in life, they are unaware of the joy of achievement. They have been allowed to assume that happiness is a goal, rather than a by-product.

The emphasis on feeling good, as Neatby argued, prevents rather than encourages the real satisfactions of learning.

Of course, the progressive approach has advantages, not the least of which is that it enables university administrators to boast of the ever-greater numbers of students taking degrees at their institutions. Previously disadvantaged groups have gained access to higher education as never before, and more and more students are being provided with the much-touted credentials believed to guarantee success in the workforce. Thus our universities participate in a happy make-believe. Students get their degrees. Parents are reassured that their money has been well-spent. And compliant professors are, if not exactly satisfied -- it corrodes the soul to give unearned grades -- at least relieved not to encounter student complaints.

More than a few students know that something fishy is going on. The intelligent ones see their indifferent, mediocre, or inept counterparts receiving grades similar to their own, and the realization offends their sense of justice. Moreover, there is little satisfaction in consciously playing the system. The smart student with his easy “A” knows that he has not been challenged to develop his intellect. I remember once walking in the hallway behind a student who had just picked up her final term essay; as she joined her friends, she flipped to the back of the paper without reading any of the instructor’s comments. “An A,” she said jubilantly, but with a strong undertone of derision. “And I didn’t even read the book!” As the paper thudded into the trash basket, her friends joined in the disdainful laughter.

In contrast, the weak student who believes in his high grades has also had a disservice done him. He has been misled about his abilities, falsely persuaded that career paths and goals are open that may be out of reach. Eventually, the fraud will be revealed: by an employer who finds him inadequate, by his own dawning recognition that he cannot achieve what he hoped. The reckoning will likely be bitter; evidence exists that the pedagogy of false esteem can even cause psychological harm. When students who have always been praised must confront the reality of their low achievement, their tendency is, as researchers James Coté and Anton Allahar report, not to confront the problem directly but to hit back at its perceived source -- the teacher who has given them the bad news, the employer who does not renew a contract. Far more than their adequate peers when faced with difficulties, these students experience a range of negative reactions, including anger, anxiety, and depression.

Even more seriously, such students have not only been misled but fundamentally malformed. They have never learned to listen to criticism, to recover from disappointment, or to slog through difficulties with no guarantee of success except commitment. The person who is never challenged is also never refined, never learns to cope with the setbacks that come on the way to high endeavor. And it is not only in the academic realm, of course, that they may be hampered: a full life outside of university also requires the ability to confront one’s weaknesses and recover from defeat. Despite the admittedly important emphasis on character formation in our schools -- on tolerance, anti-racism, refusal of bullying, and so on -- it seems that we have failed to show students what real achievement looks like and what it will require of them.

Related: Can the Humanities Be Saved?