A week ago I was on a Southwest flight from Dallas sitting next to a very pleasant middle-aged woman who was busily grading papers. As I finished watching one of America’s greatest cinematic masterpieces on my (brand-new) MacBook Pro, I glanced over at some of the work. It looked identical to the work I see from my ten-year-old daughter and her classmates: Mostly simple sentences, a few dreadful spelling mistakes, and virtually no complex analysis. Unlike my daughter’s classmates, however, this teacher’s students skipped entire sections of their tests — failing to answer half the questions.
I was just about to open my mouth and say, “Fifth grade?” when I caught myself. Instead, I said “What grade?”
“Yes. In suburban Chicago.”
I almost choked on my peanuts.
I thought of this exchange as I read Richard Vedder’s Minding the Campus essay on low graduation rates. Out of every 100 American students who enter high school, only 20 get an undergraduate degree. This is a remarkable failure rate, especially given two factors that Richard mentions: (1) grade inflation (no one flunks anymore) and (2) soaring amounts of financial aid.
Why so many failures? I think the heart of the problem is — to use Richard’s phrase — the “willingness to work.” Simply put, American college students are lazy on a scale that boggles the mind. It’s a laziness that starts early and develops year by year as “breathe-in, breathe-out” promotions (just stay alive and you’ll get through) allow students to not only progress from kindergarden to twelfth grade, but do so with a solid “B” average. It’s a laziness reinforced by the extraordinarily low academic demands of even elite universities. I studied half as hard in law school as I worked my first year in the “real world.”
The problem is cultural, and no amount of wonkery or financial aid is going to solve it. I frequently think of Michael Barone’s Hard America, Soft America, a truly excellent book. Few elements of American society are as “soft” as academia, where standards are lowered every year to make sure that everyone can succeed. Yet failure is only magnified. I would say no part of American society is “harder” than combat arms — yet kids who may not have succeeded in school show judgment, initiative, and courage that would boggle the minds of academics who are convinced that “self-esteem” somehow builds character. It’s almost as if real challenges build character while coddling destroys it. Go figure.
Anyway, it’s ominous to see “soft America” drifting into the marketplace. Recently, I was approached by an earnest law student who said, “I’d love to work for you, but I only want to work nine to five — family comes first.” My response? ”Good to know. I hear Wal-Mart is hiring.”