Too Many Kids Go To College: A Second Conversation With Myself

Read the first conversation here.

William How goes the teaching?

Matt Do you really want to know? You might not like the answer.

William You’re going to start this conversation with bombast?

Matt Then how about this one. Last week in statistics class, I made a claim and noticed a student’s quizzical look. I asked, “Why that face? Are you dubious or are you certain?” The student’s reply?

William You don’t always explain things well, you know.

Matt Ha! You must have already guessed that the student said, “I don’t know what that word means.”

William This student might have just been taken aback. You can be more than a little intimidating.

Matt Oh, please.

William It’s a rarely used word.

Matt You recall I’m teaching a math class designed for students who don’t want to take math, but that must to satisfy a requirement to graduate.

William I do.

Matt Last week, one of the senior professors who organizes this course—there are multiple sections taught; I only teach one—came into my office and asked if I had noticed whether my students were having more difficulty than might be expected. This professor, I should add, is a brilliant mathematician and a sweetheart.

William I can see where this is going. I’ll bet at good odds that you were pushing those kids too hard.

Matt Actually, I told him that I had come to the realization on my own just two days previously when one of the students complained, to wide acclaim, “You mean you want us to read the whole book?” I thought then to myself, “There is no way that most of these kids are going to pass this course.”

William So you admit it?

Matt Yes. Even though the book’s topics were elementary—were designed to be elementary—the students couldn’t, our couldn’t be bothered to, master them.

William And the senior professor’s advice?

Matt He said that I did not really have to use the entire book, and that I did not have to teach the entire syllabus. He implied that it was best to get these students through the system, and he did so in a manner which suggested he had the students’ best interests at heart. By that I mean, he wanted to see them graduate and not flunk out.

William The proper sentiment. These kids come to college to receive an education, and you should adapt your material to provide it. Not everybody can learn calculus! Just think: they are learning some new math in your class, aren’t they?

Matt They are learning so little as to be trivial. But the real danger is that they—and those that later work with them—will assume they “know math” because they received a passing grade in a “math” course.

William I still say that they’ll have learned some new math.

Matt Most will never remember it. Anyway, the next time in class, I asked the students, “I know you have to take a math course to graduate, and I know you have a choice between this course and [let me call it] High School Algebra Redux. Why did you pick this one?”

William A lot of people are turned off by algebra.

Matt Good Lord! What a stupid thing to say. They’re “turned off” so they shouldn’t be required to learn? Wait, don’t answer. Let me tell you what the kids said. They said—are you ready?—they said, down to a man, that they heard this class was easier.

William They’re just trying to get through school.

Matt To get their “degree”? Well, once I heard that, I don’t mind telling you that I was pretty deflated. I went back to my office and thought hard about the class and about what little I could teach them. I sent out an email—this was a Friday—that said (in essence) “Don’t miss class on Monday. We’ll talk about what is important and what is not for our upcoming exam next Friday.”

William So you do have a heart.

Matt I’m just visiting here. If I set a standard much higher than normal, I’d cause a disruption in the routine. Anyway, during that Monday class I laid out the very few concepts that I thought most important. I said, “These will be on the exam Friday.” And then came class on Wednesday (still before the exam) and do you know what?

William I couldn’t guess.

Matt Two of the students said, “I missed Monday. What’s going to be on the exam?” I asked why they missed. One said, and the other concurred, that “Oh c’mon. I can’t make every Monday class.”

William People have busy schedules…

Matt Yeah, sure they do.


  1. I had a broken tooth fixed today. It never once occurred to me to say to my Dentist, “I’ll just wait in the cafe down the street till you’re done, OK?” I imagine, had I done so, that he would have said, “Um, I can’t mend your tooth if you’re not here”. Could I then, I wonder, have responded, “Aw c’mon. I don’t have to be in that chair every time you wanna put stuff in my head!”

    Impressed by my reasonable response, he may have said, “OK. I’ll call you when I’m done” and then, on my return, handed me a carefully crafted, natural tooth-coloured resin tooth. “Wow, great!” I say.

    Then I get home and smile winningly at my wife. (This rarely works but we husbands are an optimistic lot). “You’ve still got a broken tooth” says she. “Not at all!” I cry triumphantly and produce the tooth from my pocket.

    It doesn’t work. Again.

  2. Matt:
    Don’t worry, you are not paranoid. It is a conspiracy.
    By the way, do your students know that you are blogging about them? If so, it is quite possible that they will engage in even more outlandish behavior to see how you describe it in pixels.

  3. Just pretend the emperor has clothes like everyone else. Make a Soviet-style bargain (“We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”) with the students and go through the formalities. Save your energy for advancing your career by writing articles and grant proposals. Don’t worry about the next generation.

  4. Here’s what a couple of professors did, way back when I was in college, that drove the point home to the students & other faculty & how they got away with it:

    Give a very hard test with the questions subdivided into multiple subparts, each building on the preceding portion. Most should be able to do the first part or two & then they get stumped as they go. Thus a “four or five question” test could be composed of many subparts that really amount to a 10-20 question test. But only the first parts of each question, five to 10 questions in total, are really what you’re after for practical purposes in the current educational climate (though the whole test would still be valid).

    This will result in grades in the 15-45 point range, with the bulk clustering in the 17-25 point range, for example. It will probably shock the current batch of kids…but will drive home how much they really don’t know.

    And they’ll sweat their grades & failing over the weekend (as this was given on a Friday).

    Then simply make the passing curve in the lower score range. They’re probably accustomed to the 70-80, 80-90, 90-100 scoring range & this will unnerve them, even when their grades are “acceptable” to them.

    Of course, you review the entire test & solutions with them at the post-test review. Chances are they’ll be paying attention.

  5. At an earlier point in your career-path the ivied halls of Academia looked pretty inviting, didn’t they? These are the doldrums. They are everywhere. But you know this. Eat your supper. Watch the Tigers. In the future avoid taking on “remedial” classes if you can learn to stop wasting money on food and housing.

  6. Briggs:

    For the sake your own wavering sanity, I suggest you adopt the approach of Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield (described in part 3 at this link) and give your students two grades.

    You send an “ironic”, i.e. politically correct, inflated grade to the registrar’s office. And then you also provide each student with a private grade that expresses how you really feel about what they’ve learned. Professor Mansfield indicates that his students care much more about the private grade than the ironic grade.

  7. Dr. Briggs,
    Today the college students can’t even do arithmetic. In grade school the the teachers sit the kids in a circle around a table and they are expected to figure out arithmetic by themselves. The teachers certainly can’t explain arithmetic to the kids because they never studied the axioms of arithmetic and probably can’t do arithmetic without a calculator. The kids were promoted whether they learned arithmetic or not. It’s no surprise the students think you are mean if you expect them to study and learn the math and don’t pass them automatically.

  8. Sounds like excellent future candidates for important managerial positions in the exponentially-expanding federal government, especially the EPA and Department of Energy.

  9. But the real danger is that they—and those that later work with them—will assume they “know math” because they received a passing grade in a “math” course.

    Is that the danger? Self-delusion?

    Look, the colleges are in the business of selling degrees, credit by credit. It does not serve the bottom line to throw customers out of the store. Instead, it pays to please the customers. That includes the taxpayers who fund the colleges, and who also would like as many degrees granted to as many students as possible.

    The danger is that society as a whole becomes stupider by the day. Our Glorious Leaders are marginal idiots. Superstition and myth supplant knowledge. Rational thinking skills are rare. Clowns rule. It’s a wonder that anything gets done.

    But that is and always has been the human condition. One percent of the population makes it all work and carries the other 99 percent on their backs.

    You are teaching the baggage, not the porters. You need to teach them to be less of a burden, to respect the judgment of people who are far more able and adept than they are, and to not get in the way of basic cultural functionality. They don’t know math. They should know that they don’t know and can get hurt and/or hurt others by pretending that they do.

  10. There was a test? When?

    Anyway, I would just like to say that you will do no one a service by dumbing the course down. Figure out what math concepts you think it’s most important for the average person to know and then teach with the expectation that they will learn those things or fail. Your school probably has a free tutoring service, refer the students there if they are having trouble; have office hours where the students can come to get help. For goodness sake though, DON’T dumb down the material.

  11. Mike D: “Our Glorious Leaders are marginal idiots. Superstition and myth supplant knowledge. Rational thinking skills are rare.”

    I’m not so sure. I believe those last two 1000+ page bills on healthcare and financial reform were carefully crafted to both give money to their friends and also make it impossible for a normal person to understand how they did it. The lawyers who wrote them can be very crafty.

    Concerning student learning abilities, I found that my professors (in the 70’s) differed greatly in how well they were able to get the subject across to the class. Many of my math teachers were quite good at what they did but a few were difficult to learn anything from. My E&M physics (4th year level class) professor would get up and start writing equations on the board and after about 30 minutes would get stuck and have to start reading the book (a text he Xeroxed from the 1930’s for the class because he thought it was much better than some of the newer physics texts that were available) to try to get back on track. Usually, one of the brighter students would need to get up and fix the error and get him back on track. That was one class I had to give up on and by luck it wasn’t required for the degree.

  12. Sarah,

    You say, “Figure out what math concepts you think it’s most important for the average person to know and then teach with the expectation that they will learn those things or fail.” Of course, this is exactly what I have done. And, yes, the school has a tutoring center, freely available, and students are recommended to make use of it. Several say they cannot. Why? “I don’t have time.”

    If the material were not made easier, the bulk of the class would fail. Not just in my section, but in all sections. And not just in math, but all subjects. No one would long tolerate a situation where the majority of the students wash out of school.

  13. Briggs,

    Sorry to hear that your students are so unprepared. I remember how 2nd year Organic Chemistry at the U of Oregon was used to get rid of pre-med students in mass. There were 3 versions taught: (1) a regular version for non-science majors, (2) a pre-med version and (3) a honors college and majors version. I was in the #3 version and was told that the #2 version was the hardest to pass.

  14. James, crafty is not the same as smart. Crafty students can possibly pass the dumbed down courses, but only the smart ones learn the material. Crafty lawyers can draft incomprehensible bills that crafty legislators don’t bother to read, but is that really the smart thing to do?

    I am sorry that the professor had a hard time teaching the subject, and that the smart students had to bail him out of his confusion. But maybe that was a method of imparting thinking skills. The students had to rely on their own intellects instead of being spoon fed.

    Please don’t give up on yourself. You can learn if you apply yourself, no matter what the quality of the instructor. Courses are not obstacles; they are opportunities. Seize the opportunity. Life does not come with an instruction manual.

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