First, and perhaps most importantly, we need to be intellectually honest with ourselves when we make pronouncements about the superior standards of the past, and as we scrutinize and revise the standards of the present and immediate future. My suspicion is that many of us who complain the loudest might be uncomfortable scrutinizing our own performance—past and present—and we ignore the possibility that our own pedagogical approaches might unconsciously contribute to unsatisfactory academic standards.
Full disclosure, here: I graduated high school in 1975, and my generation always seemed to me to be the epitome of TV-head passivity, our coming of age a time of utter intellectual and cultural flaccidity following Vietnam and Watergate. Many seemed to regard thinking as too much work, too much bother. I was emphatically not a straight-A student at my undergraduate university (too much post-adolescent rebelliousness for that), although I was a kamikaze for the courses and professors I found worthwhile. Among peers, I remember plenty of slacking and excuses. Given the time-frame and what I remember of our performance, I have to imagine that the faculty considered us Exhibit A as far as the demise of academic standards is concerned. Now that I and my generation are senior faculty ourselves, we still talk as if no one can write, as if our elevated youthful standards have been diluted and adulterated…in other words, O Tempora, O Mores again. Taking us at our word, the only logical conclusion is that standards have somehow managed to continue falling, across the centuries and endless generations of students, perhaps like the endless the “rise of the middle classes,” which has been an accepted phenomenon—somehow—from the early Renaissance Italian city-state to, if not the present, then the Reagan administration.
Among my students today, I see a good percentage of sharp minds, quick learners, people fast on their feet. They may not be as good at what we were good at as we think we were, but they’re quite good at things we weren’t called upon to face: software protocols, responding to visual and tactile information, strategic thinking, and so on. The skills necessary for later generations tend not to be those memorialized in laments for the Good Old Days, which tend to focus on what has (supposedly) been lost. The irrationality of this skewed view is striking: the informational and educational ecosystem changes, but we bemoan the “decline” of skills and knowledge—a decline we (inexplicably) choose to chronicle by teaching and measuring the same way we always have, even in the face of the cultural changes. It’s a bit like bemoaning the general loss of skill at riding a velocipede.
“Change,” it seems almost embarrassing to have to say, does not necessarily mean “decline.” It goes without saying that critical thinking and persuasive, assured writing are central to any college education, and that to deemphasize them is unforgivable. The changing environment does mean that such skills cannot be taken for granted, and it can no longer be assumed (if it ever safely could be, which I doubt) that any high school graduate has dependable research and writing skills. These skills now have to be given special attention and taught differently, which in most cases means more deliberately: broken down into constituent parts, and assigned and evaluated in a multi-stage process. This will often necessitate more rigorously conceived assignments and increased professorial oversight—inconvenient at worst. I am not persuaded that it was somehow better when the professor could dismiss a semester’s effort with “I don’t regard this as college-level work,” and a wave of the hand.
Standards are not a single, angry point on a vertical axis—ours may not be as high as at Institution X, but we’re sure not as badly off as Institution Z. There is a constant interplay between the standards we value and firmly believe we are maintaining—which we ourselves may or may not have met, in actuality—and the constantly evolving intellectual and practical environments into which our students are (so to speak) being born, with us acting as midwives. So much of what we can accomplish has to do with not only student capability and willingness, but also with our own responses to cultural and environmental changes. The interrelationships of these factors are fluid, not absolute, and we do ourselves a disservice when we hunker resentfully behind scandalous anecdotes and isolated outrages (“and her Dean made her change the grade!”) in our approach to the multifaceted issue of academic standards.