The unteachables

We see the results of this educational phenomenon from time to time on this blog:

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 phenomenon isn’t new, of course. More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle was dividing the world into those who were capable of learning through dialectic and those who were only capable of changing their minds through exposure to rhetoric. What is new is that the educational system has converted a great mass of the youth who were capable of dialectic reason and rendered them literally unteachable. The problem is, as we have seen, that they have no idea that their dialectic is nothing more than rhetoric, their skepticism is actually dogma, and what they believe to be facts are merely opinion.

And it is intriguing to contemplate how Delavagus’s attempted defense of his ill-considered defense of ancient skepticism was mostly a sophisticated version of this phenomenon, as his main response to my identification of his various departures from the text, definitional mutations, errors, and assorted hand-wavings was to claim that my reading was “uncharitable”. Which, of course, is little more than the larval academic’s way of saying “you could still see what I meant, couldn’t you?”