A college student’s essay about ethnic food in America is a depressing window into the fact that American colleges don’t educate, they “un-educate.”
Several hours ago, I sat down to write a post about religion and culture. I got as far as picking a title for my post when I got a text from one of my Little Bookworms. Could I please help edit an essay for his food and culture class at college? Of course I can help edit. My post will have to wait.
Ninety minutes later, I’d finished editing the essay and gotten material for the post I’m writing now, the one about the way in which American colleges “un-educate” America’s youth.
The start of the “un-educating” process that occurs at American colleges is what I call “the ruination of writing.” When Little Bookworm left my house, I’d trained him to have a tight writing style that avoided excessive passive voice and blowsy, meaningless throat-clearing and fillers. A year and a half into a liberal arts degree, my Little Bookworm’s writing has degraded horribly. Think of his writing as a really disappointing mug of beer: It’s all foam. Search as you will, there’s no beer hiding underneath. What showed up on my screen was a mess of passive voice, throat-clearing, cant, meaningless fillers, repetition, and unnecessary “big” words (used incorrectly). His essay overflowed with academic foam, a meaningless froth of ugly, misshapen words and phrases all intended to hide a factual and intellectual vacuum.
I don’t blame Little Bookworm for the vacuum either. He’s a diligent student and, I happen to know, started researching this project months ago. The topic, of course, is typical for academia: Ethnic food and its role in denoting status within the culture. Little Bookworm’s bibliography is three pages long and he included lots of quotations and citations to facts. Or, rather, citations to “facts.”
Those “facts” are what really broke me as an editor. I didn’t collapse weeping in front of the screen, but a small part of me wanted to. It’s quite obvious that the “learned” academics who managed to get themselves published on the topic of food and American culture are singularly uninformed. They think they know their subject in-and-out, but they actually operate in a world of unknown unknowns. They are so bereft of any wider knowledge that they’re incapable of drawing proper conclusions about anything at all.
Reading my child’s essay summarizing these experts reminded me that many American colleges, especially smaller ones with fewer faculty members, no longer have either breadth requirements or survey classes. This has resulted in entirely “reductive” education, one that sees professors teach and students learn less and less about a great deal of nothing. A history student no longer spends the first two years in college studying the breadth of Western history, from the Ancients through WWI. (Back in my day, modern history always stopped with WWI.) Now, the students can only learn a professor’s area of expertise — and that area is very, very small.
The made-up example I like to throw around is the professor whose PhD thesis was about button-making in early 19th Century northern New Hampshire. That professor’s classes will be “Sexism and button-making in early 19th Century northern New Hampshire;” “Racism and button-making in early 19th Century northern New Hampshire;” and “Gender hatred and button-making in early 19th Century northern New Hampshire.”