The unteachables

Are some people just mentally unfit for university?


Many years ago, a student sat in my office as I explained what he needed to do to write a good literary essay. Let’s call him “Dave” to protect his privacy and since  I have no idea what his name actually was (I hope it wasn’t really Dave). Dave sat patiently as I explained that the essay cannot just be an account of the poem or story or whatever it was; he needed to come up with a claim about the meaning of the text. He had to really do some analysis and say something beyond the obvious.

After a pause, Dave looked up and said dully, “But I can’t think of anything.”

At that moment I knew there was nothing I could do for him. It was time for Dave to find another line of personal development.

I have often wondered since then how many students produce substandard work because they haven’t given it their best effort, and how many students produce substandard work because their best effort, try as they might, just isn’t very good. And for that latter group, the Daves as it were, how many of them simply lack the basic mental acuity to be able to ever do the work?

Questions like this sometimes lead me to doubt my university’s more or less open admissions policy. Should we really be admitting students who have little chance of succeeding? Doesn’t admission itself imply that with some effort, results are possible? Did they cheat Dave by not sending him elsewhere in the first place? Sometimes I think they did.

Other times I think that it should be up to the students themselves to decide whether they want to enroll and take their chances. Maybe it’s not up to the university to decide ahead of time who has a chance — whatever their high school grades might have been.  Maybe it’s like buying a gym membership: being a member gets you in the door to use the facilities, but there’s no guarantee you’ll actually get fit.

On the other hand, gym memberships don’t cost thousands of dollars a  year (I assume: a quick look at me will attest that I have never been a member of a gym). They don’t require full-time effort, and the government isn’t picking up half the tab for those whose time on the treadmill is never going to amount to anything.

In the end, I guess I will have to take solace in the fact that one can never know for sure. Like political ideologies, ignorance and stupidity look the same at the extremes. Maybe some day another Dave will be in my office listening with all his might and suddenly the light will go on. He’ll get it, and a whole new world will be opened to him.

And maybe some day, I’ll get fit. You never know.


The unteachables

  1. Pingback: THE RETIRED EDUCATOR » Blog Archive » The negative impact of “no-fail” policies

  2. Pingback: The negative impact of “no-fail” policies | The Retired Educator

  3. I’m pleased to see that you’re not placing sole blame on hapless Dave. I am of the opinion that the human mind does not have limits. Dave is teachable. Perhaps more blame lies with the education system, his parents, or maybe even past educators that have given up on poor Dave. The traditional “blame the student” mentality irritates me. I suggest that people interested in progressive educational paradigms read “Education and Democracy” by John Dewey (available for free online), and “Education for Thinking” by Deanna Kuhn.

    • Greg, thanks for these references. I agree that Dave is not entirely, or maybe even mostly to blame. And I would not say that Dave is unteachable inherently, but that by the time he got to university, he probably was unteachable because his brain had not been trained to think in the ways he was required to think.

      Those who aim to be serious athletes begin when they are young, not in their late teens or early twenties. I feel certain that the same is true for those aim to be serious thinkers.

  4. I’d like to point out another group of people hurt by the notion that “everyone belongs” in university – the students who really do belong.

    I was part of a program that required a fairly extensive interview, portfolio, and testing. The testing included English language skills and computer skills. We were not told if the tests were pass/fail, minimal grade level, or based on a curve, however I presumed that everyone who made it into the program would have at least passed the minimum standard needed, or would be advised to upgrade before entering the program full time.

    In a first-year programming class, the instructor had to stop teaching the content of the class (what I, and most of my fellow students were there to learn) to explain file management, how to use storage tools, and other very basic computer skills. Instead of being able to spend time on the concepts of the class, those concepts were rushed through, and the majority of the class struggled. I feel that those of us who were prepared to be challenged by the class and really learn something, were held back by those who were admitted into the program without being prepared to meet the content the program was striving to provide.

    This is no different than the “no fail” policy in primary and secondary schools – where ultimately neither the struggling student, the average student, the excelling student, nor the instructor benefits.

  5. I completely agree. I just did a couple of second year courses that were clearly “dumbed down” for the benefit of people who shouldn’t be there.

    In one instance, the prof spent a whole lecture teaching essay and documentation basics, and this was not an English course. I’m planning on asking for a refund.

  6. Maybe Dave just doen’t give a rat’s behind about what you are teaching and took the course because he thought (or was told) he ought to, or because he needs a minimum pass in order to get some qualification that he DOES care about. Not everyone digs Shakespeare and this is true even if you try to make it cool and relate it to the Simpsons. Furthermore, this doesn’t even mean they don’t (or can’t) “get it”. It just means they have different values or interests to you. Maybe this is why the students on RYP feel that profs think they are morally superior LOL. Assuming someone lacks brainpower because they have different interests is pretty, um, superior.

  7. So if you get a job, and you don’t give a rats behind about certian aspects of it, does that mean you can just do the parts you like, forget the rest, and dismiss the people who look down on you for it as snobs?

    Whether Dave is stupid or just lazy, the term “mentally unfit” appears to apply either way.

    Call me a snob, but as someone who makes a concerted effort in all areas of life–even the ones that don’t interest me that much–I do, in fact, consider myself morally superior to those who can’t be bothered. And I don’t blame professors who feel the same way–provided, of course, its justified.

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