I have some friends who are college lecturers. They are the unfortunates (of various titles and grades of professor – mostly adjunct) who actually have to face the hordes of undergraduates and somehow impart knowledge to them. At this time of year the students are busily poring over course descriptions and syllabi, and making enquiries about the exact requirements. These enquiries lead the recipients to despair (and, in the cases of the non-Mormon, to booze) For example:

Syllabus says

Each student must complete a term paper or a final class project.

Note emphasis on the OR. Professor giving the course receives this enquiry

Do we have to do a term paper AND a project?

Another (emphasis in original):

Syllabus: Friday, Sept. 28th Project Proposals Due


Question: So is the project due on Sept. 28th or just the project proposal?

A third:

Syllabus: The project must be based on a historical item from a period and culture covered in the course material.


Question: So does the project have to be based on a time period we cover in class?

Then there are the more basic questions:

My name is [redacted] and I am inquiring about registering for your coarse because I didn’t manage to get into [the English one]

One wonders whether the answer sent was “Fine”. One also wonders why these students are attending a further education establishment when they clearly don’t have basic reading comprehension down. Now it is true that some academics do seem to seem to let their dense academic prose slip over to non-academic contexts but that doesn’t excuse failure to parse basic sentences when faced with them. When I was an inky schoolboy (walking to school in the snow uphill both ways) I had English lessons where I had to answer comprehension questions on passages of text and others where the homework was to write a summary in 100 words of the first chapter of a book. I then had similar techniques thrown at me when I was taught French, German, Latin and Greek. It didn’t help so much with the latter two, but it certainly helped with the modern languages.

It even helps with trying to understand that strange dialect of English called intersectionalism, though that can be a bit tricky since these people seem to use words the way Humpty Dumpty did in Alice

Now I’ve talked about how I was taught to others now and again and the responses are frequently disbelief and phrases like “how ninetheenth century!” and, from the British sorts, “you never went to a comprehensive did you?”

The latter is true. My parents paid for me to be educated outside the state system at a time when schools outside the state system were strong believers in taboo topics such as competitveness and academic rigour, neither of which seemed to be a thing within the state system anymore. As a result I was actually pushed to achieve more and not coast as one of the smarter children in a class. It seems to me that a lot of the things I was taught then are no longer taught or at least not taught well, particularly in the state (public) sector that provides most of the education in the developed world.

The argument for public education is that it is good for society as a whole to have its children educated so that they can successfully take their place in it, contribute to it and so on. This has historically been understood to mean that we expect our children to learn the 3Rs, get some sort of idea of history/culture and then study something that helps them get a decent job and thence a house, spouse and 2.2 children. The logic behind public provision of it is that this levels the playing field and that it helps most the poorest children whose families otherwise could not afford it. Given that in the modern world there isn’t a single job that doesn’t require some literacy/numeracy the logic that says that education is a public good is quite plausible because uneducated people won’t be able to get a job and thus can’t pay taxes etc. (not to mention that in a democracy where everyone has the franchise, everyone should be able to make an informed choice).

You can now compare that theory with the actual result.

The majority of students do in fact learn to read at some minimal level. Some learn to read more, some learn to do sums in their head, but neither is guaranteed. That seems to be about it for useful results and even that minimal level is pretty poor, particularly for minorities:

Only 37 percent of 12th-graders tested proficient or better in reading, and only 25 percent did so in math. Among black students, only 17 percent tested proficient or better in reading, and just 7 percent reached at least a proficient level in math.

The atrocious National Assessment of Educational Progress performance is only a fraction of the bad news. Nationally, our high school graduation rate is over 80 percent. That means high school diplomas, which attest that these students can read and compute at a 12th-grade level, are conferred when 63 percent are not proficient in reading and 75 percent are not proficient in math.

For blacks, the news is worse. Roughly 75 percent of black students received high school diplomas attesting that they could read and compute at the 12th-grade level. However, 83 percent could not read at that level, and 93 percent could not do math at that level.

This does however explain the basic lack of comprehension that I started this post with – because universities are apparently quite willing to enroll more students than are capable of actually reading etc. at 12th grade levels:

Fraudulent high school diplomas aren’t the worst part of the fraud. Some of the greatest fraud occurs at the higher education levels—colleges and universities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70 percent of white high school graduates in 2016 enrolled in college, and 58 percent of black high school graduates enrolled in college.

Here are my questions to you: If only 37 percent of white high school graduates test as college-ready, how come colleges are admitting 70 percent of them? And if roughly 17 percent of black high school graduates test as college-ready, how come colleges are admitting 58 percent of them?

Very few seem to learn at school how to make a logical argument, how to debate or how to respond to criticism – and the criticism need not be of them personally just someone/something they support. Hence you see cases where students complain about professors being *phobic or *ist when they quote what some other person said as a trigger for debate or learning.

Rather than be taught to make a case for something or investigate or research something they are, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt say in their well-known article, now book, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure”, taught three dangerous untruths:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility – that children need to protected from every possible threat to their physical and mental well-being
  2. The Untruth of Emotions being Real – i.e. that because you feel something it must be true (and hence that if you feel offended you are a victim that – see Untruth 1 – needs to be protected).
  3. The Untruth of Us vs Them – that everything is a zero-sum game where there are the people on the “good” side and the people on the “evil” side and that’s it.

All of this combines to produce the madness we see on university campuses with Safe Spaces, Trigger Warnings and Deplatforming. It also undoubtedly contributes to the mess that social media – twitter in particular – has become and doesn’t seem likely to help the general political debate about anything. Moreover this failure to properly educate is a problem because it seems likely to harm precisely the disadvantaged minorities that the intersectional left say need most help. The cynical might say that this is deliberate because keeping them disadvantaged allows for politicians to claim to be helping them and bureaucrats to form ever larger bureaucratic empires to administer the various failing policies. Indeed, given the way that conservative women, and conservative blacks, gays etc. are attacked by the “progressive” intersectional sorts, one might think that there is more to this than skeptical cycnicsm, although I personally ascribe a lot of it to the Untruths above – particularly #2 and #3.

The good news is that some of the youth of today are noticing the void and seeking answers. I think that explains the success of Jordan Peterson. Many critics have said – entirely correctly AFAICT – that he isn’t saying anything particularly revolutionary or that hasn’t been said by thousands of priests, philosophers and so on in the past. The reason why he’s successful is that there is a large swathe of young people who haven’t heard anything like it before and the reason they haven’t is the generally pitiful state of education.