It’s Not Just the Athletes Who Can’t Read and Write

Tar
Heel alums may be embarrassed over the scandal involving the amazingly low
academic standards for “student-athletes” at the University of North Carolina,
but for the rest of America, it is the gift that keeps on giving for its
insights into the true priorities of our higher education leaders.

This
recent
article
in the Raleigh News & Observer nicely summarizes the mess at
Chapel Hill. We learn among other things that Mary Willingham, a “reading
specialist” employed by the university to help athletes, says that she knew
from their diagnostic tests that many of them simply were not able to do
college-level work. Some admitted “they had never read a book and didn’t know
what a paragraph was.” Yet one of America’s “public ivies” so felt the need to
pile up wins on the gridiron and basketball court that it admitted students who
by objective standards ought to have been returning to about fifth grade after
graduating from high school.

Some
other student-athletes were better prepared for college, but just wanted to
save time on academic work to have more time for their sports. When Willingham
told one student that a paper she wanted to submit in a class was a plagiarized
“cut and paste” job, she was told to look the other way. The student “earned” a
B.

It
would be a serious mistake, however, to think that the problem of ill-prepared
students who don’t want to be bothered with reading and writing is confined
just to athletes. Evidence abounds that this phenomenon is widespread.

I
recently finished reading The
Shadow Scholar
by Dave Tomar. He admits – without any apparent remorse
– that he wrote thousands of college papers for students over the span of a
decade. His business of enabling students to cheat began while he was an
undergraduate at Rutgers, a university that U.S.
News
rates as “more selective.” But Tomar found many of his classmates to
be pathetically weak in their basic academic abilities.

One
of his first clients was “Rich Kid Sid.” Sid regarded himself as better than
Rutgers. He intended to transfer as soon as possible to a more prestigious
school with the long-run goal of getting into law school. He didn’t want to
waste his time with the expository writing course required of all freshmen. The
problem was that his initial in-class writing assignment had been graded as No
Pass. Sid needed to do better, but wasn’t interested in accomplishing that
himself, so he paid Tomar to rework the assignment.

How
bad was the writing of this typical (and non-athlete) student? Tomar writes,
“It was a jumble of words slapped together uncomfortably, standing next to one
another with an air of remoteness, like strangers in an elevator…. Punctuation
dotted the landscape of his work almost randomly, as though he had written the
paper first and then gone back through it indiscriminately inserting dots and
dashes.”

Sid
thought he was a good writer. Tomar observes that no teacher had ever told him
otherwise. That’s a common problem with young Americans. Many of them coast
through twelve years of schooling without ever learning how to write, as Ellen
Finnigan, an online writing coach, explains here. In
college, a few improve their writing, but many others get by with cheating or
just because professors don’t want to take the large amount of time necessary
to work with students on their writing. Professor Murray Sperber made that point
during a Pope Center event last year.

College
leaders say that they’re committed to educational excellence, but their actions
speak otherwise. They admit many students who are hardly ready for high school,
much less college, and then allow them to graduate even though they have made
scant progress in basic skills like writing.

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George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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