Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America; Peter Sacks; Open Court; 208 pages.
A journalist who became a professor and obtained tenure has now written a new book about to what extent he had to lower himself and his standards to keep his new job. The book, Generation X Goes to College, is a sickening peek behind the curtain of academe.
Those concerned with society’s endurance will find little solace in Peter Sacks’ depiction of higher education. It is a portrait of decadence, of inculcated mediocrity sprinkled liberally with good feelings. Sacks writes under a pseudonym and never names the college that employed him, seeing no need to scandalize it gratuitously because he thinks its problems are no different from those faced by other colleges. The College, as he refers to it, is an institution exhibiting the same all-smiles, V-for-victory bravado President Nixon showed as he left the White House in disgrace. Outside all appears well, even robust; inside is the crumbling.
The New Professor
Having left his career as a journalist to teach journalism at the College, Sacks entered the halls of academe and found them infested by a warped consumer-driven mentality. The consumers were, of course, the students, but the college thought its role was to provide a degree with good grades, not an education. The students expected exactly that—without having to work for it.
Sacks soon found himself enmeshed in a system that operated upon the whims of the students. The college sought the revenue generated by increased enrollment, which required lower admission standards and professors who could meet the students’ approval. The students therefore held sway over the professors’ careers through student evaluations, which heavily influenced the granting of tenure. A student-approved professor had three key traits, according to Sacks: he gave good grades, required little work and was entertaining. A professor who failed to deliver good grades in an entertaining fashion suffered at student evaluations, then at the tenure committee.
Despite sprinklings of praise from some students, Sacks failed his first year to receive good evaluations overall (he was a “tough grader” who “expected far too much,” some students wrote). Those evaluations taught Sacks the first unsavory truth of survival as a professor: Please the slackers. As he writes:
The [students’] comments spoke volumes about the stark dichotomy that existed among students I taught, a generation divided by the more serious ones who were going to college with purpose, and by those whose reasons for being in college weren’t at all clear, who seemed more concerned about being entertained than by learning. I was pleased and flattered by the comments from those who said I taught students to think, but I would eventually learn that professional survival demanded that I pay less attention to them and more attention to the students for whom thinking was a painful and alien process.
Warned by administrators to boost his student evaluations, Sacks picked up a few hints from fellow professors. “Play the game,” one bluntly told him. Another suggested bringing donuts for the class, and a third suggested taking the class out for pizza. A fourth suggested taking acting classes, another said dance classes, to learn to be more animated and entertaining before the class. Another told him, over and over, “You’re just going to have to teach to the evaluations.”
Sacks decided to heed their advice and implemented a plan to get tenure. “What I should do is to become like a kindergarten teacher and do everything possible to make my classes like playtime,” he told a colleague. “I’ll call the class the Sandbox. And we’ll play all kinds of games and just have fun, and I’ll give all my students good grades, and everyone will be happy. Students will get what they want—whether they learn anything or not doesn’t matter. The College will get what it wants, which are lots of happy students. And I’ll get good evaluations, because students are happy and contented.”
The Sandbox Experiment
Sacks’ “sandbox experiment,” as he called it, consisted of the following: he eased up on his standards, decided not to mention his background in journalism to keep his students from feeling inferior to him, allowed them to address him by his first name, gave “outrageously good grades,” and in general attempted “shamelessly [to] plug into popular culture and the demands of this generation to be amused.” The experiment turned out as he predicted: the students were delighted, the administrators were happy, and even his colleagues were impressed.
The committee to grant tenure was also impressed. Most members noted Sacks’ 180-degree turnaround on student evaluations. One member, however, asked if Sacks had, in making those changes, compromised his standards at all. Sacks replied euphemistically that he had “adjusted” the level of the course to meet the students’ “abilities and needs.” The ruse worked. Sacks received tenure.
While relieved, Sacks was uneasy about how readily the tenure committee accepted his response. As he writes:
As I think about what I said, it seems to me absurd that such a response could even be considered legitimate, and yet for this group of people that was exactly the right answer. Before the Sandbox Experiment, my mentality was such that if you asked students to perform at a reasonable approximation of college level work, then it was their job to rise up to your level, not the other way around. I still don’t think I was ever expecting too much of my students; and in a less corrupt system in which students themselves were not empowered, by virtue of their own mediocrity, to essentially define their own standards and curriculum, there would have never been a problem; they would have performed at the college level, or would have been forced to find something else to do with their lives. As matters stood, students were getting away with inferior work, getting good grades to boot, then sent away under the illusion that that’s how the real world worked.
Many will no doubt find Sacks’ Sandbox Experiment, if not reprehensible, at least in complicity with the very system he condemns. Sacks anticipates that reaction, sympathizes with it, but says his deeds were necessary for the experiment. “In an absolute sense, I might have been wrong to act in the way the system was compelling me to act,” he writes, “but now, I am confessing, and hoping that the virtue of my act lies in exposing the corruption that has enveloped much of higher education.”
The Postmodern Problem
In the second half of the book, Sacks discusses how the problems he encountered relate to postmodernism, and he provides some solutions to the problems in a postmodern context. His forays into postmodernism are interesting, if somewhat overdrawn. He never quite realizes the sad irony of the Baby Boomers’ generational hand-wringing over the Generation X-ers and their lack of standards, distrust of authority, and abject cynicism. It was, after all, the Boomers who tore down the standards, displaced the authority, and then became—albeit in different, more politicized arenas—more puritannical than those they replaced.
The problems between the two generations are most lucidly detailed in Neil Howe and William Strauss’ December 1992 Atlantic Monthly article, “The New Generation Gap.” The article is a primer on generational issues, and it provides an interesting perspective on the origins of the problems Sacks encountered. At one point the article urges its readers to look at the generation gap from the viewpoint of the members of Generation X (whom the article refers to as “Thirteeners,” a more flattering term for this generation, in reference to it being the 13th in the nation’s history): …you notice how Boomers keep redefining every test of idealism in ways guaranteed to make you fail. You’re expected to muster passions against political authority you’ve never felt, to search for truth in places you’ve never found useful, to solve world problems through gestures you find absurd. As you gaze at the seamy underside of grand Boomer causes gone bust, you turn cynical. Maybe you stop caring. And the slightest lack of interest on your part is interpreted as proof of your moral blight.
Generationally speaking, then, Sacks’ book is another broadside at Generation X. Not all broadsides are ill-deserved, however. The plethora of students swelling college classrooms enrolled not because they seek knowledge, but because they seek a degree, are a mockery of the very term higher education. They pack the classrooms, stifling the scholars among them while lowering the common denominator and the value of the degree. Sacks reminds us, too, that administrators do little to stem the influx, mostly for the obvious financial advantages of enrolling more students.
In his analysis Sacks pinpoints several sources of this generation’s problem: the society’s entitlement mentality, the colleges’ misplaced consumerism, junior high and high schools continuing to spoonfeed students instead of preparing them for the world outside, electronic games and TV paring down attention spans and inflating the importance of entertainment, and postmodern angst.
As a solution, Sacks suggests fighting fire with fire. Teachers, he says, must become postmodern themselves, teaching as expert consultants instead of as transmitters of knowledge. Teachers must help students learn how to learn, then challenge them to imagine new ways to view knowledge.
Furthermore, colleges must attack entitlement-driven grade inflation. Sacks suggests publishing in transcripts each class’ average grade and size alongside a student’s grade in the class, restricting the last date for a student to withdraw from a course, and mandating grade distribution for all courses (i.e., no more than 10 percent can receive an A).
Whether teachers should become postmodern is debatable. The problems Sacks depicts seem to be mainly within the system of education, including admissions, instead of the manner of educating. Grade inflation, however, is a terrible problem, perhaps most debilitating to the students who actually earn their good grades only to find them cheapened when less able students make the same grades when all they know is how to play the system.
Sacks’ suggestions merit serious consideration, if only because they come from someone on the inside with no vested interest in remaining so. Furthermore, they are worthy of debate for one other reason: the students of this generation who come to learn, despite all the roadblocks.
It is for these students Sacks makes his closing plea: “Let’s create an environment that doesn’t make teachers indifferent because they’re overwhelmed by a sea of indifference. And for the wonderful, special, lovely people who want to learn, let’s bend over backward and show them how.”