On Campus

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.

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