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Skewering the 'college for all' mind-set

This is as damning a view of our "college for all" mentality as you'll find. While the nation's competitive universities skim off the top students, bottom tier campuses struggle to fill their seats with grossly unprepared and -- in many cases -- unmotivated students.

They struggle with work they can't handle, run up unmanageable debt and drop out at alarming rates. Instructors face the dilemma of failing huge numbers of students or dumbing down standards to allow them to move on while gaining minimal skills.

That's the message -- expressed with both passion and deep frustration -- of "Professor X," an adjunct English professor at a community college and four-year state campus he declines to identify.

"I write anonymously because I have no desire to single out my institutions; I believe the issues I raise to be universal," he writes.

But Professor X has no qualms about drawing sweeping conclusions.

"In no other age but our own -- idealistic, inclusive, unwilling to limit anyone's possibilities for self-determination -- would some of my students be considered ready for college," he writes. "They have been abducted into college, sold a bill of goods."

Professor X, a government worker by day, decided to teach college English courses at night for $1,900 per class because he and his wife got in over their heads on a mortgage. His story is not unusual, he says, since just 27 percent of college faculty members are full-time professors on tenure track. Like students, he said, adjunct professors take the hit.

"We are paid by the college to do the dirty work that no one else wants to do, the wrenching, draining, sorrowful business of teaching and failing the unprepared who often don't even know they are unprepared," he writes. "The truth, of course, without any sugarcoating, is that work submitted by my students is often so garbled that it is impossible to understand what they are thinking."

Professor X's writing is so gloomy that the reader can't help but wonder if his mood is influenced by the financial difficulties he mentions frequently and by what he describes as his often-tenuous marriage.

The book is a follow-up to an article in Atlantic Monthly that drew widespread criticism from educators, including suggestions that the students' struggles were due largely to Professor X's own weaknesses in the classroom.

"While his gloomy blend of fatalism, guilt, cowardice and low self-esteem is perhaps not unique, it should not be seen as representative of the mind-set of those who toil in the less prestigious strata of higher education," one critic wrote.

Professor X suggests separating vocational training from the rest of the college curriculum, but for the most part his book is long on criticism and short on solutions.

"The college-writing machine would have you believe that skilled teachers can teach any student, no matter what his or her level of preparation, and that is simply not true," he says. "There are no easy answers or magic bullets."

Peter Simon is a retired Buffalo News education reporter.


In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic

By "Professor X"


249 pages, $25.95

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