Epic Failure: The Demise of Education (Conclusion)

Although there are probably a billion issues that could be nitpicked (funding, the lack of qualified teachers, censorship of textbooks), the last issues I want to talk about are some that I deal with daily.

Issue 3: Entitlement and Integrity

I was having a breakfast with my parents a few weeks ago and met the sadly very stereotypical West Texas Old Man–racist, sexist, and more than ready to tell you how the old days were better and he is better and everything he stands for is better. After telling my mother and me that women had too many rights, he latched on to the fact that we were both teachers. He then asked us,

“Do you feel that there are certain students nowadays who think they deserve stuff they don’t earn?”

This is actually a frequent conversation my mother and I have, so we started to answer. It turns out that WTOM didn’t want to hear our real answer; he just wanted to tell us how Blacks and Mexicans are lazy. He especially didn’t want to hear that we pretty much disagreed with his profiling.

My mother, my fellow teachers, and I have noticed that there are more and more students with a feeling of entitlement. Although they represent all races and genders, they more often than not tend to be young white males between the ages of 30 and 18. Most of them come from affluent backgrounds, but again, not all of them. However, my point here isn’t to pinpoint demographics; it is to discuss the behavior.

These are the students that tell me they ‘deserve’ certain grades. They argue that they have gotten good grades in the past, that their previous teachers loved them, that they should be excused and treated differently because of some reason (and there is always a reason), that they have to have a certain grade to do [fill in the blank with career/university aspiration]. But never do they mentioning ‘earning’ a grade. It is usually what can I give them that they feel they deserve even though their work does not support that.

Beyond that, these are the students who tell me I should be happy they came to class, happy they turned in an assignment, happy they did the reading. And on some level I am because I am often so desperate for some sign that anyone cares about their education. But it never seems to occur to them that in the long run, it’s their grade, not mine, and they have to earn it. I don’t get more money for their grades or their attendance. I don’t get a special trophy or a signing bonus. And neither do they, for the most part. Perhaps that is their issue.

Many of these students are raised in a world of instant gratification and rewards for completing things everyone does out of responsibility. To heavily paraphrase Chris Rock, they want credit for doing stuff you are supposed to do. If you elect to be a college student, you are supposed to come to class and turn in your work. The fact that America requires free education for all children (no matter the level of quality) has given them the idea that it is their God-given-right to pass or get whatever they want, no matter how little they commit to it.

This brings us, in a round about way, to the idea of integrity. Cheating is an issue that I battle ever semester. Unfortunately, I have elected to teach a subject where the lines of cheating are extremely gray to some students. I’m talking, specifically, about plagiarism. In my academic experience, I have always had teachers with strict policies on plagiarism. But I honestly think it was easier for them. I’m not completely the internet generation, so in high school that was never an option for me. It just barely was in college. Now, the internet is plastered with not only legitimate information, but websites that will write your paper or provide you with a paper on any number of topics.

I try to circumvent these issues by creating prompts that stray from the norm, in addition to using plagiarism detection software. Even with that, I still end up failing at least 5 essays a semester for plagiarism. Many times the student doesn’t say anything. Other times, I’ll get apologetic emails. But more often than not, I get outrage. They argue that it is their work, even though I can show them word for word where it came from. Or they tell me I am being ‘unfair’ to give them a zero for a paper that is not entirely original, even though that’s what I tell them the first day of class. I actually had a girl this semester tell me:

“No one ever told me it was wrong to present someone else’s work as my own.”

I was speechless. Even if that was true, how can a person not see that there is something wrong with that? How little do you care about your personal integrity that someone has to tell you it’s wrong not to do your own work. Why bother getting an education if you are just going to use ideas that are not your own? I literally could not wrap my brain around it.

This falls into a sub-issue of responsibility. So many of my students refuse to take responsibility for any aspect of their education. They see it as my job for them to pass. Certainly, a large part of my job is to convey the information in an effective way and measure it fairly. But when they don’t show up, turn in their work, create original work, put in effort–I don’t see that it is my responsibility to give them whatever grade they tell me they need two days before the end of the semester because they just realized they are failing.

I tell my students at the beginning of the semester that I don’t take late work and I don’t excuse absences (save school related things). I tell them that I don’t judge why things weren’t done or why they weren’t there. Just own up to it and move on.

I have been very lucky to have students who do just that. Last semester I had an incredibly bright woman for whom, as I phrase it, it just wasn’t her semester. She had illness issues, child issues, court issues . . . you name it. Her attendance was somewhat shaky and there were several assignments she didn’t turn in. Never did she ask for special treatment. She would come and ask me about assignments. We discussed if dropping was right for her and she told me she just wanted to finish what she started, no matter that the grade wasn’t exactly what she was capable of. I have such respect for this student because she took responsibility.

I have been called, on more than one occasion, cold (and much more extreme versions of that adjective). It’s not that I don’t care about my students; I do, very much. But I think one of the most important skills I give them, much more important than an understanding of iambic pentameter, is a sense of integrity and responsibility. Life is not a Greek tragedy being manipulated by the gods. For the most part, we are in control of our actions. And even when we aren’t, we are the ones responsible for how we react, what we learn, if we grow. If your top priority isn’t school, that’s fine. In some cases (such as if you have children) it shouldn’t be. My job is important, but my family comes first. That is my choice and I take responsibility for it. I don’t ask for breaks or special treatment. And that’s what I expect of my students.

So endeth this year’s rant on the failings of education. Next week we are off on a family vacation, so look for more to come in the following weeks. In the meantime, take responsibility for your own cake. If it burns, don’t blame the oven.

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