I’ve mentioned before that I don’t use the classroom to proselytize atheism. I have a job to do, and that is to help the students learn biology, and that’s all I care about — that they graduate after a few years and understand the concepts and can apply them, and if can do that while believing in Jesus or Allah, that’s just fine.
There’s another thing I don’t do, and that is penalize them for their health or situation. You’ve got clinical depression or your grandmother died or you had a nasty break-up with your romantic friend? I’ll make what accommodations I can, because I want you to get through all of that and learn biology. That’s all I can judge you on, is your mastery of the material, but I will welcome any changes that can help you out.
But all too often I run into non-academics (and sometimes even academics) who don’t understand this basic idea, that we’re supposed to help our students learn. So someone like Margaret Wente can write drivel like “Why treat university students like fragile flowers?”
The first answer is that we don’t. We have standards that have to be met in order to pass a course, and they’re not “be free of mental health concerns” or “have a stable family life” or “be rich enough that you don’t have to work part-time”. If you have an illness that makes mastering the course material difficult for you, that doesn’t mean you get a free pass; it means you should talk to me and I’ll do what I can to give you the opportunity to learn it in spite of your handicap. My job is to make all the flowers blossom, not to make half of them wither if they need a little extra watering.
However, there are things that Wente objects to.
Today, any proper university has registered therapy dogs to cheer you up. If exams have you down, drop in for a lick and a cuddle and you’ll feel better in no time. And if you’re too depressed because of Grandma, no problem. The disability office will provide you with a private room and extra time to write your final. Your professor never even needs to know.
Today, colleges and universities are highly concerned with the mental well-being of their students. Student distress, we’re told, is at an all-time high. It’s the pressure. The competition. Social media. Career anxiety. Long commutes. Money worries. Cyberbullying.
Therapy dogs are bad? Why? I want a therapy puppy to visit when grading gets me down! I suspect students learn better when they’re less stressed. All I care about, remember, is student learning.
I have students who take their exams at our office of student learning. We have students with agoraphobia, with test anxiety, who are easily distracted, who have language issues and need extra time. Why shouldn’t they get an environment that reduces those concerns and allows them to demonstrate their knowledge better? Why does Margaret Wente think learning has to be a stress test?
Meanwhile, the definition of “disability” – originally used for physical issues – has expanded beyond recognition. Now, it includes not only learning disabilities, but all manner of mental, social and cognitive disorders – anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, PTSD and the like. These may also require special accommodation. As a consequence, universities now routinely give students extra time to write exams and finish assignments. But not all professors are happy about this. But it’s not up to them any more – it’s up to the ever-expanding disability bureaucracy.
Wait. So we should accommodate ex-military students, for instance, who’ve had an arm blown off, because that’s a visible injury, but students with bodies intact but suffering from PTSD don’t count? Why? If my university provides the resources to reduce anxiety for anxiety-prone students, why shouldn’t we take advantage of it? It’s not as if anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, or PTSD make you stupid and incapable of learning cell biology or genetics; it means there are extra hurdles for you to overcome, and hey, if we can clear away the barriers to learning, I’m all for it.
But they get extra benefits, like more time to work on an exam, and that’s not fair! It’s also not fair to be afflicted depression or migraines or PTSD. We’re not demanding that every student be equally traumatized to create a level playing field, you know. The mistake is to think of education as a game where there are winners and losers rather than an experience in which we try to make sure every single student comes out at the end with more knowledge. It’s not a competition.
Wente finds someone who shares her barbaric attitudes.
Bruce Pardy, a law professor at Queen’s University, thinks the accommodation industry has gone too far. Giving someone with mental-health problems extra time to write an exam doesn’t level the playing field, he says. It simply tilts the playing field against everybody else. As he wrote recently: “The purpose of exams and assignments is not merely to test knowledge, comprehension, and analytical ability but to do so under conditions that require poise, organization, forward planning, and grace under pressure.” He says it’s like letting someone with a limp start at the 20-metre mark in a 100-metre race. The results are meaningless.
Stop with the “playing field” bullshit already! It’s not a race. It’s not a contest. I’m not trying to determine who “wins” in my cell biology class. I do test “knowledge, comprehension, and analytical ability”, because I want the students to be prepared for the next course in the sequence, or for graduate/professional school, or the workplace.
If you want to demand grace under pressure, though, I can cover that. I’ve got students who are working two jobs to pay for college. I’ve got students from broken homes. I’ve got students who were poorly served by their high schools who are working twice as hard to catch up. If we must analogize it to a race, these are students who start 20-meters behind the other students, and Pardy is complaining that we are trying to help them get to the starting line before the starting gun. We’re still going to insist that they make it to the finish line to get credit, and we even evaluate them on their performance. To decide a priori that the person with the limp can do nothing to get around the meaninglessness of their efforts is heartless and wrong.
I have no idea who Wente is, but I’m going to guess she’s conservative, and the Canadian version of a Republican. The callous disregard for others’ situation, the lack of empathy, and the inability to imagine the utility of helping all to succeed, rather than just the “winners”, is a giveaway.