Logocentrism and the Unpreparedness of [Top] Students

A recent commentary at the Chronicle of Higher Education centers on the lack of preparedness among even top students entering college at even the most selective universities.

Above all, it’s time to acknowledge that even top students may have college-readiness problems. Beyond the for-profit counseling industry that teaches kids how to check the right boxes to get into the most-prestigious institutions, many educators pay little attention to these students.

There should be a great deal of concern among peoples of all backgrounds. While we go forward full-sail under the banner of “meritocracy” tacking our Ship of Fools with the rudder of EduTech, whole islands of kids are being passed by or thrown overboard because they cannot make it in the educational superstructure,

I am sometimes shocked by how much people I talk with in the Academy on a daily basis are unaware of the amount of potentially bright kids who are left behind in Junior High & HIgh School through dropping out, getting in criminal troubles, or even killing themselves with drugs & alcohol. Life and society have already done a great deal of winnowing out who sets foot on college campuses. And besides these bright but completely lost kids, there are the masses who cannot learn in the current predominant models who stay to high school graduation but have learned next to nothing.

Why does this matter? Because the standard education models ensure that it is not in fact a meritocracy that happens at the high school or the college level. Rather, the expediences of mass compulsory education along with other oppressive aspects of the superstructure have rigged the game for those who can succeed in the system or at best, fake until they make it.

In a sense, there is a tacit acceptance that all the rest have no future in the first place.

Now, thanks to Neoliberal opportunities and the leveling-up/quasi-compulsion that better jobs require a BA, a whole industry has sprung up to help kids get into college. And once these kids who are utterly unprepared for university get there, there is a sub-industry of tutors & academic administrators who are tasked with keeping them in school. This is first and foremost because every tuition dollar helps. It is done out of a humanitarian impulse–I do not deny that. But the ultimate goal once a kid is in the system = retention, retention, retention.

So when you begin realizing that even kids who are getting into UC-Berkley, Reed College, & UT–let alone Johns Hopkins and Harvard–are not really prepared, you have to wonder why professors & lecturers at colleges around the nation are still surprised about this.As Elaine Tuttle Hanson notes in this CHE commentary,

Evidence suggests that academic talent is quite specifically diminished, not developed, by the school experience. A Fordham Institute study of how young American students testing in the 90th percentile or above fared over time found that roughly 30 to 50 percent of these advanced learners lost ground as they moved from elementary to middle school, or from middle to high school. And the focus on low­-achieving students in public schools has disproportionately left more smart minority and low-income kids behind, creating a well-documented “excellence gap.”

There is nothing new about this at all. I am not a professor or a lecturer. But I have spent twenty years talking at length with kids outside of class. And I have watched their preparedness decrease even as their “need” to be legitimated by academic institutions has increased.

When you reach a point that the story being told about your situation matches up across society, that is the point where a new custom or paradigm is ready to take hold (cf. Plato, The Laws). So we have the common source: education is messed up, we are now even losing the brightest to unpreparedness. What shall we do?

I contend that existential pedagogy (a la Martin BuberKarl Jaspers & Paulo Freire) with multiple formats for engaging diverse students is the key to reforming education. This can be done with the help of MOOCs, but it must be the connectivist variety not the xMOOCs currently being touted by Stanford, Coursera, and the always ready to seize an opportunity Bill Gates.

The xMOOC arises out of the humanitarian interest of solving an insurmountable problem. But it is actually not insurmountable.


There is only so much that can be accomplished with MOOCs before real teaching engagement is necessary at the personal level. But xMOOCs have the chance of getting a foothold for two reasons:

  • Regents & Administrators are constrained to figure out quickly what they can do to keep their schools’ doors from closing due to collapsing support from states as well as big donors. Such EduTech solutions offer profits to the adopting school (less instructional pay and class room space), the companies designing the means of access (both content creators and computing manufacturers), and solidify the standing of the biggest (dare I say, “best”) names in the Higher Education Network. As the Market is a creature that reacts to profitability… Ka-Ching!
  • We already over enlarged class rooms with the invention of the microphone in the 70’s. Now, college professors, especially those who are doing research in large universities, do not actually spend a lot of time with students one on one because they often have upwards of 100 students in a semester; how could they dialog a la Socrates? When instructors do meet students beyond (mandatory) classroom attendance, it is usually for a short while in their office hours. At the very best, engagement might total a few minutes over the course of fifteen weeks. And that will only be with students who come to them.

In the first instance, xMOOCs improve the bottom line (who knows?) and in the second the pedagogues are disconnected by sheer number from those who they are tasked with teaching. If you were a humanitarian (neoliberal) philanthropist (opportunist), would you not make the best use (exploit) of this bifurcation (yawning chasm) in the Academy to save (co-opt) our higher education system (knowledge industrial complex)?

You would. And you would do it by taking over the narrative. This is where the logocentrism of the superstructure keeps even those who would do good from fully recognizing how they are always already instantiating a kind of oppression.

A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students). The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified. Education is suffering from narration sickness.

The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students. His task is to “fill” the students with the contents of his narration— contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance. Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity.

The outstanding characteristic of this narrative education, then, is the sonority of words, not their transforming power. 

Paul Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (69)

Where are those who have taken on the crushing debt of the superstructure and would find liberation? Who is willing to do more than reform the surface and settle back in, satisfied? Who would escape flipping the pole of oppression through crass revolution only to recreate the problem?

Will you not take on the transforming power of words, the metamorphosis of engaged dialectic with youth and all the oppressed?


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