“This book was written by Jane Austen and is about women living in England in the
19th century 18th cen olden days. The themes of Pride and Prejudice are prevalent in this book and…”
That was all. I turned over the page. Sometimes students writing exams panic when they’re running out of time and scribble their answers all over the place. But the answer book was empty, save for those three lines of text.
Some university tutors assign marks by gut feel, but I was trying to be objective and had worked out a careful check list, breaking the ideal answer down into various sections and assigning marks to each. Knowing the author’s name earned the student one mark out of 100. Demonstrating an attempt to name and address a theme earned him or her 10, but this one was merely naming the title; and so I gave the answer 6 out of 100 (a figure I worried might be a little generous) and picked up the next paper.
I wasn’t surprised when, in a staff meeting a week or two later, my mark was flagged by a veteran lecturer. I was just getting ready to back down and agree that the kid should get 5 or 3 or 0 when I realised that the lecturer was twitching with fury. The problem wasn’t that I’d given the student too much. I’d given far too little.
Who, the academic demanded to know, was the callous dream-crusher responsible for trampling on this blushing bud of academic youth? Which crusty reactionary had launched this mathematical gunboat to bombard our fragile children with defeatism?
I raised my hand, and he explained to me that I was, basically, Hitler. Didn’t I understand the complex pressures on our students? Didn’t I care that many of them came from poverty and educational dysfunction? (I had no idea of the identity or the history of this one, but it didn’t seem to matter.) Such insensitivity was abhorrent, he said, and to make sure it never happened again it was time for the English department to introduce a minimum mark for all future exams: 30%.
My jaw almost dislocated. Was he really suggesting, I asked, that students be given 30 marks out of 100 for writing their name on an exam paper before going home? Yes, he said. The head of the department gently nudged the debate towards saner shores, but I left the meeting feeling that I had been branded an enemy of the people.
a tide of thin-skinned know-nothings hopped up on self-esteem
Last week I read that students at Duke University had refused to study a particular book because it offended their sexual and religious sensibilities. It was just the latest variation on an increasingly familiar theme. Each month seems to reveal a new example of the intellectual prudery sweeping academia: students uninviting speakers with whom they disagree; lecturers getting career-threatening performance reviews because they have dared to challenge the supreme self-satisfaction of the young people in their classes.
So far, however, most of the focus of such reports has been on the students, and most have subtly pointed an accusing finger at one easy target: millennial entitlement. A picture is being painted of gloomy Generation X scholars trying to hold back a tide of thin-skinned know-nothings hopped up on self-esteem.
Perhaps it’s an accurate view of things. Perhaps it’s just an ageing generation of academics and journalists telling the kids to get off their lawn. But either way I find it odd that there isn’t more focus on the entrenched academics who enable the know-nothings to insist that know-nothingry is a human right.
Of course universities continue to attract open-minded students, but it seems those bright young things are increasingly sharing the campus with people who believe that anyone who disagrees with them is committing a hate crime and that being introduced to uncomfortable ideas is a form of oppression. So why are the grown-ups not telling this cohort to eat their vegetables and go to bed?
Some probably are, with excessive politeness and one eye on their approval ratings. But then I remember that bizarre staff meeting, and I have to assume that others are too busy deconstructing the notion of “vegetables” and rejecting the bed-based paradigm as a workable outcome.
I suspect that they have sworn allegiance to a naked emperor, and are determined to silence those who point and laugh at his bare bum. Their arguments sound impressive. The emperor is not “naked”: he is subverting the hegemony of sartorial-centricity. He and his courtiers are not fools: they are upholding their right to claim that he is, in fact, wearing clothes, thereby speaking to current debates around the concept of reality. And besides, in a post-Kardashian milieu, surely questions of public nakedness are passé?
Luckily I don’t have to engage with that sophistry any more. Besides, I’ve grown up since then. If I marked that paper today, I wouldn’t give it 6%. That’s a crazy mark. No, I’d give it zero.