If a liberal arts college is supposed to prepare its students for comparative social and cultural discussions in the study of linguistic practices, perhaps the College of Literature, Science and the Arts has succeeded. One need only enroll in Cultural Anthropology 272: Language in Society to learn “how our linguistic perceptions influence the ways we recognize social differences … based on ethnicity, race, class and gender.” But if a liberal arts college is supposed to prepare its students for the real world, where employers place a premium on reading comprehension and analytic ability, perhaps LSA has failed.
Two months ago, on Sept. 21, a couple of honors students in LSA responded to a column of mine with a viewpoint in the Daily. In their viewpoint, these two bright individuals criticized my column for characterizing young Democrats as political fashionistas — those who supported Kerry not because they understood the issues, but because it was hip, cool and trendy to support the Democratic nominee. They then proceeded to list the reasons why many students support John Kerry. Score one for the College Democrats, right? Wrong.
One need only read my Sept. 13 column, ‘The problem with fad liberalism,’ to understand I was not characterizing all college-aged supporters of Kerry as fad liberals. In fact, the point of the column was to offer “one possible explanation” for the voter gap among the 18-to-25-year-old-college-educated demographic. This one possible explanation was that some students — emphasis on some — supported Kerry not because they understood the issues, but because it was hip, cool and trendy to support the Democratic nominee. Of course there are many informed students who understand the issues and who had legitimate reasons for supporting Kerry, but they were not the focus of my analysis. The counterargument offered by the two honors students, which essentially lists the reasons why some informed college students supported Kerry, is thus inapposite.
In a less rational, though equally irrelevant, response to one of my columns, a University Medical School administrator wrote that “It’s a real pity to see one so young and privileged as you so filled with mindless hatred. I hope you can stay enrolled at Michigan long enough to gain a respect for the facts, an ability to reason logically and perhaps even to gain a bit of compassion. Stop watching FOX. Start thinking.” Score one for the University administration, right? Please.
What we have here is a failure to communicate. How can there be reasonable and intellectual discourse on campus if the most thought-provoking criticism of another’s work relies on distorted premises and unsubstantiated name-calling?
The University, for all its self-congratulatory acclaim as a bastion of intellectual debate, is partially to blame for this failure. Consider the requirements for an LSA degree: first-year writing, upper-level writing, foreign language, race and ethnicity and distributional requirements. What is astonishingly absent from this list is a logic class or its equivalent. Quantitative reasoning, a distributional requirement that by definition involves numbers, not words, is no substitute for a class in formal logic or the art of persuasion.
In fact, the first-year writing requirement is the only requirement that comes close to preparing students for the real world, where employers place a premium on reading comprehension and analytic ability. According to the LSA website, “The goal of the First-Year Writing Requirement is to teach students the discipline and skills needed for college writing. Without these skills, college students can find it difficult to master the art of argument and to achieve the academic sophistication that University of Michigan courses demand.” But based on the countless e-mails I receive that either ignore the text, distort words or flat- out call me names, only one conclusion can be drawn: Either the University demands unsophisticated academic analysis and low mastery of the art of argument or it has failed in its goal of teaching students the discipline and skills needed for college writing.
Ultimately, the University is responsible for its students’ educational development. If it’s going to parade its Marshall and Rhodes Scholars in front of everyone, it should also acknowledge its failure to teach many students the basic skills necessary for life outside of Ann Arbor.
Lee can be reached at email@example.com.