Several years ago, I discovered a curious phenomenon among the diverse freshmen in the developmental English classes I teach. These are students who fail the placement exam and are forced to take a reading and writing refresher course before moving on to basic composition. In one of their grammar exercises, the name Charles Lindbergh appears. What I discovered was that roughly 90% of the developmental students didn’t know who he was.
That in itself would be unremarkable. More remarkable was the fact that when I mentioned the name to my honors students, roughly 90% knew that Lindbergh was a pilot, and the majority correctly identified him as the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
Afterwards, I joked with colleagues about scrapping our entire English placement procedure and just asking students, as they registered, to identify Charles Lindbergh. If they couldn’t, they’d be placed in developmental English.
But the Lindbergh phenomenon highlights a more serious deficit. Eight decades ago, Charles Lindbergh was perhaps the most famous human being on the planet. He’s part of the cultural ether. Even if there’s no need to know who he was, it’s virtually impossible to grow up in America and never hear his name. It’s a point of reference in newspaper and magazine articles, movies and documentaries, television shows, songs, even old cartoons.
In all likelihood, therefore, the developmental students had heard the name Charles Lindbergh. It’s just that 90% never cared enough to follow through. They never looked him up in a reference book or on the web. They never asked their parents or teachers. They just shrugged and went on with their lives.
After more than 25 years teaching at the City University and State University of New York, I’ve come to the counterintuitive conclusion that the single greatest predictor of whether a student will succeed or fail in college is not what he knows when he graduates from high school but what he wants to know when he graduates from high school. Intellectual curiosity is more determinative than high test scores or good work habits because it precedes them — indeed, it causes them. The desire to know just for the sake of knowing, to pick up random facts and start drawing connections in your mind, is the hallmark of the lifetime learner.
Another example: With the recent resignation of Van Jones, President Obama’s “Green Jobs Czar,” the word “czar” has been in the news. Indeed, the President has been criticized for naming too many “czars” — high level officials appointed, without congressional approval, to oversee different aspects of Administration policy. There’s a Terrorism Czar, an Energy Czar, an Information Czar, a Drug Czar, a TARP Czar, an Economic Czar, a Stimulus Czar, a Health Czar, a Guantanamo-Closure Czar, a Mideast Policy Czar, a Mideast Peace Czar…and roughly 20 more.
In other words, you hear the word czar a lot if you pay even the slightest attention to current events.
It’s an odd word. Not many English words start with a c-z. High school students should of course recognize that it’s borrowed from the Russian title for emperor, also spelled “Tsar.” It might also remind them of the German title, “Kaiser.” The fact that the Russian and German words for emperor sound so much alike is no coincidence; both are derived from the name Julius Caesar, the Roman general and later dictator whose empire stretched from Europe to North Africa to the Middle East.
The many ways Caesar’s conquests and policies influenced the history of region is not trivia; the ripple effects are still felt today. The death of Caesar is the basis for one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Mentions of Caesar’s exploits are rampant in highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow culture. These are references which every historically literate high school graduate should get, which any intellectually curious high school graduate would get, but which many actual high school graduates, I’m sad to report, don’t get.
That lack of basic knowledge is not necessarily calamitous. Basic knowledge can be acquired, even at the college level. The more critical problem is the high percentage of high school graduates who will read about the connection between Caesar and Kaiser and Czar and think, “Who the hell cares?”
In other words, you can teach facts. You can teach skills. But you can’t teach intellectual curiosity. If students haven’t caught the bug after twelve years of elementary and secondary school, if they don’t prize knowledge for its own sake, nothing their college professors do or say is going to remedy that lack.
The phrase “college material” has an antiquated sound. That’s not such a bad thing, on the one hand, since it reeks of a time when women and ethnic minorities were kept out of elite universities by gentlemen’s agreements. On the other hand, students who enter a degree-granting college with core-curriculum requirements who don’t possess even a cursory measure of intellectual curiosity are, in the long run, only wasting their time.
They’re not college material.
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