He Says What He Thinks

Here’s what you’re supposed to think about college students: they’re very eager to learn and improve themselves, mastering advanced fields of knowledge and honing their skills to a razor-sharp edge. At any rate, that’s what America’s higher education establishment would like you to think, so you’ll go along with its pleas for ever-increasing taxpayer “investment” in college education.

On the other hand, more than a few people who actually deal with those students have a very different opinion. One of them is Branford Marsalis, the famed jazz artist who has taught at several universities. (He is now artist-in-residence at North Carolina Central University.)

In this short YouTube clip, Marsalis offers the view that most of his students only want praise, whether or not it’s merited. They don’t want to work hard enough to really be good, but just want to live in what Marsalis calls “a massive state of delusion” where everyone pretends that they’re excellent.

Marsalis thinks that this delusion accounts for grade inflation, with schools ensuring that students get good grades (anything less than a B is apt to provoke wails of anguish) so that they won’t go somewhere else.

Marsalis is right, not just with regard to music education, but across the board.

Back in 1996, in his book Generation X Goes to College, pseudonymous author Peter Sacks wrote about his experience in trying to teach journalism. He ran squarely into the same brick wall Marsalis is talking about. Many of his students came into college (and a non-selective one at that), believing that they were already excellent writers. They weren’t willing to listen to criticism from a mere professor who had actually done journalism.

Often when he would correct their writing, Sacks would get a retort like this: “Well, that’s just your opinion. My high school teachers all said that I was a great writer!”

In order to save his job, Sacks had to resort to coddling the students. That’s what they wanted and expected.

Why is it that students who aren’t good a playing an instrument, aren’t good at writing—aren’t good at learning—insist that they are good and get offended when someone says otherwise? The answer is found in the “progressive” theory that education should aim at raising students’ self-esteem so they will enjoy school. Patting students on the head and praising them for nearly everything is regarded as “best practice.” Conversely, sharp grading, critical comments, and even the use of red ink are bad. Students who have grown up with teachers who put their happiness above all else naturally react adversely when they run into college professors who have the temerity to tell them that their efforts are not good.

As Professors J. Martin Rochester (author of the excellent book Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids and the Attack on Excellence) and David Rose write in this article:

K-12 educators … claim they are making tougher demands on their students. How does one explain, then, the advent of gradeless report cards in many school districts, the use of “block time” to enable students to use the school day to do what we used to call homework, the unlimited amount of time students are now being given to complete the new statewide Missouri Assessment Project tests, and other such reforms that seem to reflect the growth of a standardless, dumbed-down culture calculated to give all students a false sense of achievement?

We pay a steep price for the educational theory that treats students as if they were fragile little glass figurines that might shatter at any blow. Eventually, their self-esteem bubble has to burst. The student will, at some point, encounter a no-nonsense boss who will say, “That’s not good enough. Either improve or you’re out of here.” Instead of wasting years in the smiley-face environment where everything is praised, it would be a lot better if students had to face reality all along.

Let’s have a big round of applause for Branford Marsalis—not this time for his saxophone playing, but for his willingness to point out a serious problem with American education.