(Editor’s note: Professor Steven Aird first came to the Pope Center’s attention in 2008, when he was dismissed from his faculty position at Norfolk State University because he would not inflate grades in his biology course. He is now teaching biology for the University of Maryland’s University College. With his permission, here is the letter he sends to his students at the beginning of each course.)
One of my mentors, the late Dr. Hugh W. Nibley, professor of ancient history at Brigham Young University, once observed, “We only truly become students when we hunger to learn.”
Dr. Nibley’s life and scholarship manifested a deep and abiding commitment to learning. His enthusiastic pursuit of knowledge was infectious and irresistible. As one of Dr. Nibley’s colleagues once put it, “Going to Hugh Nibley with a question is like going to a fire hydrant for a drink of water!”
For those of you who have already become such students, my job is to teach you as much biology, and as many other things about life as I can, between now and the end of the session. For those who have not yet developed this perspective, my job is to try to turn you into such students within the next eight weeks. That doesn’t give us much time, but I am going to do my best.
I believe that I serve you and our country best when I help you to discover and develop your abilities, and when I assist you in developing the intellectual tools, the strength of character, and the self-discipline that will be necessary to overcome the obstacles you will encounter throughout your lives, not just in academia. You can only develop skills and self-confidence when your professors maintain appropriately rigorous standards in the classroom and insist that you attain reasonable competence. You cannot genuinely succeed if your professors lower the bar for you. Instead, you will simply fail at the next stage in life, where the cost of failure is much greater.
I believe that professors must not unintentionally hinder their students by trying to make everything easy for them. Obtaining an education is hard work and there is no short cut.
Please know that I am here to guide and to assist you, but if you are learning at a rate even remotely approaching your capacity, which is what it takes to succeed, it is not easy or fun! It is hard work, but I promise you that it is worth it!
Inflating grades and dumbing down courses so that students can legitimately meet illegitimately low standards, are functionally equivalent, because both produce dysfunctional graduates.
Academic mediocrity, which is rapidly becoming the rule rather than the exception, is seductive because it is politically much easier than maintaining academic excellence, and most students won’t notice the difference anyway until it’s too late. Professors who lower their standards for any reason, have not served you well!
Because I have been farther down the road of life than you, I have an obligation to teach you what you will need to be successful. I would rather be tough on you now and have you thank me years down that road, than to sacrifice our eventual mutual reward in return for your premature adulation today. Fortunately, some of you do have the wisdom to recognize the value of what I demand of you, even while you are struggling. Others will recognize it soon thereafter.
In December, 2005, one of my biology students came to pay me a visit. I hadn’t seen Whitney since she was in my general biology class a year earlier. (Her midterm grade had been an F, but she finished the course with a B.) She first apologized for not having come sooner, and then said, “I want you to know that I wouldn’t be the student I am today if it were not for the things you taught me in your class.” For me, that made the entire semester worthwhile, and I am intensely proud of her for what she has accomplished since then.
Every semester I have students like this outstanding young lady, who flounder for a while, but finally develop the focus and the skills to succeed. When they do, the increased self-esteem that comes from genuine success in the face of difficulty is almost tangible. Their success is deeply gratifying to me.
For your part, you must accept the responsibility to come to class, pay attention, take notes, ask questions, and study. Many U.S. high school graduates now entering college have not grasped these fundamental principles. Many, tragically, have third and fourth grade language skills. They are bright, but only marginally literate. They cannot do basic math, and they have no reasoning ability. Nonetheless, they have been given high school diplomas and they have been told that they are ready to take on the world. They have been deliberately defrauded by those who had the responsibility to educate them. Ironically the culpable “educators” have failed them by passing them.
I genuinely care about my students, as many of my previous students can testify. That is why I will not let you coast through this class with minimal effort. I believe that I am here to teach you much more than just biology. I want you to learn that you are capable of achieving far more than you have ever imagined, if you are willing to work for it.
The only way to teach you this is to require you to work. I am anxious to help you individually and collectively in any way that I can, but if you are unwilling to work, then I have an ethical obligation to you, and to the taxpayers, to let you learn from the consequences of your poor decisions by giving you the grade you earned. If I lower my standards to the level of your present performance, to make myself look good in the eyes of others, I cannot lift you up, which is, after all, the whole objective. Anyone who thinks otherwise does not understand the objective.
Let’s make it a productive term. Buckle down today and let’s get started!
Collegiate Professor, Biology