I have one more week of teaching to go before I retire from the classroom, probably forever. I’ve been exing out each surmounted day all semester, thinking the while that I would take some kind of rising pleasure in the exercise—that this final week would bring exhilaration to my ritual. Hasn’t happened. If anything, I feel steadily gloomier. Why? Because I’ll have nothing to do with myself after April? Hardly! Because I’ll miss interacting with my students? Well, somewhat; but I’m a pretty withdrawn person, and solitude has never threatened me with despair.
No, it’s more like this. Imagine that you are on the good ship Titanic as she begins to list. Bottles slide off tables, and waiters can scarcely walk uphill sufficiently to restore them. Chairs from one group of diners wander into another group. Yet the band plays on, and anyone who raises a note of alarm is killed by scowls from all directions.
That’s the world of education today. I have students on the verge of graduating who either don’t read much of anything or else retain almost nothing of what they read. I quiz them on their assignments at the end of class after giving away most of the answers in my hour of discussion: many struggle to get half the questions right. Can they not hear, either—or can they not attend to what they hear? Do they not know how to concentrate? Has the ubiquitous Screen, in all of its many forms, done something to their auditory faculties even as it has destroyed their vision? (Yesterday I put a matching quiz up on the screen that has replaced our blackboard. Several students had to move to the front row, from where they still sat squinting. I walked to the room’s back wall and found that my sexagenarian eyes could distinguish each character without difficulty. Frightening.)
And speaking of blackboards… we professors were required to communicate with our classes through some formatting program called (with unconscious irony) Blackboard until very lately, when we were commanded to switch to something called (inscrutably) Canvas. On Blackboard, I would always post a PDF of my syllabus from which students could either run a hard copy or which they might simply download onto their “devices”. Canvas, in contrast, appears to want to array your assignments instantly on the screen without the hassle of downloading and opening (and I write “want” because the damn thing is treated as if it were our new boss, beamed down from a superior planet). Most professors have obligingly translated their documents into the “instant access to relevant page” format. As a result, freshmen have been unable to follow my syllabus since last August, having been initiated into the new method from Day One by the rest of the campus community. “Go to the PDF icon, download, open, and scroll to the present date….” Nope. Too hard.
And speaking of programming young minds so that they can’t reason in any direction but one… I tell you here and now that colleges aren’t primarily responsible for turning your children into progressivist snowflakes. They reach us in that condition already: high school and a lifetime spent on social media have done the job before they ever see the inside of a dorm. Big corporations are mean and greedy (yes) and locked in a war-to-the-death with big government (no: absolutely wrong). Donald Trump is a crude buffoon (okay—most of the time) and responsible for our power grid’s not being secure (idiotic: Trump has done what he could to repair two decades of criminal negligence under Bush and Obama). Slavery existed only in the South (that’s wrong… but let it pass) and the Civil War was fought to combat racism (which explains why Lincoln wanted to ship all blacks back to Africa, I suppose… you poor, ignorant blockheads!).
I can hear water rushing up the ship’s corridors… and the revelers are ordering more champagne. Why should I be happy that I’ve found a lifeboat and have cast off from the imminent calamity? I spent my whole professional life trying to keep the old edifice afloat (for she’s really much more like the Fighting Téméraire than the Titanic)—and I’ve failed. So I’m off to my island; and I leave behind me a spoiled treasure of unusable debris and a dissolving foam that contains the strangled shrieks of wretches realizing, in their last breath, that they have been betrayed.