I took about 2 years of remedial college classes, although that’s not what they were called. I came to St. John’s College in 1976 from a self-identified college prep high school, St. Paul’s in Santa Fe Springs, CA, with a mediocre GPA but killer SAT scores. The reality is that, at that time, St. John’s was in a down cycle, so that anyone who submitted all the essays required to apply (in something like English, I imagine, but maybe that was too high a bar?) got in. That was about the most writing I ever did up to that point, the petulant whining of a kid who was convinced that k-12 had been a total waste of time and had heard the siren’s call of all those wonderful books.
I was about as ready for college, especially the 22-25 units per semester, no ‘easy A’ classes that St. John’s demands, as I was to perform brain surgery.
Almost bombed out. The subject that almost killed my college career was Greek, which also happens to be the ‘remedial’ class. If only I were enlightened enough to be ashamed of myself. Reading education history, I come across random stuff like this, regarding Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, describing her course of study. Starting from before she was 10, and despite (?) being kept out of school:
My favorite studies were natural philosophy, logic, and moral science. From my brother Albert, I received lessons in the ancient tongues, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.
She was farm girl, the last of 6 kids, surreptitiously taught by her older brother, since her father thought her brain was too big for her. She evidently mastered them all. This was in the early 1800s.
Eddy’s case might be extreme, but the fact is that a nation of farmers and shopkeepers produced a steady stream of kids who knew Latin, Greek, and even sometimes Hebrew from a young age. Later, when the wedding of math and science had been successfully consumated, an educated kid also knew a bit of calculus, needed, for example, to understand Newton – who wrote in Latin.
Thus, the floor, the baseline, for someone wanting a college education was knowledge of Latin, Greek and calculus – because no self-respecting college was going to waste time getting kids up to speed with what farm girls and boys with any intellectual aspirations already knew.
But that changed. Ancient languages have been disparaged for some time now. In the topsy-turvy world of modern education, knowing ancient languages, far from being seen as the door to a wider intellectual and cultural world, is seen as sign you’re a narrow, musty specialist.
Thus, upon reaching St. John’s, I, like about 99.9% of modern Americans would, needed remedial Greek.(1) Having had no experience studying anything really hard, as in, you simply MUST memorize a boatload of rules and forms before you can make any real progress, I just about bombed out. I buckled down after being vaguely threatened with expulsion after my freshman year (“Mr. Moore knows no Greek,” I still hear my prof saying during don rags, the annual terrifying meeting where all your ‘tutors’ meet and talk about you as if you aren’t there. But you are.)
The happy ending, after a fashion: I really didn’t want to get thrown out of St. John – hey, reading all those books is really fun! – so I spent much of my sophomore year pulling late-nights with Liddell & Scott, a well thumbed tutti i verbi greci, and Sophocles, eventually writing a paper on Oedipus Rex tracing and commenting on every usage of verbs of sight throughout the text – it was good. Didn’t actually learn much Greek, but the paper won the day.
I’m still a terrible student, still know little Greek and less Latin, and could never have gained admittance to a real American college from 100 years ago. My respect for those who did graduate from real colleges is profound.
Back to today. One of my favorite education tidbits, often referred to here, is that about 50% of incoming UC Berkeley students must take remedial English, math, or both. Let that sink in: these are kids with 4.X GPAs, who took all the AP classes – and aced them – who had good SAT scores, who are the best of the best of best – but they can’t write or do math at a college level, as Berkeley imagines it. These kids are bright, so it should come as no surprise that the majority of them ace the remedial classes and go on to ‘succeed’ in their chosen fields.
I expect this percentage to go way down, not because students will suddenly start learning more math and better English before applying to Cal, but rather because Cal will move the goalposts and simply relabel what would have been remedial classes as something else, or eliminate or dumb down the requirements. It’s happened before – Latin, Greek and calculus, anyone?
The sad part, tragic, even, is not that so many need remedial training (however labeled), but that so many get degrees, including Masters and PhDs, without ever having their shortcomings remedied. Mine have not been remedied, alas, but I did get a peek into that larger world. It’s not all accessible to me, but I at least know it’s there.
To get college applicants to know Greek, Latin and math, all that needs to be done is to demand it -if kids 150 years ago could learn this stuff, so can kids today. We’re not born stupider today, we’ve been very intentionally and systematically made stupider. It starts with expectations.
Of course, that would result in many fewer people, under 10% I’d imagine, doing college. As giant, evil corporations, our fine colleges can’t have THAT. Why, if we gave the people what they needed and even in our better moments, wanted, we’d end up with a small population of college educated people and lots and lots of glorified trade schools. Which, in itself, would not be a bad thing.
I’d be in favor of trying to really educate everybody, starting at a young age, and then seeing how it comes out. Man’s gotta dream. Any real education starts with the utter destruction of pre-K – 12 schooling, the instrument by which we are made and kept stupid.
- Originally, when the Great Books Program was started, students took one year each of Greek, Latin, German and French. By the time I’d got there, they’d already throttled it back to 2 years of Greek and 2 years of French. To get into your Senior year, you had to pass a French reading exam, which I passed after the manner of St. Joseph of Cupertino: the text for the test was de Tocqueville, from a section I happened to be very familiar with. Lucky me? Still only know a little church Latin. Sigh.