A Scientist Debates a Pollyanna: No Easy Consensus

Slideshare presentation by Sharon Salyer

The ongoing debate about and the frustration surrounding the unpreparedness of students for post-secondary education seems no closer to resolution. In economic terms, the answer would seem to be that, yes, society could save a lot of money by detouring underperforming students toward vocational/technical schools. On the other hand, besides preparation for a career, higher education offers many intangible benefits as well, such as increased critical thinking skills, cultural awareness, and improved communication skills, all considered to be critical illiteracies in the twenty-first century.  But, can a few years of post-secondary education make up for a life-time of societal and educational neglect?

Patricia Cross (McAlexander 2000) seems to be saying that, no, it would be more realistic and humane to steer under -achieving students toward their own level of success― spare them the disappointment of failure.  Many would agree, and none can deny that many families of the nineteen fifties and sixties prospered with even less than high-school educations.  In the long run though, there are many more ways that societies as well as individuals with less education lose out.  The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement finds that higher education results in these key indicators of a successful society:

• regular volunteering for non-political groups,

• active membership in any groups,

• raising money for charity,

• working with others on community problems,

• membership in political groups,

• regular voting,

• contacting officials,

• signing e-mail or paper petitions,

• and being “hyper-engaged” (involved in at least 10 different activities).

Higher education seems to be the rising tide that raises all boats, but a surprising, secondary indicator of economic success is the educational level of mothers. Although there are many other variables involved, like family stress and parental involvement, this indicator seems to hold true for Shaughnessy, whose father only had a grade-school education, but whose mother held a teaching degree.

mother reading to children

cc image posted at Flicker by familymwr

Mina Shaughnessy had the capacity to feel what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes ― empathy.  She isn’t surprised by Basic Writing student’s “ambivalent feelings about ‘making it’” because of their many previous failures. But, motivation, one of the reoccurring reasons cited for underachiever’s lack of success, is paradoxically, precipitated by success. Few of us would remain motivated without the occasional success. Without educational success, especially the ability to write well, when we move out of the hypothetical into the real work-a-day world, she reminds detractors that

a person who does not control the dominant code of literacy in a society that generates more writing than any society in history is likely to be pitched against more obstacles than are apparent to those who have already mastered that code (13).

The problem I have with Shaughnessy is that her empathy with students sometimes verges on condescension, much like Harriet Beecher Stowe, the writer of one of my least favorite classics, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Like Stowe’s novel, however, the empathetic and emotional tone of Shaughnessy’s writing moved many people to action.  Other educators may also object to Shaughnessy’s mantra because her Current Traditionalist beliefs ooze conformity and ideology (Bloom 1996, Foley 1989).

As we’ve become a more culturally diverse and inclusive society (at least on the surface), there is another progressive linguistic movement that says that all language dialects should be valued and preserved. Reconciling these various beliefs requires ongoing dialog between empathetic educators. Until a consensus is reached, we must aim to educate all students as if they were members of our own families.


McAlexander, Patricia J.  “Mina Shaughnessy and K. Patricia cross: The forgotten debate over postseeondary remediation”,   Rhetoric Review, 19:1-2 (2000): 28-41. Web.


Posted on June 17, 2012, in Independent Study. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Sharon,
    GREAT critical engagement with Shaughnessy (& Cross!). What I really like about your reflecting here is how important the ideology of the teacher and the teaching philosophies are to wat you imagine can happen in a classroom and/or with a student.
    Although it is problematic to force conformity, we do have to agree there is a “standard (academic) American English” that gets “work” done.
    Keep up the great thinking.

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