Monday, March 15, 2010

Raising a glass to Miss Ballou

Last year the Association Of American Colleges And Universities (AACU) commissioned a study called Raising The Bar: Employers’ Views On College Learning In The Wake of the Economic Downturn. The study was conducted in October & November of last year by an outfit called Hart Research Associates, and the report was released earlier this year.

The overview begins: "Employers want their employees to use a broader set of skills and have higher levels of learning and knowledge than in the past to meet the increasingly complex demands they will face in the workplace." This, of course, is good news for members of the AACU. Imparting "higher levels of learning and knowledge" is what Colleges and Universities do. In summary, the study finds that "Employers endorse learning outcomes for college graduates that are developed through a blend of liberal and applied learning."

There's lots of detail in the report, some of which could be classified as "common sense," though Hart Research Associates would probably frown on so dismissive a characterization of their findings. Be that as it may. I call your attention to page 9, to the last of seven "key findings" enumerated in the report. This is the finding that lists "learning outcomes that employers perceive to be in need of increased focus." In other words, stuff colleges & universities could do better. And what are the top two items in this list, items that need improvement according to more than 80% of employers?

  1. The ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing (89%)
  2. Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills (81%)

Over to Miss Ballou.

My junior high school offered 9th grade English in a couple of flavors, regular and "English Concentrate." Miss Ballou taught English Concentrate, and kids had to hover near the top of the class to have a shot at getting in. The class was taught as a double-period, and we covered the year's prescribed curriculum (and then some) in a single semester. It was 1974 -- the year Uniform Product Codes were first used to scan stuff at a grocery store checkout; the year Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army; the year Hollywood produced Chinatown, Young Frankenstein, and The Great Gatsby; the year Tricky Dick Nixon became the first POTUS to resign the office -- and Miss Ballou was old school.

Hella old school.

She scared the bell bottoms off of most of her fourteen and fifteen year old students, even the nerds who were granted the privilege of diagramming sentences under her watchful eye. She required that we read Shakespeare aloud in class, and memorize soliloquies then recite them in front of our peers (I picked one spoken by Brutus in Julius Caesar -- "The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins / Remorse from power" -- and, yes, you bet your behind I knew then that Nixon was on the ropes). Miss Ballou assigned essays in which dazed adolescents were expected to critique Shakespeare and Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne at levels of sophistication that some TA's I've spoken with in recent years wish they could coax out of university sophomores. If we screwed up our grammar and dared to cite newfangled novelists who broke the rules themselves, she allowed us no leeway. Prove you can follow the rules, Miss Ballou challenged us. You have no right to break the rules until you know what they are and how to apply them.

Miss Ballou would have recognized those top areas in which higher ed could improve: teaching students to communicate effectively, think critically, and reason analytically. She was putting 14 year olds on that path dozens of years before Hart Research Associates tallied up their survey. (I'm not claiming, BTW, that she succeeded in my case; only that she gave it a serious go.)

When I read the AACU report I thought of Miss Ballou immediately. And I know for a fact that I'm not the only one who is still guided (and chastised) by her sharp, certain, decades-ago corrections. Just last week, an old friend wrote on wholly unrelated topics and caught herself leaving a preposition dangling at the end of a sentence. She didn't correct the syntax -- hey, it was e-mail -- but she couldn't help but critique herself parenthetically: dangling, I know...Roll over, Miss Ballou!

I raise a glass to Barbara Ballou, and to all teachers in her mold. You know who you are. And so do we, your fortunate students. (The rest of y'all better shape up, or the AACU's going to have you on the carpet.)


P.S. Speaking of Julius Caesar, happy Ides of March...

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