July 2010


My last few entries have got me thinking about certain kinds of knowledge that I assume the average person possesses. I expect a certain level of sense, some basic problem solving skills and maybe a dose of foresight.  It’s not much, really. Now I know, I wait tables, so I have plenty of reasons to disprove my “the average person is competent” theory. But somehow the wealth of inductive evidence fails to preclude my hoping and expecting.

Even in the university I find, more often than not, that the average student is lacking a basic competence for one upon whom a degree has been conferred. (I would venture to guess that many of my students don’t even know what conferred means.) But maybe that’s not entirely their fault. Since becoming a college professor, I often have conversations with students who are dismayed to discover that college courses bear little to no relationship with their high school equivalents. From a student’s perspective, it’s frustrating to realize that the first thing you must learn in any college course is to dump whatever study methods may have served you in the past and quickly pick up some new ones. (Names and dates won’t cut it in college literature classes. Motifs, themes, unanswerable questions…these are the things that matter now.) From a professorial standpoint, it’s frustrating to discover just how much high school graduates don’t already know. (The basic spelling and grammatical errors I encounter on a regular basis are appalling, never mind the historical ignorance.)

The same gap exists, I think, between college and “the real world.” So often college does not prepare you for the actual lived experience of acquiring a job, paying rent, buying groceries, finding health care, navigating relationships, raising children, etc.  Sure, you can write a killer essay in one night but will your landlord care about that come the 1st of the month? Will your senior paper discussing increasing urbanization and the conflicts of public space, parks, and playgrounds empower you to be some sort of expert parent?  Probably not.

This is not to say that I think writing papers at 3am whilst consuming large quantities of coffee and breakfast cakes is unimportant. I wouldn’t be a college professor if I did. In the immortal words of one Sam Seaborn, “Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything.” And he’s right. He’s also right that education is in desperate need of “gigantic, revolutionary changes” because I can tell you, what we’ve got simply isn’t good enough.

Maybe what would help is some kind of preparedness class, required prior to graduation and in addition to one’s major, that would give students the fundamental tools to function in whatever stage of life comes next. High school to college, college to grad school (if applicable), grad school to “adulthood”, and so on. Schools might even offer a variety of courses from which the student could select, given their particular career and family choices, for instance:

  • “Study Skills vs. Study Hall”
  • “College Life and Sobriety”
  • “Jobs I: Acquiring Employment”
  • “Jobs II: Maintaining Employment”
  • “Deciphering the Graduate Program Application and Process”
  • “FAFSA, FICA, and other Important Acronyms”
  • “Managing Financial Obligations: Beyond the Beer Run”
  • “Changing Your Oil and other Vehicle Maintenance”
  • “Home Repair Matters”
  • “Special Topics: Cohabitation, Compromise, and Commitment”
  • “Introductory Parenting: Diapers and Desonate”

It might help. It might not. As one blue-collared individual got famous for observing, “Sometimes, you just can’t fix stupid.”

The following is an actual conversation I had with one of my students:

Student: I need to change the topic of my project.

Me: Why?

S: My niece is coming home from ICU and we need to get the house ready so I won’t have as much time as I thought to work on my project. It’s the first time she’s been home since she was born in February.

M: Well, I can understand that. Congratulations, by the way.

S: Oh, I don’t care about her. I hate babies.

M: (stunned silence)

M: (more stunned silence)

M: (completely incapable of generating any kind of response)

S: Uh…I mean, I bought her some books. Hopefully that means she’ll have a brain in her head. Unlike most people.

Irony much?

I wait tables. For this reason, I can tell you: there is a whole lot of Stupid in the world.  Yes, we have a soup and salad meal – it’s the item on the menu called Soup and Salad. No, Moss Point Gumbo does not contain moss. Yes, Walt’s Champagne Chicken Salad comes with chicken.  It’s terribly frustrating, but at least I comfort myself knowing that my encounters with Stupid are as temporary as the time it takes to consume a 14oz prime rib and a side of mashed potatoes. (Surprisingly, this is a lot faster than is probably healthy.)

Unfortunately, a dear friend has struggled lately with a Stupid that lives a bit too close to home. This is a special breed of Stupid, a Stupid that masquerades as a part time grandparent offering ridiculously offensive advice to my friend’s impressionable children. Take, for example, this token of wisdom spoken by the adult family member, who should have known better, to a grieving 7 year old, whose maternal grandmother had recently and suddenly passed : “Don’t be sad or miss her! When you miss her, that’s the devil talking to you.” The poor child laid awake and cried all night, convinced the devil was talking to her because she missed her grandma.  The next week, after mom and dad set the wayward caretaker straight, she changed her approach, choosing to give the girl half a sandwich for lunch while her older sister enjoyed two halves. Why? “Because you’re a bit heavy and you need to be on a diet.” The perfectly healthy little girl would not take her towel off during swim lessons later that day because she was embarrassed by her “fat”. And remember, she’s only 7.

How is it possible that this breed of Stupid has survived without close, careful supervision? What manner of miracle protected this person from the onslaught of daily threats like forgetting to breath in and out or walking into oncoming traffic? And not only has she merely survived, but she has somehow achieved the title “Grandparent.” Her actions are neither grand nor parental! What kind of justice explains her vitality while others, more caring and competent, suffer and fail?

I may not know the answers to those questions but I do know this: I am baking cookies. I am taking them to that little girl and her momma. We will eat them all and we will cry about her grandma.