Janice Fiamengo’s brilliant article, “The Unteachables: A Generation that Cannot Learn,” fits my past experience teaching at American universities. But I realized that her account applied perfectly to…something else.
Fiamengo writes that students are upset when teachers get tough on grading, “Offended pride and sulkiness replace the careless cheer of former days.”
They don’t get it when the professor points out the shortcomings in their papers. “But my work has always been praised before! Your criticisms are exaggerated!” And they may boast: “The general idea was good, wasn’t it? I’m better at the big ideas. On the details, well…”
And then if you don’t give in they become belligerent. As Fiamengo puts it:
“Their tendency is…not to confront the problem directly but to hit back at its perceived source.…These students experience a range of negative reactions, including anger, anxiety, and depression.”
They are incapable of learning because they are can’t deal constructively with criticism orr learn from failure.
Now does this sound familiar? It sounds exactly like President Barack Obama. So I wondered. Suppose I was Obama’s professor in a class called “Being President 1” and I gave him an “F.” If he fails to improve his grade he won’t be allowed to continue for next term. Here’s how such a meeting might play out:
Me: Barack, I’m happy to discuss the grade on your paper, `How to Fundamentally Transform America and Make It Fair’ with you but I hope you listen carefully and learn how to improve.
Obama: There must be some mistake! I’ve always gotten an A+ from the media. I was admitted to Harvard! I was editor of the law review! And in 2008 I won the presidency and then the Nobel Peace Prize! I’m the smartest man in the world! The mass media–which can’t find any occasion where I was ever wrong–and millions of people can’t stop raving about how wonderful I am! Me: Well, actually, your work has been quite substandard, I’m sorry to say. But you can improve it if you try.
Obama: Improve? What have I done wrong? I’ve never made a mistake in my life, except Michelle, of course.
Me: There’s the economy, for example, it hasn’t been getting better but your paper says things are great. And, come on, does anyone really think getting rid of coal, oil, and natural gas can work?
Obama: What are you talking about? I’ve been creating jobs! Unemployment is going down! You know the problem? It’s a do-nothing Congress and Joe Biden kept me up late in the dorm room drinking and shouting, “I have dreams, too!”
Me: Yes, but your performance has been terrible.
Obama: Look, the general idea was good, wasn’t it? `I’m better at the big ideas. On the details, well….’
Me: I understand. But you have to be judged by the work you turn in. And another thing. You must have specific footnotes citing sources. It isn’t enough to keep saying that all the experts agree with you. Or that anyone who disagrees with you is a flat-earther, evil, greedy rich person.
Obama: It’s not my fault. I inherited that paper from George W. Bush.
Me: You’ve been attending this university for three years now. Don’t you think it’s time you took responsibility for your own actions?
Obama: Did you know the Republicans hate women, that Romney put his dog on the roof, and that he beat up a kid in high school?
Me: What’s that have to do with it?
Obama: Well, it works on all of the other professors. So don’t you think I should be one of the students who get 99 percent? I want an America where everyone has an equal chance to get an “A” no matter how much or little work they do.
Me: Frankly, I think your grade is closer to 1 percent. You missed the point of the assignment; you didn’t answer most of the questions; your argument is illogical; and you totally misrepresent the facts. Oil prices have nothing to do with supply and demand? Helping put the Muslim Brotherhood into power is a good idea? Massive debt and spending on unproductive things brings prosperity? Higher taxes in the midst of a depression is a good idea? I just can’t change your grade. And I regret to say you don’t seem to learn anything about improving your work. You have failed every subject. If you haven’t changed completely by November I think we’re going to have to expel you at the end of the semester.
Obama: Hmm. Oh, I get it. You’re a racist!
Me: What you really mean is that you should get a higher grade, have to meet lower standards, and be immune from criticism just because you were born in Hawaii.
About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.
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