THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH Carolina has a bit of a mess in its lap. Back in January, Raleigh’s News Observer publicized the story of a whistleblower named Mary Willingham. Weeks passed, and in more recent days Willingham was interviewed by ESPN and CNN. That’s when the ordure hit the oscillator.
Willingham, described by the News Observer as a UNC former academic specialist, told ESPN of the “paper classes” provided by the school as a way to ensure easy As for its athletes, thereby guaranteeing their eligibility to play on the football and basketball teams. According to Willingham, sixty percent of her UNC athlete-students read at a fourth- to eighth-grade level, and almost ten percent were functionally illiterate.
The paper classes do not require classroom attendance or work of any sort other than the preparation of a final assignment, for which assistance is offered to the students. This assignment is an essay of a paragraph’s length, and high marks are guaranteed. As an example of UNC’s lax academic standards, the following paper class final assignment, on Rosa Parks, was cited:
Rosa Parks: My Story
On the evening of December Rosa Parks decided that she was going to sit in the white people section of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. During this time blacks had to give up there seats to whites when more whites got on the bus. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Her and the bus driver began to talk and the conversation went like this. “Let me have those front seats” said the driver. She didn’t get up and told the driver that she was tired of giving her seat to white people. “I’m going to have you arrested,” said the driver. “You may do that,” Rosa Parks responded. Two white policemen came in and Rosa Parks asked them “why do you all push us around?” The police officer replied and said “I don’t know but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.
The final mark awarded to the author of this essay was A-minus. Or rather, I should say, the transcriber of this essay, for it’s in fact mostly a work of plagiarism. Much comment was made on the poor writing, but this passage is a rough copy of the introductory section of Rosa Parks’ autobiography, My Story, titled “How It All Started.” The UNC student has slightly altered the original text, and in so doing has introduced awkward and ungrammatical language. It is, however, a near likeness of the original.
No one can reasonably dismiss the intellectual dishonesty at play in the paper classes, but the practice of grade inflation is now universal, and there is hardly an institution of so-called higher learning that isn’t at bottom in the business of selling credentials. UNC has found a crass and transparent way to go about this, but the business of any university is in fact business. I wasn’t much scandalized by this story, having decided decades ago that, in most universities, the arts and humanities are at best tolerated. They are not expected to educate, so much as to apply a hasty fine arts veneer to the students of business, engineering, medicine and sport.
We’re not quite at the stage at which it can be safely asserted that literacy is so much old-fashioned nonsense, but this is certainly the direction in which the academy is headed. The printed word is disappearing in so many ways, whether in the form of books or cursive hand writing. What remains of what was once loftily termed “arts and letters” is hardly of economic value, and so the bulk of any college’s resources will go toward the departments of science and technology, and, where applicable, to sport. And who can blame the administrators, who well understand the economic might and the broad appeal of college football and basketball?
Willingham is of course correct that the university is depriving its athletes of an education, and that the paper class is an instance of intellectual dishonesty and gross cynicism. But, then, imagine the school that required its creative writers to master the rules and plays of football, and that forbade them to practice their craft until they had passed a rigorous test of their athleticism. There’s no point in arguing that English composition is a necessary and indispensible skill, whereas football is not, so long as a career in varsity and professional sport has the credible prospect of a million-dollar salary, whereas the ability to write a decent college essay is mostly useless in the real world of work. The athlete who has a credible shot at professional sports is wise to invest his time in that sport, and not in the learning of grammar.
Yes, you say, but what about life after sport, which for most athletes arrives within a matter of a few years? Well, the transition from quarterback to paperback is rare, but some sort of life does have to be patched together in the post-sporting years. The scandal at UNC is not that easy grades were given out to fulfill an academic requirement, but rather that the academic requirements were themselves indifferent to whether or not a UNC student received something approaching an education. As I’ve already suggested, this is now a widespread problem and hardly isolated to the Varsity colleges. At least this particular student is getting a football career out of the deal. Most grads these days are getting little more than a piece of paper.
I may as well also say, as if it mattered, that it’s an affront to see my own profession held in such low regard. And yet I can hardly bring myself to feel that this business could go in any other direction. Of course the go-to choice for a no-brain assignment would be essay writing, because who cares about an essay, anyway? And why would anyone bother either to teach or to learn this pointless and ill-regarded skill, when there’s a cheering crowd and a fat pay cheque and a football game awaiting.