Welcome to Big Brother’s “The National Survey of Student Engagement”

by Craig Bernthal

Private Papers

This week an on-line questionnaire went out from the thought police — oops — I mean the Provost, to the faculty in the university where I teach, asking us what we do in the classroom. More precisely, the Provost got it from the “National Survey of Student Engagement,” which is run out of the school of education at the University of Indiana, Bloomington; and then she bounced it to us.

It is a typical school of education production: How many hours of time do we spend on what kinds of class preparation, what kinds of assignments do we give, how do we make evaluations? At the beginning, the survey asked these fairly reasonable questions, along with a few stupid ones (How many hours a week do your students spend preparing for class? How should I know? Apparently, not many. Do your students have enthusiastic discussions about what happened in class when they are outside of class? Again, how should I know?)

Then the questions began to get strange indeed. I’m going to share some of these questions with you, along with the answers I’d liked to have given, if I hadn’t been limited to “Very often,” “Often,” “Sometimes,” or “Never.”

How often do students in your selected course section engage in the following:

Have class discussions or writing assignments that include diverse perspectives (different races, religions, genders, political beliefs, etc.)?

First, let us note the usual bureaucratic inability to use English. “How often do students in your section engage in class discussions” would work. So would “How often do students in your selected course section have class discussions.” But “How often do students engage in . . .  have class discussions” is a grammatical train wreck. You’ll see lots of this in what follows, but I thought I should point it out once.

One could also point out that a race itself is not part of the same category as a “perspective,” and that the same could be said for a gender or a religion; rather a member of a race might have a perspective, as might a person of a particular gender. “Etc.,” in the above list is meaningless. It may seem like I’m nitpicking, but the mental confusion displayed by the question is part of the ether pumped out of Schools of Education, into my campus, by way of the administration, and it broods over us like the fog from Bleak House. Believe me, our own school of education can do enough damage. We don’t need Bloomington to gang up on us.

The day I got this questionnaire, which asked me to pick one of the classes I was teaching this semester and respond on the basis of that class (I picked 20th-Century British Literature), I taught W. H. Auden’s early poetry. I think it is fair to say my class had no perspective on it whatsoever, regardless of race, gender, political background or preferred pizza topping. The subject of the class was actually Auden’s perspective, and my students are entitled to their own perspective on that, so long as they’ve understood Auden.

Have serious conversations in your course with students of a different race or ethnicity than their own?

Again we see a blooper in parallel grammatical structure, but on to content. The answer to this one is none, as far as I know. My students are as incapable of having serious discussions about W. H. Auden as they are about the Crab Nebula or the Gunflint Cherty Iron Formation. They know this very well themselves. Students, I have found, are quite perceptive about their level of competence and honest about it when they are not being encouraged to BS. Part of my job is to get them to understand what they would need to know to have a serious discussion about Auden.

Understanding people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds?

Frankly, I don’t know whether my students set aside time for this. I don’t encourage them to. We try to understand the writing of people like Joseph Conrad, and we even try to understand Chinua Achebe’s criticism of Conrad, but I’m utterly uninterested in Achebe’s background and I don’t see any reason why my students should be interested. The only issue is whether Achebe has something enlightening to say about Conrad.

Developing a personal code of values and ethics?

This one really lets the cat out of the bag. Apparently, we’re supposed to be promoting the latest brand of Education School religion by encouraging students to wed therapy to ethics in the service of whipping up their own ideas of right and wrong. I opt out. I’m a Roman Catholic; I believe that there is a transcendent reality outside of us that we confront and confronts us and that distinctions between right and wrong are objective. C. S. Lewis, at least, is on my side, as are all of the students who have ever complained to me about an “unfair” grade, to whom I never once have said, well, according to my personal values, that’s a “D.”  But more to the point, I’m a better secularist than the people who put this questionnaire together; I don’t think the my students’ personal (the survey’s word, not mine) values and ethics are any of my damn business.

Developing a deepened sense of spirituality?

Are they serious?  See answer above, but double the alarm.

At this point, the questionnaire pulled an interesting little trick. It asked for my background information: date of birth, number of years teaching at the university level, academic rank, race, the usual questions which make you feel that you are being stereotyped. Just when I thought the ordeal was over, this is what appeared:

Earlier, you answered some questions based on one particular undergraduate course section you are teaching or have taught during this academic year. Thinking again about that course, please indicate how much the following happen.

I’ll include three of the six questions that followed:

The course content emphasizes contributions to the field by people from multiple cultures.

Is Joseph Conrad from the same culture as Martin Amis?

Students develop skills necessary to work effectively with people from various cultural backgrounds.

And what special set of skills would this be, other than extending to classmates the basic courtesies of listening attentively, which they already do rather well? And how exactly am I to tell whether Joe Smith from Clovis is from a different cultural background than Jose Gonzalez from Dinuba? What exactly is a “cultural background”?

You explore your own cultural and intellectual limitations as part of class preparation.

Ah, we finally get to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We get to confess. Mea culpa. I could be so much more culturally aware and in love with diversity than I am. I’m trying to turn out the next crop of brain-dead non-judgmentalists, but am I doing enough, I ask myself. Maybe I could therapize my students more effectively by putting them in a circle and letting them give their own impressionist interpretations of “In Praise of Limestone,” as I smile benignly, promoting their self-esteem.

How many ways can a faculty be insulted? It’s not just the Sunday school tone of these questions which raises goose flesh, but the totalitarian mind-set lying behind them. We are to adopt a creed of virtually complete tolerance and cultural relativism on the one hand, and to encourage narcissistic individualism on the other, without ever posing the question of whether these goals are in conflict, which they most assuredly are. The questionnaire both attempts to indoctrinate faculty and find out how well the faculty is indoctrinating students in a world view which is not only incoherent but pernicious.

What wasn’t on the survey? Not a single question about whether we stress the importance of reason and evidence in deciding which is the more convincing of two arguments; there was nothing about what we do to stimulate our students’ imaginations or make them more perceptive readers and thinkers. Judgment? Discrimination? The search for truth? (A word in very bad odor these days.)  There was nothing about these things in the questionnaire. The people who put this out are attempting to inculcate a world-view and an agenda by molding the culture of the university, a culture based on non-thought at best, double-think at worst. I don’t know what I’m part of anymore, but “secular university” doesn’t describe it.

Craig Bernthal is a professor of English at California State University, Fresno.

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