Token students of little value

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The Independent Online
IKNOW it's done for the right reasons and basically, as they say in California, I'm comfortable with where you're coming from, but I still think tokenism in universities is indefensible.

What I mean by tokenism is making places available to people who would not otherwise qualify on grounds of their school record, innate ability or diligence. In other words, I would stretch a point for students claiming two out of three of the above, but if they lack all three they should not be offered a place - no, not even if they are disadvantaged black ghetto dwellers. I am in favour of more black students at university, but they must be judged by the same criteria as anyone else.

This statement may brand me a person of moral turpitude, racial prejudice and rampant political incorrectness, lacking all sympathy for those less fortunate than my (white middle-class) self. I don't care. Any policy that runs in the face of common sense is suspect; and there is no common sense in excluding higher- scoring or keener students, even if they are privileged whites, in order to include the sullen, the idle and the unintelligent.

I am prompted to this tirade after seeing a letter received by a Californian professor (yes, I sigh wearily, the professor is male and white) from one of his token students. I don't know what subject the offender studies, nor even his/ her sex. It doesn't matter: the point is the venom and utter disinclination to learn which the letter spits in the teacher's face.

The students had been asked to fill in a simple questionnaire, asking them to identify the mythological characters depicted in 50 famous paintings. Instead of filling in the boxes with ticks, this student used the form to register a howl of contempt. I will quote extracts with expletives deleted. I have marked their ghostly occurrence with an asterisk.

The student's response begins: 'Yeah, sure. Why should I know these? These are only pictures of someone else's fantasies, why should I waste my precious time on someone else's thoughts? No way. I will not waste my time for you or anyone else. You just aren't worth * ]' There is more in this vein; then it continues: 'You never gave any student any respect. You may think they didn't earn it. Well * you] . . . I came into your psuedo (sic) class with that respect for you but you lost it. May I reiterate, * You. Respect is something that should be stripped away from you, you are a sociopath, do you know what that is? Why should a pervert like you teach? So what is the deal with you and these pictures of naked people? The whole class can tell you get off on them.' It goes on a bit longer - aspersions on home life of professor, general ridicule, that kind of thing - and signs off '* you again'.

Now, there are several things to be observed about this letter. First, it is by no means illiterate. The writer can spell 'should', 'precious' and even 'ancient' correctly. Many cannot. Second, it relies heavily on a combination of street abuse and psychological jargon to cover the inadequacy of its response. Third is the exaggerated sense of the writer's own importance: why should he/she waste 'my precious time' on a subject or a professor who does not earn his 'respect'? By this I deduce that the student demands flattery, praise and high grades, whether deserved or not.

No one can say in so many words to token students: 'You are mainly in this class because you are black/Hispanic/handicapped/a recovered drug addict', although without some such attribute the writer of the letter would probably not have been offered a university place. Once installed, he or she can hardly be blamed for believing that high marks are automatic, regardless of merit.

A university is not a therapy centre. Its purpose is not to make troubled and hostile young people feel good about themselves. It exists to instil knowledge and incite enthusiasm and a hunger, or at very least (disenchanted student, I am borrowing your own word) respect for knowledge. This student evidently believes the opposite is true: the professor must earn the student's willingness to pay attention.

Readers who have got this far may not believe me when I say that I would like universities to take more diverse and varied students than the usual over- coached, crammed, exam-passing, ladder-scaling middle-class bunch. I have argued before that restricting the pool from which establishment high-fliers are drawn to white social class ABC1s, generally male, impoverishes society by reducing the talent available to scarcely 6 per cent of the population.

But if higher education and well-paid jobs are opened to a wider range of people, this does not mean they should be allowed foul language, vulgar personal abuse and bone idleness. They must be judged by the same standards as the students or employees whose ranks they join. If not, we shall all sink to the lowest common denominator. Gradation will be forbidden. Everyone will get As, all degrees will be firsts, and what will happen to learning then, poor thing?

Angela Lambert's column will appear in future on Wednesdays. Her new series of interviews starts next Tuesday.