Stop the Spread (of Lowered Standards)

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 5/15

In March 2020, when colleges across the country sent their students home mid-semester in an effort to “stop the spread” of COVID, they claimed that measures such as virtual instruction and modified assignments would be temporary—originally only to last two weeks, and then only until the end of the semester. Although students and professors alike suffered from the sudden switch, most were committed to sticking it out, with the reassurance that everything would be back to normal soon. 

Of course, we all know the end of that story—or rather, the lack thereof. More than two years later, colleges are still switching back and forth between virtual and in-person classes in response to the fluctuating number of COVID cases on campus (never mind that most students are vaccinated and face little danger from contracting COVID). Accommodations such as mandatory remote options, loosened attendance policies, and lightened workloads seem to be here to stay on many campuses, forced upon faculty by both explicit requirements and internal pressures. 

As the pandemic waned, however, the justification for lowered standards began to shift: instead of COVID, many administrators now point to students’ ever-worsening mental health when making the case for leniency. The pressure of grades and assessments is said to be too much for today’s college students, who must have lighter workloads and decreased stress, whatever the consequences to the quality of their education.  

And the consequences truly have been great. Just a few days ago, the New York Times published an op-ed from Jonathan Malesic, a writing professor at Southern Methodist University, that details the damaging effects of lowered standards and loosened course structures. In the article, titled “My College Students Are Not Okay,” Dr. Malesic describes the widespread disengagement that he and other college instructors have witnessed from students over the past two years. Student performance has plummeted by nearly every measure, Dr. Malesic says, and it appears that many students have lost all motivation to learn. 

Rather than continuing the race to the bottom, matching the decline in student motivation and performance with ever-lowering standards, Dr. Malesic argues that faculty should respond to the crisis by restoring structure to the classroom. He writes:

Higher education is now at a turning point. The accommodations for the pandemic can either end or be made permanent. The task won’t be easy, but universities need to help students rebuild their ability to learn. And to do that, everyone involved—students, faculties, administrators and the public at large—must insist on in-person classes and high expectations for fall 2022 and beyond.…

Because it is students whose educations are at stake, they bear much of the responsibility for remaking their ability to learn. But faculty members and administrators need to give students an environment that encourages intellectual habits like curiosity, honesty and participation in a community of inquiry. These habits aren’t only the means to a good education; to a large extent, they are the education.

Students need higher standards, not lower. For evidence of how high standards help students flourish, Dr. Malesic refers his readers to the University of Dallas (UD), a small Catholic university known for its conservatism and its Great Books curriculum. Although the school switched to remote instruction in March 2020, it pivoted right back for the Fall 2020 semester and continued its teaching mostly unhampered from there on out. As a result, UD students have thrived, even amidst the chaos of the past two years. As one UD student stated: “It’s difficult, but you want it to be difficult, and you want to be a part of it because it’s difficult” [emphasis added]. 

Instead of forcing professors to water down their content and soften their feedback, administrators should recognize the role that rigor plays in motivating students. Erasing standards won’t solve the problems that students face—it will only mask them. 

Until next week. 

P. S. Students with an appetite for grappling with difficult ideas should consider applying for Ralston College’s new, one-year M.A. in the Humanities, which begins with two months of immersive language and culture study in Greece. All students who are accepted to the program will receive a full scholarship covering both tuition and accommodation. Applications are due May 21st, so spread the word!

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Marco Fileccia, Public Domain

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