A guest post from regular reader and commenter Roger
Fifty-four years ago this month I graduated from Zion grade school, valedictorian of Des Moines County, Iowa. (Zion grade school had about twenty students, three in my class, me and two girls.) I was not happy with this news, because being valedictorian required that I give a speech in front of a huge audience. I have a vague recollection that what I said must have been horrible and may have embarrassed many. My academic performance at the time had been based on a set of Iowa Standardized Tests given to every eighth-grade student throughout the state. Now the larger grade schools throughout Des Moines County, with tens or hundreds of eighth-grade students, realized what a terrible mistake they had made. Immediately, as reported later in the Burlington Hawk-Eye Gazette, they began to train their eighth-grade students on how to study for and take the Iowa Standardized Tests. Never again would their students be shown up by some hillbilly. :o)
Fifty years ago this month I graduated salutatorian from Sperry High School, which was not much considering that I came in ahead of just eleven others. (Sperry High School closed down right after I graduated.) Now I might have come in first, except that English, literature, and history were my downfalls. In spite of my shortcomings, the class of '62 voted me as the one most likely to succeed. I was terrified.
My dad, who had managed to make it through fifth grade, expected that I would graduate from college. He had little money, but was prepared to make sacrifices. I knew that I wanted to be an engineer, but I had not a clue what an engineer is or does. I knew nothing of college requirements nor of college life. I had never set foot on or near a college campus or into any business or industry where an engineer might be found. I had no friends or relatives who had graduated from college. And I made no attempt to find out.
My thought was to someday graduate from Iowa State University, some 200 miles away, so I sent for information. And then I realized that I was not ready for ISU. So I enrolled in a local community college. I liked the math, physics, and chemistry courses and was surprised that I could compete. My best friend at the community college, who was not the sharpest tack in the carpet, was planning to enroll in Electrical Engineering at Iowa State, so I did too, even though I had no idea what an Electrical Engineer does.
I did not own a car and could not afford one. Fortunately the valedictorian of our class of '62, who would inherit a large farm, had enrolled in Animal Science at ISU two years earlier and was happy to transport me. And fortunately he and my EE friend shepherded me along until I found my own way.
The going was tough but changes were coming. I had to struggle for every grade that the university reported to my dad, and which he carried around in the pocket of his bib overalls and proudly reported to every neighbor for miles around. ISU still had a foreign language requirement for graduate school, so I took one year of German, not knowing a single word of it the day I walked into a classroom full of students with four years of high school German under their belts. I barely passed, I think, because the instructors felt sorry for me.
It was probably in my final year, 1966-67, when a dropout engineer was elected student president at ISU. Following his election he turned hippie, grew long hair, and smoked marijuana on campus! He was expelled, but the damage was done. Sit-ins and riots followed and the neckties lost control, but that was after I had moved on.
Sometime after that, ISU dropped their graduate school foreign language requirement, and most universities no longer cared whether you would sink or swim, so long as they got your money.
I did not know the real damage until 1981 when I was hired as an Assistant Professor at The University of Iowa. I discovered that students now controlled the universities through a student-rating-of-instructor process. I had been taught that the letter grade C meant average and F failing. But not any more. While F still existed, it was never issued and D rarely. C practically meant failing and B was average. Instructors inflated grades, for to do otherwise meant suicide. I gave deserved D's and F's and the students protested. As a result, I was instructed to change the grades, so I quit.
Today, high school diplomas and college degrees do not mean a god-damned thing. Most undergraduate degrees are just an indication that students have survived binge drinking and hazing. Where I last worked, nearly all new employes are required to have Ph.D. degrees, and English is generally their second language. Certainly American universities are turning out some good Ph.D.s, but few are American-born anymore. Where is this country headed?