Never Good Enough

Serena Golden over at Inside Higher Ed reports on a new book about college remediation, Jane Stanley’s The Rhetoric of Remediation: Negotiating Entitlement and Access to Higher Education. According to the Golden article:

[E]veryone agrees that remediation is an expensive headache that, too often, drives students away before they ever reach credit-bearing courses.

But those debating the present and future of remedial education may know little about its past — a past that offers some surprising insights into the issues of today. In a new book… Stanley delves into the long history of remediation at the University of California at Berkeley, finding that remedial students — with their nebulous… status as both good enough and not, accepted to the university but not acceptable to the university — have played a crucial role in allowing the institution to navigate its own discordant position as both elite and public.

In fact, historically, universities often used the rhetoric of the appalling need for remediation just to get more funding.

Remediation is a problem, maybe, but at least at schools like Berkeley, remediation is part of what they do as institutions. They wouldn’t, after all, really admit students who weren’t prepared. As the author explains:

When I hear people say about new college students, “They should have had this in high school,” I picture the high school English class as some sort of vaccination clinic in which students are to be inoculated against imprecise or ineffective writing, with the expectation that they’ll carry this immunity with them throughout their college years. Thankfully, that’s not how high school works, nor college composition classes, for that matter.

The identification of these students as “remedial,” “incompetent,” “deficient,” “beautiful-but-dumb,” and, yes even “feeble-minded” has helped the university assert its standards at key moments in the state’s and the campus’s political life. Concern about standards in students’ writing proficiency has been a political phenomenon as much as an educational phenomenon.

According to Stanley the university, particularly in times of economic trouble, likes to assert its “high standards.” Talking about remediation is part of the way the school does that. It’s also part of the way the university can secure additional funding.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer