Yetis, UFOs and Term Papers

by Robert Pondiscio
August 9th, 2011

Update:  Cedar Reiner posts a research paper-length blog post on this from his perspective as a college professor and cognitive scientist.  Stick with it.  The conclusion is worth the wait.

Ask a high school student – any high school student – when they were last required to submit a research paper.  Not a five paragraph essay or a “personal response,” but a paper – an in-depth piece of academic research and original writing, drawing upon deep reading of multiple sources.  Think footnotes.  A bibliography.  The MLA Handbook.  Research papers are the academic equivalent of the Yeti or UFOs: sightings are rare and those who argue for their existence are routinely dismissed as cranks or nuts.  You may be surprised to learn, therefore, that research papers are the sum and symbol of all that ails American education.

You didn’t know? 

Writing in the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan becomes, by my rough calculation, the 18,938th pundit to suggest that the real problem of American education is its adherence to a 19th century model.  What we need, she writes, is a “digital-age upgrade.”   She cites the wholly imaginary “statistic” that 65% of today’s grade school aged kids “may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.”   Thus, we can’t keep preparing students “for a world that doesn’t exist.”

“Abigail won’t be doing genetic counseling. Oliver won’t be developing Android apps for currency traders or co-chairing Google’s philanthropic division. Even those digital-age careers will be old hat. Maybe the grown-up Oliver and Abigail will program Web-enabled barrettes or quilt with scraps of Berber tents. Or maybe they’ll be plying a trade none of us old-timers will even recognize as work.”

(Psst!  Have a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the 10 most common occupations for Americans.  Shockingly low-skill, low-pay, and low-tech, isn’t it?   Clearly there are some old-timers who don’t recognize what work looks like right now.  Digital careers?  Tens of millions of Americans are still working with their digits.)

We cannot, Heffernan insists, “keep ignoring the formidable cognitive skills they’re developing on their own.”  Set aside for a moment the curious notion that we should reimagine education around skills kids are developing on their own.   No, what’s really “inhibiting today’s students” is their teachers’ and professors’ insistence that students write papers.  “Semester after semester, year after year, ‘papers’ are styled as the highest form of writing,” she writes. “And semester after semester, teachers and professors are freshly appalled when they turn up terrible.”  Heffernan’s touchstone for her attack on research papers is Now You See It, a “galvanic” book by the MacArthur Foundation’s Cathy N. Davidson, which argues, per Heffernan, against the “industrial-era holdover system that still informs our unrenovated classrooms.”

“Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers. But instead of simply carping about students with colleagues in the great faculty-lounge tradition, Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form of the research paper. “What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school — the term paper — and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?” She adds: ‘What if “research paper” is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?’”

Online blogs directed at peers, Davidson observed by contrast, “exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”  At Flypaper, Kathleen Porter-Magee, struggling heroically to overcome the handicap of her own industrial-era education, answers with an elegant and persuasive blog post of her own:

“Heffernan seems to have missed her own point. As she implies, we are no better at predicting what today’s elementary students will be doing in twenty years than Hanna-Barbera were at painting what 21st century life would look like in the Jetsons. And so, our job as educators is not hitch our wagons to the latest education fad in response to changing—and often fleeting—technology, but rather to identify the timeless knowledge and skills that all students must master to succeed in any environment.”

Ten years ago, legendary Yeti hunter Will Fitzhugh, the editor of The Concord Review and an unsung hero of American education, oversaw a study of the state of the research paper in U.S. schools.  The results will surprise only digital fetishists who confuse contemporary schools with Dickensian workhouses:  While 95% teachers surveyed believed writing a research term paper is “important” or “very important,” 62% never assigned a paper of 3,000-5,000 words in length; 81% never assign a paper of over 5,000 words.  And that’s ten years ago.  Unless there has been a renaissance of scholarly rigor that I’ve somehow overlooked, I suspect the percentage of 2011 high school graduates who have ever produced a research paper of any length or substance is now a single-digit number.  A small one.

Why?  Writing a research papers, as anyone can tell you, is not an “authentic” learning task.   The average student is already far more likely to “demonstrate mastery” by creating a poster, an advertisement, a blog post, or a series of tweets than writing a research paper. If the future of education means an end to the tyranny of the paper, rest assured the future is already here. The fresh-thinking offered up by Heffernan and others who wring their hands over our anachronistic schools is as least as old as John Dewey, and its triumph is very nearly complete.  Just ask a high school student. 

What Heffernan is offering up, sorry to say, is a blander version of 21st Century skills, which privileges skills over content, and devalues actual academic work.  The sad parade continues.  We talk about rigor and academic achievement while dismissing the legitimate products of scholarship as inauthentic and anachronistic.

“Pardon my age, but if 65 percent of jobs in the future will have new names, they will all still require basic literacy, patience, honesty, responsibility, probably some knowledge of math and science, an ability to listen and to follow instructions, etc. In short, nothing new,” says Fitzhugh via email.  “I don’t forsee the day when ‘witty and incisive blogs’ will be able to take the place of legislation, annual reports, history books, judicial opinions or any  of the other vital tasks of a literate society,” he concludes.