To fix college, ban ‘I feel’

Among One Hundred Great Ideas for Higher Education collected by the National Association of Scholars, Naomi Schaefer Riley proposes a campaign against narcissism. She recalls a reality show called The Scholar in which ten high school seniors competed for a college scholarship.  Asked what famous person, dead or alive, she’d like to have dinner with, Melissa answered Plato. She said she’d “read his story about the cave” and wanted to “discuss her own ‘process of self-discovery’ with him.” Melissa won the scholarship.

Everything about college and the process leading to it makes students believe that their innermost feelings are of the utmost importance. Professors (the good ones, anyway) complain that students begin every answer with “I feel.” This is emblematic of a certain self-absorption combined with postmodern fuzzy thinking.

. . . Every paper turned in during the first year of college should depend entirely for its argument on the writings and thoughts of others without any reference to the student’s personal experience. The writing should include a general thesis backed up by specific quotations or examples from third parties. The only way to make eighteen-year-olds into intelligible writers and speakers is to force them to look beyond themselves.

Riley is the author of The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For.

Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute calls for banning grade inflation: “Pass a federal law that no teacher in a college or university that receives federal funds shall be allowed to award an A to more than 7 percent of the students in any course, and a B to more than an additional 18 percent.”

I’d like to tell ninth graders whether they’re on track to earn a bachelor’s degree, train for a skilled job, flunk out of a community college remedial course or drop out of high school. If they knew early enough, they could work harder to improve their odds — or set more realistic goals. Colleges wouldn’t have to provide so many remedial courses, which usually come too late to help.

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  1. cranberry says:

    To ban “I feel” the colleges would need to first revamp the college application essay, which is an invitation to narcissism. By this time, with Writer’s Workshop, many students spend much of their K-12 time practicing the memoir, with an eye to the Application Essay.

    Replacing the essay with the option of submitting a graded paper from a core academic class would go a long way toward preparing students for serious academic work.

    • My son did this. Not because the college allowed it, but because he hated the idea of writing his feelings down for strangers. It worked.

  2. When I was working for Texas Instruments I took a number of courses at their learning centre (Job Entry Subsystem, Multiple Virtual Storage, fun stuff like that). One of the courses was a communications course called “On the Way Up.”

    The central theme of this course was a communications methodology called “feel-want-willing”. Basically, it encouraged you to express your needs in three steps:
    – feel – describe the problem you face in terms of how it makes you feel
    – want – state what you want as a way to resolve the problem
    – willing – state what you are willing to do in order to achieve what you want

    The first stage isn’t empty. It tells the other person how the problem is affecting you, developing a sense of urgency and empathy. The idea is that if the other person sees the consequence of the problem, and not just the symptoms, they can respond with something that solves the underlying issue, and not just the symptoms.

    Why is this important? If you skip the first stage – or can’t express what it is that really bothers you about something – your communications with others become just a repeated set of “I want I want” statements. The other person, if they care what you want at all, tries one after another band-aid solution without ever solving the problem.

    I know there’s a whole school of thought out there that thinks “I feel” is self-indulgent and inefficient, and should be banned from education altogether.

    But from my perspective, this would result in a generation of students who do not understand how to solve problems, express business needs, or satisfy customers.

    Because despite the way we objectively measure need, means and motive in today’s economy, the driving force behind any enterprise, whether it be physics or rental cars, is meeting the needs, as expressed by the feelings, of some person.

    People may be objectively hungry, but what makes them eat is that they feel hungry. Ignoring this fundamental reality makes students not merely bad students, but bad employees and bad business-people.

    • On the other hand, “I feel,” as in “I feel offended,” has stifled debate and the flow if ideas. What is true for you in a business/customer relations context doesn’t necessarily transfer into the liberal arts.
      Feel: I feel that the language of Huck Finn is offensive.
      Want: I want this book removed from the curriculum.
      Willing: I am willing to sue the school district to make that happen.

  3. It would also help for students to learn when ‘I feel’ is actually the correct term to use. In writing a reaction to a piece of literature, it might be fine. I grade lab reports, though, and am startled at how often I see ‘I feel’. Teaching students that ‘I feel that the lab was poorly designed’ is not appropriate, but ”The lab did not allow enough time for two variables to be tested. It could be improved by eliminating part A or using 2 weeks of class time.’ is great.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      In the spirit of Stephen Downes’s comment, what if the student wrote, “I feel that the lab was poorly designed. It did not allow enough time for two variables to be tested. It could be improved by eliminating part A or using 2 weeks of class time.”?

      • In theory, lab reports are prep for writing scientific papers. Most students never actually write academic papers, but for those who do, the format is the same. Usually, papers should ‘report the facts’. A statement like ‘There was not enough time to test to variables’ is factual, as is ‘Future improvements to the lab could include allowing more time or eliminating one variable’. There really isn’t any need to say ‘I feel’ because not having time or stating that you could get more data if another variable was tested isn’t really subjective. I don’t normally take off points for this if their statements are legitimate. I have found, though, that it is a short jump for most students from ‘I feel that it was poorly designed’ to ‘I feel like this is a waste of time blah blah blah’…

        I get some doozies, though. We talk about molecular properties of water that make it important for life (polar, good solvent, expands when frozen, etc). Without fail, when asked to explain why water is important for life, some students respond ‘I feel that water….’. I have no idea why – these properties aren’t about feelings!

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    What seems paradoxical about this is that the kids know, whether it’s athletics or video games, they get better with practice. Or, if they don’t, they know kids who do.
    They must know their prospects would be improved by having more capabilities. Mustn’t they?
    Talked to a guy here about his dtr’s HS classmates, some of whom didn’t graduate simply because they’d slacked off in classes and didn’t get the grades. They come from middle-class families, or even higher income situations. Dtr said they weren’t dumb. What, I asked rhetorically, do they think they’re going to do?
    My friend shrugged. No telling.
    This will not end well.