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Quit Partying and Start Studying

April 17, 1999|CHRIS BEIRN | Chris Beirn lives in Goleta

"I just hope I can get through this; I haven't slept in three nights."

The voice I am overhearing belongs to a young woman who sits behind me in Math 107, an intermediate algebra course at Santa Barbara City College. I am one of about 30 students who are nervously waiting to take their second midterm of the semester. A sympathetic response from her neighbor elicits the following story: Friends from Montana are visiting on their spring break. They want to party, and my classmate is only too willing to oblige. "Did you go to Dave's party last night?" she is asked. "Yeah, I passed out at 3 a.m., but someone woke me at 5:30 a.m. Dave was still up, sitting on the couch watching a movie. He was really into it." This last bit of information is conveyed in an admiring tone that is reserved for things that are "way cool." Among the community college party crowd, stamina, it seems, is everything.

As a recent newspaper article noted, California's community colleges serve a diverse clientele. In addition to the C students, immigrants and very late bloomers like me, their classrooms are filled with young people who are motivated by single mothers who have explained that Dad's child-support obligation continues until age 22 as long as his offspring remains in school, or by a desire to qualify for the lower automobile insurance rates offered to students. Given the next-to-nothing cost of tuition, such reasons provide the basis for an economically rational decision to enroll. What they don't do, however, is provide the motivation required to actually learn anything.

"Are you going to make this class fun?" This was one of a number of queries that students submitted in response to a first-day-of-class, ask-any-question-you-like invitation made by the instructor of my elementary algebra class last semester. "No," he replied with good-natured irony, "I'm going to make it as boring as possible."

This exchange gets to the root of the problem that underlies the appalling failure rate in today's math classrooms. For all except the gifted few, learning to manipulate abstract symbols in accordance with a set of complex rules is not fun; it's hard work. The idea that hard work is necessary, and that it can in fact lead to experiences that are both satisfying and worthwhile, is profoundly unacceptable to many members of the generation that now populates community college campuses. Devoting hours of concentrated, clearheaded attention to math problems is simply not compatible with a lifestyle that gives top priority to partying.

This fundamental conflict of purpose leads to a war of attrition in classrooms. When each new homework assignment is greeted by the collective exhalations of 20-year-olds who have refined the burdened sigh to an art form, instructors are given a message. When parents and the community insist that inadequate teacher qualifications, lack of facilities, flawed curriculums and anything but the attitude of our own undisciplined children are at fault, that message is reinforced. We get a gradual but inevitable lowering of standards on one hand and a quixotic quest for let's-make-broccoli-taste-like-ice-cream curriculum fixes on the other.

Disturbingly, all of this is occurring when the importance and ubiquity of quantitative analysis in decisions affecting our lives are growing rapidly. The proliferation of computers and computer-programming skills is the driving force behind this process.

Insulated by indulgent parents and a surplus of undemanding and relatively well-paid service sector jobs, many of my younger classmates would probably ask, "Why bother?"

We are likely to have to wait for the next turn in the economic cycle to provide them with a convincing answer.

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