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the hard bigotry of low expectations

It’s getting harder and harder for me to keep fighting the good fight–to expect anything other than mediocrity from me, from my students, and from the apathetic masses barely shuffling through life. The other day, I received this all-caps e-mail from a student’s mother. I changed the case because the all-caps hurt my eyes.

Dear Sir:

After reviewing what my son has been discussing in your class and viewing your website, I have advised him to drop your class. Maybe COM 101 has changed somewhat since I took the class in 1982 at […], but I find your website way over a young adult’s comprehension. You are teaching at […] in the south suburbs of Chicago. A junior college.

I also object that your website advertised via […] faculty website is tied into personal info and pictures of your family. My son and I feel that your class is way over his head and that he is not learning the basic writing skills which is what COM 101 should be. Maybe you should teach at Berkley, Yale or Harvard.

Honestly, after reading this, I was offended on so many levels, I was without speech. In some ways, I was impressed that one could, in such a brief message, offend so many groups of people while simultaneously demonstrating such ignorance and gall. When my head stopped spinning, I had many choice words, but I resisted. After a few days my anger settled into a kind of aching sadness. What does one say to this? Education has failed this parent, and, I’m afraid, will fail her son.

I did not send a response e-mail. FERPA laws prevent me from doing so, as I can neither confirm nor deny that a student is even enrolled in my class, let alone discuss his or her progress, with anyone other than the student or an official of the College. I can, however, exercise my First Amendment right to free speech to respond publicly to this message (removing all identifying information, of course). So, here is my response to this parent and all others of similar ilk.

Dear Parents,

You love your children. Of this, I have no doubt. When you send them off to school–teetering under the weight of their first backpacks–you want only the best for them. I too am a parent. I know what it is like to stand with bated breath, holding yourself somewhere between protector and emancipator. We want to keep them safe, and we want to set them free–to watch them fly. To reconcile these contradictions we teeter ourselves on the precarious ledge of parenthood.

Your children are capable of amazing things, potential beyond what you might imagine–for yourself and for them. It is challenge that taps one’s potential, stretches the possibilities, and lets you grow. To put children (and 18-year-old young adults) in boxes, to load upon them baggage of your own creation is to pass on a legacy of limitation. Chicago South Side, junior college, young adult–these labels used as excuses for a lack of drive, ability, and achievement are offensive. To lower your expectations of what your children can do is to savagely clip their wings.

The Community College is a place of tremendous possibility–of great potential. People of all walks of life come to pursue an education here, to grow personally, professionally, and intellectually. To “dumb down” the curriculum would be to bow one’s head to all those who ever told you the life you want is impossible. A course like COM101 is a transfer-level college course. This means the credit for this course transfers to four-year institutions–even Berkley, Yale, and Harvard. The standards for such a course are not and should not be lower if you pay less in tuition, if you are young, or even if you are from the south side of Chicago.

Paying tuition and sitting in the classroom is not the same as gaining or earning an education. Contemporary consumer culture and acquisitive mindsets have students (and their parents) believing that one can buy an education and that teachers are agents of a business that serves customers. Teachers worth their salt are not agents of business. Rather, they are committed members of both the academic and the broader community; they have families–and some even have websites where they proudly post photos of their families, where they voice their politics, and where they vent their frustrations. They draw few lines between their work as a teacher and the rest of their lives. It is who they are. They sit, late into the night, reading their students’ words and planning lessons –in the hopes young minds will be challenged to engage eagerly, to think, and to grow–despite their parents’ best intentions.


Michael S. McGuire

There is a bigotry of low expectations that is not soft but as fierce and as destructive as the worst kind of prejudice, as it cuts away at our vast human potential.

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