Sunday, March 03, 2013

'Give me my degree in mental health or I'll scream and stamp my feet and make a scene, I swear...!'

My little corner of the ever-beneficent Universe made headlines a few weeks back thanks to Lehigh University alumna Megan Thode. Ms. Thode sued the college for laying waste to her life in 2009 by awarding her a C+ in a key piece of coursework. The course was a graduate-level practicum in counseling, and she needed a B or higher in order to continue along a path that ultimately would've led to a Master's in counseling and state certification in same. Unable to prompt her prof to change the grade (Thode and her father, a member of Lehigh faculty, left few stones unturned in that endeavor), she was forced to switch to an alternate Master's track that did not pave the way for state certification. The $1.3 million that she sought from Lehigh was her legal team's assessment of the difference in lifetime earning power between the two career tracks. Thode accused Lehigh of breach of contract and demanded that the school make her whole financially.

I suppose that Judge Emil Giordano deserves a measure of credit for the forbearance he showed in letting the whole melodrama play out in front of him for four days instead of summarily tossing the case, as many observers believed he should. Nonetheless, Giordano ruled against Thode in the end.

But guess what? And who could've seen this coming!? Not content with appealing the C+ that caused all this, Thode is now appealing the F she received from the judge as well: She wants a rehearing.

If you've been with us for a while you may already know where I'm going with this, but bear with me anyway because these are points that cannot be restated too vigorously or often.

In fact, rarely has a news story presented us with a more compelling primer in some of the most destructive social currencies of our time. The first is the politically liberal notion that The System exists not just to provide opportunity, but to orchestrate/ensure a desired outcome; see, not only are we all supposed to play on a level field, but we must all finish the game more or less equally victorious. (By the way, it's oddly fitting that this particular chicken should come home to roost in academia, America's greatest bastion of liberal thought. And yes, I vote Democrat, and I strongly support Obama...but this notion of micromanaging equality is one place where I must part company with my philosophical brethren.)

Complementing the aforementioned belief is a more subtle but equally pernicious factor: the I want, I deserve narcissism fomented by the self-esteem-based model of education that was already pandemic in American schools by the time Ms. Thode, now 27, first chanted "I am special" in some jubilant kindergarten assembly. Born of the armchair psychology of the modern self-help movement, this school of thought insisted on trophies for everyone, failure for no one. It was as if all students were residents of Garrison Keillor's (mythical) Lake Wobegon, where—logic be damned—everyone is above average.

Third, since it's clear that Thode's father, Lehigh finance prof Stephen Thode, enabled and supported his little darling every step of the way, we have the helicopter parent phenomenon, which has itself proved ruinous to the independence and resourcefulness of so many of today's young adults. 

Strictly speaking this is not the first lawsuit of its kind, or even the first such high-profile lawsuit. In 2009 the Bronx's Trina Thompson, unable to find work after earning a business degree at Monroe College, sued Monroe to recover $70,000 in tuition. (There was no tuition to recover in Ms. Thode's case, as she received the entirety of her Lehigh education tuition-free as part of her father's benefits package. Sweet deal, huh?) Monroe prevailed, even though to some observers the school exemplified the educational predation common among many smaller for-profit colleges. The college met its burden of proving that it had educated Ms. Thompson, and that she herself could achieve no better than a 2.7 GPA; thus, probably even in the best of circumstances, she was not going to win a job over your typical Stanford 4.0.

But that was Monroe, while this is far loftier Lehigh, and the argument is a bit different. Based on news coverage of the case (which was extensive locally), Ms. Thode seems to feel that the school breached its contract with her merely by failing to give her the grade she needed to move on, whether she'd earned it or not. That breach of contract argument, if allowed to stand, lends a slimy authenticity to the cynical notion that college is, at its heart, a basic act of commodity commerce: You give us x-amount of money, spread over four years, and we hand you the document that represents the keys to the kingdom. Any actual work and/or learning that occurs in the interim is just window dressing to make all concerned feel a bit less queasy over the arrangement.

Lehigh's defense was that Ms. Thode's classroom participation was altogether inadequate, and that on several of those rare occasions when she did open her mouth in class, it was to swear and, at least once, have a histrionic meltdown. This, remember, is a woman whose sought state certification in counseling. Lehigh's internal emails show that Thode's professor was genuinely concerned about the young woman's own mental health.

Which brings us to self-esteem-based education: A singular case of cart-before-horse-ism, self-esteem-based learning bespeaks the curious notion that the way to motivate children to excel is to confer upon them, by fiat, the trappings of excellence. I have covered the failings and fallout of this theory at length, not only in a full chapter (10) in SHAM, but in a half-dozen blog posts and published pieces for the Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, and National Review, among others. It is today clear that what such pseudo-thinking actually produced was utter mediocrity, laziness and a malignant sense of entitlement that some observers, notably including psychologists Roy Baumeister and Jean Twenge, blame for the abiding depression and/or rage so tragically prevalent among today's young adults. To summarize, self-esteem-mania gave us several generations of kids who took immense pride in second-rate work and, as they came of age, expected others to as well. These kids were also likely to have poor coping skills, little sense of proportion, and almost no working knowledge of such key social constructs as "the greater good."

More to the point, it was inevitable that one day these students, including the likes of Ms. Thode, would arrive at the nation's ivy-clad college campuses. After  an entire scholastic career of being passed on to the next level regardless of merit, what would make them suddenly able to navigate their way through a demanding college regimen? Answer: NOTHING. This is why higher-level coursework nowadays often must be dumbed down, and also why the very definition of what constitutes "a good college education" has flexed from a set of timeless expectations about core knowledge to the more accommodating paradigm known as "student-directed learning." And what is student-directed learning? Loath to force ill-prepared students to stretch by mandating challenging sequences in math and science, colleges increasingly permit them to concentrate in their major subjects and fluffy electives. At two-thirds of American universities, a liberal-arts student can graduate without having taken a single science course.

Maybe by this point you're thinking something like, All this hang-wringing over one lunatic-fringe student who sued for a better grade. If what Salerno says is true, why aren't we seeing these kinds of lawsuits weekly?

Stay tuned. Part 2 to follow (after which my seemingly gratuitous opening line about the beneficent Universe will make more sense)....


Jenny said...

Hi, Steve. I just discovered this comment on one of the articles found through the link you provided for Megan Thode.

At the end of an NPR article, Grad Who Sued Over C+ Grade Flunks In Court, by Mark Memmott, someone signed in as "shop SBH" writes:

"The professor's side is all over the media. He is being painted as a saint, who has been wronged by a disgruntled student. He did the same to me as he did to Ms Thode just a year before, and he is actually no longer at Lehigh. During my practicum year, there were several complaints against him for his behavior, but all were shoved under the rug because he brought a lot of grant funding into the institution and was head of the department with the power to match the position."

I found this side of the story interesting as I thought back on some of my experiences in a masters program for professional counseling. Of course, professors are only human, too, but I do recall in particular an inappropriate outburst by a professor in a practicum class. We were taking an exam and one of the students had neglected to silence a cell phone and it rang during the test. The professor started scolding and shaming the person like one might berate a naughty puppy who had piddled on the carpet. It was rather shocking, kind of humorous, but mostly disturbing that an adult would be treated like that that by a teacher role model in the counseling profession.

Steve Salerno said...

That is an interesting counterpoint, Jenny. Thank you for posting. For the record, the actual professor in this case was a woman, whose name escapes me, but I think you're referring to the department head, who did indeed depart for another school.

Jenny said...

Ah, I'm glad you point that out, Steve. My mistake. Going back to look again, I see that person had already said, "I actually had one of the same professors that Ms. Thode had, the year before,...." So, different person entirely. (I think this is how rumors are started!)

It's an interesting story, though, and another article, The Curious Case of Megan Thode, by Carolyn Foster Segal, from Inside Higher Ed points out some of the reasons why.

roger o'keefe said...

I agree with Steve on this one, this is all about our permissive culture. How did a case like this even get to court? I can see if a professor is sexually harassing a student or doing something else he shouldn't be doing, but that's a whole separate category of offense that would be dealt with in its own right. I also think the headline of this post is hilarious in light of the girl's career choice.

Steve, I was surprised to read your comments critical of "leveling the playing field." I thought as an Obama guy you're all about redistribution and "fairness"?

whistle said...

Roger, not everything is about politics. Just because someone supports/votes for Obama does not mean that person agrees with every aspect of his ideology (real or imagined). Weren't you the one who always talked about Bush Derangement Syndrome? I think you need to see your doctor to see if there's a treatment for ODS.

(I'm not trying to speak for Steve; I'm just sick of seeing every discussion on the internet I enjoy reading turned into a political 'your side is stupid' shouting match. Every side is stupid, and every side has valid points. Get over it.)

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you read the forums at the Chronicle of Higher Education, but we've been all over this story!

I teach lit and comp at a community college. I get little "snowflakes" like this every so often. On the other side of the track I've got colleagues who shouldn't be around others, let alone teaching. Just because someone has advanced degrees does not mean he or she is all that advanced emotionally.

As Jenny mentioned, there are professors who get away with atrocious behavior due to a plethora of reasons.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, thanks for weighing in. Yeah, a lot of people have editorialized on this story, but I think many of them missed the big picture, to be honest. I'll get into that more in Part 2 of this post. I'll have to check out the Chronicle's coverage.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you, Steve. As a Lehigh Valley resident, I've been following this case as well, and am totally sickened by it. That a student could sue for her mediocre performance, and that her suit could be taken seriously, is nauseating. I know that, for at least two decades, professors have been forbidden to give actual references to students, however mediocre, but must praise them or risk lawsuits. This outrageous injustice has given rise to parody references such as "I cannot praise this student too highly" and "You'll be very lucky to get this student to work for you." It's an appalling situation and a monstrous misfiring of American liberty. (Where's the university's or professor's liberty?!) Shame, shame on us for allowing this to continue!