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Mendacity or Ineptitude?

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When I write a long post, there are inevitably things that get left on the table. Sometimes the omissions are deliberate. Sometimes they’re inadvertent. My discussion of right-wing attacks on Dr. Jill Biden’s thesis involves both kinds of missing material. Most of it isn’t worth blogging about, but there’s one exception.

In his series, Smith drips with contempt for community colleges and lower-tier four-year colleges and universities. If you read the comments on his posts, you’ll see that even some who approve of core aspects of his arguments find Smith’s elitism alienating.

Smith throws so much vitriol at Biden that it’s almost pointless to analyze and categorize it. But one of the places where it becomes, at least in my opinion, pretty close to being explicitly misogynist is when he criticizes Biden for not asking whether community colleges should even try to retain students.

Here’s a more complete version of the passage that I quoted in the prior post:

 Biden at no point considers whether it is worth it, on either side, for community colleges to press harder to retain their least-motivated students. Unlike a bachelor’s degree, a degree from a community college is not a particularly valuable credential, and it may be that many students are correct in believing that a community-college degree is not worth the time or other resources required to obtain it, or simply believe that they are not learning very much. Every hour a community-college student spends on his studies is an hour he is not spending on some other activity. Perhaps that other activity is a job in which having a community-college degree confers zero additional value. The question is at least worth considering, but Biden does not consider it. She, a community-college instructor, simply proceeds from the assumption that a community-college degree is a thing of such obvious value that both students and educators should press for as many students to earn them as possible, with no mention of cost. It doesn’t cross her mind that someone in a community college might have something better, more interesting, or more remunerative to do with his time.

We can see here how Smith tries to twist Biden’s dedication to expanding access to higher education into a character flaw. In his account, Biden lacks the critical acumen to think about the bigger picture, let alone see her students as real people. She is not a ‘thinker’ in the way that Smith is. She is “caught up [in] repeating vapid liberal nostrums.”

Perhaps I’m wrong, but this strikes me as rather gendered.

How did Smith comes to this assessment of Biden? More specifically, to what degree is his portrait a result of ineptitude and to what degree is it driven by mendacity?

I’ve already explored the many problems with this line of attack. It stems from a misreading (or misrepresentation) of the argument. It doesn’t make much sense on its own terms. But it’s particularly striking in light of the interview transcripts Biden provides, in which she talks to two different students about why they stopped attending her class.

These interviews underscore the grossness of Smith’s smug elitism. One of the students is struggling with severe mental health issues and lack of support form her family. She reports skipping the first three weeks of class because she didn’t have enough money to buy the textbooks. Later in the term, she was hospitalized for injuries and then placed in a psychiatric hospital.

Eventually, the student asks that Biden stop recording the conversation.

Biden writes that:

If [she] had talked to a psychologist at Del Tech, or even to a counselor, she might have been made to see that Delaware Tech was not the right place for her. She did not have the academic skills to achieve beyond the pre-tech level. She just kept signing up for classes and then failing those classes for a myriad of reasons. She was emotionally fragile and could not possibly have handled the stress of attending school. Delaware Tech has an open door admission policy, but that does not mean that everyone can attain a college degree.

The second student clearly struggles with ADD. He stopped attending classes for (undisclosed) medical reasons. Yet it’s striking how hard he’s working to try to pass his classes. Biden discusses how he “could have benefitted from a campus tutor” and a “mentor,” but concludes by expressing uncertainty about whether he “can handle regular college level coursework.”

I think that it’s fairly difficult to reconcile these passages with the image of Biden that Smith paints – that of someone locked into the “assumption that a community-college degree is a thing of such obvious value that both students and educators should press for as many students to earn them as possible, with no mention of cost.” They also, I might add, showcases why better student services – and publicity about those services – aren’t simply about retention.

I wonder whether Smith simply didn’t read the interviews, his priors were so strong that he couldn’t see them for what they contain, or if they merely proved too inconvenient to take seriously.

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