06/11/2008 05:07 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Five Things Students Really Should Know Before They Get To College

"A man who lets himself be bored is even more contemptible than the bore"

--Samuel Butler

MTV & the Associated Press recently released a "landmark study" that found that almost half of all "young people" think they will be rich, but only 17% think they will be famous.

What's wrong with these numbers?

They are, obviously, divorced from reality -- and many of them assume, for one reason or another that they are going to get by on charm or something equally nebulous.

Most of them are in for a rude awakening.

If, by chance, their band doesn't make it big or they're not picked to start for the Chargers (I've had several students tell me that one or the other of the above was gonna happen to them any day now) -- what are they gonna do?

Without some basic academic skills, skills they should have learned in high school if not before, they're gonna be in trouble -- to say the least.

Many young adults show up in my classroom without these skills-- some because they've been clever enough, up until now, to get by without them, some because they had another talent worth nurturing, and they were allowed to squeak by without learning, some because they had teachers or parents who thought that if they could just give them a sense of accomplishment, that they would eventually rise to the occasion, and some, because they were part of the tragic 30%+ dropout rate here in California.

The problem is that if these students are going to continue their college educations, if they are going to graduate and move out into the real world, they must have these skills. I know this. I also know that if I let myself be tempted by any of the reasons above, and I have been, that I am always, always, doing the student in question a disservice.

The fact of the matter is that without some basic skills -- at some point, each of these four kinds of students will crash and burn -- though the vast majority of them are blissfully ignorant of this fact. I do my best, painful as it is, to make sure that most of them who deserve a wakeup call get it from me, rather than coming to the realization (after, say, a year of unsuccessfully filing out job applications) that they should have listened better, sooner.

1. The ability to listen, consistently, for some minutes, to someone speaking about something you don't really care about.

Who wants to listen to me talk about independent clauses?

As Charlie Meadows put it in Barton Fink, "I can feel my butt getting sore already."

...but as those of you who have had real jobs know, as dull as the boss is, as dull as the lecture is about how to run the software -- you pay attention or you won't be working there long.

2. The ability to read for comprehension. My students can all "read." None-the-less, I'm amazed all the time to be discussing something they've just read, and I find as often as not, that for anything written above about a sixth grade level they are as likely as not to misunderstand disastrously. I regularly teach an essay by Mike Rose called I Just Wanna Be Average, about how incredibly destructive it is to assume that students can only rise to a certain level.

Here's what Rose has to say:

What Ken and so many others do is protect themselves from such suffocating madness by taking on with a vengeance the identity implied in the vocational track. Reject the confusion and frustration by openly defining yourself as the Common Joe. Champion the average. Rely on your own good sense. Fuck this bullshit. Bullshit, of course, is everything you - and the others - fear is beyond you: books, essays, tests, academic scrambling, complexity, scientific reasoning, philosophical inquiry.

The tragedy is that you have to twist the knife in your own gray matter to make this defense work. You'll have to shut down, have to reject intellectual stimuli or diffuse them with sarcasm, have to cultivate stupidity, have to convert boredom from a malady into a way of confronting the world. Keep your vocabulary simple, act stoned when you're not or act more stoned than you are, flaunt ignorance, materialize your dreams. It is a powerful and effective defense - it neutralizes the insult and the frustration of being a vocational kid and, when perfected, it drives teachers up the wall, a delightful secondary effect. But like all strong magic, it exacts a price.

I once had a classroom full of students write about this essay before we discussed it -- almost half of them told me that Mike Rose was extolling the virtues of average-ness, and that Rose was asserting that we should all embrace the glory that was our mediocrity, and thus become satisfied with our lot in life.

In a word: no.

I've also been teaching a fantastic essay by Ray Suarez called Familiar Strangers, which he starts with this reducto ad absurdum argument exposing a little of the racism inherent in our society:

Weak of mind and strong of back, we populate your dreams of fabulous sex and immigrant invasion. We fill your jails and fight your wars. We live here for years and never learn your language, so you've got to pass "official" English and English-only laws. We veer between reckless bravado and donkeylike deference. Our men can't hold their liquor, but they can carry a tune. They beat their wives and anyone who dares insult them. Their wives turn to lard after a couple of babies, and remain sweetly compliant as they take care of yours.

You know us so well, it seems.

More than one of my students (in an "advanced composition" class, no less) assumed that he had 'sided with his oppressors,' backed the wrong horse & was a traitor to his people. If only they'd managed to read and understand the entire two page article, perhaps they would have come to a different conclusion.

It's depressing sometimes.

3. The ability to speak, spontaneously, specifically, and with concrete examples, on topics about which they are supposed to be informed.

No one has ever, ever asked most of them to do this. Still fewer have been required to do this.

I'm sorry, but you can't even make it as an auto mechanic or plumber if you can't do this (No offense to auto mechanics and plumbers -- I'm pretty sure they both make more money than I do).

4. The ability to write down what they just said above, and add a parenthetical citation.

What's good about this particular skill is that, if you can manage to get them to do numbers one, two and three above, four follows pretty naturally.

If I'm lucky, really lucky, I end up with a majority of students who only need to learn the latter. That's a cake walk, but trying to teach them the first three, particularly the first two, in three hours a week for fifteen weeks, that can be like pulling teeth.

5. The willingness to understand that even if you didn't learn something last year or the year before, that you still can learn it now -- if you choose to.

I want my students to have fun in college -- hell, I wish I had more fun in college, but I also want them (particularly the talented ones -- no matter if they are talented in academics, athletics, or bullshit) to "learn to learn" -- because that's the only thing that's gonna keep a roof over there heads when they don't end up rich & famous, just like everybody else.