Spiderman Goes to College

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I love it. Comic books. We’re now using comic books to prepare kids for….

Guess: First grade, you’re thinking, right? Not a bad idea, really. Give kindergarteners Little Lulu comics, maybe Caspar the Friendly Ghost, and they’ll be reading by first grade. Good idea. In fact, any number of kids invented this approach on their own. They learned to read, and there wasn’t a damned thing the schools could do about it.

But no, that’s not it. We’re using comic books to prepare high-school graduates for universities! So help me. Honest.

You’ve heard of Kaplan, which sells prep courses to subvert the SATs. You know, vocabulary lists, drills, that kind of thing. If you are too witless to have acquired a vocabulary by graduation from high school, you memorize a bunch of those word thingies with all those, like, letters in them, and forget them the day after the test, but you’re in.

Which is what the universities want. Universities are about tuition. The money of the barely sentient spends as well as any other, and there are more of them. Like all businesses, the schools, if such they are, want to expand their customer base. They want to spread the wondrous radiance of cultivation over the autistic, the anencephalic, and perhaps the dead, who might be taught by channeling. Pets, arthropods, outcroppings of rock. Furniture. Rosy O’Donnell. George Bush. The potential clientele is large. Empty space, perhaps.

As it turns out, who would have thought it, some kids don’t have vocabularies, and largely don’t have brains, and either can’t read real books or would rather be poisoned, and consequently are totally incapable of study in a university. Thus the pressing need to get them there. It doesn’t make economic sense that a university should lose twenty K a year because some wretched prole can’t read Dick and Jane.

Unfortunately for higher education, there is the tiresome pretense that we have standards. We don’t, of course, but we have to act like it. So Kaplan, sneaky rascal that he is or they are, peddles comic books — only we now call them “graphic novels” so you can’t tell they’re comic books — to fertilize the vocabularies of the borderline retarded.

“Gosh, Green Lantern! Do you think the Dark Cloud travels by metempsychosis? Some mysterious evil form of palengenesis? Or by omnibus?”

OK, OK, I made that up.

From Amazon: “Kaplan’s SAT / ACT Score-Raising Manga series features an assortment of today’s most popular graphic novels (narratives related through a combination of text and art), with the most important and frequently seen words that show up on the SAT and ACT exams highlighted throughout the text of the story. Definitions are on the margins surrounding the graphics, and words are in talk bubbles and sidebars describing the action.”

Hey, look, there are possibilities here. I’m thinking Thomas Aquinas with talk-bubbles. “There! That will settle the Manicheans!" Or, no doubt, Womanicheans. His or Hericheans. Theiricheans.

“Narratives related through a combination of text and art”? If I wrote anything so condescendingly fatuous I would slit my wrists.

Rated "for age 13 and up."

Comic books, gang, they are comic books. This, it is hoped, will get the alobitic into the remedial programs of a profitable pseudo-university from which they will graduate without knowing what planet we live on. Mawd Alghighty. Wouldn’t it make more sense simply to issue a diploma at birth and charge the parents a hundred thousand inflating green ones?

Here’s my plan. We reform the schools on the testing-out principle. We do this by offering a series of examinations. Supposedly, despite a lack of evidence, the schools exist to impart certain things, such as an ability to read. That they want to do this can be questioned, given that they often don’t, and many of the teachers barely can. Never mind. If a kid can demonstrate that he has achieved, by whatever means, whatever it is thought necessary that he achieve, you give him a diploma.

Put it this way. If a kid passes the test for a GED in the fourth grade, he’s gone. Leave the poor devil alone. He can spend the next eight years educating himself, drinking beer, or sleeping.

The bright inevitably learn on their own anyway. The schools just get in the way. My step-daughter Natalia is your standard Smart Kid, Mark I: Ivy brains, not a prodigy, Nobel unlikely. She comes home from school and pastes bits of colored paper into projects, like a New Guinean playing with glass beads. The schools here actually aren’t bad, being long on substance and short on gummy propaganda, but they aren’t aimed at the highly intelligent.

Then, like all such kids, Nata proceeds to read voraciously, omnivorously and without discrimination, without aim or plan or reason. It’s a book. Books are to read. She has gotten that far. What is it about? That’s why you read them, to find out. Aristophanes, Mario Puzo, junk, literature, it all goes into the maw. This is normal for Smart Kids. She would come out much better with books and without school than the other way around. No dimwit comic books, though.

“Holy coprolite, Batman! Godzilla, that repellent blackguard of a saurischian theropod is envenoming Tokyo with his mephitic exhalations! Let’s give him a taste of our Batarangs!”

The same principle of testing out would work for the universities. Why not devise a comprehensive test of collegiate material? Why pass a poor defenseless soul in puzzled late adolescence through four years of infernal darkness in some thumbsucking adult daycare center? A rape conviction leads to less time in durance vile. More dignified, too.

However, note that the Graduate Record exams are not a reliable instrument. We need something better. This, from the site of the Educational Testing Service, which administers the GREs: “The achievement gap refers to the different levels of academic performance of students from different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. ETS is committed to narrowing the gap through innovative research, products and services.”

Since ETS has no contact with students, it can narrow the gap only through jiggering the test, which it does. But if we had an honest testing service, it would eliminate the need for universities in many fields.

But wait. Here is the heart of my splendid plan. The smart, who should go to a university, if we still had any, can test out and do something useful, or useless, with their lives. It’s their call. The rest — coelenterates and below, say — will be sucked up by a process of Kaplanation, like Mississippians being Raptured out of the Delta, snakes in hand, and put in universities. A robotic vacuum cleaner will suck wallets out of pockets as they arrive on campus. Everyone will be happy. No?

Wild thought: I don’t understand the idea of a vacuum cleaner. Aren’t vacuums clean by definition? Still, a federal program to educate vacuums would be a good thing. Instead of merely letting them run the universities.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. Visit his blog.

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