Higher Education? Higher than What?

June 7th, 2011

(Editor’s note:  This is an expanded version of an article previously published at Pajamas Media and excerpted here.)

By Dan Miller

It’s not what it’s cracked up to be and often it’s not about learning.

DiplomaThis article by Clayton Cramer, published by Pajamas Media on May 24th, suggests some of the problems with higher education. It also reveals others which seem less obvious, more basic and therefore more important.  The situation is rather dire: the products of our education system administer, teach, vote and otherwise direct the course the country is to take. As this continues, the systemic problems inherent in the process will continue to harm society at an accelerating pace.  Trying to apply bandaids to obvious problems while ignoring the roots from which they spring cures neither.

Education Secretary Duncan stated that the FY2011 education budget represents “one of the largest increases” in education spending, which President Obama “sees as the key to our economic future.”  That’s a mug’s game. It has not worked and more of the same is not likely to work now or in the future.  Indeed, continuing to shovel more money at surface manifestations of the problems has made them worse and may well continue to do so. As the Pajamas article notes, many now enter college in pursuit of the “welfare” benefits merely being there offers and, not surprisingly, don’t find the employment to which they deem themselves entitled upon graduation.  True too, many colleges encourage this entitlement mentality through mandatory grade inflation, mandatory bell-curve grading and other subterfuges; the views of administrators rather than of teachers often dominate because they, “educators” rather than teachers, have the authority to make that happen. Their numbers seem to be increasing. The linked Pajamas article notes,

What cannot be fixed is what upsets me: the students who have no intention of passing the class. We are required to take attendance for the first two weeks of each semester, “for financial aid reasons.” No surprise: a lot of financial aid depends on being a full-time student. Every semester, I have students who show up for two weeks — and never show up again. They do not respond to emails. They do not drop the class. They do get an F. I suspect that they are getting either a grant check, or a student loan — and this is the reason that they are there for two weeks.

As the article also observes, many college freshmen can neither read the English language with comprehension nor write it grammatically. Victor Davis Hanson notes here that in California’s multi-campus university system,

maybe raising admission standards would improve the quality of student, end the trend toward watered-down classes, and encourage those who do not belong at CSU to invest their time more productively in the work place. As it is now, over 50 percent of incoming freshmen in CSU must take remedial classes to qualify for university courses . . . .

VDH asks, in view of the need for remedial classes at the college level, “why are they there in the first place?”  That’s a fair question but one often rejected as somehow elitist; it should be answered, and not only by them. Higher education should build upon learning foundations well constructed in elementary and high school. Those foundations themselves require improvement and simply to throw away the flimsy structures built upon them and start over there is not a viable solution.  Related problems do not thereby diminish and can even worsen as students remain in college.  The situation is obviously bad and demonstrates the need for improvement.  How to accomplish it is the question.

The linked Pajamas article also focuses on the need for better job-related education and there are great pressures to pursue the skills needed to find and keep suitable jobs.  However,  there are also needs for — and benefits of — what was once called a liberal education.  How can students develop skills in reading and writing?  By memorizing rules of grammar?  By learning to diagram complex sentences?  Maybe, but that’s better done earlier and elsewhere.  At the college level, experiencing the best authors available is more effective and requires no memorization.  Bertrand Russell wrote not only grammatically but with humor, clarity and precision. In his few serious writings Douglas Adams also wrote with humor, clarity and precision. How many college students — let alone high school students — are encouraged, or take the initiative, to read either or comparable authors, in association with class work or independently?  While in school or after graduation?  Even to learn a bit about writing clearly?  Even with basic writing skills, it is impossible to express unclear thoughts clearly.  Without adequate appreciation of a subject, even vaguely clear thoughts concerning it do not often form and when they do they tend to be superficial.

College studies need to be interesting to be enjoyable and therefore to grab students’ attention. Although an economics major, I took as many history courses as possible simply because I wanted to — probably because I had been taught in high school by history teachers who brought their passions for their subjects into the classroom; they did not have teaching certificates based on having survived “education” courses and were paid a bit less than public school teachers.  They evidently felt well compensated because of the pleasure they got from teaching in a welcoming environment.

At college, John Morton Blum taught the most popular of all undergraduate elective courses offered, American political history; it was the only undergraduate class he taught.  He spent most of his time with graduate students and doing research. A “liberal” in the old-fashioned sense of the word (one with an open mind but not an empty head, receptive to diverse views and open to changing his own — yes, there are such people), Mr. Blum loved his subject and devoted his professional life to studying it. His class was held in the largest auditorium at the university. Roll was not taken, yet the seats were consistently full. His was not a “gut” course in which acceptable grades could be had with little effort but the necessary effort was enjoyable.   His classes were instructive because his passion for what he taught was infectious and also because his presentations were often entertaining; it is easier to learn when awake than when dozing.  Much of what Mr. Blum taught remains memorable, nearly half a century later.  An example: one day shortly after Eleanor Roosevelt had died in November of 1962, Mr. Blum asked whether we would mind if he spent the period reminiscing extemporaneously about her; we applauded.  He had spent much time doing research for a book about her husband, FDR, and had got to know Mrs. Roosevelt well. During that lecture, we gained a few insights into Mrs. Roosevelt’s character and also into FDR’s.  VDH observes here:

Faculty could reexamine release time and ensure that those who are not teaching full loads justify such subsidies by demonstrating greater output of research and publication. My experience is that all too often, sabbaticals and release times did not result in publishable scholarship.

If Mr. Blum had not devoted as much time and effort as he did to publishable scholarship he could not have taught us, lowly undergraduates, as he did.

There was also an undergraduate course in English cultural history, taught by L. P. Curtis. He too brought his subject to life. Like Mr. Blum, Mr. Curtis was an entertainer as well as a passionate historian and therefore an exciting teacher.  One lecture dealt with the Great Exhibition. It was a display of Britain’s superior technological, economic and military successes. The Crystal Palace had been constructed for the purpose, “a huge iron goliath with over a million feet of glass.”  Many hundreds of sparrows had entered the exhibition hall and many visitors found sparrow droppings on their hats. That made them unhappy; nor did it reflect well upon British technological prowess. Queen Victoria sought sparrow advice from a country squire, whom Mr. Curtis imitated in a loud and gruff rural voice: “try sparrow hawks, ma’am.” Trivial perhaps, but he made a point about Queen Victoria’s practical interests in the success of the Exhibition — brought into being largely through the effort of her husband, Prince Albert.

It may have been Mr. Blum or Mr. Curtis who spoke of a visit by Lord Hoare to the United States.  As an aside, he told us that as the ship pulled away from the dock for her return voyage to England, one of the distinguished senators there to see him off yelled after Lord Hoare, “tell Mrs. W. ‘Hi’ for us, your lordship.” Substantively important? No, but it kept us attentive and receptive to the meatier stuff.

These, along with other learning pleasures, make studying enjoyable; and for there to be success in achieving the purposes of education enjoyment is necessary to make even the less interesting stuff palatable. There is another benefit. The sensation of pleasure encourages study long after graduation:  of history, for example, as well and passionately written by Winston Churchill and Barbara Tuchman; of fiction as well and passionately written by Patrick O’Brian (British naval history), Steven Saylor (ancient Roman history) and W.E.B. Griffin (World War II and Korean conflict history). Knowledgeable of history, such fiction writers bring fictitious, ordinary humans into their stories to make them fun to read but also as foils to highlight the characters of those who actually had major roles. Mr. Griffin’s tales of the war in the Pacific and of the Korean Conflict make General MacArthur’s ghost come alive fairly, warts and all. It is common to say that unless we come to understand history and those who made it — most likely when the study is enjoyable — we are bound to repeat it. Reiteration diminishes neither the wisdom of the observation nor the need to consider the past when dealing with the present.

At the undergraduate level, there should be no overpowering pressure to focus exclusively on subjects merely because they may be conducive to finding lucrative employment.  A degree in a job-related field can help in finding a good job; some find them, perhaps because they are in love with the subjects of their studies. Why not major in a job-related field because it is interesting and not merely because it seems the most likely to be of help in finding the most lucrative employment?  Why not also enjoy a substantial minor in a fascinating but economically “useless” aspect of history or literature?  Or for those who major in one of the humanities, in a fascinating aspect of the sciences?  For many, the Bright College Years provide the only opportunity to do so while also having some fun

(“fun” is not in the government’s dictionary). Many who did so as undergraduates later recall those years fondly, and that’s important; “did you enjoy college, Daddy?  Do you sometimes wish you could go back?”  Damn right!  And do it all over again from the beginning.

If education is to become successful, we need better notions of the meaning of “successful.”  Some measure the success of education principally by the making-money skills it confers.  Schools are often expected to confer those skills despite the passive or even hostile attitudes of students. That seems to be an unrealistic expectation. Grades and graduation may be necessary as objective measures of some types of learning but neither alone nor together are they sufficient. To the extent that grades are fudged to enhance funding, to make graduation easier or for any other reason, both grades and graduation are diminished in value.  To be successful, education must impart passion for the subjects studied, be they the sciences, the humanities or some combination; when passion is there, grades and graduation follow and fudging is unnecessary.  When passion is absent, fudging and other incentives not to learn harm rather than help.

Even without obviously overt fudging, testing procedures themselves have become part of the problem, certainly at the primary and secondary school levels. As noted here,

“Incentive programs” in the decade-old No Child Left Behind law — with school districts being rewarded or punished based on standardized test scores — have improved student performance in key subject areas by less than 1 percentage point when using benchmarks set by the National Assessment of Education Progress, an arm of the Education Department. …

[A]ssessments that focus on students’ knowledge [sh]ould not directly affect the funding a district gets. Without the fear of financial punishment from the federal government because of students’ poor results, teachers would not be forced to “teach to the test,” the report says.

Forcing teachers to focus the majority of their attention on a single year-end assessment can have a devastating effect on students, the NRC said.

Having to “teach to the test” diminishes what should be the passion demonstrated by even a competent teacher and hence the joy of learning experienced by his students.  It also sends unprepared and inadequately motivated students on to college.  As VDH asked, “why are they there in the first place?”  Elementary and high school problems continue to resonate and to spread at the college level. And, as students lacking educational motivation are graduated and go into teaching, the contagion spreads.

It has been suggested that school choice is likely to improve the quality of education for those to whom it is available.

School choice, which saves taxpayers money and simultaneously offers children a higher quality education, is sweeping the nation. And it’s an idea whose time has come. Instead of funding school buildings, the philosophy behind school choice says we should fund students instead and allow education dollars to follow a child to the school of his or her choice.

That is probably true and the results seem to have been impressive. However, as unenthusiastic and unprepared teachers infiltrate even the preferred schools, those schools are likely to get worse rather than better; VDH’s question, “why are they there in the first place,” should apply to such teachers no less than it does to unprepared and unenthusiastic students.  They beget each other.  As both proliferate, the ball will continue to roll downhill even should there be a temporary upward shift. This suggests that the Federal Government should remove its sticky fingers from the substantive parts of the education honey bucket and focus on encouraging school choice.

To spend four unproductive college years only to be spit out at the end with no more thirst for knowledge than upon entry is a waste; college should encourage, not quash nor even quench, that thirst.  If the goal is simply to increase one’s chances of making more money after graduation there are probably better ways to accomplish it.  The few remaining incentives such as hopes for success in milking the system to get by while in college, barely, and of continuing to drink that milk in later life are not sufficient. The milk sours, ceases to be nutritious and abundant, and little remains from the college experience beyond senses of lost opportunity and of emptiness. Should a materially affluent lifestyle result it can be very pleasant; but if accompanied by intellectual stagnation and emptiness it seems an uninspiring goal and an inadequate objective for higher education.

I have seen few articles, written by conservatives, touching upon the quality of education beyond lamenting that the Libruls have taken over and that “teachers’” unions, focused largely on increased benefits for “teachers” with decreased learning for their students, have too much power.  There are other concerns, and while they lie at the root we bemoan the results without saying much about them.  Truly better education for all who are capable of benefiting from it — rather than merely tossing money at teachers and schools, applying bandaids to superficial cuts and ignoring the major wounds from which it now suffers — provides the only realistic path out of the morass. If we do not exit that morass, the education system is likely to continue on its downward spiral to a point at which it becomes no longer salvageable, worth little beyond keeping students off the streets for a few extra years and providing employment for those unwilling or unable to teach.

If the education bubble bursts, perhaps the hot air will dissipate and the atmosphere at our colleges will eventually become more conducive to learning.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s blog.)

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