How Low Can Higher Ed Go?

June 5th, 2011

By Dan Miller

Bad Report CardWe can’t reverse the spiral unless we strike at the causes of decline.

This article by Clayton Cramer, published by Pajamas Media on May 24, reveals some of higher education’s less obvious, more basic, and therefore more important problems. The situation is rather dire: the products of our education system administer, teach, vote, and otherwise direct the course the country is to take. The social harm inherent in that process is set to continue at an accelerating pace.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated that the FY2011 education budget represents “one of the largest increases” in education spending. President Obama sees it “as the key to our economic future.” But this is a mug’s game. Pumping up spending has not worked yet, and more of the same is not likely to work now or in the future. As Cramer notes, many now enter college in pursuit of the “welfare” benefits conferred merely by being there. Unsurprisingly, many don’t find the employment they expect upon graduation. True, 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. Their numbers seem to be increasing. Cramer observes that many college freshmen can neither comprehend written English language nor write it grammatically. Victor Davis Hanson notes 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 […] 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 […].

Why, as Hanson asks, are they there in the first place? This essential question, much less elitist than it seems, must be answered, and by elites themselves. Higher education should build upon solid learning foundations built from elementary to high school. Alas, the issue before us is one of damage control and course correction. Where to begin?

Perhaps with teachers themselves. At a certain 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 his presentations were entertaining. Much of what Mr. Blum taught remains memorable nearly half a century later. Shortly after Eleanor Roosevelt died in November of 1962 — he had gotten to know her well researching a book on her husband — Mr. Blum asked whether we would mind if he spent the period reminiscing extemporaneously. We students applauded.

Then consider the case of L.P. Curtis. He brought English cultural history to life. Like Mr. Blum, Mr. Curtis was an entertainer as well as a passionate historian. 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. This neither pleased them nor reflected well upon Britain’s technical 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.” With a light touch, he made a serious 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. For there to be success in achieving the purposes of education enjoyment is necessary to make even the less interesting stuff palatable. The sensation of pleasure further encourages study long after graduation.

Another place to begin is with our vision of job-related education. Yes, there are great pressures to pursue the skills needed to find and keep suitable jobs — but liberal education has not gone out of style. 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 in other ways. 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 comparable authors, in class or out? In school or after graduation?

Continue reading this article at Pajamas Media »

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4 Responses to “How Low Can Higher Ed Go?”

  1. Brian |

    I remember reading that CS Lewis had utterly lamented the boredom and tedium of having to learn classical Greek as a young boy. But by the time he had become an adult, he enjoyed being able to read Homer in its original form.

    I can think of few endeavors whose mastery did not at some point involve rote memorization of “the fundamentals” – mathematics, literature, etc.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Exactly right, Brian. Modern educators disparage memorization in favor of all manner of generally worthless touchy-feely kinds of activities that really teach almost nothing. I think common sense (a commodity rare among professional educators) indicates that there needs to be a productive mix of all these things, minus the political indoctrination. That alone would lead to more literate high school graduates and better-prepared college freshmen.

    Add to that serious entry requirements for higher education, and most of the problem is solved. Won’t happen, though.

  3. Dan Miller |

    Clearly, some memorization is needed. The multiplication table for example, perhaps some dates of historic events but not all that many. The sequence of events is far more important to understanding and we can always look up the exact dates.

    Memorizing the answers to standardized tests merely in order to pass them suggests that the test results are faulty as a measure of learning. To the extent that this process displaces learning sequences of events, why they happened and the results it is unfortunate. How can a competent teacher who wants to help his students to learn put up with this sort of nonsense?

  4. Higher Education? Higher than What? | Geo436 |

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

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