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Are American Universities Going the Way of General Motors?

The American universities, or at least a number of departments within them, became like GM long before GM became like GM.

by
Abraham H. Miller

Bio

September 18, 2010 - 12:00 am
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Identity politics causes preferential grading, a phenomenon that impacts everyone because students, always psyching out the system, calculate the minimum they need to do to stay ahead of those anchoring the bottom class standard. With tuition costs rising as education quality decreases, students have to work more and more hours outside of school to pay for their educations.  Gaming the system is as necessary to academic survival as balancing one’s schedule.

Among the inadvertent boons to gamesmanship has been a well-intentioned and often successful program called “writing across the curriculum,” which encourages the assignment of outside written papers. For students too intellectually challenged to rework material from the Internet, the program often supports a writing laboratory, where volunteers will edit your work to the point where the difference between your work and theirs is lost. To raise the issue of academic integrity is to challenge the entire program. No one does.

The editorial assistance students get is euphemistically called “heavy editing,” and at the graduate level, faculty committees have used the device to promote both their cultural audits and department productivity profiles. In reality, many dissertations are actually rewritten by faculty members to such an extent that it is difficult to attribute the final product to the student, but rest assured, the statistical entry will become part of the department’s successful profile.

With greater demand for statistical outcomes from a pool of students that brings to the educational process lesser intellectual and motivational material and from students who have to work longer hours to meet expenses, education becomes transformed into a bean-counting ritual. We still know how to grant degrees, but in many fields education has become so bureaucratized that we have forgotten what the goal of an education is.

The reason our system of higher education still works in the sciences and engineering is because serious fields draw serious students and because of the importation of a large number of highly motivated foreign students. Go to the buildings where the advanced classes in science and engineering are held and see who is taking them. The number of Asian students so dominated one of the science buildings on my campus that students dubbed it “the Asian bazaar.”

American higher education in the sciences and engineering will continue to thrive as long as we can entice highly motivated foreign students to come here and study in those fields. And, of course, we need to entice them to stay on here and not take their skills back home. More than half of all Silicon Valley start-ups were the results of the creative power of immigrants. Draining the intellectual power of the rest of the world has worked well for us. But when these students find educational and economic opportunities closer to home, there will be a profoundly negative impact on our higher education system. Some of these students might find that having to fulfill a cultural requirement with a class in “the lesser lesbian poets” is a sufficient enough turnoff to think about educational opportunities elsewhere.

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Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science and a former head of the Intelligence Studies Section of the International Studies Association.
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