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How Low Can Higher Ed Go?

We can't reverse the spiral unless we strike at the causes of decline.

by
Dan Miller

Bio

June 4, 2011 - 12:00 am

This article by Clayton Cramer, published by PJ 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?

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.

If education is to become successful, we need better notions of the meaning of success. Some measure the success of education principally by the moneymaking skills it confers. Schools are often unrealistically expected to confer those skills despite the passive or even hostile attitudes of students. Grades and graduations may be necessary as objective measures of some types of learning, but neither are sufficient alone or together. 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 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” [...]. Forcing teachers to focus the majority of their attention on a single year-end assessment can have a devastating effect on students [...].

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.

It has been suggested that school choice is also 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 be impressive. However, as unenthusiastic and unprepared teachers infiltrate even the preferred schools, those schools are likely to get worse rather than better. Hanson’s blunt question — “why are they there in the first place?” — should apply to teachers at good schools no less than it does to unprepared and unenthusiastic students. Each begets the other.

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. If the goal is simply to increase one’s chances of making more money after graduation, there are probably better ways than college to accomplish it. The few remaining incentives, such as hopes for success in milking the system to get by in college and maybe after, are too weak to hold. Little remains from that 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, too, lest we forget. While they lie at the root, we bemoan their consequences and say little about causes. Truly better education for all who are capable of benefiting from it provides the only realistic path out of the morass.

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

Dan Miller graduated from Yale University in 1963 and from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1966. He retired from the practice of law in Washington, D.C., in 1996 and has lived in a rural area in Panama since 2002.
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