The Chronicle of Higher Education argues that a diploma does not always equal an education. The author, Thomas H. Benton, says what everybody knows but that no one will official admit. Education has in part been devalued by the notion that everyone should have a diploma even if he’s never learned anything. The result, the authors argue, are a whole cohort of people with diplomas who expect to progress through real life the way they had all their lives: by guarantee.
Lack of student preparation. Increasingly, undergraduates are not prepared adequately in any academic area but often arrive with strong convictions about their abilities. So college professors routinely encounter students who have never written anything more than short answers on exams, who do not read much at all, who lack foundational skills in math and science, yet are completely convinced of their abilities and resist any criticism of their work, to the point of tears and tantrums: “But I earned nothing but A’s in high school,” and “Your demands are unreasonable.” Such a combination makes some students nearly unteachable.
Grade inflation. It has become difficult to give students honest feedback. The slightest criticisms have to be cushioned by a warm blanket of praise and encouragement to avoid provoking oppositional defiance or complete breakdowns. As a result, student progress is slowed, sharply. Rubric-driven approaches give the appearance of objectivity but make grading seem like a matter of checklists, which, if completed, must ensure an A. Increasingly, time-pressured college teachers ask themselves, “What grade will ensure no complaint from the student, or worse, a quasi-legal battle over whether the instructions for an assignment were clear enough?” So, the number of A-range grades keeps going up, and the motivation for students to excel keeps going down.
The whole mess is the result of a politicized educational system that believes it is necessary for child to get a diploma as a social objective, because if you have one, you’re middle class. The idea that the diploma might be the outcome, rather than the cause of achievement, has never occurred to them.
Although the article focuses on the dysfunction of the students, it touches only lightly on a more serious possibility: what if the system leaders themselves can’t tell a credential and an education apart because they themselves are only credentialed? Then the blind would be leading the blind.
In that case, the highest reaches of society might be manned by mediocrities who’ve been selected to prestigious journals without ever writing an article; who’ve been elected lawmakers without ever compiling a legislative record; who reach the highest office only to go directly to vacation; who’ve presided over a depression and yet compare themselves to the greatest of past leaders — to Lincoln and to Roosevelt. Thank God things haven’t reached that point.
Because if it did then those at the top of the system would be busy cloning people exactly like themselves; students with unassailable self-esteem eager to hold a teaching moment to share their ignorance. Eager to remake the world in their image because nothing can be better than themselves.
The result of the current educational system, Benton argues, is that we are in danger of getting exactly what we pay for: an expensive lot of nothing, where the highest honors are given to the most incompetent, not because they’ve gamed the system but because that’s the way the system actually works.
it means that our “failing” system of higher education actually is working the way it is supposed to … the patterns of selection and resource allocation—and the rising costs of college education—are not driven by educational needs so much as they are the result of competition for the most enjoyable and least difficult four-year experience, culminating in a credential that is mostly a signifier of existing class positions.
Allowed to proceed unchecked such a system will give students a mis-education instead of an education. It will represent not an increase in human capital but its wanton destruction. Surely Benton is overreacting. Things could never be so bad.