Friday, January 21, 2011

Show Me the Stupid

Two recent articles having to do with American “higher education” caught my attention recently. One, in the daily paper, was entitled “Least-demanding colleges produce 'limited learning'” -- a real shocker, that – and the other article, in The Wanderer (a Catholic national newspaper), dealt with the tyranny of college degree requirements.

Regarding the first article, it seems that “45% of students in [the]survey show skills have only marginally improved after first two years”. In other words, the skill differential between a high-school graduate and someone with two years of college was nil in these cases. So what were they doing all that time? Underwater basket weaving? Well, the “skills” in question were “critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing” -- and be honest, when's the last time you heard of a college offering courses or training in any of those things, especially in the first two years? The article goes on to mention that reading and writing requirements were modest at best, but for some reason the term “least-demanding colleges” never comes up in the text, so there's no way of knowing where the 24 schools in question ranked on the “demanding” scale. Maybe the assumption is that, based on the results, the schools must have been among the least-demanding; but that would be optimistic, it seems to me... although it is intriguing that “the schools took part on the condition that their institutions not be identified”. Maybe this was the Special Olympics of Colleges, or something.

The second article leads off as follows: “More on the iniquity of employers requiring college degrees as a screening device, making their possession a condition people must meet even to be interviewed for employment...” It contrasts the technicality of having a college degree with actually having knowledge and skills, and remarks that the injustice is multiplied when the cost of a college education is considered. It also points out that “using a screening device is an easy way out that has short-term benefits, but long-term costs”. (I might mention that the Army has grappled with a similar issue in deciding whether to require a high-school diploma for enlistment, in addition to making a satisfactory score on standardized enlistment tests.) The author then makes a radical proposal – that “people... stop sending their children to college unless there is clearly something for them to gain in the way, not of credentials, but of actual valuable knowledge and skills.” And while I see his point, it also runs the risk of reducing the whole “higher education” question to one of technological training and job skills, while forgetting “the idea of a university”, in the words of Cardinal Newman. There's no sense arguing over which is more important – training for life, or education for the _considered_ life. Most people are required to earn a living, and some of them, at least, would like to be able to do a bit of critical thinking, reading, and writing (and blogging) on the side. There should be an honored place in society for both paths... and dishonor for institutions that, through what amounts to fraud, cause people to waste their time and money (and introduce moral hazards into their lives besides).

So each article is dealing with a different facet of the same crisis. A college education is considered essential for any “meaningful” work, and yet much of what constitutes that “education” produces nothing but wasted time... and, I imagine, no small amount of demoralization, and a loss of self-esteem. What we are seeing with American colleges – which includes the undergraduate portion of universities – is a situation that is not “normal”. It's pathological and sick and distorted... and has degenerated mostly over the past few decades. There was a time when colleges represented the “liberal arts” -- learning for learning's sake. This, of course, had – and continues to have – a bit of an elitist (i.e., “un-American”) ring to it, since few were the families that could afford to send a child to college for four years simply to become “educated”. And it's not that the liberal arts idea was anything new; it began as far back as the Middle Ages in Europe. But a “college education” was something that the elite could aspire to, but the ordinary person could not, because it was a luxury. And this is not to say that the scions of the rich didn't frequently waste their college years in hedonism, dissipation, and other carnal pursuits – because many of them did. But that was their privilege because, again, not many were expected to “transition” directly from college to “the real world” and become instantly self-supporting. And I can argue that there are just as many of those types around as there ever were – but their presence is obscured by the vast majority whose situation is different. Those "average" types go into college stupid and come out stupid – but with a diploma in their hand, which they wave like a magic wand and get a job that they could have qualified for just as easily right out of high school.

And I suppose that the traditional situation prevailed, relatively intact, up until the post-World War II era. You had a hierarchy of labor – unskilled day labor, semi-skilled factory labor, skilled labor, the trades, etc. -- that had no relationship with “higher education” (and often no relationship with education beyond the 6th grade). Then you had technical and engineering schools, business schools, teacher's colleges, and all the rest of the educational infrastructure that prepared people for white-collar jobs. And at the same time, you had apprentice systems in many of the trades, on-the-job training, and what not... and in the arts, there were art schools, music schools, performing arts schools and academies, and what not. Then there was the vast portion of the populace that simply “worked their way up”, as my grandfather did (from clerk to bank president – in the same small-town bank). And then there was the military, which, for many, provided a career (and, secondarily at that time, some sort of training that could be applied in the civilian world). And then there was agriculture, which was, first and foremost, an apprentice system (the youth was apprenticed to his father), and which might include some “ag school” training. Only the “higher” professions – law, medicine, etc. -- consistently required college as a prerequisite – and there were even exceptions to that. And if you wanted to teach at the high school or college level, you had to have at least a bachelor's degree; that's only fair. But there would still have been the question of the proportion of time spent on subject matter vs. "education" -- i.e. technique. (That issue is still being debated.)

Plus, we tend to forget that, for the vast majority of Americans prior to World War II, high school (note the word “high”) was considered sufficient preparation for life, in terms of the “3 Rs” and education in general. And we also tend to forget that a high school education – again, prior to World War II and for a while after – was a real education, not just a glorified means of warehousing unruly teenagers. (Lily Tomlin's character Ernestine used to brag, “I am a high school graduate!” -- and considering her 1940s hairdo, this was a perfectly valid thing to brag about.) It is a truism that a college education has replaced a high-school education in the credentials department – but that is only because a college education in our time produces about the same level of “educated-ness” that a high-school education did in the old days. In other words, it now takes 4 more years to obtain the same results – and in most cases, they aren't even the same. High schools used to produce literate people; colleges now produce what I call the pseudo-literate – technically, they can read and write, but their writing is abominable (even with spell- and grammar-check) and their reading is limited to trash. Oh, and a high-school graduate used to be able to calculate square roots using a pencil and paper. Lots of luck with that these days! (Even the old slide rules required a bit of muscle power. When's the last time you saw one of those?)

So what created this situation? How did we get from the “good old days” to where we are now, when it comes to education? Well, a lot of factors entered in. One, I suspect, was that “a college education” became, at some point, a kind of fetish -- not to mention a sign and symbol of egalitarianism. To start with, no one wanted to hire someone with only a high-school education for a job that might require some perspective, a broad view of things, and some “background”. So this amorphous thing called “a college education” was added to the list of qualifiers for many – largely white-collar, largely business-related – jobs... and this began, I believe, well before World War II. And the effect was amplified – and even caused, to some extent – by the migration out of the agricultural sector and into the business/industrial sector that began in earnest around World War I. Suddenly the typical American was not the sturdy farmer, but the white-collar city dweller... and the qualifications for the latter were much more amorphous. So apprenticeship and training were replaced by something called “education” -- which, allegedly, prepared you to be trained for something. This is where the “four more years” phenomenon got its start, I believe.

Then you had the huge shot in the arm known as the G.I. Bill. After World War II, returning veterans were not satisfied to just go back to the family farm, or the factory, or to take on the same trade as their fathers. No – they had to go to college, in order to qualify for... what? For life in the ever-expanding, urban, white-collar world, I guess. Even the old-time white-collar training grounds like business schools suddenly started to look a bit shabby and second-rate compared to a “four-year school” and a bachelor's degree. And besides the agricultural sector started doing such a good job at producing food that only a small fraction of Americans were required to actually farm – everyone else was free to do as they pleased... which usually meant cities, factories, high-rise office buildings, etc. And on the egalitarian side, once college was no longer the province of the "elite" or the rich, everyone felt a whole lot better. Why, any ordinary Joe could go off to college, if he was just willing to invest the time and money and apply himself -- a sort of "Horatio Alger meets John Dewey" phenomenon.

So while none of these trends was objectionable per se, it did form the start of the somewhat arbitrary notion of “needing a college degree”. Professions and careers that one could have started on right after high school suddenly became college degree-based – in most cases for what I would consider vague reasons. But make no mistake, the notion was energetically promoted by the government, by business, and certainly by the educational establishment. Forget the little red schoolhouse! And the best high school or prep school in the country wasn't good enough any more – unless you wanted to become some kind of gypsy or bohemian, or trust fund brat. Now it's: Get that degree! Declare a major! And mostly – extend your non-productive, youthful years by four more. Adult responsibility now did not have to begin until age 22 or so – a scandal to the old-timers, for certain. (And, please note, ObamaCare has now extended the period of adolescence to age 26. But the grad schools beat him to it decades ago.)

So... one of the major consequences of the growing arbitrariness of a college education was that it began to lose all meaning for a substantial portion of college students. They couldn't quite understand what they were doing there because – simply – there _was_ no good reason. So how did they respond to this absurdity? Why, by turning their college years into one grand, continuous, non-stop orgy of drink, drugs, and sexual activity... a tendency greatly aided and abetted by the fraternity and sorority systems, I might add. And you can throw in, if you want, another bit of decadence, namely the domination of inter-collegiate athletics over all other activities and priorities. So we then had the emergence of what are called “party schools”, “football schools”, and so forth – having absolutely nothing to do with education (“higher” or otherwise) and everything to do with extending the teen years into the twenties. Surely, this is something only a society with more resources on its hands than it knows what to do with can afford! When I gaze upon a typical gaggle of college students or university undergraduates, I am reminded of nothing so much as the Roman mob of old – sensual, degenerate, chronically unemployed, and basically existing on the margins of society... and yet a powerful force in many ways (socially, culturally, economically).

Right about now, you might want to ask, “OK, but how do you fix this? Where do you start?” Well... I could just lamely point out that you can't unscramble eggs, and that it will take a revolution or a complete societal collapse to cause any change – and that only with considerable pain. And this may, in fact, be the case. After all, there was another “curious institution” in the country in the old days, and that was slavery – and it was only brought to an end by the total destruction of half of the country by the other half. I'm not sure that the “higher education” system is as intractable as slavery was... but it has to be close. To begin with, we would have to start at the bottom, by reforming the public schools, and by restoring our high schools to their former status – a status now enjoyed only by a select group of private schools. And this, in turn, would have to involve rounding up the leaders of the teachers' unions and hanging them by the neck until dead. Well... we might not have to go quite that far, but it would certainly feel that way, not only to the union leaders but to the rank and file. For public-school teaching has become just another government job – which means that it is not subject to private-sector factors such as pay for performance, promotions based on quality of work, objective standards for hiring and firing, etc. So how do you unwind this? I'm not sure it's possible. The only way might be to, rather than mount a direct attack, simply work on eroding the base – by aiding, abetting, and encouraging more private schools, parochial schools, charter schools, home schooling, etc. But you would then be working against what has become the primary function of the public schools, namely the warehousing of children and keeping them off the streets and out of their parents' hair. Eliminate those functions, and there's not a whole lot left; most of what is left could be accomplished in less than an hour a day. What I'm saying is that the “social function” of the public schools has long since overtaken the educational function – and totally replaced it in some instances (“inner-city schools” being the best example). The government is now in the day-care business – and anyone up to the age of 18 qualifies. If you want education, you have to look elsewhere.

But let's assume that the problems and dysfunctions, and downright viciousness, of the public schools could be eliminated. (And gimme a toke of that stuff, dude!) And let us assume that the public high schools could somehow return to their days of glory. Wouldn't this solve the “college problem”? Well, it would certainly solve some facets of it – like the fact that it now takes a college education to get people to the point a high-school education would have a few decades ago. But it would not solve what I call the fetish problem; that would take a sea change in thinking throughout our society – or at least throughout the (roughly) upper half (including the business world, for example). And it would not solve the problem of people aged 18-22 or thereabouts somehow “needing” a four-year vacation from responsibility and a four-year delay of adulthood. This would take not only a sea change in thinking, but a major alteration in what I'll call “family values” in the broad sense -- and an alteration in our whole way of thinking about growth, development, and maturity... and readiness for life. A society that thinks age 7 is much too young for First Confession, and age 14 is much too young for Confirmation, is likely to think age 18 is much too young for assuming adult responsibilities. (The question then becomes, at what age should someone be ready to assume adult responsibilities? And the default answer, in many cases, will be “never”. This, of course, plays right into the hands of the Regime, which wants nothing more than a populace of passive, ignorant, helpless serfs.)

Plus, someone is going to argue that the country has changed radically since the little red schoolhouse days. True enough – but most of the tangible changes have been technological, and those can be taken care of quite nicely – as they often are – through the ministrations of technical schools, engineering schools, and career programs and junior and community colleges. You don't need a four-year bachelor's degree to become a “techie” or a “geek”. We have to get over this idea. And as to the “professions”, like law and medicine... well, what's wrong with someone going into law or med school right from high school, but with the addition of whatever prerequisites are deemed appropriate? In other words, provide only as much of the standard college curriculum as is required in order to move on to pre-med or pre-law. But, ah, you'll say – how does someone of the tender age of 18 “know” that they want to be a doctor, or lawyer, or whatever? Well... many do, in fact. I went to college with people who declared their intention to be a doctor or lawyer on the first day of freshman orientation. (And most of them made it -- the ones who didn't wind up on a rural hippie commune in Northern California, that is.) But for those who are not as focused, they can “try out” a career field, content-wise, in a two-year program or no “program” at all – just take some courses and see how you like it. Why does it have to be four-year (or mediocre two-year) or nothing? Why can't institutions offer “med prep” or “law prep” courses with which people can “try their vocation”? Religious institutions have been doing this for centuries. Again, you take the typical four-year college career, eliminate the busywork and wasted time, and you really don't have much more than a year of quality work, if that. Anyone who envisions going into a profession should be capable of going through a trial year, after which they either go on or leave without prejudice. Imagine having settled this issues by age 19! I mean – not everyone would, but many would, and would jump at the chance.

And of course there will still be room for the true “liberal arts” types – the ones who want (and can afford) education for education's sake – and who are willing to put off the “career decision” until they have a liberal arts degree under their belt. But I suspect that, once the fetish, status, and quality factors are eliminated, this will leave a fairly small number of dedicated academic types – not the knuckle-dragging hedonists who overrun our campuses now. And the costs that society would save by eliminating unnecessary and superfluous “education” would be staggering!

Anyway, this is my vision – and “all it takes” is an enormous amount of will power and a radical, revolutionary attitude on the part of society – neither of which is likely to manifest itself at any time soon. So... the solution is there, it's available, but it won't be enacted – which means that, really, no one has anything to complain about.

No comments: