As accreditation supplants education, is college becoming a joke?
Let’s start with an uncontroversial claim: It’s fair to say that our culture values education, that even those who have chosen not to pursue formal education recognize its worth, at least in hazy theory. Most parents want their children to go to college.
Here’s another claim that’s hard to refute: Something with our education system has gone very wrong.
We just can’t agree on what that something is. Some blame a dearth of funding. Some blame self-serving teachers’ unions. Some blame the breakdown of the traditional family. Some blame the work ethic (or supposed lack of one) of the notoriously entitled, coddled, and helicoptered Millennial generation. Someone out there might blame bees.
Leaving aside the lunatic anti-bee fringe, compelling arguments have been made for all those points, although broadly speaking, funding for American schools could hardly be said to be lacking (see bullets 4, 5, and 6 of this report from the U.S. Department of Education). A more sensible complaint would focus on how funding is squandered.
But whatever’s wrong, the rot sets in early. And while you and I can’t restore the whole education edifice in this humble space, dear reader, we can examine a major crack compromising its foundation: our society’s philosophical confusion about what education is, and about what it should be.
Back in the Day When We Were Young
It sounds crazy now, but in the early 1900s, in one-room schoolhouses across our fruited plain, many eleven-year-old kids were being drilled on their Ancient Greek and Latin. And according to historical records, the rest of their common curricula was also quite challenging by today’s standards.
This is not to say that all elementary and junior-high pupils should be taught Ancient Greek and Latin, or that courses of study should freeze in time. But it’s hard to ignore that the degree of difficulty has been eroded in modern schools. (Take a look at this exam given to eighth-graders attending public schools in Bullitt County, Kentucky, back in 1912.)
In her book Left Back, Diane Ravitch traces the educational reforms made in America from the 19th to the 20th century, surveying the rise of public education that coincided with the economy’s shift from predominantly agrarian to predominantly commercial/industrial. It was a time when towns across the country formed their own free institutions of secondary education, including high schools, and they took them quite seriously (emphasis mine):
Most towns viewed their new public high school as a source of community pride. In Nineveh, Indiana, the township high school was credited with raising “the standard of intelligence, of morality, of taste, and therefore, of life among the people….” Of the high school’s twenty-two pupils, half commuted from outlying farms. The curriculum consisted of Latin (including two books of Caesar and three of Virgil), mathematics, English literature, history, geology, physics, rhetoric, geography, and civil government. This was not an atypical high school. Every high school worthy of its name offered Latin and mathematics, the mainstays of the classical curriculum.
Why would so much more be demanded of children intellectually a century ago, and what might it mean that most of them aren’t nearly so challenged today?
Generation “Gimme an A++”
A friend of mine used to teach graduate school. The stories she would relay about her students were staggering. Mind you, these were not college students, but people who had graduated from universities and been accepted into a graduate-level program (we’re essentially talking master’s and doctoral candidates here). Some could barely write coherent sentences, let alone compellingly argued and properly attributed papers. They displayed a remarkable ignorance of and incuriosity toward culture and history (even recent history — one student believed that Iraq “did” 9/11). Another student cited “the guy from the Dos Equis commercials” in a paper supposedly to bolster a point, but never bothered to elaborate why — i.e., he wrote something like “just like the guy from the Dos Equis commercials,” offering nothing more in terms of explication.
Many of these same beef-witted students would throw tantrums over receiving any letter grade below an A-minus — sometimes even an A-minus was treated as an affront — and would raise hell to argue for an upgrade (not to mention endlessly and obnoxiously bargaining for extra time on assignments, etc., just, like, because).
Yes, yes, these stories are anecdotal only. But it’s disconcertingly easy to find enough anecdotal examples to suggest a trend.
One odd example appears in this essay from Aeon Magazine: “A study by the psychologist Gerald Winer and colleagues at the University of Ohio in 2002 found that about half of American college students also think that we see because of rays that come out of the eyes.” If only our optical nerves were that badass.
Or how about this story picked up by NPR about college students who couldn’t say who won the Civil War, who the United States gained its independence from, or even who the current Vice President is (c’mon, “Diamond” Joe Biden might be The Onion’s greatest running gag). Again — these are college students! They did know the answers to questions about Jersey Shore, Brangelina, and Kim Kardashian, natch.
Look, it’s not the students’ fault (well, not entirely). And I’m not trying to come down too harshly on Millennials, the majority of whom I’m sure are honest and hard-working. It would be absurd to generalize about an entire generation anyway. But that doesn’t preclude the possibility that an alarming proportion of people are graduating from high school (and getting into good colleges!) despite displaying a shocking ignorance. If it is possible for a student to earn a degree without knowing who won the Civil War or who the Vice President is, that degree frankly is not worth much at all (and it certainly wouldn’t be worth any massive student debt). That framed piece of paper would imply not an education, but a knack for jumping through hoops.
What else could we expect when the bar is relentlessly lowered? It used to be that people went to college to expand their horizons. Now, making sure their worldviews are never challenged, and shrieking whenever they are, seems to be the preference (speech codes, trigger warnings for literature and classroom discussion, the never-ceasing victimhood treadmill, and on and on). Perhaps the clichés are true about their parents and other authority figures walking on eggshells around them their whole lives, dedicating themselves above all else to protecting their charges’ delicate egos. It’s gotten to the point where comedians like Chris Rock (and before him the late George Carlin) refuse to perform at universities, having become so fed up with students’ proudly fragile, PC-drenched sensibilities (and no doubt a little afraid to run afoul of them).
Maybe the pendulum is on the verge of swinging back, but it’s already getting to be beyond parody. Stories abound about parents of college graduates applying to jobs on behalf of their children, and even attending career fairs and job interviews along with them. (Who would ever hire such a candidate?)
Again, for any such students (and I hope it’s a tiny minority of them we’re talking about here), it’s not their fault. But if we truly value education, allowing any significant portion of young people to squeak by should be considered a terrible betrayal. Someone who should have known better utterly failed them.
As the economist Herbert Stein famously said, “If something can’t go on forever, it will stop” — and such insanity surely can’t go on forever. But how did it get this way in the first place?
Those Who Can’t Teach
The rising tide of ignorance, outsized entitlement, unearned arrogance, intellectual laziness — it’s all a direct result of the precipitous decline in academic standards across the board and a concomitant rise in rampant grade inflation, which themselves are indirect results of our society’s degraded conception of what education really is. These problems set in long before college.
At United States public schools, a subject-matter expert with a personality ideal for classroom instruction is not automatically considered eligible to teach the subject he or she is an expert in. A Ph.D. in physics could not just one day get sick of laboratory life and apply for a vacant post to start teaching high-schoolers. Oh no. Our generous civic-minded physicist, no matter how brilliant, must first be accredited by the official education commissars. As George Leef, the Director of Director of Research of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, wrote this week in a piece for Forbes:
“With a few exceptions, state laws prevent public school principals from considering anyone who isn’t licensed…. If you want to teach in public schools, you must be licensed, but you can’t get that license without graduating from an approved education school.”
In other words, to teach physics (for example) at an American public high school, even a Nobel Prize–winning physicist interested in reaching promising intellects while they’re young would first have to earn a degree in “education.” Which is why they’d be much more likely to teach at a private school instead.
It’s easy enough to sympathize with the intentions behind such licensing regulations, but it becomes far less easy to accept the status quo when the quality of powerful education schools is brought to light. The fact is that these schools are graduating some future teachers who cannot even pass state literacy tests. In December 2014 it was revealed that a third of potential teachers in New York state “flunked a literacy test they have to pass to be licensed.” At many education schools, a majority failed.
As Leef goes on to say, “People familiar with education schools are not at all surprised because they’re noted for admitting some of the academically weakest undergraduates, then immersing them in ‘progressive’ theories such as that good teaching is mainly about encouraging students to feel good about themselves…. It’s predictable that many graduates of those programs are of marginal literacy because a good command of English is neither necessary to get into or get through them.”
Does that sound harsh? Maybe so. Still, it shouldn’t be read as a slight against all teachers, many of whom are brilliant and most of whom (by far) chose their professions for noble reasons.
But is that enough? What happened to everyone agreeing on how important education is? Shouldn’t we want to raise the threshold for attaining such an important position, rather than making it easier? It is precisely because good teachers deserve our respect and support that we should encourage the return of more exacting standards (which, by the way, would bolster the esteem of the profession, creating a positive feedback loop and attracting even greater talent).
A Crisis of Conviction
The sad fact is that our once-lofty view of education has given way to an approach to it that aspires merely to job training. When weighing reasons for pursuing further education, there’s nothing wrong with answering “because I want to prepare for a successful career.” That’s probably the most common reason for going to school these days. But that doesn’t mean this view of education as career training should have supplanted the original more humanist one — rather, they should be considered two different paths.
Furthermore, it’s not even clear that college-as-job-training makes any sense, especially when factoring in the exorbitant price tag. Ask a professional person if what they learned in college was necessary for their ability to perform their jobs. In many cases (that is, if you’re talking to someone who received a liberal arts education) the honest answer is no.
College was great and edifying, but the most practical writing lessons I received came from working as a copy editor for a couple years (and reading on my own time as a kid). Likewise, I imagine the most successful designers would cite their actual work experience or extracurricular experimentation more than any college class they took or textbook they were compelled to crack. The same is true for developers and coders, who often started as kids tinkering on their own time out of their own curiosity. There are journalists who swear that the candidates they prefer to hire have never attended journalism school, but rather gained important life and professional experience elsewhere. And there’s a never-ending debate about whether MFA programs are necessary or are harming art.
In the same way, our schools’ best teachers would still be great teachers without having been indoctrinated in any “self-esteem-before-knowledge” education program.
What to do? We should stop overgeneralizing what “college” and “education” mean, and stop conflating the two. Apart from studying law, mastering any of the hard sciences or engineering, or being trained in anatomy and medicine, students pursuing other fields (in business, for example) might be better served by some sort of apprenticeship arrangement.
Long before deciding on any of these very different paths, the important distinctions among them should be clearly presented to young people. Each one has unique goals, values, and basic assumptions about what is important in life.
We also need to stem the growing fetishization of degrees and certificates over the knowledge that they may — but by no means inherently — signify. All university degrees are cheapened as they become easier and easier to attain (though every year they become more and more costly — ironic isn’t it?).
This cheapening effect becomes yet more pronounced when college degrees become nothing more than vaguely reassuring signifiers to potential employers, who presumably must invest significant time and energy actually teaching their aggressively ignorant new-hire graduates the most basic of information (a pattern mirrored by the growing trend of universities having to offer high-school level reading, writing, and math courses to incoming freshmen).
The teachers we entrust with young people should be held to higher standards, as should the young people themselves, who should also be guided to ask important questions of themselves about their own personal views of education. Do I want to pursue further education? If so, why, and to what purpose? What is it exactly that I hope to learn, to do, to become?
If college is just a perfunctory steppingstone on the way to landing a job, why would students be inspired to pursue “the best which has been thought and said” for its own sake? He may have phrased it uncouthly, but Frank Zappa had a point: “If you want to get laid, go to college; if you want an education, go to the library.” Or get to work.
Posted on January 22, 2015