Friday, March 23, 2012

Higher Education?

So much attention has been given to our failing elementary and high schools lately. We face a barrage of depressing tidbits on a daily basis: falling test scores, dismal teaching, sexual misconduct, financial ruin. It should come as no surprise, then, that our college and university system, the envy of the world, is facing significant challenges as well. In their recent book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Out Kids—And What We Can Do About It (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011), Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have little positive information to offer us. Instead, they give us a scathing analysis of failure, corruption, and lost ideals.

In the 4352 colleges and universities in this country, an undergraduate degree now costs, on average, $250,000. Students often face enormous loan debt upon graduation, sometimes in the six figure range, and recent economic reports tell us that student loan debt is now outpacing all other financial obligations. Some economists argue that student loans are the next bubble to burst, since in a depressed job market, many graduates cannot find employment that offers enough salary to make even the minimum payments.

Dreifus and Hacker address these financial concerns, but more to the point, they zero in on two important questions: “The first is how much of what the schools are offering can reasonably be called education?” and “even if not vocational, how far can what is being taught and learned reasonably be called higher?” They argue that our colleges and universities have become a vast job training program, not higher education. “We suggest that a purpose of college is not to make students into better citizens,” they write. “We want young people to use their minds as they never have before, thinking hard about realities and issues that strain their mental powers. They should be urged to be imaginative and inquiring, to take risks without having to worry about their transcripts or alienating their teachers…Higher education is an ongoing conversation, created for students poised at adulthood, which can and will continue throughout their lives.” Very noble, if not too idealistic views, to be sure.

The authors also lament the president’s focus on science and math exclusively. In their view, we are “lagging in philosophy [and] or the humanities” as well. Some of the greatest thinkers in human history may have been scientists, but it is interesting to note that they also incorporated philosophy, history, writing, and psychology into their work. I am thinking of Einstein, Hawking, and Fenyman, to name just a few. I would argue we need to return to the Renaissance ideals of education and not trivialize or reduce any subject, but rather study everything as an inter-connected whole. If anything, our colleges and universities should move away from departments and adopt a more inter-disciplinary curriculum. I have seen several institutions explore this direction in recent years, an encouraging sign.

The authors’ principal premise “is that higher education has lost track of its original and enduring purpose: to challenge the minds and imaginations of this nation’s young people, to expand their understanding of the world, and thus of themselves.” This is the thing that makes the book so readable, even in the face of the many failures they outline. Their writing is well organized, precise, clear and surgical, if not particularly uplifting. They take apart and explain how faculty are categorized, the travesty of tenure, and how a PhD might be a black mark because there is a glut on the market. This last point is verifiable; many, many college teachers today are adjuncts, meaning they are temporary, part time workers. Often, they have to teach at various colleges, one class here or there, to make a buck. One teacher I worked with last year shifted her time between three different campuses over 250 miles apart. She literally lived in her car most of the work week.

Hacker and Dreifus explain college rankings and what they truly mean. Several publications, must prominently, U.S. News and World Report, take great pains to publish yearly rankings and statistics, but these facts can be manipulated, and the meaning can be obscured. The authors clarify for us just what it means to be a top tier school. One of the areas they explore is the quality of teaching. The goal of most universities is to promote research and publication, not teaching. Classroom instruction is almost an after thought. With sabbaticals, teachers are often released from the classroom to do research and publish. Meanwhile, adjuncts are brought in to teach. This is a fundamental flaw in the system.

The writers single out the over-emphasis on theory, especially in schools of education. “The quest for theory is not only misdirected, it warps the whole ambiance of education,” they write. I am not sure what they mean by “ambiance,” but I know first hand that so many faculty in education departments have never taught in a high school or elementary classroom, or if they have, it was not for a long period of time. There is a fundamental disconnect between practical application in the classroom on a daily basis and the lofty theories espoused by education faculty. So many teachers come out of credential programs simply unprepared for the rigors of daily teaching. I have seen this time and again in my 24 years of instruction.

The book does not only focus on what is wrong.  They offer solutions to the common problems that plague the system, including reducing costs, abolishing tenure, and limiting sports programs.  The last point is a major focus of a chapter.  They detail the drain sports programs are to the university, and how these athletes are really professionals who spend time in the classroom only as a side job.  Many are offered full tuition to play, as well as a variety of other perks.  This has trickled down to high schools as well.  One principal of a local Catholic high school told me recently that a neighboring school pays their football coach a “six figure salary.”  He does no teaching; he simply coaches.  Schools with lesser endowment funds or financial resources cannot compete.  More important, what does this say about the institution’s priorities when teachers are paid a bare bones salary while the football coach rakes in the green?  Athletics used to be a recreational sidebar to an institution’s educational offerings.  Now it has become big business, and a gateway to professional sports.  Many of these athletes get caught up in cheating scandals, jeopardizing the status of the program.  In addition, if we pay an athlete to play and not encourage academic pursuits, are we not shortchanging that student?  Overwhelmingly, many of the most prominent sports—football and basketball—are staffed with students of color.  Is this not a subtle form of racism if we bring a student on campus and pay his tuition so he can play football without also supporting his academic success?

Hacker and Dreifus conclude their book with a coda that brings everything together, including a detailed list for how we should reform education. In the end, we need to ask ourselves: How much does college prepare a student for life? Yes, schools can offer job training and the opportunity to excel in sports and possibly attract interest from professional teams, but at its heart, a college education should inspire wonder and inquiry. Students should graduate as intellectually mature citizens, ready to go out into the workforce with not only the resources to compete in the job market, but with the foundation in place to have a healthy life of the mind. And they should not be sentenced to a life of indentured servitude to pay for the degree. That, however, is a tall order.

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