11.9.12

UNIVERSITIES ARE FAILING AT THEIR MISSION.

Years ago, when I made that assertion in a university publication, it didn't make me popular. Compared, though, to James R. Otteson of the Pope Center, I'm the reasonable guy.
Ask even the serious ones what proportion of their classes they believe is actually worthwhile. Their answer: maybe 25 percent.  They are probably not far off. Many classes are a hodgepodge of quirky or arcane topics of interest to the professor, and they do not combine into any coherent or integrated whole. Almost nowhere today are there curricula in what professors judge to be the most important things all smart young people—the future guardians of civilization—should know.

What results from all this? For hundreds of thousands of students, billions of dollars and many of their most formative and some of their best productive years are spent on: sleeping in, not working on Fridays, and not dressing or speaking professionally; on learning that almost anything is good enough to get a “very good” (what a “B” is supposed to mean); on learning that there is really no such thing as a deadline, but an endless supply of second chances; on learning that “trying hard” and “being passionate” are just as good as actually accomplishing something; and on learning that attending classes on any subject is probably just as good as attending classes on anything else.

These, I am afraid, are not good moral and intellectual habits. And they are probably not what anyone—including parents, taxpayers, and employers—wants from college.

Many things have contributed to bringing us to this sorry educational state, but let me cite two factors. The first is the denial of the obvious truth that a good education is difficult. It requires long, hard work on the part of both the student and the teacher. As Aristotle rightly said, “the roots of education are bitter.” If what you are doing is easy, or involves a lot of sitting around doing nothing productive, then you are not becoming educated, regardless of what anybody tells you or what any piece of paper says.

The second factor is the denial of another hard truth: Not everyone is up to the task. Anything that is difficult—running a marathon, playing Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, mastering calculus, bench-pressing 300 pounds—will cleave the world into two groups: those few who can do it, and those many who cannot. And no one wants to hear that they do not have what it takes. This truth is especially hard to accept when the fanciful notion that “anyone can become anything they put their minds to” is so deeply engrained in our culture.

Much of higher education today founders because it denies these two truths. The reality is that good moral and intellectual habits of persistence, curiosity, judgment, discipline, and humility are often not fostered, and indeed are often discouraged.
College is hard. That's Charles Murray's premise from Real Education, and we've considered the responses to his perspective previously. Perhaps, though, business as usual in higher education ends when administrators and promoters recognise that falling enrollments are not simply demographics.

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