30.12.13

TENURE CONFERS PRIVILEGES AND DUTIES.

I'm not sure whether saying No and uphold standards is duty or privilege.  The Wall Street Journal recently gave South Carolina State's Geoffrey L. Collier, a utility infielder sociologist cum psychologist the opportunity to riff an old Soviet joke with a lengthy op-ed, "We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn."
The parlous state of American higher education has been widely noted, but the view from the trenches is far more troubling than can be characterized by measured prose. With most students on winter break and colleges largely shut down, the lull presents an opportunity for damage assessment.

The flood of books detailing the problems includes the representative titles "Bad Students, Not Bad Schools" and "The Five Year Party." To list only the principal faults: Students arrive woefully academically unprepared; students study little, party much and lack any semblance of internalized discipline; pride in work is supplanted by expediency; and the whole enterprise is treated as a system to be gamed in which plagiarism and cheating abound.
Bad Students is in the stack of works to be read and reviewed, a task that is currently preempted by work on the railroad.  I reviewed Five Year Party three years ago and found it wanting, although I there noted faculty complicity in creating subprime party schools, perhaps motivated by egalitarian sentiments.
The faculty is complicit in the failure. Mr Brandon suggests that sub-prime party schools have fallen into what I call the Wayne State trap: the presence of non-traditional or first-generation or commuting students becomes an excuse to lower standards. (That attitude is a libel on non-traditional or first-generation or commuting students, but it persists.)
Professor Collier's argument appears to build on the non-aggression pact Indiana's Murray Sperber introduced in his Beer-'n Circus years ago.
Education thus has degenerated into a game of "trap the rat," whereby the student and instructor view each other as adversaries. Winning or losing is determined by how much the students can be forced to study. This will never be a formula for excellence, which requires intense focus, discipline and diligence that are utterly lacking among our distracted, indifferent students. Such diligence requires emotional engagement. Engagement could be with the material, the professors, or even a competitive goal, but the idea that students can obtain a serious education even with their disengaged, credentialist attitudes is a delusion.
That's a difficult passage to parse, in the absence of an actor responsible for instilling, or for reinforcing, the "disengaged, credentialist attitude" among students. I'm not sure I could even identify that attitude in a student, despite 35 years in the trenches.
The professoriate plays along because teachers know they have a good racket going. They would rather be refining their research or their backhand than attending to tedious undergraduates. The result is an implicit mutually assured nondestruction pact in which the students and faculty ignore each other to the best of their abilities. This disengagement guarantees poor outcomes, as well as the eventual replacement of the professoriate by technology. When professors don't even know your name, they become remote figures of ridicule and tedium and are viewed as part of a system to be played rather than a useful resource.
Wow. Has South Carolina State invested heavily in mass lectures and videotaped (DVDed?) courses as a "productivity" measure? Is the real Soviet joke made life in the discontent of faculty with increased workloads, no pay raises, and legislative disrespect?
To be fair, cadres of indefatigable souls labor tirelessly in thankless ignominy in the bowels of sundry ivory dungeons. Jokers in a deck stacked against them, they are ensnared in a classic reward system from hell.

All parties are strongly incentivized to maintain low standards. It is well known that friendly, entertaining professors make for a pleasant classroom, good reviews and minimal complaints. Contrarily, faculty have no incentives to punish plagiarism and cheating, to flunk students or to write negative letters of reference, to assiduously mark up illiterate prose in lieu of merely adding a grade and a few comments, or to enforce standards generally. Indeed, these acts are rarely rewarded but frequently punished, even litigated. Mass failure, always a temptation, is not an option. Under this regimen, it is a testament to the faculty that any standards remain at all.
And it is a dereliction of duty for the tenured faculty to not push back, to go-along-to-get-along, to let the deanlets and deanlings and assessment weenies preempt the curriculum.
As tuition has skyrocketed, education has shifted from being a public good to a private, consumer product. Students are induced into debt because they are repeatedly bludgeoned with news about the average-income increments that accrue to additional education. This is exacerbated by the ready availability of student loans, obligations that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.
Let's at least stay on topic, rather than engaging in dubious economics. An instrumentalist view of a credential implicitly suggests private benefits predominate. I'm inclined to agree, but for a different reason: the marginal spillover benefits of higher education are small, particularly if kindergarten and the elementary grades get the socialization right. Share your cookies. Take your nap.
In parallel, successive generations of students have become increasingly consumerist in their attitudes, and all but the most well-heeled institutions readily give the consumers what they want in order to generate tuition revenue. Competition for students forces universities to invest in and promote their recreational value. Perhaps the largest scam is that these institutions have an incentive to retain paying students who have little chance of graduating. This is presented as a kindness under the guise of "student retention." The student, or the taxpayer in the case of default, ends up holding the bag, whereas the institution gets off scot free. Withholding government funding from institutions with low graduation rates would only encourage the further abandonment of standards.

So students get what they want: a "five year party" eventuating in painlessly achieved "Wizard of Oz" diplomas. This creates a classic tragedy of the commons in which individuals overuse a shared resource—in this case the market value of the sheepskin. Students, implicitly following the screening theory that credentials are little more than signals of intelligence and personal qualities, follow a mini-max strategy: minimize the effort, maximize the probability of obtaining a degree. The decrement in the value of the sheepskin inflicted by each student is small, but the cumulative effect is that the resource will become valueless.
Just the opposite. U. S. News and the other providers of league tables make their money helping strivers, and their parents, identify universities that are not sub-prime party schools, and the test-prep and essay-counselor services dissipate some of the rents of the positional arms race.  To the disadvantage of students who wind up in the academic gulags (to use Charlie Sykes's expression from Profscam) where the disengaged, unmotivated, and unprepared adversely select into.  And the further abandonment of standards, or the valuelessness of subprime diplomas simply allows for a market test to work.
There is excess capacity in access-assessment-remediation-retention. The degrees produced from that capacity fail the market test. Perhaps consumer awareness of the nature of the excess capacity will speed the elimination of that capacity.
Professor Collier seems to recognize the dynamic, but with a different inference.
The body politic lately has become aware of the cracks in this game. With about half of college graduates under 25 currently unemployed or underemployed, the income advantage of a four-year degree may be on the decline. Employers are justifiably fed up with college graduates lacking basic knowledge, to say nothing of good work habits and intellectual discipline. Yet the perennial impulse toward bureaucratic command-and-control solutions, such as universal standardized testing or standardized grade-point averages, only leads in the direction of more credentialism.
No, the employers will only be more encouraged to recruit only at institutions that have the U. S. News imprimatur, or to insist on an exit examination administered by someone other than the university.
If the body politic desires this, so be it. However, these are essentially supply-side solutions, in that they attempt to staunch the supply of poorly prepared students or increase the supply of well-prepared students. Such approaches are notoriously problematic, as in the classic case of black markets.
I've learned to be skeptical of any argument that uses "problematic", as it's generally a tic that signifies "I don't like it but I can't articulate why." Besides, there's a simpler solution: let the faculty at South Carolina State resolve that they are in the same business as Harvard or Northwestern or Wisconsin and retake control of the curriculum so as to offer their students the same intellectual challenges as their future competitors face, or to weed them out.
Better to address the demand side. To be sure, there is plenty of student demand for credentials, but there is little demand for the rigor that the credentials putatively represent. Rather than more attempts at controlling output quality through standardization, what are needed are input changes provided by creative alternative routes to adulthood that young people find attractive; a "pull" rather than a "push." It would be helpful, too, if faculty started viewing undergraduates less as whining boors and more as lost souls who have been scandalously misguided by a feel-good "everyone's a star" culture.
Put another way, view undergraduates at South Carolina State or Northern Illinois or what have you as strivers who deserve the same challenges as their counterparts elsewhere. It begins, though, with faculty who view their work, wherever that might be, as a calling worthy of their best efforts, and with the privilege and high honor of upholding standards, and saying No when that is the proper response.

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