29.7.14

REFLECT ON THIS.

Margaret Soltan recommends a speech her Rutgers colleague William Dowling delivered to the Peithessophian Society.  By all means go, read, understand, and think.

Consider first his summary of the false analogy between opening up a country club or the Eagles or Elks, and lower admission standards in the name of inclusion.
Americans, precisely because of our nation's long and tangled history of various kinds of baseless prejudice, tend to misunderstand selective college admissions as a form of social>discrimination.

We all know that there was a time, now properly hideous in our collective memory, that Jews couldn't be admitted to the country club, or African- Americans had to sit in a different section of the restaurant than white people, or women weren't allowed to join all-male organizations. So why isn't it exactly similar to say that keeping someone out of Columbia or the College of William and Mary on the mere basis of low reading comprehension or poor mathematical ability is just another form of discrimination on arbitrary grounds?

The answer is that the country club model is a wildly misleading analogy in relation to college admissions. Admitting a freshmen class at a real college or university is much more like auditioning potential members of an orchestra, or choosing players for a basketball team.

The crucial point is that no college or university can be better than its students, any more than an orchestra can be better than its musicians or a basketball team better than its players.

If you fill an orchestra with people who can't read a musical score or play an instrument, you can pretend that the screeches and honkings they produce are music, but you won't fool anyone who has ever heard a Haydn symphony.
In like manner, access-assessment-remediation-retention fails to educate anybody.
There's a more important point about selective admissions. It's that bright and intellectually engaged students educate each other. A group of social scientists at Williams College calls this the Theory of Peer Effects.

If you're in a class where every student present has spent hours on an intellectually demanding assignment, and where the professor is then able to bring out implications no student had so far seen, you're in college. Anything else is not college but an empty charade.
And thus, the strategy for a university that's losing enrollments might be to tighten standards. There's a long case study, which may or may not generalize, that is worth your study.  And in tightening standards, a university might become more student-centered.
Bright and intellectually engaged students want to go to school with other bright students, for the same reason that a talented musician wants to play in an orchestra with other talented musicians or a talented athlete wants to play on a team with other talented players. Students themselves determine the level of each other's education.
That's not, however, the Rutgers experience.
[A colleague],Murray Sperber, wrote a book entitled Beer and Circuses, where he argued that when a large public university loses all sense of its higher mission it becomes essentially the educational equivalent of the reality television show Jersey Shore.

One point he makes concerns commercialized college sports. If you've got a campus swarming with people who have no interest in reading or thinking or learning, who almost or never go to class and, when they do, spend the hour surfing the internet or checking their Facebook page or texting their friends, you've got to give them something to keep them occupied, just as you do with children stuck inside on a rainy day.
But that's not the proper way to be student-centered.
By tightening standards at the rate of 3% a year, the party animal influence at Rutgers could be eliminated in ten to twelve years. That would be an enormous improvement. Teachers would once again begin to enjoy walking into the classroom. Serious students would begin to sense that they were what the institution was all about. Rutgers would have embarked on the process of becoming Rutgers again.
Perhaps there is a strategy for ensuring legislative buy-in. Why should legislators appropriate money to help run a reality show, or even the most inclusive of country clubs?

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