17.12.10

GETTING THE CASE RIGHT. A lot of higher education isn't, but that by itself won't change minds. It's important that critics, particularly those on the inside, get their criticisms in order. For instance, I wasn't happy with Craig Brandon's The Five Year Party. Neither was Murray Sperber, whose Beer & Circus might have been the opening argument against the college-as-resort business model.
The problem with Brandon’s sloppy writing and referencing is that it allows his enemy—university administrators and apologists--an easy target and a way to avoid confronting the serious and real charges he makes in the book.
Journalism might be the first draft of history, but there's a reason we refer to a first draft.

I have rarely read a more frustrating book. I wanted to agree with many of Brandon’s points but found his method of argumentation and referencing too far from general standards.

If I were grading The Five Year Party as a college paper, I’d write on the first page, “This is a pretty good draft and you have quite a few important ideas, but it needs more work. Above all, you need to carefully reference your claims and sources.”

Richard Vedder, whose What Happens when College is Oversold? figures in yesterday's mini-dissertation about appropriable externalities, also gets referee reports. There's a symposium at Minding The Campus with a long response by Patrick Deneen.

The problem, then, lies not in the ideal of universality of education, but the widespread transformation of the end that education serves. The goal of education toward fostering moral and virtuous members of their communities has been completely displaced by narrow utilitarian ends among students and moral relativism among the teachers.

A society driven by private ambitions of materialistic gain can expect education to become diluted by a utilitarian ethic. The tool will conform to its end, and so education becomes defined by the ethic of the short-cut. Rampant cheating and academic dishonesty are now campus (and societal) norms (students learn ethics from widespread practices in sports and business, not from Aristotle and the Bible), and the professoriate in turn emphasizes that all norms and codes are simply expressions of arbitrary power that limit what should be our thoroughgoing autonomy. As David Brooks has noted, there is an absolute consistency between the moral relativism of postmodern academia and the careerism in the student body.

I agree that colleges bear much of the blame for their current crisis (indeed, that they bear considerable responsibility for educating the class that precipitated the financial crisis that now ironically threatens their existence), and I hope and expect that they will have to change their current practices, including a serious effort to reduce tuition costs.

What disturbs me about arguments such as those found in the Vedder report is the implication that education should be fitted to the narrow vocational needs of airline attendants and cashiers, that an appropriate education will prepare them as efficiently as possible for a life of menial labor. I lament that a major thrust is afoot to dismantle whatever remnant of our older liberal arts tradition persists and to replace it with measurable forms of study that produce narrowly-trained careerists. We need virtuous cashiers and moral airline attendants as much as we need virtuous politicians and moral philosophers. Assuming that a major reassessment of the role of education is in the offing, then it is not the ideal of universal education that should be the whipping-boy, but the belief that a society can flourish without a moral core at the heart of its educational mission.

The academic tradition: a self-inflicted deconstruction? There's a line in Atlas Shrugged about missing philosophers once they've all gone away ... Deconstruct that.

Charles Murray concurs in part.
I want everybody, not just an elite, to acquire as much liberal education as possible, for the reasons that Deneen describes. But we don't have to wait until college to get a great deal of that done. E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum is a wonderful example of how much can be done in K-8, and a lot more can be added in high school. At that point, I think this way of formulating our objective is helpful: "The educational system has succeeded when a child reaches adulthood having discovered something he loves to do, and having learned how to do it well." If that's the objective, then of course we want to say to the young person who has high academic ability "Here's why pursuing a liberal education gives you your best chance of finding your vocation." But if the answer we get is "Thanks but no thanks, what I really want to do is study marketing and go to work," that student needs options other than a four-year residential program that will leave him deep in debt and have wasted a lot of his time.
I read a memoir from a futures trader once that included an observation to the effect that one could learn more by going short a contract in beans than any number of years of business college would do. On the other hand, the liberal education might help some people discover, or revise, their vocations. Jackson Toby, author of another insider's report that's on its way to the Cold Spring Shops library, suggests that people view entry level job reports accordingly.
It is true that some youngsters knew all through college that they wanted to be physicians or lawyers and consequently their first jobs reflected their career objectives. However, many college graduates graduate without a clear notion of what they want to do occupationally or even personally. Some work for a couple of years for Teach for America without planning a lifetime career as teachers. Some take jobs as waiters or waitresses while their career aspirations lie in acting or art, careers notoriously difficult to enter. Therefore I hesitate to interpret several years of low-paid jobs that college graduates as a disconnect between what is learned at college and what college graduates do occupationally in their first jobs. Getting back to teaching, it might be excellent for American education have primary- and secondary-school students taught for four or five years by college graduates who lack teaching experience but have the attractive enthusiasm of youth even though they and their colleagues know that they do not plan to be career teachers. If we keep in mind the difference between "jobs" and "careers," the fact that college graduates take low-level jobs in the years immediately following graduation is not necessarily a failure of college education or of the graduates themselves.
On the other hand, the return on that investment might not be so good, adjusting for psychic income notwithstanding.

No comments: