19.5.11

LOWERING HIGHER EDUCATION.  It happens north of the 49th Parallel, too.
[Professors James] Côté and [Anton] Allahar believe that the responsibility of colleges and universities is to provide students with a liberal education that helps to make them informed citizens. Sadly, they write, “This responsibility is being eschewed as universities drift toward a vocational—or worse, pseudo-vocational—mission.” And instead of engaging the minds of students with challenging coursework, much of what Canadian universities do now is simply compensating for the deficiencies of lower education.
Their work is a sequel to a previous book, Ivory Tower Blues, both of which are now candidates for the Cold Spring Shops reading list, and they're offering reinforcement to several favorite Cold Spring Shops themes.
The Ontario Ministry of Education’s “no student must fail” policies not only leave many students woefully unprepared academically, but also lacking “self-management standards expected of responsible adults.”
Where no child is left behind, no child gets ahead. Logic is logic.  But calculus is not special ed, erm, developmental, arithmetic, and urban studies is not economic geography.
The authors have many intellectual opponents and devote many pages to jousting with them. For example, they tackle the proponents of “human capital theory” who believe that taking college courses augments a person’s thinking skills and knowledge. They argue that the courses that go into BA-lite degrees don’t build human capital any more than Twinkies build muscle.
It gets better. "Nontraditional" is not an excuse for nonprepared.
They also fire back at people who say that the status quo is fine and college professors should just make their peace with inflated grades, low academic expectations, and a degraded curriculum to accommodate students (especially minorities) who have poor educational backgrounds and complicated lives. “Those who champion students from disadvantaged backgrounds, for whom they see a university education as an opportunity for upward mobility, need to take stock at this point. Simply handing someone a credential, without the personal and intellectual resources to back it, is to shortchange that person,” they write.

Most of all, they argue with individuals who say that college would really connect with the typical student if only schools and professors would adjust to their “learning styles,” which means using computers, the internet, and other modern technologies rather than antiquated things like books and lectures. Côté and Allahar are highly skeptical that disengaged students will catch fire just because professors adopt the new digital media and use them to supplement or even replace the traditional pedagogical methods.

One author whose work they find particularly galling wrote that professors should abandon lecturing in favor of “collaborative techniques that have been made possible by the Internet, and platforms like Facebook and wikis.” The trouble with that notion, Côté and Allahar respond, is that none of that is of any use unless students first have knowledge of the subject matter:

Even if all of the relevant information were on the Internet, which is not the case, how many students would spend the enormous amount of time it would take to learn the history of educational philosophy by surfing it? And without this knowledge, how are they going to know what to look for?
Getting good at anything takes work, and getting good at anything more quickly takes structure. Both of those are missing from the expectation that the students will collaboratively put together a coherent educational philosophy, let alone the methodology of philosophy, from Facebook and wikis. A Cub Scout pack with a good-sized box of snap track has a better chance of putting John Allen's Gorre and Daphetid back together than a fraternity house full of Tweeters does of putting an education together.
Lowering Higher Education is a sharp defense of the university as a place for higher learning rather than a glorified high school offering a thin gruel of pseudo-vocational training. My only quibble with the book is that the authors don’t go far enough in showing that the training students often get is in fact pseudo-vocational.
Ouch. But reinforced by the authors of Academically Adrift, again in the house organ of the Eastern Liberal Establishment.
While some colleges are starved for resources, for many others it’s not for lack of money. Even at those colleges where for the past several decades tuition has far outpaced the rate of inflation, students are taught by fewer full-time tenured faculty members while being looked after by a greatly expanded number of counselors who serve an array of social and personal needs. At the same time, many schools are investing in deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and expensive gyms. Simply put: academic investments are a lower priority.

The situation reflects a larger cultural change in the relationship between students and colleges. The authority of educators has diminished, and students are increasingly thought of, by themselves and their colleges, as “clients” or “consumers.” When 18-year-olds are emboldened to see themselves in this manner, many look for ways to attain an educational credential effortlessly and comfortably. And they are catered to accordingly.
Recession or no, employers are still searching for people of ability. Partisan bickering or no, voting requires thought.  A higher education that develops neither human capital nor critical thinking skills is neither higher nor education.  It's a damned expensive re-run of high school.

No comments: