13.6.11

HIGHER EDUCATION OUGHT TO BE HIGHER.  Michigan State's Jerry Weinberger counts the ways it is not.
First, more and more of my students, and not just freshmen, can’t tie their own shoes. They lose syllabi and can’t follow simple instructions; they don’t get the right books; they e-mail me to ask when and where the final exam will be held (as if they didn’t know when they signed up and don’t know how to find out); they forget to bring blue books to exams; they make appointments and don’t keep them; and many never come to office hours at all, except perhaps on the day before an exam. Last semester, one of my colleagues, a well-known scholar of judicial politics and behavior, became exasperated when her students complained about the unfairness of her attendance policy, which accounted for 10 percent of their grade. Slackers whined that her tyranny would cause one student to be deported, cost another a scholarship, get another kicked out of school, and keep a fourth from graduating. One student, who had attended just three classes (all of them on exam days), pleaded for a passing grade, since his F would have “negative consequences.” Another student had the audacity to ask that the date of a moot court exercise, in which 17 other students were involved, be changed because of a “really important sorority volleyball match.”

My guess is that much of this fecklessness can be traced to the helicopter parents who micromanage their kids through planned and adult-supervised activities from the cradle to the day they depart for college. And some of it springs from a privileged sense of entitlement among the wealthy fraternity types who clog campus streets with expensive SUVs. But by far the most important reason, in my view, is that the bachelor’s degree is becoming the workforce equivalent of a high school diploma. A growing number of young people at campuses across the country just want their tickets punched and care about nothing else, except the bars.

Still more ominous, though, is the inability of more and more students to tie their own intellectual shoes. The first glimmerings of this shift began with the advent of multiculturalism: not a bad thing in itself, indeed a wonderful fact of American life, but intellectual opium as it played out in the identity politics of campus academic life. When I started hearing students complain about the “hurtfulness” of Nietzsche’s and Hobbes’s attacks on the absurdities of certain religions and cultures, I saw the effects of a doctrine that tells everyone at freshman orientation that whatever they are and whatever they believe is just fine. It’s hard to get students to question their beliefs when the established campus motto is “I’m OK, You’re OK.”
That's the round-up of the usual suspects. Read further, however, and recognize that when no child is left behind, no child gets ahead.
Also last fall, as for the last six years or so, I was besieged by e-mails and appeals in class for “study guides” before the midterm and the final exams. Students peppered me with e-mails asking to know what “the important chapters” were in the reading, or what “the important point” was in the classes they missed. When I sent out a study guide (I caved on that two years ago), they wrote out their answers and asked me if they were “on the right track.” At the end of the last day of class, I asked for questions about the whole of the readings and lectures: last time to ask and all that. Hands shot up. In one version or another, all the students asked the same question: What do we have to know for the final exam? Exasperated, I told them that when I had gone to college, such a question would have been as unthinkable as it would have been humiliating. [Emphasis added.] I then asked them if in high school they’d been “taught to their tests,” especially standardized ones, and provided with study guides and PowerPoint summaries that, in essence, gave them the questions and the answers. My query elicited a sea of nodding heads.


When I gave the exam, some students groused when they saw questions that could be answered only by having read the texts. They were stumped, and their grades reflected it. After grades were in, an excellent student with a 4.0 GPA who earned an A-minus in my class e-mailed me: “It is honestly the first class I have had to work for a grade much since I have been in college. College is full of courses handing out study guides nearly identical to exams, and I thoroughly appreciated this challenge, and actually having to read the material and come to class.” Perhaps she was just brown-nosing and repeating what I’d said in class. But I don’t think so, because what she said is increasingly true.


I discussed the matter with a young colleague who specializes in urban policy and knows a lot about education reform, and what she had to say was eye-opening: credible research suggests that preparation for standardized tests is crowding out history, science, and literature and that even high test scores don’t mean that students can say anything about something they’ve read for the first time. No wonder, I concluded, the smart young lady in my office wanted to know Hobbes’s argument without having to read what he wrote.


At the end of the semester last fall, I’d become a bit sour about undergraduate students in general, however much I enjoyed those in my class who read what I assigned and really wanted to learn. But that was too hasty a judgment on my part. Perhaps the kids who won’t read are, at least in part, one of the unintended consequences of the 1,000-page NCLB legislation. If so, then it’s not fair of me to blame them for how they’ve been taught to learn.
Joanne Jacobs asks readers to elaborate.
There’s nothing new about students asking: Will it be on the test? But college students of yore didn’t expect a detailed answer.

Weinberger blames high school prep for standardized tests, but teachers can’t spoon-feed answers to tests they don’t write themselves. Michigan State students earned A’s and B’s in high school. It sounds like they did projects that didn’t require much reading, got detailed study guides for exams and used extra credit to raise their grades.
Meanwhile, the chin-pulling over the value of higher education goes on.  Start with the Chicago Tribune and the latest fretting over whether the middle class is being priced out.  (It is no accident that this column comes out shortly after Northern Illinois twits the legislature and the state universities announce the new price schedule.)
According to the Department of Education, the portion of middle-income students that enrolled in four-year colleges has dropped, while their enrollment in 2-year colleges has risen, over the last decade.

Many of these students, who would otherwise qualify for four-year college, are getting fewer job skills at a time when employers are demanding just the opposite.

Economists speculate that one reason unemployment is so high is because the American workforce lacks the skills needed to fill the jobs that are open. As a result, companies may shift these jobs overseas, where wages are often cheaper.

Seeing a portion of the middle class shift to two-year degrees certainly doesn't help the United States compete in the global economy.

And shrinking opportunities for the middle class don't help matters on the home front, either.
Shall we make some effort at linear thought?  First, the community colleges have discovered the wisdom of working with the universities, and in some cases the high schools, to provide less jarring transitions than "going away to college" implies.  The selling point at the community colleges is that two years of general education offered by genuine teachers -- to the extent that a roster of freeway flyers is genuine -- might produce more learning than two years of general education grudgingly provided by Ph.D. students on the make and grant-grubbing researchers -- and "community college transfer" only means "academically deficient" where Big Time Basketball is concerned.  Second, two-year degrees in auto technology or air conditioning repair or therapist assistant or plumbing are excellent hedges against outsourcing.  The call center that can help you fix a dripping pipe at two in the morning does not exist.  Third, the absence of competent holders of four-year degrees is at once a reflection on a higher education that doesn't do its job (whether that's multiculturalism or the finishing-school mentality or beer-'n-circus or the Distressed Material that No Child Left Behind Gets Ahead is heaving up is something for Professor Weinberger and the rest of us to grapple with) and an opportunity for an Ambitious Person to become a Person of Ability and become one of those Rich-Getting-Richer we keep hearing about.  High wages are a consequence of high productivity in the presence of short supply.

The more pessimistic view comes from Jane Shaw at Phi Beta Cons.
Yes, it’s an outdated model. The pressure on the universities from so many marginal students makes the college experience more like an expensive high school. For many students and those who pay for it, “higher education” is a waste of human capital, financial resources, and time.

For that marginally qualified student who is still willing to stick it out and get the diploma, however, the degree is valuable — because employers use the credential for screening and the student probably gets a boost beyond his or her natural abilities. But keep in mind that 40 percent of the students who try don’t get the degree. And, as Peter Thiel contends, some of them might be spending their time in more productive ways than sliding through boring classes and drinking a lot of beer.
In that post, however, there's the tension between university as job training and university as conservator of civilization.  Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, after taking on the usual suspects, notes
[C]ollege isn’t only about preparing students for the work force. It is also about preparing students to be intelligent and well-informed individuals who can make important decisions incumbent upon citizens in a democracy. As Louis Menand writes in The New Yorker, students should read certain books in college “because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.” Will terminating studies in high school help a student become “an informed citizen and culturally literate human being” in the same way receiving a college education will? If not, our democracy should think twice before embracing a rallying cry of “college for some.”
Several commenters note that the failure of the common schools to do their job contributes to the perceived failings of higher education.  Freshman year is likely to be undistinguishable from high school for as long as high school is difficult to distinguish from middle school.

RUNNING EXTRA.  George Leef responds to Richard Kahlenberg.
Lots of young Americans have those attributes when they’ve graduated from high school; many others never have them even though they’ve gone through college. Just once I would like to see the Kahlenberg bunch explain why they think that a high-school grad who works as an electrician is a less valuable citizen in a democracy than a college grad who works as a theater usher.
It reduces to the failure of the common schools to do their job, including preparation for citizenship.

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