In much of the country, community colleges are in a secular decline in enrollment. They’re up against greater public and political scrutiny than they once were; arguments from professional deference have largely given way to demands for accountability, even as many of the older deference-based rules have remained in place. Their funding is flat or nearly so, if it hasn’t been slashed or eliminated. Health insurance costs continue to climb much faster than any revenue source. Some tuition-driven four-year schools are lowering their standards to fish in our pond, exacerbating the enrollment problem."Lowering their standards to fish in our pond." The irony, the irony.
But digging in heels and opposing anything new won’t bring the old days back. In fact, the old days led inexorably to the new ones. Had the old ways been sustainable, they would have been sustained. They weren’t.
In looking at ways to adapt to the new environment, I keep butting up against longing for the return of the golden age. If we just refuse to budge, the argument goes, the universe will relent and it will be 1977 again, only with more diversity and cooler phones.
But it's not just the "tuition-driven four-year schools," however you choose to identify them, that have lowered their standards, and the consequences of those lowered standards are everywhere, dear reader, if you but look.
Consider this Adam Garfinkle reflection on the latest outrage by the Resistance.
It seems to me, too—though I can’t prove this and it might sound elitist—that the sharp polarization of American political discourse has something to do with the suddenly huge number of people who have been injected with ample doses of half-assed education. Mark Twain saw the phenomenon at an early stage: “Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run.”1"Not that supposedly first-class universities don’t often produce similar results." Indeed not, what is the Academic- Media - Entertainment - Democrat establishment if not a toxic stew of intermarried smug semi-awareness. What goes on at the third-rate degree factories, whether tuition-driven or not, is simply imitation of what goes on at the allegedly better institutions. There's an arbitrage opportunity here, if someone would simply seize it.
What Mr. Clemens meant then, I think—or at any rate what I mean now—is that “higher” education induces the otherwise ignorant to think really for the first time in abstract terms, and abstractions are very shiny to the point of mesmerizing to those who are unaccustomed to working with them. The possession of mass-manufactured degrees from third-rate colleges leads some people to suppose that they understand more than they really do. Not that supposedly first-class universities don’t often produce similar results.
Half-assed abstractions taught and absorbed with smug assuredness can inspire the worst kind of self-confidence which, when married to a penchant for political activism, produces…well, it produces the kind of political class we have fairly recently acquired, and its concomitant inability to compromise regularly to get things done. If you have merely an interest or two, you can horse trade and logroll. But if you have mainly or only convictions—defined by Nietzsche as being “more dangerous enemies of truth than lies”—you can’t. And that is why, in this case, the old saw has it dead to rights: A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.2
Strip away the polemics, as Mark Bauerlein does: it doesn't look any better.
The [Wall Street] Journal reported that at more than half of 200 schools tested, at least a third of seniors were unable to make cohesive arguments, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table. This is a devastating finding. International rankings show U.S. college grads in the middle of the pack on numeracy and literacy and near the bottom when it comes to problem-solving.To Professor Bauerlein, though, the problem might be as much the willingness of suckers to be conned as it is the blandishments of the patent-medicine pushers.
The gist paragraph reads, “At some of the most prestigious flagship universities, test results indicate the average graduate shows little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years.”
Those data points force another interpretation of the high ratings people give to the quality of higher education. Instead of proving the actual rigor and excellence of undergraduate instruction in the United States, the sanguine estimates evince the low educational standards of American millennials. They just don’t know what actual excellence is. How could they when grade inflation in high school and college has reached such an absurd level that nearly half of all college grades are in the A range. If their teachers awarded them the top mark, well, then, they learned a lot in the course. If the work that was required of them during the semester seemed suspiciously light, well, that may be due to the sparkling intelligence of the student, not to a cushy workload.In like manner, it might take several years, perhaps a generation, of legislative stinginess before the administrators catch on.
Or, perhaps, the faith that they received a high-quality education only proves their high gullibility. Every college has abundant marketing materials that proclaim the wonderful education they provide, and the students trust those pledges of superiority. It soothes their vanity. After all, the more superb the education they received, the more educated they are. The respondents in the Gallup poll are early in their adult lives, searching for jobs and for spouses, they want to believe in their own special condition. Acknowledging a crummy education hampers their self-confidence. They need the power of positive thinking.
Millennials have been encouraged ever since kindergarten to overestimate their own abilities. They aren’t going to stop once they graduate. It takes several years of the realities of the American workplace to contain their judgment.
Nearly forty years ago, when tight budgets in the Rust Belt first became a thing, the public universities and the community colleges might have been able to control costs by limiting admission further. (Who knows, that might have been a way of getting the legislatures to authorize more funding, as constituents unexpectedly got the thin letter?) But the default response was to attempt to do more with less, to pursue additional revenue, to convert the no-degree stigma into an irrelevant-degree stigma. First the common schools melted down, particularly in the neighborhoods where proper socialization would have mattered the most; now it's the universities melting down.
1From “The Facts Concerning My Recent Resignation.”
2The original whole, from Alexander Pope, goes like this: “A little learning is a dangerous thing;/ drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:/ there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,/ and drinking largely sobers us again.”