Posts Tagged ‘Higher Education Reform’
A few months ago, in June 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report ‘The Heart of the Matter‘ addressing the state of the humanities and social sciences in the United States today. Its conclusions were expressed as three main goals: (1) to “educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy;” (2) to “foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong;” and (3) to “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.”
The first recommendation made in connection with Goal 1 was to support “full literacy,” meaning by that an advancement of not just reading ability, but also of the critical thinking and communication skills required of citizens in a thriving democracy. That this is an excellent suggestion no one would dispute. The first recommendation associated with Goal 3 was to promote foreign language education, to enable Americans to enlarge their cultural perspective. Again this is an excellent and welcome suggestion.
But here we have exhausted the list of the high points. The remainder of the report is filled with such dubious assumptions and faulty reasoning that even the hungriest humanities teacher, clutching at the report as a sign of hope against the increasingly narrow emphasis on science and technology in our education system, ought to be circumspect in heralding it as a great stride forward.
The Cart Before the Horse
The fundamental problem with the report, as I see it, is that it has reversed the traditional ends and means of the humanities (and, by extension, of the social sciences, to the extent that both have similar goals; I shall herein, however, mainly address myself to the humanities). The principle feature of the humanities is, almost by definition (that is, to the extent that ‘humanities’ mean the same thing as ‘Humanism’), that, in the best meaning of the phrase, the proper concern of man is man: that what we are really aiming at is human happiness and self-actualization; to empower man, to achieve the telos latent in his potentialities; to obtain what the ancients simply called the good life or beata vita. Now as to what constitutes this good life, of course, there is some disagreement; but there is also considerable agreement: we seek a life where human beings are healthy, have ample leisure time, opportunities for education, where they enjoy the arts, study and practice philosophy, and so on.
In the modern era it has become an unquestioned assumption that we should also advance technology at a brisk pace, and, partly as a means of doing this, that our commercial economies should be robust and growing as well. I tend to agree with this view, personally. Yet where I evidently part company with the authors of the AAAS report is that I see the latter of these two goals – technological and economic advancement – as subordinate to the primary goal of obtaining ‘the good life’. That is, to the extent that technological and economic growth gives us anti-malaria vaccines, freedom from hunger, computers, solar energy, digital classical music, open access online libraries, and so on, it is good. But when it means pollution, constant stress and anxiety, urban sprawl, perpetual war, corporation-run government, and a long commute to and from a mindless job pushing papers in a cubicle all day long merely to earn enough money to continue on the treadmill, then I think we have ample grounds for doubt, and to consider forging for ourselves a new vision of society. May we put wage slavery and mass consumerism on the table as negotiable, and consider organizing our society for the 21st century and beyond in some more favorable way?
The gaping hole in the report’s logic is that it presents, apparently without the authors’ having any cognizance of its absurdity, if not outright danger, that we should improve the humanities in order to improve our economies, when it ought to be the other way around. We are told that we should increase spending on the humanities and social sciences so that we may have “an adaptable and creative workforce”, and that, presumably to counter the economic threat posed by China or other developing nations, we need “a new ‘National Competitiveness Act'”, which is somehow supposed to be “like the original National Defense Education Act.”
That the authors would so deftly and unhesitatingly leap from “competitiveness” to “national defense” – and all in a report addressing the humanities and social sciences – ought by itself to alert us that something is not quite right. But lest there be any doubt, we need only consult the flag-draped cover to learn that we need the humanities and social sciences “for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation.” [underscore added] There you have it: we need the humanities and social sciences for national security. Do your duty: Uncle Sam wants you to read Shakespeare! How else can we defeat the infidel third-world hordes greedily eyeing our huge piece of the global economic pie? The world economy belongs to America, and our ticket to continued hegemony is the Humanities!
On page 59 we are treated to a photo of a US soldier in full combat gear who looks like he might be instructing his comrades in the finer nuances of Afghan culture and how to persuade the locals to rat-out the Taliban. Yes, definitely expand our Mid-Asian Studies programs, so that our future military occupations might be more effective than they have been of late. Or maybe the idea is that by studying foreign cultures better, we’ll have more success in instigating, funding, and arming rebel insurgencies to displace regimes antithetical to our economic interests.
Materialism vs. Idealism
The tragedy of the report is that it seeks to promote the humanities without the vaguest idea of what Humanism is, or even an awareness that this is something people have made some serious effort to define over previous decades, centuries, and millennia. Now, to my mind – and I’m scarcely alone in this opinion – Humanism of necessity implies some sort of transcendent orientation. What makes human beings distinct and unique in the order of creation is that they are not only material, biological organisms, but contain something divine. This is the classical, the Renaissance, and the religious basis of Humanism. Not all humanists would agree, and I respect that. But at least could we agree to acknowledge that the effort to define Humanism is something that ought to occupy our attention? Is it asking too much to cite at least a single book, report, or article on the topic in a report that presents itself to be expert and authoritative? I would rather see Matthew Arnold, Cardinal Newman, or Plato in the bibliography than Emmy-Lou Harris, George Lucas, and John Lithgow in the panel of experts whom the report consulted.
We are told, for example, nothing of the 1984 National Endowment for the Humanities report (‘To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education’) authored by William J. Bennett. That report, while not as lavishly produced as the present one, nonetheless had a little more intellectual heft, at least insofar as it connected itself with traditional principles of Humanism, classics, and liberal education. A natural question to ask is whether the effort to renew the humanities initiated by the 1984 report worked. Apparently not too well, or we wouldn’t need a new initiative. But unless we look at that earlier report and examine what happened since, how can we understand what went wrong (or right), or know whether the present plan will fare better?
Despite a bit of lip service paid to ethics and morals, the values of the report are materialistic and mercenary. Small wonder, then, that the solution proposed is to throw more money at the problem. We’ll buy back the heart and soul of America. But did it ever occur to the authors that we already have the raw materials for a new cultural renaissance, and that what is wrong is not lack of money but wrong values? Instead of throwing money at the problem, couldn’t we simply persuade people to start reading Great Books? And without a prior shift in fundamental values, how can simply funding interdisciplinary research centers or developing a “Culture Corps” (yes, they seriously proposed that) accomplish anything?
A more minor point, but one nevertheless worth making, is how suavely the report dismisses the tuition and student loan crisis in the country today. Not a crisis, we’re informed; more like an inconvenience. The point the authors miss is the effect that placing college students deeply in debt has on their educational goals. One’s not likely to pay off a $75,000 student loan any time soon by majoring in American literature or ancient history. And the debt-burdened graduate isn’t likely to wander around Europe or Asia for the sheer pleasure of broadening ones cultural horizons. Better to major in accounting and hope to land a job with Bank of America.
Ironically, the report succeeds, after a fashion, in its failure. Its deficiencies themselves speak volumes about the decline of the humanities in the American university system. The report is the product of a higher education industry that has systemically neglected liberal education for at least 100 years. That we need to address this problem is abundantly clear. But to give more money to an education system not wise enough to understand what the humanities are and mean scarcely seems like the answer.
The report is all window dressing and the only real message is “give us money.” But the heart is not bought.
Wherever I go in California these days I meet young people who either can’t afford to attend college, so they don’t, or else are going to college and taking out huge student loans. (I don’t know which group I feel more sorry for, though I think the first group are smarter.)
The thing is, none of this is necessary. The problem, of course, is the unrealistic and outrageously high tuitions at colleges and universities today. And while I’m scarcely a knee-jerk ‘free market solves all’ libertarian, in this case I think the principle applies. The reason tuitions are so high is because we have a closed system, a monopoly of players in collusion who control higher education. The racket works like this:
- Universities convince people that they need a diploma to get a job.
- Employers collude with universities, so that they do in fact require diplomas.
- Further add the requirement that the diploma must be granted by an accredited university.
- Control which colleges and universities get accredited and which don’t, thereby limiting competition. In particular, make the accreditation process so expensive that small independent colleges are excluded.
The net result is that the service (education) becomes virtually mandatory, but only members of the monopoly can supply the service. Consequently the members of the monopoly can charge (or extort) unrealistically high tuitions and get away with it.
So there are two related problems that go into making higher education a monopoly: accreditation, and the use of diplomas. My proposal is that we should seriously consider eliminating both. By eliminating accreditation we would open the marketplace to free competition, the result being lower prices. By eliminating diplomas, at least at the undergraduate level, we would teach people because they want to learn, not because they want a piece of paper.
What is the rational basis for accreditation? One can see why, perhaps, we should require physicians to be licensed — we don’t want quacks endangering the lives of unsuspecting patients. But do students need to be protected from ‘incompetent’ colleges? Can’t we let students themselves decide which colleges are supplying adequate service?
Consider the power of consumer choice in other areas. Does a hamburger chain need to be accredited, or can it just sell hamburgers, competing with other chains, succeeding if it satisfies customers and failing if it doesn’t? Do you check to see where your car mechanic is trained before doing business? Or do you choose based on demonstrated skill and reasonable price? If you can make your own choice of mechanics, restaurants, and movies, why are you deemed incapable of discriminating between excellent and lousy colleges? Why do you need an accreditation organization to do this for you?
Let’s look at another reason people claim to need accreditation: to control admission to professional and graduate schools. So accredited doctoral programs require bachelor’s or master’s degrees from accredited universities so they can turn out PhD’s qualified to teach at accredited universities. It is egregiously self-serving.
I hate to disappoint my fellow academicians, but I have a little confession to make. I went through a fully accredited PhD program. But the truth is that I learned almost nothing in my classes. There were a few good professors, but more often than not they were pompous bores. What I did learn I mainly learned by checking statistics books out of the library and reading in my own time. I taught myself Fortran, developed skill as a programmer, and wrote statistics and simulation programs. That was how I got my education. And I could have done just as well at an unaccredited university — or for that matter, if supplied only with a library pass and computer account.
It surprises me that people aren’t challenging employer diploma discrimination in court. It is a flagrant injustice, if not a clear-cut abuse of civil rights. Take two identical twins. Send one to an accredited university for four years, give the other a computer and internet access. Let them both read the same books and articles. Let one attend in-person lectures, let the other buy lectures from The Teaching Company. After four years you will likely find two equally well educated people. Then have them both send job applications to the same company. The non-degreed twin won’t even be granted an interview; his or her resume won’t be read or sent out of the HR department. Does anybody seriously believe that is legal?
It amazes me that so much interest and energy gather around an issue like gay marriage equity, while everybody sits silently and tolerates diploma discrimination, which is arguably much more serious, because it amounts to rich vs. poor discrimination, unmitigated elitism, and exploitation.
I’ve just completed a new White Paper on public higher education policy in California. Here is an abstract:
For the last 50 years, a belief that building a robust and competitive state economy should predominate California’s public higher education goals has become increasingly prevalent, and today it is taken as an unchallenged assumption. This White Paper emphatically rejects that assumption, and argues that broader cultural and social goals are of equal, if not greater importance for Californians’ well-being than purely economic ones; and that to achieve these broader social goals we must place more emphasis on humanities and the classical model of liberal education.
California State Senator Darrell Steinberg is co-sponsoring SB 520, titled “California Virtual Campus.” The Senate Bill would potentially enable California students to receive credit at public universities and colleges (UCs, CSUs, and CCCs) for courses taken online from any source. This would presumably stimulate competition, lower course costs, and make higher education available to more Californians.
Predictably, there is resistance from faculty associations. The Berkeley Faculty Association, for example, is circulating a petition to oppose SB 520. The petition states that SB 520 “will lower academic standards (particularly in key skills such as writing, math, and basic analysis), augment the educational divide along socio-economic lines, and diminish the ability for underrepresented minorities to excel in higher education.”
This, of course, is all nonsense. Nearer the truth is that the Berkeley Faculty Association wants to protect faculty jobs. It is sad indeed when they place their own job security ahead of sensible efforts to make higher education affordable and accessible to more Californians.
That said, anything the State Government touches will be tainted by money. No doubt many private online universities (e.g., Univer$ity of Phoenix) will jump at the new chance to make money. Whether online universities are actively lobbying State Senators is anybody’s guess (but what do you think?).
What we ought to do is to simply eliminate expensive and needless accreditation requirements for undergraduate colleges, whether brick-and-mortar or virtual. Consumers and market competition would then assure the highest quality courses for the lowest price. We should similarly eliminate four-year degrees, which are meaningless. People should take classes for the purpose of learning, not to get a degree. If undergraduate education were completely de-regulated, everybody – minorities included – would follow their natural inclinations to educate themselves, and select high-quality vendors. A world-class college lecture series would cost no more than to rent a Blu-Ray movie.
This infographic, sent to me by some colleagues, documents in clear and sobering terms the scope of the college tuition crisis and soaring higher education costs. It’s a very creative and effective way to get the message across, don’t you think?
The full article can be found here.
The first post in this series argued that the brick-and-mortar university is obsolete in its current form, because modern technology makes it unnecessary. Free, or nominally priced distance-learning courses are an alternative. As proof of concept, a later post constructed a sample liberal arts curriculum using existing high-quality video courses, with an estimated cost of $400/year.
Given that viable alternatives exist, why do young people still feel compelled to attend status quo corporate-style universities, even if that means paying insane tuition? It seems we must look to motivations beyond the simple wish to gain an education, i.e., to explanations in terms of emotional, social, and ‘intangible’ factors. Let’s consider a few of these.
Rite of Passage
Every young person instinctively seeks to gain social recognition – i.e., some form of achievement such that society will say, “you have arrived at adulthood.” This seems a basic requirement for self-esteem, at least in our society. Graduation from a college or university can meet this need for achievement. That is reasonable in itself. But the question must be asked: should we really subject students to massive debt merely for this purpose? Other ways to meet the need are possible (climbing Mt. Everest, hiking the Appalachian Trail, going on a mission, starting a business, completing a Great Books list, etc.)
We should add that there is both a good and a bad form of this. The good form supplies ways that young people can derive *genuine* self-esteem by accomplishing something beneficial to others. The bad form is elitism, whereby a person does something for the sake of gaining status. Modern universities appeal to this elitism.
Socialization and Partying
Clearly many students see college largely as an opportunity for socialization and partying. The former is arguably productive, or at least benign: young people make friends, join clubs, participate in intra-mural sports, etc. However this often degenerates into a partying lifestyle. Not only does that serve no productive purpose, it means that, in the case of public universities, taxpayers are required to subsidize this kind of atmosphere. This is also unfair to those students who approach college more seriously.
Delay of Entry to Workforce
If there are no jobs, society must have some way to handle the surplus labor. Colleges can be misused for this purpose.
Today’s public elementary and secondary school education, combined with the dumbing-down forces of modern culture generally, have potentially left young people today less emotionally and intellectual mature than in previous generations. Not really knowing who they are or what they want, students attend college for indefinite periods, hoping to eventually ‘find themselves’. However, all too often what happens instead is that they acquire the habit of laziness and lack of focus.
Transition from Parental Household
A seemingly minor point, but actually fairly important. If young people didn’t have some convenient and non-threatening way to move out of the parental household, they might stay there indefinitely. So young people and parents alike have this tacit incentive for the former to move off to college.
Having noted a few of these secondary motives for attending college, we can ask: is there some alternative way to address these without making young people pay enormous college tuition?
Of course there are, and if society tried, it could come up with better solutions. One simple example would be a program of nature camps, whereby young people (e.g. ages 18-20) spend a year or two living and working, say, in the mountains somewhere. Nominally, they’d do things like building trails or planting trees, maybe train in athletics. Informally, they could socialize, party, become more mature, etc. At least in the past, this paradigm was followed in certain Scandinavian countries.
Another alternative would be to encourage a wanderjahr abroad – informal traveling, perhaps organized around some theme of interest, like historical sites, national capitals, or museums.
Once they’ve sown their wild oats and gained maturity, young people could return at age 20 or 21 to begin their college education in earnest. When I taught I was strongly impressed by how much this age difference helped in terms of student focus. For example, students who started college after military service just breezed through courses; it made teaching much easier.
The bottom line is that we can separate the educational purpose from certain unnecessary social functions of the modern college. By addressing the latter in other ways, we should be able to make the educational function of colleges much more efficient, and can reduce tuition accordingly.
California Speaker Pérez’ plan for reducing public university tuition is a welcome sign, but doesn’t go nearly far enough. Sacramento should consider more sweeping changes:
1. Expand advanced placement testing
Let students ‘test out’ of any course, or even get a diploma that way.
2. Integrate third-party courses into curricula
For example, video lectures by The Great Courses are better than most brick-and-mortar college courses. A campus library can buy these and students (registered or unregistered) may watch them for free. Testing and grading could be done by local instructors.
3. Institute a Great Books program
Let students get from 1 to 2 years course credit by reading classics.
4. Eliminate or scale down college accreditation
Accreditation for undergrad studies is unnecessary; it’s merely a means by which existing universities and colleges monopolize the market. Remove the costly barrier of accreditation, and communities, churches, etc., can found inexpensive local colleges suitable for many students’ needs. This competition will drive down the tuitions of existing colleges.
5. Limit or eliminate student loans for undergraduates.
This will also force colleges to lower tuition and motivate cost-cutting.