That Education Rant

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So I’m at this beginning of the (academic) year mixer, and I overhear the following: Can you believe I got into Flower Arranging? I’m so excited I’m practically peeing my pants! This’ll be the easiest science credit ever! Giggle, giggle. High five.

And that, my friends, is what’s fundamentally wrong with our higher education system in this country. Flower arranging is a “science” (now do you really suppose that the students have to know anything even remotely scientific about the flowers they arrange into pretty pretty bouquets?). Sigh. And you know why? Because there are more people in college than ever before, and while you might think, on first hearing this, that this is a good thing, allow me to explain why it most certainly is not.

I’m not going to get bogged down in pesky things like facts or stats, but I am going to give you my informed from experience and first-hand observation take on higher ed and the sweeping ramifications in both k-12 and our work force. (so much more fun, no?) I also want to preface this (belatedly, I realize I’m three paragraphs in already) by saying that I do strongly feel that anyone who is intellectually able should have access to a college education. I’ve always felt that way. What I don’t feel, think, believe, want are universities full of consumers demanding their money’s worth at the expense of an actual education, and that, sadly, is where we are. No longer where we are heading but actually where we are. People are paying for degrees, not education, not knowledge, not the excitement and joy of learning. And that chaps my hide.

The customer/service-oriented slant of higher education is the downfall of academia. Period. And I can say (again from experience and close observation) that there are more students in college who should not be than should. And by “should not be,” I mean the Yippee! I can take Flower Arranging for science credit gang. Were there similar easy outs when I was in college? Sure. Granted, not quite to that incredible degree of ridiculousness, but yes. I took Earth Science for my science credit, but I learned about geology and Moh’s hardness scale (was it Moh? Or Larry? Or Curly?) and actually measured the velocity (um, or something) of a small stream using only my mathematically challenged brain, some popsicle sticks, and some brightly colored kite string. I kid you not. But at least now, when I hear people whinging about human’s impact on the planet, I can dredge up some distant memory of how much toxic crap burps out of volcanoes any given day. What will Ms. Flower Arranger know? That yellow is pretty pretty and looks lovely near pink but gets washed out near those orange flowers?

And how did that happen? How did we get from a reasonable facsimile of a science class to Flower Arranging? Well, I have my theories, but the bottom line, I fear, is our very own whiney pants attitude toward everyone, regardless of their intellect, ability, or preparedness. Let’s just throw everyone in college and then when they can’t handle the work load, we’ll dumb it down, so that everyone can get a college degree. The upshot of that is (and most HR people can tell you) a college degree is all but worthless on the job market these days. Now, everyone is scrambling for Master’s degrees in this and that, hoping that will prove that they are indeed smarter than the average bear. Bah! But I’ll save my rant about graduate education for another day.

Even top tier institutions are suffering from this (Harvard professors have gone public with their angst and general peevishness about grade inflation and the various ways they handle it), but not as much as the lower tier ones, that much is truer than true. Hand in hand with the but it’s my right to have a college degree attitude is the but I’m paying good money for this degree attitude. Somehow, universities have bowed to public pressure and are indeed doling out degrees to anyone who pays for them. Don’t want to go to class? Well, why should you? You paid already, right? Don’t want to do the reading, assignments, or much of much else? Well, you paid good money, right? Therefore, students who do show up and do what is asked of them are the stellar students, the ones who get A-‘s and B’s. But A-‘s and B’s (the whole range) are just no longer indicators of above average (God, much less excellent) work, and we all know it. Guess what showing up and doing what was asked of you once was? It was average. It was expected, and you got a C for it. The bar’s lowered, and the C is now what we used to give to students who earned F’s. It’s really quite funny. Or it would be if it weren’t so damned sad.

What other effects does this customer service mentality have? Well, let’s just say that the old slogan “the customer is always right” has swept into the college classroom with vigor. My personal experience with this is pretty benign (but annoying and difficult to overcome) in that my students are more likely to believe as Gospel whatever their very favorite English teacher told them in high school and then stubbornly refuse anything I might offer to expand that knowledge (or totally refute it). Well, Miss Smith told me to put a comma whenever I pause, Miss Smith told me that I can never ever split an infinitive, and Miss Smith told me that I can’t begin sentences with “And” or “But.” And because I’m paying you, I expect you to teach me what I already know. (um, yeah, right, so why are you here again? Oh, that degree you’re purchasing. Lovely.) Oh, and Miss Smith never liked it when I cited my sources parenthetically; they always had to be in foot notes, so that’s just the way it’s done. Always. And if you try to tell me different (because Miss Smith also had an aversion to proper grammar and using adverbs), then I’ll just complain, and you’ll back off, and I’ll walk out of here with my high school education in tact. Yay me.

Are there still excellent students in universities? Oh, yes, thank God, there are. And do they still thirst for the range of knowledge an actual university degree can afford. Oh, yes and yes again. They are a minority, and they get the bonafide A’s. Those are the only grades that matter, and even so, that’s not true everywhere; I have friends who give more A’s than all other grades combined. They have to. The students aren’t happy or don’t have that I got my money’s worth satisfaction that comes from anything less than an A. Though I don’t think we’re quite there yet, even A’s will mean little in the next few years.

And we know this, as a society, we do. And it’s evidenced not in university reform (or reversion to prior standards) but in k-12 standardized testing. In the rabid following of this new means of identifying and quantifying learning, we open a whole new and entirely different can of worms. I’m not a fan of the every other year standardized tests for a host of reasons, not the least which are that they really don’t measure much of much (I’ve always tested well, but not everyone does), that they are political tools designed ultimately to reward the already affluent schools and districts and undermine those that need funding, and that they are turning k-12 education into a sham. Last point first: k-12 teachers are forced to teach to the test, they don’t teach a rounded anything, it’s just what will be on the test and what won’t. Second point second: money is awarded schools and districts tha
t do well, that they continue to do so, and those who do not are penalized. Logic? First point last: the latest batch of standardized tests mostly
test memory, and not everyone has a good memory. Memory isn’t knowledge, it isn’t a measure of learning. And all of that means that most of the kids who turn up in college are woefully underprepared.

College students today seem to think that every university is or should be what we once called a Vocational College: engineers should learn only engineering, nursing students only nursing, and so on. But that’s not what once made a university degree meaningful and a university education special. Learning a range of subjects (and not substituting Flower Arranging for science or How To Balance Your Checkbook for maths or Can I Buy A Vowel, Alex for English) was once the thrill and joy of higher education. You read about philosophy and literature, history and science; you calculated difficult problems in maths class, and yes, you even waded in rivers dangling neon orange kite string behind you. But best of all, you learned to think. You learned to wade through vast quantities of information and to process and apply it–not like a coat of paint, but with actual and original thought. You learned that a theory wasn’t just a theory, not until you could think with it and not just about it; you learned that a philosophy was only as good as its strongest point and as bad as its weakest. In short, you learned.

No longer. And it saddens me more than I can express. It makes me feel sorry for people who do have ability, who do thirst for knowledge, who do want that old standard but who must work for it harder than ever, weeding through throwaway classes taught by crap professoriate who’d rather give out hugs and lollipops than an iota of true education. When I see people like Ceres, like Chris, like Fabi (though things may be different in England?), I rejoice, but I know that the way for them is dimly lit because the light is shining on the customer, not the student.

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17 thoughts on “That Education Rant

  1. Wow! What a post Fuzzy. Could the diminishing value of a higher education be the run off from the athletic department of universities in this country. Basket weaving, golf, dance, and even flower arranging have always been popular classes among athletes who traded and education for the dollars they earned for the universities by getting people to come see them play on any given weekeknd. It is sad but true that higher education has turned into a numbers game. Students equal money. And corporate America has let this happen also by demanding a degree for many job placements. Not even a specific degree, just a degree. So, to bow to the demands and dollars of corporate America, the Universities have turned into “Diploma Mills”
    What I find saddest about your informed blog, is that teachers in the K-12 range cannot teach the way they should, but teach to the test. And then government rewards the districts that do well with money and those that can use the money to help develop training programs and help for their students get shut out because they don’t test well. It’s like the chicken and the egg! One major problem with out secondary education system is the massive difference between suburban schools and inner city schools. They cannot be treated the same, and have good results for both districts. There are too many differences between the two, logistically, culturally, and realistically! Again, great piece Fuzzy.

  2. I had no idea it was so bad at the university level. I knew that high school grades had become meaningless… with kids earning 4.1 or 4.2 GPAs… what is that all about? Oh yeah, they’re taking AP classes which test to the AP test. Great, eh?

  3. Wow right back to you, Em. Thanks. 🙂

    And thank *you*, Kerry! *hugs*

    Michael, you’ve really hit on something that I’ve wondered about before; did that “athletic scholarship” pave the way for what is happening today? I think in some ways yes, but that’s the real problem. What seems to have happened is an unnatural mating between consumerism and political correctness. What I can’t say is which came first, I think it’s likely a “perfect storm” sort of thing whereby the need to apply affirmative action and gender neutrality (etc.) ran rampant into this consumeristic mindset and begat this ugly (and stupid) child. I think. And right you are to worry about standardized testing and both the motives for it and the “rewards” of it. It’s huge, but I think, honestly, that it follows the collapse of higher education and doesn’t precede it. It’s a “cure”; for what it’s worth. Thanks for the fab comments!

    Kelly, it may not be as dire as all that, you can get your kids in a good school–heck, even a bad school offers a good education (still). But it’s harder now, and the kids really have to work to learn. Something tells me your kids won’t have a problem. But you know what, if you want (gee, well) some advice or help or whatever . . . what are friends for?

  4. Speaking on behalf of the K-12 group of teachers were are sending you educated idiots. When you teach to a test all you are doing is memorizing facts . . facts that you can do nothing with. Creativity has fallen by the wayside so if we ask for a project we may as well do it ourselves because they did not have creativity fostered at an early age. My “advanced or gifted” students are mediocre at best. They do enough to get by. I think its embarassing all the way down the line to look at how education has gotten. I got on this soap box before because we have gotten so pc that you can not group so your advanced students are dumbed down to stay with the middle students and your lower students just get drug around and we hope you get it because they can’t be labeled to get extra help. They are even main streaming a lot of the special ed students now. My advice to Kelly is make sure your child(ren) also get outside experiences with you so that they can draw meaning to what they are learning . .(such as field trips that no longer exist because of budget and terrorism) they need to see what they are learning or actually create a replica. Last year when I asked that my students in my history class make a replica of a Model-T and write a report you would have thought I asked for the moon and stars. I never had so many parents complain in my life. Ok so anyway . . thumbs up Fuzzy but I hate to tell you the next 10 years worth of students won’t be any better.

  5. Laurie, thanks so much for this marvelous comment! I think that you nail it on the head when you talk about how creativity is not fostered (how are people to make leaps, connections, have friggin’ IDEAS if they aren’t allowed creative thought or activity . . . finger painting makes better thinkers than memorizing test answers!). And I hope you don’t think I’m bashing any teachers at any level; we all suffer the fall out of what’s going on in this PC-crazed climate, and I don’t blame any teacher; we’re all doing all we can with what we have and within the constraints we’re given (and these are many and varied). And yes, I know that the future is bleak . . . our kids are getting dumber, but it’s not our (the educators’) fault. We know better.

  6. Ooops, just realized I misspoke, there ARE teachers/instructors that I do blame, but they are the ones who think that a hug and smile will substitute actual learning or that an “understanding” of a student’s “cicumstances” will make it all better. But that doesn’t sound like you, Laurie. And it’s certainly not me. Oooh, you’re poor/racially or ethnically downtrodden/tragically abused, so you should get an A. Not my policy.

  7. Another great blog Fuz! Well, America is not the only one facing this problem guess it’s becoming a global issue now. In my country, the problem is even further worsened as there is great discrimination among universities and stuffs. As such, only very few universities are actually recognised not to even talk of their degrees. So sad but thru. I sincerely hope these problems b looked into.

  8. I think that this blog has gotten great responses, but I wonder if it is missing one.

    As a parent in an affluent community, parents no longer consider college to “not” be an option. Everyone goes! People no longer consider trade schools or apprenticeships as an option. Not everyone is cut out for college, but these parents have been told their children are exceptional and gifted, so they cannot imagine any other life for them.

    I have three children and I look and them and think they are smart and funny. My oldest is a senior in HS and I have said to her and know that she in immature and may not be ready for college right now. We have talked about this and unless we see real maturity in her school work this year, she is going to Jr. College to see if it is right for her. You know, before we spend $$$ on a 4 year school. My youngest…well he has been taking things apart since he was 18 mos old. I am thinking he would make a great plumbers apprentice! Not that we would deny him college, but there are other things you can do in this world that don’t require degrees.

    Re: the advanced degrees to prove you are smart. My daughter is interested in Physical Therapy and starting next year you will need to have a doctorate to be a PT. Can you believe that? Meanwhile….I am still plugging away at my PhD in Library Science….but people already think I am smart. 😉

  9. Hei Fuzzy

    It is a bad bad day in a country when it hits this level of ‘education’!!
    What is the future for these graduates with masters on
    Flower Arranging and whatnot, me wonders?!
    Well, on the other hand their tables will be ornaments of style
    with the colourful flowers anyway.

    Take care and do have a grand weekend. Rii xx HUGZ

  10. Brava, and another standing ovation. After 33 years in the New York Cith School system, I was grateful to be able to retire–not from working with children, but from working in a system that was test oriented, politically infused and undersupported. With so many changes and twists and turns, no one knows whree to go or to whom to seek help in a crisis. The whole system will implode and NY is always the first–then it spreads through the country. The youngsters who eventually wend their way upward to higher learning bring all this “stuff” with them. I wish we could go back to the future…the 50’s.
    Sue

  11. Horrible! I always thought of flower arranging as art…silly me. Thanks to this attitude, a bachelor’s degree has no more value than a high school diploma any more. 😦 Hugs, great blog!

  12. Fuzzy, I expect Fabi et al will comment themselves, but it ain’t better here. The last comment I saw (before throwing the newspaper in the bin in disgust) was a comment, justifying some action or other, that exams are just too hard for some students, so we have to find some way to help them cope. We have also had a sort of scandal of teachers, not only helping students “study” for the questions in the exam, but actually prompting them during the exam – ‘is that your final answer’ or ‘ you you might want to look at again at that answer’, etc. And I’m afraid you’re right, the students don’t learn anything, just the right answers for the questions (ie they don’t actually think). Good, if a little sad, post, Fuzz.

  13. Fabi et al here. 😀 Great post Fuzzy. I think you may suspect from my missives on the subject of education in this country that things are no better over here. We have had our own spurt in recent years of stupid degree subjects. There has been uproar recently that one university was going to teach a module on Northerness, it’s like having an entire course dedicated to Cockney Culture! Absolutely ridiculous.

    I said in my posts on the subject here, backed up by a recent study, that this ‘treat everyone the same’, this crushing uniformity we see, only serves to disadvantage pupils at either end of the academic spectrum. The focus is on getting mediocre students to be slightly less mediocre. This backed up by an over weening, overbearing style of teaching promulgated from central government is killing the system here. I feel your sadness on the subject, I really do. We don’t have long to fix it either, with graduates from South East Asia increasingly able to compete and even surpass our own students, although one can be at least we would be more proficient at producing an eye pleasing spray of chrysanthamums (sp?)! A great and justified ranting post Fuzz, but also, like you say, terribly sad and worrying.

  14. … a great post… but so complex to come up with a solution.

    I know nothing about the US education system.. but a fair amount about the one in the UK.

    I worry sometimes that we forget what non-subject based skills’ we do need to live and survive in this age. Independent thinking, creative solution finding, research and evalutaion, communication skills, self-motivation, a desire to learn…etc etc…. and what subject heading do these come under?

    Knowledge is as knowledge does.. but learning to find, use and apply knowledge is paramount..

    Now… it dosn’t seem good that ‘flower arranging’ is accredited as a ‘science’.. that seems ridiculous..

    … but if ANY subject helps teach tomorrows generation the softer skills they need to survive in the 21 Century then thats a good thing…

    I’m not sure our current education system does this… its driven mostly by people and systems with a ‘aniquated’ view on what being ‘educated’ is.. and what students need to know in order to get on in life…. and targets are set and driven by these ‘beliefs’.

    The whole ‘management’ of the Education systems needs a massive shake up and modernisation for the 21 Century in my opinion… but its todays generation of younger (or older insightful) educators that are going to allow these changes to happen….

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