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.
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 that 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.