And What is an Educated Man?

Many (Foster here, Instapundit) have argued education is a “bubble” – a good oversold and overpriced. Like most “bubbles”, this has begun with a good – our founders understood only a literate society could successfully manage a democracy; a sense of history and perspective equips us against a demagogue. Education gives a longer perspective, so we are less likely to sell our birthrights for a mess of pottage. Universal, public education is necessary for a meritocracy.

But, like many large problems, this one is overdetermined.

It is oversold because it has long been in the interest of the turf-builders of our education establishment. They have leaned toward increasing the bureaucracy (and therefore the cost) of primary and high school education. Part of that turf-building has also increased the vision of what a school can do; they would argue that a “good citizen” needs to recycle, use birth control, do community service. As they expanded their responsibilities, they lost focus. More interested in process than content, teachers’ colleges have weeded out many passionate about their subjects. Their assumptions are essentially anti-intellectual, they affect who goes into teaching and what they teach. Teachers’ unions, broad expectations, the decline of the family, an emphasis upon equal outcomes as well as equal opportunities – yes, all diminish the worth of education.

College-level faculties have also expanded – the entire “studies” system has moved into areas in which knowledge is far softer than it has been in the past, politicization even more rampant. The goal of most universities is to have a faculty that produces scholarship and research which requires as few student-contact hours as possible. That means single offices are filled with highly paid faculty who have semesters and years off regularly and whose most intensive interaction with students is for around three hours each week for 15 weeks. Their workload is possible because of the offices down the hall crowded with adjunct/grad student/lecturers, who toil among the lower level classes, teaching four or even five classes each semester. This bubble is likely to get larger as long as departments are rewarded not by the quality nor even sometimes the quantity of student/interaction but rather by publishing or grant getting by the faculty. And since it is in the nature of administrators to want to turf build and in the nature of man not to want to grade papers and actually prepare lectures, changes will be fought. Besides, college faculty may not be unionized (though apparently that is likely in some places), but getting blackballed by the AAUP can hurt and the easiest path to that is to fire tenured faculty. (This can be true, even if the faculty member has been canoodling the wife of his grad student on the office desk – a story that I heard from a member of the committee examining an incident which put a school on that black list for twenty years.)

This bubble is ready to burst unless the government props it up; propping it up is likely to be attractive to many people – faculty, administrators, people who think registering for classes is somehow a good in itself, and people who don’t know what else to do with people in their most volatile years, so giving them easy access to sex, beer, and video games lessens other pressures. Still. several pin pricks are ready and one may pierce the balloon: the politicization of education alienates many a student and parent; the clear inadequacy of America’s public education system in any reasonable comparisons; the cost borne by either taxpayers or students when little money is available; the overselling of education when the fruits of time worked (responsibility, time-management, practical knowledge) actually prepare people better for the workplace. As Foster notes, school can be counterproductive if students leave with a sense of entitlement.

The degree has been “sold” as a ticket to a higher paying job. These stats seem suspect since education is hardly the only variable and there are few controls in those studies. But that sense of entitlement comes because people have lost the sense of apprenticeship. The complexity of life and of the work force is seldom considered. So, it is not unusual to hear complaints about the minimum wage that see it as a static salary paid to a head of household. Sure, it doesn’t support that. But should you be the head of a household until you have put in the kind of work that leads to responsibility? The idea that experience and growing responsibility are taught on the job (sometimes at real expense to the employer) seems to have never occurred to not only those “entitled” students, but their teachers and their politicians. Developing, over many years, the mastery of a subject should be a model for that sense of apprenticeship. Criticism of such an approach (including memorization) is often described in straw men terms. But devaluing the basics of education besides leading to an uneducated populace also diminishes the sense that some things just need to be mastered.

A minimal amount of common sense applied to some education problems would note their absurdity. An example might be the policy of putting “at risk” students or students from schools that are failing accreditation standards into college courses from their freshmen year in high school to “save” them. This “cargo cult” thinking permeates the educational establishment.

But, besides common sense, the largest needle out there (I hope) is testosterone. I’m trusting that the testosterone means the future will be dominated by men who aren’t going to college and may not even be finishing high school. I have faith that if they bestir themselves they will redefine learning, education, action, success.
The statistics are dramatic.

The nature of this trend was described in a Mark Perry post Instapundit linked to a few months ago. Perry developed a graph from Department of Education statistics showing gender divisions in graduation rates.

Against the “cargo cult” vision that giving degrees means education, we have an Army of Davids. On-line education is increasing and may easily replace the old system. At their worst, such courses demonstrate a piece of paper is all education offers – but that is also the only criteria we can count on from more respected institutions. At their best, these let the air out of the education establishment and not education. An industry may need to set up hiring and promoting criteria that actually have to do with skill, experience, productivity, and, yes, knowledge. Home schooling, too, is demonstrating that the importance is what a student learns – not where.

Americans hunger for education – especially the education a citizen needs. Look at the best seller lists for the last few years; you find little fiction, much bombast, but many real histories. Apparently, Beck’s simplified “Founders’ Fridays” are getting huge audiences. The Tea Party people were not just polite, their signs were often derived from history. Sure, they view it differently than do most history teachers (on about any level). But, the protestors are curious, literate, and sometimes witty – and they’ve usually read. And sometimes they are right. Perhaps this is special pleading, but I feel American literature offers my students their legacy – rich and interesting and often contradictory. They may come into my class cynical, indeed, they may leave it so. But to do so is to ignore about everything I’ve done. I suspect it is useful – why else would every semester someone show up who has been accepted to med school, pharmacy school, nursing, or vet school on the condition that they take a lit course? They are science people and have been forced into my classroom, but they generally leave with something that, apparently, those professional schools find important.
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Nonetheless, I may be counting on too much biology and not enough culture. Anecdotal evidence is beginning to multiply and points to a less cheerful scenario. Boy/men seem not to be dropping out to “do” something but dropping out to do even less. The number of young marriages in which not only is the wife the breadwinner but the husband isn’t even taking care of children is increasing. These often dissolve – perhaps because women are too conventional to respect a mate who plays video games all day while they work or perhaps because women want children of their own rather than merely a needy husband. (No, I’m not going to diss a stay-at-home dad – I’m sure it is a useful choice; but many are childless marriages. Few women are at home for the years pre-baby.) And we should at least recognize that a woman does offer something in terms of child-bearing and child-nursing a man doesn’t. Besides, I don’t see choices – I see drift.

Education as it is now proffered to men does little to excite and much to insult. Our education establishment has spent considerable energy stamping out the “maleness” in males; it doesn’t encourage some of the best about men nor discourage the worst. That our society may – and some have – become one in which men have little stake and while away their time in non-productive ways is a picture of a future in which many have chosen not to live, not to love, and not to produce. I am repelled by the image of men sitting on the foot stoop, whiling away time until the wife comes home with a paycheck. I suspect most men are. This is not a choice of life but rather a death in life – death of the intellect, death of the spirit, death of our culture.

10 thoughts on “And What is an Educated Man?”

  1. Ginny, re the gender/education/work issues that your raise, the interesting blogger known as The Obsidian has frequently written on these topics…most recently in his “Men at Work” series and his comment thread on Hanna Rosin’s Atlantic article

  2. One effect of the education bubble: I would think that the presence of so many students who have little genuine interest in what’s being taught, but feel that they *have* to be there, would be extremely demoralizing to professors who really *want* to teach, just as the late-Vietnam-era draftee Army was demoralizing to officers who really wanted to fight.

    Does the presence of a significant % of uninterested students lead many professors to shift focus from teaching to research to a greater degree than they otherwise would? Seems like this would be a logical thing to expect.

  3. I have a couple of experiences to recount. One, in 1960, I came home from Air Force basic training to find that student loans had become available. Four years earlier, they would have allowed me to attend Cal Tech but I was happy to accept what I could get. I had joined the reserves, anticipating the draft, so that I could work and go to school at night. Suddenly, I was able to go back to school full time. I had been an engineer and decided medicine was my vocation. I was one of those engineers a few units short of a degree so I went back to school as an undergrad. I walked into the student aid office and applied for a loan. I was asked my major and, when I replied pre-med, I was told that they were sorry but no loans were available for pre-meds. The clerk explained that most pre-meds never got into medical school so loans were not available for such a useless major.

    I left, walked around the block and re-entered the student aid office. I applied for a loan and was asked my major. English Literature, I replied. Fine. I got my loan. I was an English major taking biology as electives. I thoroughly enjoyed my English classes. I have one professor who confessed that he had taken a long sea voyage alone in order to read Spenser’s “The Fairie Queen.” To this day, I am appreciative of those classes.

    My daughter’s experience, as I have recounted here, was less satisfactory. I can certainly see why boys are not enthusiastic about the present day college curriculum. My high school girlfriend, who I haven’t seen in many years, is the president of the Women Engineers Society. I wish one of my kids was interested in science or engineering but the stuff that passes as liberal arts is a waste of everyone’s time.

  4. I suppose giving loans for English degrees isn’t as stupid as for women’s studies, religious studies, ethnic studies ones. But pretty close. I suspect even if someone stops at a B.S., they will get a higher salary than a B.A.

    In 1967 I was quite happy to get 10 cents more an hour than those without a degree, who hovered around minimum wage. Since I’d seen it as an end in itself (and was pretty oblivious and thought I was in love), this seemed a good deal. But it would have been hell to pay off a loan.

    Maybe those guys aren’t working because if they did it would all go to pay off loans – but that isn’t a very cheerful prospect in all sorts of ways.

  5. what do you do with a degree in women’s studies or black studies? why get an M.A. and teach it at a community college.

  6. Ginny: The same day that you posted this piece, David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the NYTimes about education, in which he argued for an education in the Humanities, “History for Dollars”. But, he accidentally reveals the problem with his argument:

    “If you go through college without reading Thucydides, Herodotus and Gibbon, you’ll have been cheated out of a great repertoire of comparisons.”

    The problem is that the current generation of college professors (the active ones, not my contemporaries who are looking ahead to retirement) have not read, and do not know these works. They do not teach them because they cannot teach them.

    A contemporary of mine at the U of Chicago describes the problem:

    “. . . the stories of the exile scholars, almost all of them Jews, who grew up in Germany, Austria, France, and Italy during World War I and just after it. They carried out a translatio studii without precedent in Western history–one so effective that it lifted the humanities departments of a good many American and British universities, and the offerings of a number of learned presses, above the level of mediocrity for a generation. None of them is easy to tell, at least in modest space and in a modern idiom. The heroes of these stories were indeed wonder-working sages, men and women who performed miracles in their writings and in their classrooms.

    “The tales of these intellectual giants include dramatic metamorphoses, as writers somehow managed to change not only their addresses but also their languages, and emerged as great writers a second time, masters of a completely different idiom (Arnaldo Momigliano, on a monograph from Oxford on Greek history: “This is the most delightful book about Oxford since Zuleika Dobson”). They all involve intricate questions of discipleship. Around each sage there grew circles of students, large or small, mostly American but also Israeli, British, and French. They sat at their teachers’ feet, won their love and provoked their fury, and sometimes proved that they could emulate their masters’ massive learning and creative energy. Think of the extraordinary cohorts of Renaissance scholars formed by Paul Oskar Kristeller, the art historians trained by Erwin Panofsky, the architectural historians instructed by Richard Krautheimer and Rudolf Wittkower, the historians of the exact sciences taught by Otto Neugebauer–all parallels to the Kabbalistic scholars who studied with Scholem.

    “To tell these stories, we must find our way back into the labyrinthine sunken worlds of art and learning, music and literature, that their polymathic protagonists inhabited. Every one of them benefited from an education unimaginably more rigorous than ours, read the forgotten classics of literatures whose existence is hardly known to us, burned with rage at the pamphlets of forgotten radical sects–and then used the shining, drop-forged tools that they had mastered in Gymnasium and liceo and yeshiva to break every rule and to transgress every boundary. Their mental and moral qualities challenge comprehension now–as they often did in their own day. Gullivers in a variety of Lilliputs, the exiles discovered before they even left Europe that they had the right and the duty to embark on unconventional intellectual careers, in the teeth of family opposition, anti-Semitism, inflation, Fascism, Nazism. How did they know? How did they dare? And how will we convey whatever we can learn of their accomplishments intelligibly and attractively to readers to whom the traditions of Jewish and European learning are an unknown country?

    “These questions have become more pressing in the last decade and more, as the last survivors of this generation have died and their biographies have begun to appear. But they are hardly new. I have been pondering them, in some sense, ever since I came, as an undergraduate, to the University of Chicago. Students there regularly had the opportunity to see and hear famous emigres such as Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, and Hans Morgenthau, all of whom taught at the university. Others, such as Peter Gay and Arnaldo Momigliano, came as guest speakers (Momigliano later joined the faculty). But we also learned directly from others, unknown to fame but marked by the same historical experience–such as Christian Mackauer, the extraordinary teacher whose legendary course on the history of Western civilization came as a revelation to me, as it did to so many others. In our age of politically correct gentility, when we call our students by their first names and fear to challenge their beliefs and their tastes, it is hard to convey what an inspiration it could be when a brusque man who called you “Mr. Smith” or “Miss Jones” slapped you down without hesitation or mercy for misinterpreting a line of Homer or Plato. Even then, it seemed hard to connect these individuals and their experiences with the university world we lived in–and in those days the giants still walked among us.”

    “The Magician” a review by Anthony Grafton of “Gershom Scholem: A Life in Letters, 1914-1982” by Anthony David Skinner, in The New Republic for 03.03.03

    The men who taught the courses in which David Brooks, and Anthony Grafton, read those classics are gone. The time servers who have replaced them teach the “politics of hip-hop” and “gender relationships in contemporary science fiction movies” They have not a particle of the learning possessed by the scholars Grafton eulogizes. It is one thing to want a humanistic education, but it is another thing to get one.

    My baby, now 23 and 6’1″, graduates from college next week. I am heart broken that he has gotten through one of the nation’s most highly regarded universities, at the cost of a nice three bedroom house in our town, without doing much in the way of humanistic study. He did learn something, mostly math that would make your eyeballs bleed, and does have a good job lined up. Perhaps someday, he will figure out what he has missed and make some effort to learn it.

  7. That was a moving comment.

    I think I skimmed over too much in my post – education is beset by many wounds (a good many self-inflicted). A couple of years ago I contrasted the wonderful approach to literature of the people that taught me in the sixties versus the approach of the last twenty years. Much has changed: the kind of education, its purpose, its costs, its “social lilfe.” And then, the institutions have changed, as have the rewards of teaching, the rewards of a diploma, etc. etc.

    My real obsession of late is the absence of men – fewer get degrees and many drop out of the work force after they get them. I think I’m going to use this as a topic for my freshman rhetoric classes in the fall. In the spring when I gave them the topic as an extra credit one, the few who did the paper argued this was just – payback to men for ancient oppressions of women. (Whether they believed that or merely thought it was the appropriate response I’m not sure.)

    If I ever get my damn on-line Am lit course done, I’ll try to put up more thought out and more researched posts. It isn’t that I can posit solutions, but you and our other commentors have something to say. And it is pretty important for the health of a democracy, of its economy and the general happiness of our lives.

  8. Robert Schwartz…thank you, that was interesting and important.

    “the exiles discovered before they even left Europe that they had the right and the duty to embark on unconventional intellectual careers, in the teeth of family opposition, anti-Semitism, inflation, Fascism, Nazism”…a real contrast, I would guess, to the career paths of many present-day academics, who whose choice of career path probably involved approval rather than opposition from their friends and family.

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