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.