Higher Education and Lower Standards
Arnold Kling describes a situation familiar to any who have taught college courses in the past several decades:
Out of over 100 students in my class at George Mason, no more than a handful could function in any capacity in a job that required writing a memorandum. Over half of the students are utterly incompetent when it comes to grammar and syntax. They have no ability to communicate complex ideas.
Whether this was true in the days when university education was reserved for an elite few is hotly debated. Certainly, though, today’s professors spend a lot of time complaining about the preparation of their students for college and most view the secondary education system in general and our high school teachers specifically with disdain if not contempt.
Unfortunately, they help contribute to the problem, as Kling’s next sentences reveal:
Yet I do not fail these students. I feel that I must reserve my F’s for the students who do not turn in papers at all.
I fear that many of the students who pass will go on to earn Wizard-of-Oz diplomas, which signify nothing. Students will claim to be educated, but employers will know otherwise. The phenomenon of the Wizard-of-Oz diploma has discredited the college degree.
When I was teaching, I reserved my zeros for students who did not turned in papers at all. F’s were for work that I judged failed to meet the demands of the assignment commensurate with the level of advancement of the course (that is, I had lower expectations in introductory courses than for senior seminars); D’s were for poor work, C’s for mediocre, B’s for above average, and A’s for outstanding. Then again, I am no longer teaching.
Kling’s practice is much more in line with the expectations of the system, while mine amounted to tilting at windmills and was quite possibly unfair given how others were grading. Still, professors can not simultaneously give passing grades to students who fail to do college level work and then bemoan the fact that they graduate with meaningless degrees.
In a blog post pointing readers to this TCS piece, though, Kling hits the nail on the head: “My impression of George Mason is that there is a disconnect between the faculty and the admissions office. The faculty think in terms of a rigorous liberal arts education, and the admissions office takes in students who would be best served by trade schools or community colleges.” Whether that’s true in the Ivy League and other truly elite institutions, I couldn’t say. It was certainly true at the state institutions at which I taught, however.
While the classic model of a distinguished professor with leadership skills taking stewardship if his school by serving progressively as department chairman, college dean, university provost, and then president is still followed at many places, it is increasingly being replaced by a bureaucratic model where people with degrees in “Higher Education Administration” or some variant get hired on in the admissions department or some other staff function and move up the ranks to the presidency. College presidents are increasingly fundraisers with little connection with the academic life of their university.
The consequences of this are manifold but the most ironic one is that our universities are being run by the same type of people who have ruined our high schools. They infect their institutions with the mantras they learn by rote in the Schools of Education, which all agree aggregate some of the dumbest students and professors on campus.
These “educrats,” as I have dubbed them, are mostly bean counters who view students as customers to be served rather than young minds which they have been entrusted to forge. I am much less concerned that they are giving students more suited for trade school a chance at higher education than that they have set up a system where they are expected to be given a degree regardless of whether they can do the work.
The tenure and promotion process at state institutions does anything but reward rigor in teaching. Professors are “evaluated” by students, who tend to resent being challenged, preferring instead to be entertained. Further, the “publish or perish” system, where even professors teaching very heavy loads without the help of graduate assistants are expected to crank out articles for journals that few will actually read. One of the easiest ways to square that circle is to stop assigning term papers and essay exams, which are not only incredibly time consuming to grade but then require explanation and debate; it is far easier to give “objective” multiple choice exams that can be run through a mark sense reader.
Kling is right when he argues that we should deemphasize credentialing and encourage more people to bypass or postpone university education. In the meantime, however, it would be nice if professors would take back control of their institutions, boot out the educrats, and start demanding more of their students and themselves.