Today I received an e-mail informing me that the “Faculty Advisory Council (FAC) to the [name of state-wide university system redacted] Strategic Directions committee has posted a NEW survey to gather faculty input into the strategic planning process,” and asking me for my input on said survey. This became the occasion for another of my frequent reflections on the sad state of higher education. I’m not sure the Faculty Advisory Council will find my responses particularly useful, but at least I found it therapeutic to write. And what’s the point of spending all that time writing a rant about the sad state of higher education if I don’t share it more widely than with some committee which will instantly dismiss it? Here, then, are my survey responses, with just enough quotations from the actual survey to provide context:
The relevant instruction: Please evaluate each topic area in light of what is necessary to enhance the [name of state-wide university system redacted] system.
Topic Area 1
Degree Attainment Goals Responsive to State Needs. This area includes: developing goals responsive to current and future workforce needs and the state’s changing demographics; assessing degree offerings in the context of current workforce requirements and anticipated state needs…
All discussion of degree attainment goals must include simultaneous discussion of academic quality goals. The current nation-wide push towards performance-based assessment and funding too frequently reduces discussion of “performance” to wildly inadequate measures such as retention and degree attainment while ignoring the commensurate need to evaluate actual learning outcomes: Producing graduates with degrees means nothing if those graduates do not actually possess the knowledge and skills which their degrees are supposed to represent. Any performance-based assessment/funding model driven by measures of retention and graduation rates *without* including any measures of actual learning outcomes will by its very nature generate very strong incentives for lowering academic standards — the surest way to increase retention and graduation rates. In the absence of counter-incentives, university funding becomes wholly dependent on producing students with diplomas, and as a consequence such a university must eventually become no more than a diploma mill.
I also think we must be cautious about reducing “workforce needs” to oversimplified claims about the majors of our graduates. Yes, [state redacted] probably needs more nurses, and fewer lawyers. However, we must never forget that the primary and inescapable need of every democracy is an educated, engaged, critical-thinking citizenry — and that the primary responsibility of all educators is to help satisfy that need. An appropriate quotation I’ve seen often of late comes to mind:
“We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and “success”, defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”
― Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
Less idealistically, surveys of employers consistently reveal that a majority of employers are more concerned about general qualities rather than specific job training for most positions they hire for, citing desirable employee qualities such as: problem-solving skills; the ability to work independently; the ability to think critically; effective oral and written communication skills; and basic numeracy. Most importantly, employers say they want employees who have learned *how to learn*, so that they can pick up the specific knowledge and skills needed to perform a given job, specifics that are almost never part of any academic program or major. These are all exactly the qualities that a broad liberal education is intended to inculcate, whatever the particular major — so let us not be misled into thinking that “responsiveness to state needs” requires us to set target numbers for specific majors, aside from recognizing the need to provide specialized training in certain technical fields like medicine, information technology, etc.
Topic Area 2
Strengthen Academic Quality. This area includes: strengthening admissions standards and university policies governing satisfactory academic progress; increasing focus on preparing graduates with the core competencies needed to success; improving academic advising to reduce enrolled time to degree; identifying the most effective ways to assess and assure student learning; and enhancing the use of technology in the classroom and in distance education opportunities.
According to nearly every bit of research and analysis of higher education in the U.S. I’ve read for the past several years, generating a higher proportion of college-educated adults — especially (but not exclusively) in STEM fields — is considered a vital component of our future prosperity. If one of our goals is to increase the number of college graduates, we must increase the number of college students, so we cannot raise our admission standards across-the-board: Admitting MORE students necessarily means letting in more students who are less qualified than students we currently admit, unless American high schools start producing better-qualified students on the whole (which is not, sadly, something we have any real influence over). Our emphasis on academic quality therefore cannot focus over-much on the quality of our incoming students, but on how well we educate ALL the students we admit, even those who are less academically prepared for college.
Absolutely every honest person who has investigated the issue ought to admit that the single most effective way to improve the quality of education — to assess and assure student learning, to ensure that students actually acquire the core competencies required for success in their chosen field, to strengthen academic quality across-the-board — is to lower student-to-faculty ratios, both across the whole university and on a class-by-class basis. There are no technological fixes for having too few educators for too many students, and no plausible substitute for educators simply having more time and energy to spend educating each student by virtue of having fewer students.
Similarly, every honest person ought to admit that students don’t take longer to graduate than they did 10 or 20 years ago because they are inadequately advised, but because more and more undergraduates spend more and more of their time working at jobs other than being a student — because the cost of higher education has skyrocketed at a pace far exceeding inflation. Again, there is not and cannot possibly be any substitute for students actually having more time and energy to be students.
On every front then, the only effective way to substantially improve academic quality — and, therefore, improve meaningful academic achievement (rather than meaningless diploma attainment) — is to fight the long-standing, ongoing diversion of state funding away from public higher education. Any and every other method for strengthening academic quality is naught but smoke and mirrors.
Topic Area 3
Maximize Efficiencies. This area includes: continuing ongoing academic program review to eliminate unnecessary duplication and low-productivity programs; developing cost-effective tools and collaborative strategies to broaden convenient access to online courses and other distance education programs across the university and state; encouraging and implementing more shared services in areas where costs can be reduced and services improved; and strengthening space utilization practices.
My response (which cribs from something I said the last time a university committee asked for my opinion on such matters)
The massive defunding of higher education in the United States over the past few decades — in every state, although better in [state redacted] than in many states — has resulted in non-stop demands that public university administrators and faculty “do more with less,” year after year after year: If there truly ever was a time when increases in efficiency, redirection of resources to teaching from less central tasks, and other transformations of how we do things could improve student education even while reducing budgets, that time has long since passed. I can think of several ways I could improve my teaching this semester — more feedback on assignments, for just one example. But since I typically work on course preparation, in-class teaching, grading, and other basic teaching duties 50-60 hours a week as it is, I cannot imagine where I would find the time and energy to generate more meaningful and detailed feedback on assignments. (Hence my discussion of the importance of lower student-teacher ratios for academic quality above.)
In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, John Marsh argues with great clarity and insight that, as the title of his essay declares, education is not an economic panacea. I say his article is clear and insightful, and I’d go even further to say that the conclusions he draws are correct — but that there is a broader sense in which he is wrong.
While Marsh’s essay is well worth reading, it is also long — and since my own remarks won’t make sense without context, I’ll try to avoid tl;dr-inspired confusion by quoting the key paragraphs of Marsh’s conclusion:
Within the last few years, a number of critics have begun to challenge our unexamined faith in “college for all,” as one economist has put it. Unlike those critics, mostly conservatives, I do not argue that too many students are going to college (Charles Murray), that the United States has overinvested in higher education (Richard Vedder), that more young people should enter the trades rather than attend college (Murray, Vedder, and Matthew B. Crawford), or that since college teaches “few useful job skills,” a degree, as the economist Bryan Caplan puts it, merely signals “to employers that graduates are smart, hardworking, and conformist” (Murray, Vedder, Crawford, and others too numerous to mention). Nor, as other critics have begun to argue, do I believe that a college degree has ceased to offer a good return on a young person’s investment of time and money. As nearly every economist and journalist who has studied this manufactured controversy has shown, college continues to pay off. Even those like me foolish enough to major in English or some other supposedly irrelevant humanities or fine-arts discipline still earn, on average, more than those with only a high-school degree, and more than enough to offset the costs of tuition and forgone earnings needed to earn a degree. Indeed, today the starting salary for someone with a degree in English ($37,800) is higher than the average income of all those, including older and experienced workers, with only a high-school degree ($32,000).
Yet we find ourselves in an unusual position. The advice we would offer every halfway intelligent young person with a pulse—go to college—is not, I argue, counsel we can offer a whole generation of young people, let alone adults like those who might have enrolled in the Odyssey Project. An is (“Education pays”) is not an ought (“Everyone ought to get an education). Some people may escape poverty and low incomes through education, but a problem arises when education becomes the only escape route from those conditions—because that road will very quickly become bottlenecked. As the political scientist Gordon Lafer has written, “It is appropriate for every parent to hope that their child becomes a professional; but it is not appropriate for federal policy makers to hope that every American becomes one.” As Bryan Caplan has also put it, “Going to college is a lot like standing up at a concert to see better. Selfishly speaking, it works, but from a social point of view, we shouldn’t encourage it.”
Unlike others who argue this point, however, my concern is not with the inefficiencies that come from everyone standing up to see better but, rather, with the injustices that result. That is, my concern is with those who cannot stand up, those who, because of lack of ability, lack of interest, or other barriers to entry, do not or cannot earn a college degree. Insisting that they really should is neither a wise nor a particularly humane solution to the problem those workers will encounter in the labor market.
Nor is it a particularly feasible one. The U.S. economy, despite claims to the contrary, will continue to produce more jobs that do not require a college degree than jobs that do. A college degree will not make those jobs pay any more than the pittance they currently do. As some of my colleagues from graduate school could confirm, a Ph.D. working as a bartender earns bartender wages, not a professor’s salary. What will make those bartending and other jobs outside the professions pay something closer to a living wage—if not a living wage itself—constitutes, to my mind, one of the major public-policy challenges of the 21st century. Education, however, is not the answer.
In terms of educational and economic policy, we may have even put the cart in front of the horse. As it stands, we seek to decrease inequality and poverty by improving educational enrollment, performance, and attainment. A good deal of evidence, however, suggests that we should do just the opposite. Only by first decreasing inequality and poverty might we then improve educational outcomes.
And how, I challenge Professor Marsh, do we decrease inequality and poverty? The unrelenting growth of poverty and inequality in the United States over the last 30-plus years are the product of federal legislation, executive branch policies, and judicial decisions all purportedly intended to accomplish other goals, but which have in fact contributed to the trickling-up of prosperity to the top fraction of a percent of the population at the expense of the overwhelming majority. I could name many of the most harmful of these legislative, executive, and legal policies with ease: The inch-by-inch gutting of the National Labor Relations Board until unions have been all but neutered, no longer able to protect America’s workers from unrestricted corporate greed. The push for financial industry deregulation that not only allows but encourages modern robber barons to destabilize our economy for their own massive profit, with any costs redirected to the rest of us. The continued corruption of the political system by money, which has degenerated to the point where the position that money is speech and corporations are speakers on par with individual citizens is enshrined in law by Supreme Court precedent. And so on and on, indefinitely and appallingly.
The point of such a list is not simply to bewail how we got here from there, but to emphasize the fact that inequality and poverty are the direct (and indirect) consequence of public policy decisions, not some inevitable consequence of natural laws that public policy is helpless to prevent. And those policies are originated and enforced with the assent, or at least the acquiescence, of the American citizenry: We elected the legislators who passed these laws; we elected the presidents who enacted these policies; we elected the presidents who appointed and legislators who confirmed the judges who warped the Constitution beyond all recognition to protect those policies.
And why do citizens consistently elect those who betray them? Why do citizens again and again embrace the most outrageous lies of right wing demagogues who blatantly mislead them about what our most pressing problems are (stopping gay marriages and legislating mandatory pregnancy won’t help our floundering economy) and how they might be solved (spending cuts in a recession only worsens the recession and do nothing to create jobs; tax cuts for the rich have demonstrably and repeatedly failed to trickle down any benefits to the poor and middle class)? Why do citizens believe the implausible, unsupported, feel-good lies of purportedly left wing demagogues who talk about change but actually engage in more business-as-usual (illegal detention, torture programs carried out in secret bases in third world countries, unconstitutional invasions of privacy, and more of the same economic policies that have created the current crises)? Why, in other words, does the citizenry of the United States of America as a whole continue to be complicit in and supportive of their own destruction?
The answer, I think, is ultimately simple: Because they don’t know any better. For the most part, they don’t even know that it is possible to know any better, or how one might come to know any better. And the citizenry’s ignorance is not simply a matter of failing to grasp basic economics (although that is certainly the case) or lacking any real understanding of how government works (although that’s also true). The real problem is that it’s exceedingly rare for anyone to leave our education system — primary, secondary, and higher education, public or private — with any genuine skill in or even real exposure to critical thinking. Even those who do learn the basic tools of critical thinking — scientists, for example — are encouraged to apply those tools only in narrow and increasingly specialized contexts. By and large, anyone who manages to acquire the skills and the habit of critical thinking in a broad way does so more in spite of their education than because of it. To put it bluntly: We are, as a nation, an ignorant and gullible lot.
If bad public policies created the current situation, only better public policies can get us out of it — and those better public policies are not in the narrow, short-sighted self-interest of the plutocrats who currently hold the reins of power in this country. Those better public policies, therefore, only have a shot at being enacted if the citizenry actually recognizes and uses their ability to take the reins of power away from those who currently wield them for their own exclusive benefit — and our citizenry is, as a collective, clearly too ignorant and deluded to elect better leaders and hold those elected leaders accountable. (If you don’t believe me, check out the statistics on how overwhelmingly likely incumbents are to be re-elected no matter how unpopular Congress as a whole is during a given election cycle.) If we want better governance, we need a better citizenry — and a citizenry that is better in a very particular way: a citizenry that is capable of seeing through bullshit, capable of grasping and advancing their own best (individual and collective) interests. A citizenry, in other words,with the capacity and the will to think critically. We need a nation of doubters, not a nation of believers.
Of course, critical thinking is not a cure-all for ideological and emotional blinders of various sorts — but the lack of it guarantees the inability to see beyond those blinders. People without the skills and habits of critical thinking are ill-equipped to recognize emotional manipulation, rhetorical misdirection, and outright lies for what they are. As Thomas Jefferson would and did tell anyone who would listen, a well-educated citizenry is the foundation of a successful democracy — and he was right. We can only save our nation by fundamentally transforming public education into a process which not only teaches critical thinking skills in some narrow sense, but which inculcates an entire generation with the habits of asking tough questions and not settling for easy answers,
Unfortunately, our education system is also a product of public policy — and it has suffered immense damage in the past three-to-five decades, both as an indirect consequence of the growth of poverty and inequality and as a direct consequence of attacks deliberately intended to undermine it (like the misleadingly named No Child Left Behind act). From kindergarten through graduate school, the American education system has become increasingly structured in ways that enforce habitual conformity and acquiescence to authority rather than encouraging habitual doubt and questioning authority. (I’m not saying American education didn’t always have some tendencies towards enforced conformity and authoritarianism — it surely did. I merely contend that the tendency has been greatly exacerbated by education policy.) The corollary to Jefferson’s stance on education is that a mis-educated citizenry — in our case, a citizenry that has been willfully and deliberately mis-educated to a significant degree — is the foundation for a democracy on the road to disastrous failure and collapse.
Depressingly, I don’t have any answers. I don’t think widespread education reform is possible in the current corrupt and degraded state of our democracy, and I don’t think significant improvements to the current corrupt and degraded state of our democracy are possible without widespread education reform. Nevertheless, I think Marsh is wrong in a broader sense. He may be right that education is not the panacea for economic problems in the particular context that he addresses. But education IS the panacea for economic and other social problems in a broader sense. A genuinely educated citizenry — not just citizens who know more stuff, or who are better trained in specific job skills, but citizens who can truly think for themselves — would never put up with the self-serving, short-sighted, socially destructive policies that our elected officials (Republicans AND Democrats) have been inflicting on us for decades.
Eventually, when they are oppressed and humiliated for long enough, even the most ignorant and deluded populace will revolt against a sufficiently onerous burden of poverty and inequality. But those revolutions rarely result in a better society, as history amply demonstrates: Robespierre’s French Republic, Lenin’s (and later Stalin’s) Soviet Union, Iran’s current theocracy. As physicist and thoughtful political cynic Mano Singham commented earlier this very day, I cannot pretend to predict when or how this country will collapse in an ugly fashion — but I have little hope for any other outcome.
And on that cheery note, I will conclude today’s somewhat rambling thoughts.