January 18, 2011

College: The Uncivil "Right"

At a Martin Luther King Day event hosted by Al Sharpton, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that education is “the civil rights issue of our generation” and the “only way” for young people to pursue the “American dream.” A CNS news article on the speech is available here. A pdf download of a related article by Charles Murry is available here. An article on college student learning is available here.

Duncan also said that he was hopeful because “...for all the challenges we have faced, we have the solution here and the President has drawn a line in the sand. He said by 2020 we have to again lead the world in college graduates. We are not going to get there unless many more young people of color are part of the solution unless, until we’re giving them those kinds of opportunities there’s no way to hit the President’s goal.”

Well. Calling education a “civil rights” issue is plainly silly and diminishes the significance of the struggle to secure genuine civil rights, past, present and future. America has always recognized the importance of education and has, since before the founding of the republic, established a system of free K-12 education in recognition of that importance. No one is being systematically denied the opportunity to obtain that free, public education. Nor are “young people of color,” academically capable and determined or not, being denied elementary, secondary and college educational opportunities. In fact, quite the opposite may be reasonably and successfully argued, reducing Mr. Duncan’s comments on this matter, particularly considering the venue, to mere pandering.

To this point in his administration, Mr. Obama has concentrated on belaboring the utopian idea that everyone should attend and graduate from college--ideally at government (taxpayer) expense. To that end, he used the vehicle of ObamaCare to federalize the entire college student loan industry. If he does indeed intend everyone to attend college on the federal dime, federalizing the student loan industry would be a necessary prerequisite, a prerequisite far more necessary and compelling than proven student suitability for college level study and success. Such federalization becomes even more essential if one intends to pick winners and losers in the college funding race, particularly if those winners are to be members of politically favored victim and/or lobbying groups.

There has been, of late, a great deal written on the “higher education bubble,” due to the growing realization that a number of unfortunate trends in higher education are undeniably yielding their unintended consequences. Among them are:

(1) Decades of Affirmative Action have encouraged students who are not academically prepared for genuine college-level work to assume large loan burdens only to drop out of college after a year or more of frustrating, unproductive effort.

(2) Various state and federal incentives have attracted students who, in the past, would not have considered college, and who, like unprepared minority students, commonly drop out with onerous debt burdens and without obtaining a degree.

(3) The glut of unprepared, unqualified students has filled college coffers, but has also required the hiring of a ultitude of remedial reading, writing and math tutors to allow the unprepared to have the most minimal chance of keeping their heads above ever-receding academic waters.

(4) Many colleges and universities have slowly but surely dumbed down their curriculums and graduation requirements. The establishment of “studies” departments and degrees has contributed to this degradation of academic rigor.

(5) More and more, a college degree is no longer a guarantee of financial success, or even of increased earning power, particularly for those with degrees in the various “studies” pseudo-disciplines. Even those with law degrees are often finding the employment picture bleak.

At one time, an employer could be relatively certain that a job seeker holding a college degree had a predictable, minimum base of knowledge, proven academic ability, the ability to reason and write, and a certain degree of responsibility and perseverance. This is no longer true, and it probably has not been true for longer than colleges would like to admit. Today, possessing a college degree might indicate no more than that its holder had sufficient time and money to muddle through a watered down program of study, a program that took five or six--or even more--years.

At present, approximately 25% of the population earns a college degree. Even at that level, virtually everyone knows a number of college graduates who apparently learned little or nothing during their college years. I don’t speak only of those who majored in waking up in pools of their own vomit, but people who managed to obtain a degree with bare minimum grades and multiple attempts at passing core courses, even watered down courses.

In fact, a study of more than 2000 college students of traditional age followed them through a four year course of study (2005-2009). NYU Sociologist Richard Aram is publishing the results in his book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” which will be available this month (see the link at the beginning of the post for a related article). Among the findings: During the first two years of college, 45% made no improvement in critical thinking, writing and reasoning skills. After four years, 36% made no significant gains. Unsurprisingly, the study revealed that the most serious students who devoted the most time to their studies, particularly those who studied alone, received the greatest benefit from their college education.

And now for a bit of public heresy: Most people simply aren’t smart enough to be successful in genuine college-level classes. By successful, I mean earning acceptable grades, passing every class, and gaining substantial knowledge and growth from the experience. There is a reason only about 25% of the population possesses a college degree and that reason is, at its heart, one of intelligence. Charles Murray, in his compelling essay “Intelligence and College” (a pdf is available at the link at the beginning of this post) argues convincingly that an IQ of 115 is the minimum IQ necessary for genuine college success. Absent that level of IQ, students will find themselves struggling merely to avoid constant failure. Such students may eventually graduate simply because they’re not quite bad enough to consistently fail in their writings and other college endeavors, but they--and society--might well be better served if they pursued other career choices.

Even as I write these words, I can hear the cries of outrage in a citizenry steeped in the culture of self esteem. As a teacher of high school English and a veteran of military and civilian police work, among the first things I tell my students every year is that I care nothing at all for their self-esteem, but I do care about their self respect. Having high self esteem means nothing more than thinking highly about oneself regardless if those feelings have any basis in objective reality. I knew many criminals with unbounded self esteem, yet they were among the most wretched human beings I ever had the misfortune to meet. If you left your mouth open near them, they’d try to steal your teeth. Self respect is earned, earned by continuously judging yourself based on external criteria such as societal expectations and norms and the expectations and needs of the significant people in your life, people such as parents, teachers, ministers, supervisors and employers and spouses.

The self esteem culture that has contributed to our educational problems. Once a teacher or school accepts the idea that if students regard themselves highly, they will mystically, magically become high achievers, all manner of mischief can, and does, occur. Feelings rather than achievement become the accepted standard of performance. The dumbing down of curriculum becomes a foregone conclusion. Students are not allowed to win--at sports and academically--lest someone’s self esteem be bruised. Grade inflation becomes the norm, and unqualified students in college demand high grades merely for showing up most of the time and making the occasional, cursory attempt to do some work.

Our national educational schizophrenia is perhaps best reflected in the comparison of intellect with athletics. While many shrink in horror from the idea that some people are simply smarter than others, that they are, due to their genetic endowment, their work ethic and their upbringing, far more academically capable than others, they have no difficulty at all in accepting the reality that some people are far more athletically capable than others and for the same reasons. We waste not a moments concern for those whose self esteem might suffer because they will never play in the NBA, the NFL or in major league baseball, yet we agonize over kindly and responsibly informing people that they are likely not well suited to play in the big leagues of academia.

I don’t argue for one-size-fits-all policies or practices. There is no doubt that some people below the 115 IQ line can, through determination and hard work, obtain a college degree and arguably benefit much more from that experience than students with greater academic potential who don’t trouble themselves to work hard or fully avail themselves of the opportunity for learning and growth that college can provide. No one who truly wants to give college their best college try should be prevented from the attempt, but there is nothing wrong with helping them to understand the reality of the difficulties they will face versus the potential payoff for those years of effort.

And this is where Mr. Duncan and Mr. Obama do a great disservice to those they supposedly serve. College is simply not for everyone any more than the military, plumbing, welding, designing fashions or singing opera are for everyone. Having a higher percentage of college graduates per 100,000 of population than other nations is a vain, meaningless bragging point that does not help the nation economically or intellectually. Yet, considering the progressive tendency to see people only as members of easily quantified, dependent victim and lobbying groups rather than individuals with individual strengths and goals, individuals who depend upon themselves rather than governmental largess, it’s understandable. And despite the irrational economic theories of progressivism, there is not enough money in the world to bankroll college for every American citizen, even if there was a career that legitimately required a genuine college education awaiting every graduate. There is not, and there never will be.

Federalizing all aspects of college is yet another Obama attempt at the federalization of American life. It, like all other such attempts at tyranny, benefits only our would-be masters--the self-styled intellectual elite--and the enemies of freedom, internal and foreign. It breeds debilitating dependence on the nanny state rather than empowering independence and the growth of those who produce rather than consume wealth. One might reasonably believe that this, not the welfare of individual American students, is foremost in the minds of Mr. Obama and Secretary Duncan.

Ultimately, perhaps Mr. Duncan should concentrate on enforcing the greatest American civil right: The right to be left alone by government.

Posted by MikeM at January 18, 2011 07:18 PM

the problem with the US education system isn't so much volume of graduates, as volume of failures.
And with that I don't mean (just) the massive number of dropouts (most of which are kids who should never have reached that level or type of education.
All the hundreds of thousands or millions sent to colleges who'd have been far better off in professional education, learning a craft or trade as an apprentice rather than floundering in academia way over their mental skills.

And of course the massive degradation of the value of a college education that has over the decades resulted from the dumbing down of the college curiculum in order to increase the percentage of these kids graduating anyhow.

Posted by: JTW at January 19, 2011 07:06 AM

Jackson is only a few decades behind the times. The newspaper this morning is reporting that college graduates rarely learn anything in college. Greek systems, party colleges and HBC's have reputations of producing graduates who know even less after 4 years then they did when they entered. The exceptions are degrees in hard sciences at schools with reputations for scholastic excellence.

Brown vs Board of education was decades ago. The schools are equal and very well funded, even in rural areas, yet Black children performance continues to fail nationwide.

Jackson wants more free money to help kids get free degrees. But he can't make them learn anything.

Posted by: Professor Hale at January 19, 2011 03:01 PM

This piece is pretty much on the money. I've worked at a university for well over 20 years and have seen much of what this author has talked about.

Posted by: TW at January 19, 2011 08:57 PM

This brings to mind an old saying - 'You can take a horse to water, but you can't make it drink'.

Posted by: REB In Raleigh at January 24, 2011 08:41 PM