Higher Education Today, Part II

27 Mar

 

 

What Is the Role of Higher Education in America Today?

Observations of an Adjunct Professor

by

Jason Giannetti

jasongiannetti@yahoo.com

Part II

A Crisis of Belief:

Professor Marvel Meets Dorothy

 

 

“All humans, by nature, desire to know.”  So says Aristotle at the outset of his Metaphysics.  This is the maxim with which I try to approach each and every class and each and every student.  No matter the student’s ability or statements to the contrary, it is an empirical fact that all humans not only desire to know but take delight in the act of knowing.  It is bridging the gap between desire and accomplishment that is difficult, challenging, and even, on occasion, painful for the student.  Pathos mathos: to learn is to suffer and to suffer is to learn, as Aeschylus insightfully observed so long ago.  But learning, growing, transforming need not always be painful and difficult.  As Mortimer Adler pointed out (in “Teaching, Learning, and Their Counterfeits”), three of Plato’s favorite metaphors for the educator are: farmer, doctor, and midwife.  All three of these arts apply themselves to natural phenomena that often, left to their own accord, grow, heal, and bear children respectively.  The farmer, doctor, and midwife only facilitate these natural processes.  Without schools, teachers, and external demands, people would naturally gravitate toward learning and knowing.  This is seen most readily in children who, even if they profess to dislike school (meaning here formal education), actually love to learn, so long as it is called by another name, viz., play.  Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, was astute enough to say that one ought not educate people by force or compulsion, but rather by play and games, for play draws out (the literal meaning of the Latin word educare) people’s natural talents.  (Plato, Republic, Book VII, 536f-537a)  When “at play” human beings learn most readily and most enthusiastically; whether this be learning some sort of intricate hand-jive limerick, a sport, a dance, a video game, or the exploration of sex and sexuality.  (The close relationship between learning, play, and sex is made explicit by the Hebrew term that literally means “fooling around” in all the senses of that phrase, mitzchak, and the Biblical euphemism for sex as “to know.”)  All of these are forms of play and all of these demonstrate the players’ delight in a kind of transformative learning.

My point in all this discussion of Plato, Aristotle, and play is simply to say that maybe formal education is not for everybody.  Coercive learning instead of cooperative learning, schooling under duress instead of the original sense of school (skole in the Greek) as leisure, is not a system in which everyone flourishes.  Just because those running the system (the administrators and educators) excelled in the system and at playing the system’s game (for they are the ones who typically spent the most time within the system of formal education) does not mean thateveryone should be forced to operate in that system.

The greatest bane of my role as an educator is grading.  It is not the work that goes into grading that I resent, but rather the whole premium placed on grades by all parties: students and administrators alike.  I am interested in one thing and one thing only as an educator – the flourishing of the student as a human being.  In India there is much fanfare that is associated with the revealing of the sacred icons and statues of the gods.  When the divine images are presented to the devotees, it is understood not only as a holy and beautiful moment, but also as a moment of revelation where something of the god’s essential nature is revealed.  As a revelation, it is a moment of instruction.  But what is crucial is that not everyone comes away with the same revelation, the same understanding, the same knowledge.  It is a fundamental tenant of Hinduism that each person understands what he or she is capable of understanding.  I’ve often thought that that is not only how things work in the classroom, but, more importantly, how they should work.  Rather than hold as the standard of an ‘A’ a certain level of comprehension and demonstration of that comprehension, where all the lower grades are indexed by this standard and measure and the degree to which they fall short of it, I have thought that each student should get an ‘A’ for understanding just what he or she understands as she or he understands it.  In other words, each student should get an ‘A’ for comprehending as best he or she could comprehend that which was presented.  (In this case, one really would earn an “‘A’ for effort.”)  Isn’t that all we really can ask of students?

I mean, once we start making special exceptions for “students with disabilities” (as we have, both by school policies and by law), then isn’t it a form of discrimination to give one student a lower grade than another simply because he or she is, to put it bluntly, more intellectually disabled than another?  Do I really want to participate in that form of discrimination?  Do I want to give advantages to “bright” students because they have been given an unfair advantage by God or nature or genetics, or what have you?  (Not to mention that given the economic and social inequities of the population and the vast inequalities built into the primary and secondary education systems based upon disparities in funding of school districts, certain students will excel simply due to having been lucky enough to be born into privileged families and communities.  Thus, the grading system is unfairly weighted to advantage the privileged who are privileged merely due to an accident of birth.)

But, you might say, people are not equal and life isn’t fair and the intellectually meritorious should excel at the intellectual game just as the physically talented should excel and be promoted on their athletic teams.  That is all true, I reply, but the big difference is that the people on the athletic teams, supposedly, are there voluntarily – because they like the game and have opted into it.  But because of the way our system of education is structured people are not voluntarily playing this game.  College has gone from being a relatively unusual pursuit to an almost universal expectation, and if not an expectation, then a requirement for employment – even at jobs for which a college education would make the employee overqualified.

I will say it again: a four year undergraduate college education is not for everybody.  Some people are simply better served by going to a trade school or no college at all.  In most other parts of the world this is the norm, but in America from the end of WWII to the present, we have created a social and cultural expectation, almost akin to a right, of tertiary education.  As Joe Klein succinctly said, “[Bill] Clinton managed to gain. . .  more than $30 billion in new tax credits for higher education; in effect, this made the first two years of college a middle-class entitlement.”  (Klein, The Natural, pp. 159)

Thus, as a result of this new “entitlement” mentality, a number of negative consequences inadvertently made their way into the system.  First, Americans, students, professors, administrators, and parents alike began to view college as a right – not just “a rite of passage,” but literally as a right that adheres to one by the simple fact of birth in the US.  This view informs my chair person’s sentiment that we have a duty to keep students off the streets and in college.  It also informs students who mistakenly equate paying high tuition dollars at a low ranked institution to the purchasing of a passing grade without the concomitant effort involved in earning such a grade.  This attitude of entitlement fuels the increasing phenomenon of “helicopter parents” who hover over their college-bound child and demand to be informed of their child’s performance from the professor despite federal laws protecting the students’ privacy (“Family Education Rights and Privacy Act” or FERPA).  Though the Supreme Court may proclaim that dollars equal freedom of speech, dollars do not equal a good grade, continued enrolment in college, or the right to know if your son or daughter is coming to class on time.  Lastly, and most perniciously, this sense of entitlement also seems to translate in the popular mindset that anyone and everyone deserves to go to college.  Though I firmly believe that college should be an opportunity for everyone no matter one’s financial situation, we all need to come to the realization that not everyone is right for college.

Though college is not for everybody and there are systems where it is perfectly acceptable, if not required, for students to be tracked into professions, trade schools, or “gymnasia” (as the liberal arts high school programs are called in parts of Europe), the down side of those evaluative approaches is that for many young adults the college years are a period of tremendous personal development and growth where many do find their calling or find that they hear calls to fields that prior to college they didn’t even know existed.  Shuffling underperforming kids from high school off to trade schools or into jobs (if they can find them) does many a disservice as well.  I count myself as one of the numerous students who languished in the primary and secondary grades because unmotivated and underchallenged, but flourished in college once the responsibility for excelling, choosing my courses, and finding my way was put on my shoulders.  Were it not for that opportunity and the support from my professors I may have never found that I had a talent for intellectual pursuits at all.

In America we do not track students into a pigeon hole.  But we do rely to an inordinate degree on standardized testing – for primary and secondary students, as well as for college entrance exams and even graduate schools.  There are serious flaws in all standardized tests, as has been demonstrated by study after study – flaws of cultural bias, flaws of lowest common denominator, flaws of weeding out the most interesting and creative thinkers.  But despite all the mountains of data discrediting the methodology of standardized tests, they still have yet to be debunked by those who rely upon and pay dearly for them – schools, colleges, and universities who demand them, and the students who wish to be accepted by those colleges and universities and so pay a premium to take the test (not to mention to take prep courses for the tests).

Those standardized tests attempt to insure a certain level of competence.  They are entrance exams, doorkeepers, the first hoop of many more to follow.  But, as my experience has shown, such bars (and I use that term in two senses of the word – a “bar” as in a minimum standard, and a “bar” as in a barrier) do not always successfully prove ability, nor do they always identify talent.  Yet, there they stand like the Guardian of the Emerald City’s gates saying “Prove it!” to all who claim to be qualified to enter.  The demand to prove their merit for entrance through symbolic letters (grades) and certain numbers (test scores) is akin to the proffering of certain talismanic objects (ruby slippers).  It is the display of credit in which people place credence such that certain institutions are deemed accredited by other accrediting institutions that others find credible.  The root word of all these related italicized words is the Latin: credere – “to believe” or “to have faith in.”

Accreditation is a double edged sword.  On the one hand, it is the demand by accreditation boards that college degrees mean something that hampers professors’ abilities to distribute ‘A’s across the board and just naturally let those interested and able rise to the occasion.  Were we to employ that sort of grading technique, those who really weren’t interested (or who thought they weren’t interested) would soon stop coming to class and stop doing the work, and ideally those who were interested in learning for learning’s sake would show up for class having done the reading, with earnest papers in hand, and ready to engage in discussion.  But if we do that then the ‘A’s significance becomes degraded.  The institution’s reputation becomes questionable, the accreditation board becomes suspicious, and most importantly, graduate school admissions departments and employers look with skepticism on the G.P.A. of applicants from that institution.  On the other hand, under the current system there is the pretense of standards, rigor, accountability, and uniformity, but the reality, as I explained in part I, is that these standards are often undermined by unprincipled practices, the rigor is replaced by remediation, accountability is undone by “mutual non-interference,” and uniformity of grading is highly irregular from professor to professor and institution to institution.

What do I see as a solution to these didactic dead-ends?  I think that for the vast majority of students and educators business will and even should go on as usual.  Accreditation boards, degree requirements, credit hours, GPA’s, admissions committees, curriculum committees, academic standards and honesty policies, non-for-profit institutions alongside for-profit institutions, liberal arts colleges and trade schools, distance learning and brick-and-mortar classrooms, accelerated programs, and the entire edifice of higher education today will continue on the power of its own inertia as if nothing has really changed.  But, just as the Roman Empire seemed to its inhabitants to endure the degradation of the barbarian invaders who gradually eroded it and dismantled its institutions piecemeal, so too will the name and form of education persist, but without the substance averred to by the titles it bestows; like the Wizard of Oz passing out hearts and medals and diplomas professing to confer special powers, but in reality they are but the traps and suits of the titles they claim to be.  The real power is contained in the faith that believes in the outward symbol, the credit bestowed upon sign and the authority vested in the institution that confers the signifier.  But that authority is only authoritative by virtue of the credit conferred upon it by the willing recipients of its magnificent titles.  In the end it is all but a house of cards, smoke, and mirrors built upon the will to believe.

But, since all humans desire to know, those who truly have a hunger for wisdom will seek out and find within and without the institutions of learning the food upon which they can feed.

This situation has, in my mind, its historical precedent: China’s Confucian exam system of the Ch’ing dynasty.  American (and Western) culture is just now approaching the height of an intellectual meritocracy based upon the administration of standardized testing; a bureaucratic form the Chinese practiced for hundreds of years and that reached its pinnacle in the 17th century.  The major difference between the Chinese system and ours is that in the former the exams were administered directly by the state, in the latter we have created a public and private tertiary educational system to mint the new Mandarins.  Unlike the Chinese system, however, our system does not siphon out the less apt in order that the cream can rise to the top for the State, but rather, in our system “college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation. . . .  [L]ibral education is the elite type of college education: it’s the gateway to the high-status professions.”  (“Live and Learn: Why We Have College,” by Louis Menand, The New Yorker, June 6, 2011, pp. 78-9)

Though there are numerous other differences in content and structure between the Chinese system and ours, the important parallel for pedagogical comparison is that the rigid, formalistic, high-stakes testing in China led to a backlash of free-thinking, original, creative, intellectually curious, and rebellious intellectuals who rejected the Confucian ideals and hierarchical bureaucracy in favor of the subversive Taoist and Buddhist counter-culture.  Perhaps the inadequacies of our current culture’s curriculum crises will similarly lead to spiritual, artistic, and joyful salves in similarly surreptitious sources of wisdom.

Incipit vita nova.

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