Friday, November 18, 2011

The education gospel debunked?

An extremely insightful and thought-provoking review of four different books criticizing the "education gospel":
Education is as close to a secular religion as we have in the United States. In a time when Americans have lost faith in their government and economic institutions, millions of us still believe in its saving grace. [...]

The American education gospel is built around four core beliefs. First, it teaches that access to higher levels of education should be available to everyone, regardless of their background or previous academic performance. Every educational sinner should have a path to redemption. (Most of these paths now run through community colleges.) Second, the gospel teaches that opportunity for a better life is the goal of everyone and that education is the primary — and perhaps the only — road to opportunity. Third, it teaches that the country can solve its social problems — drugs, crime, poverty, and the rest — by providing more education to the poor. Education instills the knowledge, discipline, and the habits of life that lead to personal renewal and social mobility. And, finally, it teaches that higher levels of education for all will reduce social inequalities, as they will put everyone on a more equal footing. [...]

[...] According to the new restrictionists, [...] access to higher education may have gone too far. Our colleges and universities are full to the brim with students who do not really belong there, who are unprepared for college and uninterested in breaking a mental sweat. Instead of studying, they spend time talking on the phone, planning social events, chitchatting about personal trivia and popular culture, and facebooking. Faculty members demand less of these students, [...] both because they are incapable of doing more and because they will punish faculty members with bad evaluations if they are pushed to try harder. The students often consider courses that require concentration “boring” and “irrelevant.” They argue and wheedle their way into grades they do not deserve. The colleges, out of craven financial motives, do not squarely face the fact that not all of their students are “college material.” Worse, they cater to ill-prepared and under-motivated students, dumbing down the curriculum to the point where a college degree is worth less, in terms of educational quality, than a degree from one of the better high schools. Institutions at the tail end of academic procession are, as David Riesman once put it, “colleges only by the grace of semantic generosity.”


Thanks to the new restrictionists, we have become familiar with worrying statistics on the surprisingly lax requirements of college today. On average, students socialize more than 40 hours a week but attend and prepare for class only 26 or 27. Only half of the sophomores in a recent study said they had had a class during the last term that required them to write 20 pages or more during the term, and one-third said they had taken no class that required them to read as much as 40 pages a week. Even among English majors in the University of California, half say they do less than 80 percent of the assigned reading in their courses. If English majors do not read, what can we expect of business or communications majors? The answer is, not much. Nearly two-thirds of all UC students said they do less than 80 percent of the reading for their classes.
Professor X, the nom de guerre of an English composition adjunct instructor toiling in the bottom reaches of academe, is easily the best writer among the new restrictionists [...]. Professor X’s students are nurses, firemen, and claims adjusters. None have any literary interests, and very few know how to compose a clear paragraph, much less an arresting essay. Nor do they appear to have the ability or drive to learn how to do so, in spite of X’s spirited efforts. They are in college because they need a credential to obtain a job or to move up in their current one. They take his classes because they have to pass English composition to earn their degree.

X’s standards are not particularly high. The fundamental principle is that writing “should not wobble”: “We expect our houses to be plumb, our tables solid — why not our paragraphs?” And yet his students write sentences that wobble and collapse. Many have read fewer than 10 books in their lifetimes. They have never studied grammar. Adherence to the sloppy, elliptical language of texting and tweeting has become an acceptable way to hide the fact that these students are not capable of composing adequate English sentences. They do not know how to use revision to come closer to the quality and depth of good writing because they do not have an archetype of good writing in their minds. As X notes, such an archetype is created over the course of a lifetime, not in a 15-week semester.

X is scandalized that his students are going deeply in debt for an education that is not particularly useful to them, and from which many will not emerge with degree in hand. He rails against the “magic” business model of colleges and universities: Assure your students that a college degree is required for any decent job (whether the education they receive is related to the work they will eventually be doing or not) and pave your school’s way to riches. If all this sounds a bit like the housing bubble and crisis — unscrupulous lenders promoting the aspirations of ill-equipped borrowers — it is no accident. The housing crisis provides the touchstone, and catalyst, for In the Basement; X stumbles into adjuncting as a way to pay the mortgage on a house that he and his wife wanted but could not afford. He is sensitive, therefore, to the analogous plight of students: In X’s eyes, colleges are as guilty as the mortgage lenders of gulling hapless consumers into taking on too much debt for a shot at the American Dream. But the consumers are also guilty of expecting easy terms and believing that the value of their investment will always appreciate. Like the American Dreamers who helped fuel the mortgage crisis, these students want to believe that their small scholastic capital is sufficient to allow them to qualify for decent grades. The colleges don’t want to say no to anyone, so they try to find merit, even where it doesn’t exist. [...]


Left to its own devices, [John Marsh] argues, expansion of the educational system will produce not social equality but credential inflation: the condition in which higher levels of education (or distinctive brands of education) are necessary to “buy” standards of living previously associated with lower levels (or generic brands) of education. As workers attain the bachelor’s degree, middle-class incomes become associated with the attainment of master’s or first professional degrees, and access to truly powerful opportunities requires attendance at an elite institution.

[...] People want to believe, and they see no alternative to belief. When our leaders tell us that everyone will need at least a bachelor’s degree in the post-industrial future, very few of us will say, “Do you mean the people who clean the homes and mow the lawns of professionals?” — if only because none of us want to think of ourselves as those people. Instead, one-third of Americans think they are in the top few percentiles of income, or soon will be. We may no longer be the land of opportunity, but we often seem determined to remain the land of credulity.


Heretics often offer penetrating insights about the flaws of dominant doctrines. They are usually less perceptive about the limitations (or dangers) of the alternatives they favor. The new restrictionists run the risk of forgetting about the problem of inequality and further privileging the privileged. Romantic dissenters do not often require the complement of deep knowledge and discipline on which adult creativity also rests. The “fool’s gold” school has no concrete plan for erecting a just social system in which workers are paid a living wage, non-corrupt labor unions are encouraged, and the wealthy are taxed enough to support decent public services. And “true educators” live in a rarefied world of one-on-one tutorials and private education, one that, however inspiring, is utterly divorced from the contexts in which most teachers actually work.

~"The Educational Lottery: On the Four Kinds of Heretics Attacking the Gospel of Education", a side-by-side review of four books, by Steven Brint (in Los Angeles Review of Books)

HT: Arts & Letters Daily

No comments: