I grew up in a poor, single mother household. My mother stressed to me from a very early age the fact that I would be going to college. It was more than an expectation. It was a fait accompli. The prophecy ending up fulfilling itself and I am grateful to my mother until this day.
Now that I am a teacher, I find myself doing the same thing with my students. I speak to them as if college is a fait accompli. There is no talk about if they go to college, only when they go to college. The high school in which I work has a good track record of getting the vast majority of its graduates into pretty decent universities.
By exhorting my students to go to college, I felt as if I was acting as society’s balance wheel, as Horace Mann might say. It is understood that the children of the wealthy will go to very good universities no matter their intellectual capacity. Why should my students not be held to the same, or even better, expectations?
Many years ago, I had a student that entered my class hating history. By the end of the year, she had told me that I had made her love the subject. She was not lying, since she ended up declaring it as her college major. I used to be heartened when I discovered former students decided to major in the humanities whether it be history, English or philosophy. My goal as a history teacher has always been to cultivate engaged and thoughtful citizens. No area of study does better at accomplishing this than the humanities.
But my feelings about college have undergone a change in recent years. At the start of the Occupy Wall Street protests, its critics sneered that the protestors were just a bunch of lazy do-nothings who majored in Liberal Arts only to find that they could not make a living with their degrees. Indeed, one of the first thoughts that ran through my head when I heard about my former student majoring in history was “what is she going to do with that degree?”
Reading David Brooks’ piece in yesterday’s New York Times only reinforced my pessimism about college. Without intending to, Brooks put his finger on everything that is wrong with college today.
Colleges are supposed to produce learning. But, in their landmark study, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that. The exact numbers are disputed, but the study suggests that nearly half the students showed no significant gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills during their first two years in college.
And then he goes on to say
This is an unstable situation. At some point, parents are going to decide that $160,000 is too high a price if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker.
Brooks is a Neocon who speaks in the cold language of economics. To him, colleges “produce” knowledge and critical thinking skills are something that can be quantified in percentiles. Parents and students are consumers entitled to get the most in return for the big bucks they shell out for higher learning.
Unfortunately, Brooks reflects the way we have come to view college and, indeed, all types of schooling in the United States.
There was a time when America’s institutions of higher learning were the envy of the world. People were able to major in the liberal arts and have assurance that there would be some sort of livelihood to be made from it: teaching, writing, museum work, public leadership, etc.
But one of the impacts of the Neocon coup of the past 35 years is a massive disinvestment of government and private funding for the arts. Fewer opportunities exist to make a living with one’s mind. This has been coupled with massive cutbacks in government support for universities. There was a time when university presidents were eminent scholars with a solid intellectual track record. Now, they are more likely to be business people who can balance the books. One of the ways they do this is through raising tuition rates which, by 2012, have become astronomical.
This also has led university presidents to trim the fat, so to speak. Undergraduate professors are more likely to be underpaid adjuncts. Most importantly, universities market their vocational programs and networking opportunities over of their intellectual rigor. The most popular majors are the ones that guarantee some sort of pipeline to a future career: business, education, public policy, non-profit management, etc. History, English and philosophy are withering on the vine in favor programs that promise credentials and contacts. Indeed, it is considered irresponsible, lazy and unambitious to major in a purely intellectual subject.
How can it be otherwise? If you are going to force incoming freshmen to go into six-figured debt upon enrollment, then it is only fair to try to guarantee them some sort of livelihood that would enable them to repay those debts after graduation.
This is what education reformers talk about when they say they want education to prepare students for the 21st century. We are living in a knowledge economy, an information age, where students need a college education to make them into the types of workers the economy demands.
And David Brooks the Neocon has a perfect way to get the colleges to do the bidding of this brave new economy.
One part of the solution is found in three little words: value-added assessments. Colleges have to test more to find out how they’re doing.
It’s not enough to just measure inputs, the way the U.S. News-style rankings mostly do. Colleges and universities have to be able to provide prospective parents with data that will give them some sense of how much their students learn.
There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t. There has to be a better way to get data so schools themselves can figure out how they’re doing in comparison with their peers.
That is correct, Brooks wants the type of education reform that has destroyed the K-12 system to metastasize to the college level.
In this proposal is the assumption that learning is the responsibility of the teacher. No learning means bad teachers. Value-added data will weed out the bad professors and, hopefully, “punish” them.
Even when students reach the ages of 18-22, reformers do not expect them to take any initiative at all for their learning. It is all on the teachers. Students are just passive vessels. The professors must open up their students’ brains and pour knowledge in.
This is exactly the type of view Brooks has because this is the type of worker of tomorrow corporations want. They do not want workers who are curious enough to seek knowledge or wise enough to know what they do not know. Instead, Brooks wants a college system where students sit there and receive. He wants a system where the professors have to dumb down the curriculum because their students have been trained to tune out anything that is boring or not immediately relevant to them.
David Brooks wants a college system where students are vegetables. These vegetables will go on to be the non-questioning, uncurious workers and consumers of tomorrow.
This is why I used to be encouraged when former students decided to major in the liberal arts. We live in a nation of Fox News, MSNBC and Jersey Shore veg-heads. To speak economically, there is a demand for critical thinkers and engaged citizens. Liberal arts degrees go a long way towards providing our country with the types of citizens we need. As a history teacher, I used to think I had done my duty if I could help inspire even one student to pursue a life of the mind.
Now I am not so sure. Some of my former students might become active citizens who care about the direction of the country and the world. At the same time, they have dug themselves into horrific debt in order to get there. Our society does not value people who live by their minds enough to reward them with high-paying jobs. In short, I fear that I may have been encouraging my students to make themselves into debt slaves.
Our universities are quickly being sacrificed to a regime that seeks to organize every aspect of our lives for us. It is a regime that tells us what to value, who to vote for, what to buy and where to work. The only hope we ever had to fight against this are the millions of people capable of independent thought and action. These are the people who seek knowledge on their own, are able to read books from cover to cover, are able to express themselves clearly and are able to question the assumptions of the age. I had always seen a college education as a big step towards developing the skills to be an independent thinker.
Yet, our universities are becoming little more than vocational training centers whose value is measured in the jobs for which they can credential their students and the networking opportunities they provide. They still cultivate the life of the mind, but it is the closed and passive mind. It is the mind that blames teachers for its own stupidity. It is the mind trained on little more than a steady diet of overly specific, overly technical jargon that has no relevance outside of the vocation one chooses. It is a mind so compartmentalized and boxed in that it is incapable of critical thinking or questioning.
Sure, there will still be liberal arts programs, but these are becoming luxuries that only the very wealthy can afford. Everyone else is forced into a college major that promises to help them repay the obscene debt that must be incurred upon entering.
David Brooks seeks to complete this ominous trend. Through value-added testing, he hopes to compartmentalize knowledge into factoids like in public schools. Its aim is not to measure learning. Its aim is to make college students see themselves as passive vessels. Its aim is to give college students all the excuse they need to stay vegged out. “Oh well, if I don’t do well on this test, the teacher gets blamed. It must be their fault.”
This is because they are not students at all, but consumers. And what are consumers? They are people presented with a choice. They have no right to question those choices or come up with choices of their own. Instead, they must choose from what the corporate masters decide to present to them. Do you want a business, education or public policy degree? Do you want to work with computers or numbers?
And what if someone wants to be a thoughtful and engaged citizen?
Sorry, that is not a choice.
Welcome to corporate college, where you pay through the nose for the privilege of ignorance.