Monday, November 23, 2009

Why college may not be such a good idea for everyone, any more

A number of interesting articles in recent days have highlighted the problems being experienced with the US higher education system.

George Leef asks: Does a college education build human capital - or are students just marching in place?

Human capital means the mental toolkit a person has—the stock of knowledge and skills that enable him to produce and solve problems. We benefit from accumulating human capital just as we benefit from accumulating physical capital (tools); both increase our productivity.

We augment our human capital through learning. That fact leads many people to jump to the conclusion that schooling necessarily adds to human capital. After all, when students take classes in grade school, then high school, then college, they’re engaged in learning. So the more time people spend in education, the more human capital they acquire.

. . .

Are we sure that students who attend (and perhaps graduate from) those school gain in human capital?

I don’t think so. Human capital gains occur when an individual improves his mental ability; when his learning enables him to better think through problems, produce value, communicate, evaluate options, and so on. Unfortunately, at many colleges and universities, students can easily pass courses with just the mental toolkit they possessed in high school. Yes, they briefly learn enough about subjects to pass their exams, but they could do that before. Short-term learning isn’t the same as improving your mental capacities.

Let’s put it this way: passing a college course no more indicates a human capital gain than just going to a gym indicates an improvement in physical fitness.

To get through college, many students don’t have to become better at reading, at writing, at math, at logic. Sadly, the key consideration at many colleges is not educational excellence or even modest progress, but simply enrolling and collecting tuition from as many students as possible. Therefore, course content has been watered down and expectations lowered so that even the weakest and most disengaged students can pass. As Steve Balch, founder of the National Association of Scholars says, “We don’t so much have higher education these days, as longer education.”

. . .

Taking college classes isn’t the only way to learn useful things. For many young Americans, it isn’t the best way and it’s a costly mistake to push them into college if they aren’t prepared for or interested in academic pursuits.

There's more at the link.

Via Al Fin, we learn of another very interesting article by Frank Furedi, who points out that 'in flattering kids as ‘digital natives’ for whom the past is irrelevant, we degrade a vital adult mission: transmitting knowledge'. It's long, but very worthwhile. Some excerpts:

Although education is celebrated as one of the most important institutions of society, there is a casual disrespect for the content of what children are taught. Curriculum engineers often display indifference, if not contempt, for abstract thought and the knowledge developed in the past. Both are criticised for being irrelevant or outdated; only new information that can be applied and acted on is seen as suitable for the training – and it is training and not teaching – of digital natives.

In policy deliberations about education, the acquisition of subject-based knowledge is often dismissed as old-fashioned. Typically, an emphasis on the intellectual content of classroom subjects is labelled an outdated form of scholasticism that has little significance in our era. Policymakers often represent change as an omnipotent force that renders prevailing forms of knowledge and schooling redundant. In such circumstances, education must transform itself to keep up with the times. From this perspective, educational policies can be justified only if they can adapt to change.

Since they are likely to be overtaken by events, classroom innovations by definition have a short-term and provisional status. The instability that afflicts the education system is turned into the normal state of an institution that needs to be responsive to the uncertain flow of events. Although fads come and go, the constant feature of today’s throwaway pedagogy is a deep-seated hostility to teaching academic subjects to young people, especially to those who come from disadvantaged socioeconomic groups. So-called modernisers regard the subject-based curriculum as far too rigid for a school system that must adapt to a constantly changing world.

. . .

In the worldview of the educational establishment change has acquired a sacred character that determines what is taught. It creates new requirements and introduces new ideas about learning. And it encourages the mass production of a disposable pedagogy. Educationalists adopt the rhetoric of ‘breaks’ and ‘ruptures’ and maintain that nothing is as it was and that the present has been decoupled from the past. Their outlook is shaped by an imagination that is so overwhelmed by the displacement of the old by the new that it often overlooks historical experience that may continue to be relevant.

The discussion of the relationship between education and change is frequently overwhelmed by the fad of the moment and with the relatively superficial symptoms of new developments. It is often distracted from acknowledging the fact the fundamental educational needs of students do not alter every time a new technology influences people’s lives. And certainly the questions raised by Greek philosophy, Renaissance poetry, Enlightenment science or the novels of George Eliot continue to be relevant for students in our time and not just to the period that preceded the digital age.

. . .

The fetishisation of change is symptomatic of a mood of intellectual malaise, where notions of truth, knowledge and meaning have acquired a provisional character. Perversely, the transformation of change into a metaphysical force haunting humanity actually desensitises society from distinguishing between a passing novelty and qualitative change. That is why lessons learned through the experience of the past are so important for helping society face the future. When change is objectified, it turns into spectacle that distracts society from valuing the truths and insights it has acquired throughout the best moments of human history. Yet these are truths that have emerged through attempts to find answers to the deepest and most durable questions facing us, and the more the world changes the more we need to draw on our cultural and intellectual inheritance.

. . .

One of the key tasks of education is to teach children about the world as it is. Although society is subject to the forces of change, education needs to acquaint young people with the legacy of its past. The term ‘learning from the past’ is often used as a platitude. Yet it is impossible to engage with the future unless people do draw on the centuries of human experience. Individuals gain an understanding of themselves through familiarity with the unfolding of the human world.

The transition from one generation to another requires education to transmit an understanding of the lessons learned by humanity through the ages. Consequently, the main mission of education is to preserve the past so young people have the cultural and intellectual resources to deal with the challenges they face. This understanding of education as renewal stands in direct contrast to the present predilection to focus the curriculum on the future.

Again, there's more at the link.

Al Fin comments on Furedi's perspective:

If the parents are able to spend enough time with the child in the early years before school, and if they are able to supplement the child's official schooling with an authentic education provided at home and under the direct supervision of the family, the child will likely turn out fine. But most parents are too busy working for the tax collector and the bill collector to provide a child with a quality, meaningful contact education. And so the child is thrown to the experimenters.

Change is, undeniably, an everpresent condition of life -- particularly young life. But for the health of the child's mind it should be a background condition, not a foreground condition. If perverse educators and curriculum planners push the idea of "change" to the forefront, it too easily becomes a euphemism for meaningless emptiness and void substituted in the place of the deep and vital truths that all children must learn to create their own meaning within themselves.

Modern pedagogy assumes that this will happen on its own -- or they assume that if teachers of the proper ideology control education from top to bottom, the child can be set on the (politically) correct path by means of proper indoctrination.

But indoctrination is not education, and it has nothing to do with the deep morality that every child must learn -- regardless of the presence or absence of any religion in his life. The overriding emphasis upon political and ideological indoctrination combined with the fetish of "change" leaves an empty mind, a change zombie.

It is happening at all levels of education. It is reflected in our culture, in rampant political corruption. The widespread abandonment of books and solitude. The irritated dismissal of deep meanings that require more than a minute or two to absorb. The susceptibility to emotional pitches from well-cadenced politicians with speechwriters who understand the necessity of a short-attention-span appeal.

There is change, and there is meaningful change. The difference is lost to modern professors and graduates of university schools of education, but it is a critical difference. Most of the change that the young experience is meaningless, because they are moving from nowhere to nowhere. Meaningful change is moving from a significant somewhere to another significant somewhere.

But children are never given the opportunity to get anywhere -- they are pushed, twitter-like, from one distraction to the next without significant meaning ever setting in. Curriculum designers and educators are themselves lost in distraction, drifting in turbulent currents, having burned all their navigational charts as a demonstration of their independence of thought.

It is an ongoing tragedy of the wide-scale destruction of mind potential. It is simply how things are done in the age of change. Throw in a dash of hope for good measure. Better than nothing....

(If Al Fin isn't on your daily reading list, may I strongly suggest that he should be? He offers interesting, challenging and endlessly stimulating perspectives on many aspects of modern life.)

All thought-provoking articles, and highly recommended for anyone with any interest in higher education today.



Jenny said...

To the first part - depends greatly on your courseload I think. For a standard liberal arts curriculum - that was indeed my experience. Hardly any growth to speak of, aside from the first steps away from mumsies and daddies. I daresay my wiser friends who went into the hard sciences had a distinctly different perspective.

To the second -
The problem with ideology-based education is that once the kids grow up and get out into the wider world and realize the extent to which you were shading the truth, they'll doubt everything you say for all time.

That goes as much for the rah-us! cowboys and indians days of the 50's as it does for the "we suck and are trashing everything" education we 70's/80's kids got... in fact there's a good case to be made the former led directly to the latter I think.

The problem with humanity is that one can't *help* but teach from an ideological position, at least once you leave the purest of pure mathematics.

And given how we as a people have managed to politicize both biology and meteorology, I'll not be overly surprised if someone figures out how to politicize algebra. :)

Anonymous said...

As an older student returning to school to upgrade my skills and get a degree in a slightly different discipline, graphic design,I find I agree wholeheartedly with this understanding of today's watered down style of teaching. I am constantly amazed at how often I am handed a book, told read it, do the assignments, answer the questions put up online (usually confusingly hard to understand and often can have a double answer) and then the teacher just checks scores. I do this mostly online now cause I see no reason whatsoever to attend a college an hour one way drive from my home.
Mostly I am finding myself teaching myself. No lectures, no encouragement, no idea flow between students, you barely see others work unless you make the effort to go look online at it which cant take time constantly clicking the way they have it set up on the servers. I get more viewing done surfing online web sites.
I find myself bored, and wondering why am I paying $700 per class to read a book and have the equivalent of a button pusher check my scores on some test? I learned you don't have to be an artist to become a graphic/web design artist. It became painfully apparent to the younger college students that they lacked in any kind of basic design, color theory, and layout sequence instruction. I had already been through commercial art and illustration school and my work was much more advanced. Yes I have been in the work force for a short time but having the first college time under my belt really made the difference. Mostly we learn how to use computer programs, not much else. make a box, color it, make some letters etc.
And now I learn they want us to learn mathematical statistics. I can't yet see an application for this kind of math, most returning students have not used algebra in some time even a few years of non use makes a difference so you don't test well in their system. Either I get a tutor to get me up to speed, at my expense or spend yet another year and a half after my first 2 years in a 2 year college struggling to get through their math requirements. My friends are failing most of this, must be the way the classes are taught and many are jubilant to receive C's and D's! I cannot believe this! I guess grades matter for nothing anymore, just slide through, get a piece of paper to prove you went to a college.
Even my technical computer friends are failing math here or struggling to get D's which amazes me.
Most of the the classes I have attended are older students having to find new work and are learning new skills but they are bored too wondering when things will actually become challenging.
Frankly I am having a cakewalk through all this except for math, and I think I found a college that actually offers graphic design classes that are more realistic not another 4 semesters of math that does me no good on the job. I am thinking of transferring and finishing this but I feel totally unchallenged with the current colleg. I can do better at home alone with a book. I may just go learn animation by myself and not bother with the extremely slow learning times at the schools. I just don't have time anymore. I need to get out there and find work not spend lots of money and time taking unrelated classes to my profession.
I took psychology as my required humanity because it has some bearing on advertising and I actually felt challenged by that class.
I think the reason I keep hearing people at the companies I have worked at say "why do all these artists look exactly alike? Do they even know what makes for good graphics"? No, they know how to paste things in Photoshop and move things around on a web page.
Yes I think the schools are all about protecting themselves, preserving themselves and teachers salaries. Look Relevant! Or we won't get that next federal money being passed out!