I no longer recognize my profession. When I started some 20 years ago, it was in classrooms where students knew how to ask questions, and who knew how to compose narratives beyond a single paragraph. ( Of course, this doesn't mean they all actually did the readings or come to class prepared.) Competition for faculty positions was tough, but it was enough to have completed a doctorate, and have some experience as a teaching assistant. You were judged on your potential.
Now, I can see the progressive devaluation of higher education due to its identity as a status symbol. The proliferation of online universities and for profit universities is astounding. Likewise, the push that all Americans pursue some form of higher education baffles me. There is a reason why roughly 20% of Americans finish an undergraduate degree. It requires a high level of intelligence, self-discipline and curiosity to sustain four years of increasing intellectual activity. America has turned into Lake Woebegon. I see this every term. So many are told that college is the next step and they unquestioningly proceed ahead, only to find they do not have the skills or the talent to acquire the skills. Of course, you are not supposed to admit this to them.
So, they fail class after class. Or the administration dumbs down entry level courses, worried these gatekeeper courses are stopping students from proceeding. Well, they do. They might be moved, in the spirit of social promotion, to the next level, but somewhere down the line, they will be faced with the consequences. And so will we all.
After reading Crazy U by Andrew Ferguson, I have to agree with a family friend who refers to higher education as a business. Ferguson makes a suggestion in the book that higher education is a bubble, like the housing market. It cannot be sustained. I see the push at my own institution for enrollment at the expense of quality. The pressure to fill classes to capacity or beyond is in contradiction to the stated claims of wanting to educate people.
I spend more time teaching basic study skills than I spend on content. The content I do teach is basic level, common ( I thought) cultural and historical knowledge. I barely can get to the actual subject matter. Without the basis study skills and cultural knowledge, the subject matter loses its real meaning. Each term, my classes resemble more and more a 9th grade classroom. Yet, the stakes for faculty rise until the barriers become nearly impossible to scale. A PhD is not enough. One needs books, publications, grants to even get an interview. Yet, the actual level of instruction often does not use the potential of these scholars.
The answer is to refocus educational energies on K-12. Why not raise the value of public school teaching ( salary and credentials)? Few well qualified students wish to go into teaching, and instead, they head for the perceived financially lucrative fields of business and law. In all three professions, we work equally hard and long hours. By insisting that everyone has the ability to complete an undergraduate degree but not making sure they have the basic skills of reading, writing, and computation devalues education.
The joy of learning itself has become a status symbol. A thing to buy. So many ads on television showing how one can earn a degree at night, while folding laundry. It is as if a college education is another smart phone. But the reality is that college education is a time when one is taught to question, to think beyond previous knowledge, to generate creative thinking. Instead, we are shown image after image of people clutching a piece of paper as if that alone is education. You can buy education now.
-- Cranky Cassidy from Carolina