Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cranky Cassidy from Carolina bemoans what academia has become

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


  1. I asked many of the same questions while I was teaching at a technical college here in Canada. Recently, some of them were answered.


    the author refers to this document:

    Except for some geographical locations and certain government references, it describes almost exactly what's happened here and, I gather, other countries.

    What's scary is to see just how far the rot has gone. The system is clearly broken but there are many parties that have an interest in keeping it that way. There are petty administrators who like it that way because it helps them advance in the pecking order. It suits a number of government bureaucrats because the situation matches their oft-warped view of society. Certain "friends" of the government want the system to remain broken because there's money to be made with the status quo.

    After reading it, I'm glad that I'm no longer in the post-secondary educational system.

  2. One particularly obnoxious TV ad from the University of Phoenix shows a woman becoming an astronaut. The voiceover clucks about how the U. of P. doesn't make students take any courses not relevant to their “dream jobs.”

    This is wrong on just SO many levels. For one thing, I rather doubt if ANY graduates of the U. of P. (all 4 or 3 of them) have become astronauts.

    For another, it shows the astronaut-to-be as a young woman looking through an astronomical telescope. Most of my general-ed intro-astronomy-for-non-majors students go through the course doing seemingly everything they possibly can to avoid learning anything. This is part of why most of them can’t write on what was 9th-grade level a generation ago, nor can more than five percent do what used to be 8th-grade math.

    Another problem is that, to justify the expense and risk of putting a human into space, instead of a machine, astronauts need adaptability, which requires a broad education. When Jerry Linenger was filling out his application to NASA, in the box on "Hobbies" he listed: flying, computer hardware and software, electronics, ham radio, plumbing, SCUBA-equipment repair, machining, carpentry, masonry, and drywall. He said he used all of it to stay alive on the ailing Mir space station, except for the masonry and drywall.

    So yes, style has triumphed over substance nearly everywhere in academia. It’s why my dear old Dad retired from high-school teaching when he turned 65, in 1970.

    But then, what opportunities are there for young people these days, aside from college? Almost none of the skills I’ve just listed are taught in high schools anymore. There is the military, but the last war in which America was fighting for its life was in our grandparents’ time. It it’s any consolation, with the way law has become so overpopulated, it may soon no longer be necessary to raise pay or standards to lure good students into teaching. Aside from business, it may be the only place they can go.

    1. I can verify a lot of what you wrote.

      When I was actively looking for a job after I quit my teaching position, I mentioned a lot of the things that I could do on my CV. I thought that, by doing that, I could show that not only did I have a broad background, I was versatile. Unfortunately, I was often interviewed by people much younger than me and I often got blank looks and, consequently, got turned down. When I was their age, someone with such qualifications was highly valued.

      Recently, I became involved with a certain student project at my alma mater. All of the students behaved as if they couldn't tie their own shoelaces unless there was a smartphone "app" for it and seemed, in general, to be clueless about what to do. (It didn't help that their faculty advisor is equally as stunned and doesn't seem to know himself what to do next.) What particularly distresses me is that many of those students were studying engineering.

      It's shocking to see just how low standards in my profession have fallen. When I was the age of those students about 40 years ago and if I had behaved like they did, my chances of finishing my degree would have been slim. Nowadays, I guess it's a case of everybody getting prizes, even if it's simply for showing up.

  3. A succinct way to say this is: In our zeal to be fair, we have created an educational system in which NO ONE is served. Just fucking great.

    1. But isn't the whole objective to make everyone "successful" and feel good about themselves?

    2. Sure, but "successful" isn't the same as successful, in reality. "Successful" means to be filled with a cotton-candy sense of being "special," in a not-very-special way since everyone has to have it. Successful in reality means actually being able to do things, well.

    3. My comment was, of course, made tongue in cheek. "Cotton candy" is an apt description of the quality of education being offered nowadays.

      I remember my early days as an undergrad being shown some seemingly incomprehensible equations (complete with integrals or summations) and wondering how I could ever be expected to know what they meant if I was to earn my degree. By my final year, expressions like those made sense to me and I was amazed that I could even understand them.

      I had to work hard to learn them. By doing so, I gained confidence in my ability to handle difficult problems, something I wasn't sure I could do when I started my studies. But, I had to demonstrate to my profs that I knew not just what those expressions were but how to properly use them and do so to their satisfaction. I had to produce tangible results showing this.

      Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case nowadays. I was told by my last department head not to worry about explaining the principles behind the equations I wrote on the board. "Just show them the formula and how to use it," he said. I kept wondering how doing that could be considered educating my students.

  4. Cassidy (and Frod, and QWV) nailed it, I think. The really sad thing is that it's highly unlikely that students have actually become significantly less able, in some basic/intrinsic sense, in the last generation. Even allowing for the fact that we're all old farts here hewing to the centuries-old "the rising generation represents the downfall of civilization" line, there's something structural (actually, I suspect, many small structural things) going on. One negative-feedback loop of which I'm very aware is that the rising cost of college (not just tuition, which results mostly, at my state school, from decreased state support, but also textbooks, which result from publishers' increasing attempts to "monetize" college students) and increasing (justified) fear of taking out too many loans results in students' working longer and longer hours for pay, leaving them less and less time to actually do college work (which mostly occurs outside of class), putting more and more pressure on already-overworked professors to assign less work, and so on. I do see a possible counterweight to these forces in my (and many other) university's/ies' increasing recruitment of international students (most of whom don't have visas that allow them to work in the U.S.), but that trend brings its own pressures.

    At this point, I'm not sure whether to be extremely pessimistic, or slightly optimistic. Higher ed (and education in general) is either in the process of hitting bottom, and now's the time to buy in (become a teacher, get a Ph.D., etc.), in advance of a cyclical societal reinvestment, or we're all going to hell in a handbasket. My view of which is more likely changes daily, sometimes hourly.

    1. I'd be extremely pessimistic, if I were you. It's popular to dismiss the centuries-old "the rising generation represents the downfall of civilization" line, but the Greek civilization credited with coining it did fall.

    2. It is not the students but the increasing corporate nature of higher education. Look at how so many tenured faculty are being replaced by adjuncts. Yet, the criteria for landing a teaching gig is what used to be the criteria for gaining tenure. Our pay has declined, but the expectations for us to push through students has grown. In my day, getting a degree at an correspondence school ( aka Matchbook University) was suspect. Now, these places seem to be driving the market. ( Of course, there are some good online programs.)

      And MOOCS. The only way to successfully lecture on video is to have high production values, and trained actors, I mean, professors. So, education is turning into edutainment. Can you really blame the kids for expecting class to be 'easy' and 'fun" when that is how it is presented.