“An Anti-College Backlash”

My colleague posted this article, by “Professor X,” a private and community college professor: “An Anti-College Backlash?” (The Atlantic, Mar. 31, 2011)

Oh, there’s so much going on here. I can’t address all of it right now, but here’s a start:

[F]our-year college is perhaps not for everyone. Rather, for a growing proportion of students, the report contends, internships, apprenticeships, and vocational training would be far more beneficial.” And then later, “[F]inancial columnist Michelle Singletary writes, ‘I’ll be honest. I think if college students and their parents have a harder time getting loans, that’s a good thing. Perhaps now more people will stop and consider the long-term implications of taking on so much of this so-called good debt.”

So for whom would internships and vocational training be more beneficial? People who can’t afford college. The truly brilliant would often still be able to get scholarships, but the merely above-average without money would likely go the vocational route, whereas the wealthy with the same intellectual caliber would go to college. I haven’t seen anyone explain how to get high-level white-collar careers to result from vocational tracks (with the possible exception of computer programming, which at least ten years ago was a new enough field to make a career without a degree; not sure about now). That’s pretty elitist. The solution can’t just be to tell people “avoid debt”; we have to give people without financial means a fair shot at any career they’re capable of. That is the American Dream.

[A] new book by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, makes the case that students at elite colleges are being left to fend for themselves while their impressively credentialed professors take constant sabbaticals and leave the actual teaching to inexperienced assistants.

Yes! Let’s blame those fat-cat teachers some more. Those “impressively credentialed professors” are impressively credentialed because they spend their time on what higher education values: research and publishing. Research and teaching are different jobs with different skill sets, but “elite colleges” tend to make one the condition of the other. Don’t hate the players, hate the game.

I was expected to coax critically reasoned research papers from students who possessed no life of the mind at all: young and not-so-young men and women who didn’t read and thought not a whit about ideas.

This is a problem. But it goes back to the elitism issue — do these kids simply lack some sort of “intellectual gene,” or is it more that they haven’t been raised to exercise those parts of their brains? Is it possible that — gasp! — an education system based on high-stakes testing and one-size-fits-all standards might not encourage intellectual rigor and curiosity? Is it possible that kids whose parents work long hours to make ends meet, who come from dangerous home environments, who attended poorly funded schools, might be less well prepared for college than those who avoided those challenges?

It’s not higher ed’s responsibility to take unprepared kids and turn them into academics. But we’re all part of one education system, and we need to be working together. If the goal is to “leave no child behind,” we need to have a national conversation about what that means. We can’t have secondary schools just shooting for basic reading and math proficiency, university academics who want to turn out more professors, university business offices that want to enroll as many students as possible, and a President who talks about “winning the future” but doesn’t seem to get that that involves something more systemic than sending scientists in to inspire students at the occasional assembly. And we absolutely can’t go back to the days when higher education was a “solipsistic” “four years of intellectual crunches and sets and reps” for the wealthy elite.

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6 Responses to “An Anti-College Backlash”

  1. A concerned unemployed says:

    I am glad someone is talking about anti-college as a topic because for a very long time, actually for about 32 years of my life, I am very anti-college because of a great number of reasons why I find college not useful for most of us or at least a few of us. You see, I am now 47. I do not have a college degree. I am glad I do not because of my faith in God that I am well-talented (please respect my first amendment beliefs that college is not a very good method of teaching someone to be something they are not). Because of that, I do not believe in college education when you had a childhood talent built up so strong that you do not need college. The problem is that today, companies especially those who are elites are already “college” brainwashed hotshots as I call them. They held their noses high and think they are outsmart than average American Joe who did not go to college. Maybe but you have to look beyond textbooks and what teachers say. It is up to the person him/her self that they are educated by years of self-taught. In this case with me, I am well talented since age 8 with creating IFS for a snowmobile a full 7 years before Arctic Cat Trail Cat, the first IFS snowmobile. What I did not know about copyrighting and patenting at that young age but still, I had no money at age 8. My father had has money even this day as a retiree. He owned a sheet metal business that he did not pass down to any of us. Now, listen to that! How can I make money as an 8 years old at the time. How about living on Social Security? I left out of this is that I am Deaf. See. I knew alot of Deaf people who went to college and never got the job they seek for even before you can say, “It’s Bush’s fault” ranting began! Yeah, I am talking about a good 25 years ago!

    I am so well talented that I should have been sitting in that chair where Ralph Gilles at Chrysler or the Chair J. Mays used to sit at Ford or even the chair Roger Skime sat at Arctic Cat.

    What RIT did back in 1988 was very wrong to discriminate against me because I am Deaf? I am going to name him no matter what to stir controversy. His name is Ed Lincoln who discriminated against me. I am glad RIT fired him 3 years later because I was not only one being discriminated.

    I was accepted at an art college because I felt “forced” by the companies to go. However, I could not afford to go because I was living on Social Security and my parents would not pay for living, and I could not get loan. Only a full scholarship that I must start paying back on first day of class. That college was shocked to find out that I am Deaf. Yes, they were unaware I was Deaf and that showed me they could have discriminated against me. This was 12 years ago. I was unable to afford to live on my own in a city where that college is (not local), and I would have to pay for a regular housing since the waiting list was like 3 years to live in a subsidized housing. You see, socialism is not a good answer. That is another whole subject to talk about but here, its about college. Because of lack of funds, I was unable to go. It does not make any sense if you are taking any form of art including industrial design, product design, etc. They say they look at the portfolio, NOT the college education but then they say you have to have a degree. They are talking BOTH sides of their heads so I decided not to take a degree because they said you do not need to.

    I even tried to go “lower” by taking autocad drafting design adult career training, a vocational training which I believe everyone should take, not college. Why should I take biology if I am going to learn how to do drafting? Why should an artist major take math courses for? Why should a medical doctor take his residency by taking drawing 101 for? See my point? College needs to stop with all silly courses and focus on career training. NOT arm-chair education.

    Now, did I find a fulltime job in autocad drafting design? As I expected, this is 10 years without a full time design or drafting job after I took autocad drafting design and graduated with a Certificate? That Certificate is equal to 2 years Associates Degree due to number of training hours.

    So, to this day, I am still anti-college. If I have a lot of money, I would establish my business and hire employees only by LOTTERY system. Similar to the draft. I will pick a postcard of a candidate who submitted for a position with my company after meeting talent requirement, not college education then he/she will be hired.

    Pay will be the same as those who earned BS/BFA or up.

    I will not take my risk to go back to college and I will never ever take silly courses I feel it is not suitable.

    The hell with colleges. If I am going to have kids, I am not going to let my kids go to college. They will work for me and earn that way to gain my business.

  2. Sam says:

    Greg — That’s really interesting. Have you actually seen a pattern that private school students do worse in your classes? I would be very surprised to hear that. From 10 years of private high school experience (as a student and a teacher), I can say I’ve found schools that “coddle,” that “[don’t] require them to get very educated and [make] them spoiled and lazy,” to be by far the exception. (And for that matter, private school students are usually not required to take the state standardized test, so preparing them for that is not the goal.)

    I would never argue that everyone should get a guaranteed win. I think you’re absolutely right about the problems that causes. But the idea this country has that public school is the great equalizer is a sham, given that a) public schools are largely funded by local taxes, and b) students are products of their home and community, not just their education.

  3. Sam says:

    Allen — Exactly. I should have started by saying, “I agree that shuttling everyone through a four-year degree is a misplaced goal.” There’s a lot of value to a traditional university education, but by no means for every career. But as you say, I didn’t get the sense (from this article anyway) that the author had thought through all of the pieces.

  4. Allen says:

    To be fair, there are a lot of valid points to be made in the article’s general line of criticism. And the article goes for breadth instead of depth. On the other hand, the same could be said for your response, and I think you do a better job. :)

    The biggest problem that I saw in the article was a lack of perspective in the broader issues that are tied into higher education. Wanting to provide broader educational opportunity for the less economically privileged? No real recognition. Changes in economic stratification so that non-professional jobs no longer provide a middle-class existence? Cuts in state and federal aid which moved the financial costs of education from the shared tax base to individual student loans? Colleges providing value as networking opportunities as opposed to academic education or vocational training? These and others are issues that someone making a critique of higher education should be aware of, and I didn’t get the feeling that the author has put enough thought into them.

    The end result is that I think the problems with academia pointed out in the article are mostly valid. But because of the lack of a big picture, the analysis of causes of the problems and the solutions presented are way off-base.

    (Oh, and in the comments at the Atlantic, user kindasorta wins the internets.)

  5. Greg says:

    A response from a college professor.

    Sam, you make many good points, but I do have a criticism: In response to a professor’s complaint about his students’ “life of the mind”, you write, “Is it possible that kids whose parents work long hours to make ends meet, who come from dangerous home environments, who attended poorly funded schools, might be less well prepared for college than those who avoided those challenges?” In this instance, you’re the one who is making assumptions about the role financial status plays in education. My observation is that it is often the well-off kids who struggle the most in my classes in this regard, or that at least there does not appear to be a high correlation between financial status (as perceived by me) and reasoning skills. In fact, I believe that the richer students have often had their way paid through fancy high schools that coddled them and still didn’t force them to do any thinking. They may have been better prepared to take the state standardized test, but, as you acknowledge, that’s not the same thing as being taught the “life of the mind” we’re talking about. Yes, plenty of students are losing out on educational opportunities because they can’t afford it, but plenty of other students can afford to pay for an education that doesn’t require them to get very educated and makes them spoiled and lazy in the process.

    I also question the goal of “leaving no child behind”. I agree that every child deserves opportunity. I don’t believe every child deserves a guaranteed win. “Everybody gets a ribbon” breeds unwillingness to think and compete as well as a belief that everyone has to get along and be safe and happy, beliefs that cause serious problems when the real world starts intruding (I could tell you some stories along these lines related to a certain organizational entity you and I have in common).

  6. Matt E says:

    All good points. I wish all of the stuff I posted elicited thoughtful commentary like this from someone!

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