And while surfing the homeschooling blogosphere, I happened upon an interesting post by Dana over at Principled Discovery about higher education and what has been termed the "educational industrial complex" by none other than Paul Peterson, Harvard's Education Policy and Governance chair.
I have had some grave concerns about the differences between my own college education, and the college experiences that my daughters' generation is having. I have thought for a long time that such universities have neglected undergraduate education and have forgotten their mission to truly educate students at that level. In my experience listening to and mentoring young people in college, I have learned that the university bureaucracy, which is mitigated for the sake of graduate students, has become a daily ordeal for undergraduates; sucking up their time and their money, it often costs them extra semesters of study to get their degrees because of adminstrative lack of concern and sheer, unadulterated incompetence. Harsh words I know, and certainly not applicable uniformly upon all adminstrators, and yet how else does one explain advisement by administrators rather than professors, or the frequent, repeated loss of paperwork?
But in my opinion, what is even more damning in the 'Educational-Industrial System' is the lack of understanding by those who ought to know better about what teaching really means at the level of "higher" education. Instead of being a mentoring process that nurtures and challenges young minds, higher education at the undergraduate level, like K-12 education, has become a conveyor belt in which thinking has been replaced by the reflexive desire to treat unequal things equally.
And we all know the result of such an education for conformity:
In talking to young students that I know and mentor, I hear stories on a regular basis of upper division classes being taught by first-year graduate students, many of whom do not know the content they are expected to teach the students with no supervision from professors. I hear tales of professors who refuse to meet with students that want to know why they did poorly on exams and papers. I have heard of professors who spend class time discussing their political views and thereby making short shrift of the content the students have paid to learn. In the eyes of many of the young people I have talked to, therefore, a college education has become a series of hoops to jump through as efficiently as possible rather than an opportunity to participate in the Great Conversation of our culture.
Being in an academic setting, I have heard professors lament that "students these days" do not care for the knowledge that they could take home, but only for the points needed to make the grade and graduate. But I seldom hear these professors lament the lost opportunities to teach their students to think differently. The undergraduate system is set up in such a way that students must care about points more than knowledge.
Among many university professors, there seems to be an attitude that "raising standards" means acting as gatekeepers to diplomas, rather than mentoring students to help them achieve their best work. This spring, a number of students, some of whom are academically quite talented, were refused graduation under rather unreasonable circumstances. For example, a student who choses a difficult and challenging course for this last semester of the college career, and who struggles with the material early on, may earn an A on a cumulative final and still fail the course.
During my college days, such a thing would not happen. A professor who is truly concerned about students would consider that, yes, the student struggled at first--but the learning curve is logarythmic--rising slowly at first, and then reaching an inflection point and then taking off to heights previously unattainable. (This is how Dr. Reiter, my P-Chem professor explained it to me when I wanted to drop the course back in 1980). If you aced Dr. Reiter's cumulative final, you would pass the course, even if you had flunked a test at the beginning. This was so not because he was giving an undeserved grade. Nor was it because he did not care about "standards." It was because a person who can ace a cumulative final has mastered the material in the course and has earned a passing grade. So I was taught--mentored--by my old chemistry "prof" not to be afraid to take difficult courses and learn very difficult material.
Students now are afraid of the hard courses. And with good reason. Lose one too many points out of the total, and no matter how much one may have learned, it doesn't matter. A person could have spent much money and lost many opportunity costs, only to come out with nothing except the label failure after four years.
When I was responsible for student grades as a graduate instructor for genetics, I thought of it this way. Two people climb a mountain. Maybe one starts out at a different point than another, and encounters a more difficult course. That one slips, slides, groans and gets back up, trying another way. And maybe another. Both reach the top of the mountain. Both has "mastered" the mountain. But which one knows that mountain better? It may very well be the one that struggled, and fell numerous times, scraping his knees, losing skin from his hands on the ropes. That one left pieces of himself on the mountain and received pieces of the mountain into himself. Likewise, it is the student who struggles who often knows the content of a difficult course the best.
These are the students who, like Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman (z"l), (who almost did not complete his Ph.D.), often have the most contribute to the field. Thank goodness Feynman had a mentor who did not dismiss him as a failure; instead he entered into a discussion with him, and they walked it through to completion.
But what of the Feynmans of tomorrow? They cannot afford to risk four years, all the money and opportunity costs, and thus may play it safe and do what is easy and predictible.
And those who do take risks may very well be labled failures for the very characteristics that give them the most to contribute to their fields.
Yes. It's still college. But you can hardly call it an education.