Sunday, May 18, 2008

But Is It Education?

So, I've got the angst off my chest. Sniffle. I feel much better now.

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higher education at the undergraduate level, like K-12 education, has become a conveyor belt in which thinking has been replaced by the reflexive desire to treat unequal things equally.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.


Anonymous said...

Excellent entry!

It reminded me a bit of a TA I had in college who could not even speak English. No one in the class could understand him...I think there were about five people left in a class of 100 before they finally got rid of him. After it was too late for those who stuck it out to transfer to another class.

I couldn't comprehend how someone could get a teaching position without basic English skills.

We always blamed it on the fact that professors gained tenure by research, not teaching. But I had mostly excellent professors who went out of their way to assist students.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Dana,

Good to hear from you!

Yes, when I was in college in the seventies, all of my instructors spoke English well, even though some were not born in the US. But today, this has changed. In talking to undergrads at UNM--a major research university--most of the science TA's (with the exception of biology) are from other countries and most do not speak English well. Which means the students and taxpayers are paying big bucks in order to not understand what they are supposedly being taught.

It does boggle the mind!

AnnMarie said...

Regarding points...The problem might be that if you do not treat every student exactly the same, you will complaints. So you have to set up a points system in advance that details exactly what every student much achieve in order to get grade X. If you let one student pass the course due to getting a great grade on the final, but having failed earlier exams, what about the student who gets great early grades by fails later on? You could try to weight the later stuff more heavily to compensate, but that can take a good deal of mathematics to get it just right. And you still might have a student who aces the final but didn't do well on everything else in the course. What if they are just good at tests and not homework? What about the student who isn't good at tests but came faithfully and got good grades on the homework assignments? How in the world do you treat people fairly and equitably and yet keep sane with 50 or more students? (Or even 25 or more, and 3-4 classes to teach, as most profs in my univ do. And that's each semester.

And complaints from students are really serious and can become black marks on your record--even if they are proven wrong because everyone remembers that you had to go through the formal appeal process and they heard the complaints and they start wondering about you.

I work at a university and sometimes teach.

momof3feistykids said...

This is a fascinating post -- a lot to think about here.

Unknown said...

wow. now I am even more nervous about High school & college....LOL.


**I lost all the links to the other hoomeschool blogs I used to read.......

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Anne-Marie, and thanks for stopping by.

I have also taught at the university level, and I do understand your concerns. But I cannot condone the arguments.

Firstly, if the university is truly exists to educate students, then the concern should be directed towards their needs, and not those of the professors. Professors, who after all, have academic freedom unheard of in the K-12 system, have the moral obligation to stand up for their students in the face of bureaucratic incompetence. In most universities, professors may handle grades however they see fit to do so. That kind of power comes with a grave responsibility to do what is proper in order to inculcate the values of an academic institution in the students who are expected to carry on that tradition. I believe that we have been remiss in doing this, bowing instead to political pressures and rewards for toeing the line of conformity. In so doing, we should not be surprised if the taxpaying public loses respect for those very institutions.

With respect to your argument about points: The student who struggles with the material during the semester, but demonstrates mastery on the cumulative final
is a very different kettle of fish from the student who does well at the beginning, but then loses ground towards the end of the semester and fails on the final. The first student has mastered the required material whereas the second one has not shown mastery.
There is nothing unfair about grading accordingly.

In the case of that second student, it would still behoove the professor to meet with the student to go over the exam and help the student see what went wrong so that the student can re-take the course if he so desires, and master the material next time.

On the other hand, the first student would gain nothing from retaking the course as he has already mastered the material, although it took until final exams to do so. To take tuition money from that student for a course he does not need is immoral, although many universities do this in order to generate more tuition income.

I think this is part of what Peterson means by the "Educational-Industrial Complex."

Silvia said...

Thanks for entering this in the carnival!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the food for thought!

Alasandra, The Cats and Dogs said...

A lot of information to digest. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

MosesZD said...

If you let one student pass the course due to getting a great grade on the final, but having failed earlier exams, what about the student who gets great early grades by fails later on?

Many of my professors had a dual-track system:

Your grade was the highest of your cumulative mid-terms (there would be two (or more) including one the last day of class to cover the final material) or your (optional) comprehensive final.