31 October 2011

Resuscitating Higher Education

Here's my term paper for my Theory of Teaching Writing and Literature class from my second-to-last semester at LMU. It won me $100 at the University Writing Awards and an edited version got published in a school literary journal. This isn't my final, amazing, perfectly polished draft, and spacing/italicization may have been hurt by my copy/paste, but it should all still certainly be fairly readable. Enjoy.

Robert Montenegro
13 December 2010
Dr. Aimee Ross
English 565: Theory of Teaching Writing and Literature

Resuscitating Higher Education

“Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of graining their livelihood… Their object is not to make skillful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings.”
-John Stuart Mill
(Murray 75)

“We Americans distrust smart people.”
-Terrance MacMullan
(MacMullan 58)

American society has outgrown stuck-up tweed coat intellectuals and needs a new breed of academic leaders to galvanize a Higher Learning community that has fallen into disrepair. The bar with which we as a society measure academic aptitude has been placed so low that students with no avid interest in learning are able to waltz out of college with a degree they would likely not have earned (or at least not have earned as easily). While some may laud the fact that college has become more accessible to the masses, the truth is that the establishments that should stand as safe havens for America’s intellectual curiosity have regressed to farcical levels. As they are now, American universities are more like four-year summer camps than institutes of Higher Learning. Charles Murray, author of the The Bell Curve and Real Education, puts it perfectly when he writes, “the educational system is living a lie” (Murray 11). In this essay I intend to further diagnose the national affliction caused by that lie, explain why it should be a huge priority to rescue higher education, and identify the types of people who will do just that.

The Diagnosis

There are three main reasons why the University has become a sad shell of its former self (please note - from this point forward I will use “University” to refer to the entire nationwide collegiate psyche and “university” as the literal definition synonymous to “college”). The first reason for this degradation is the estrangement of intellectualism from public society, a movement succinctly illustrated in Terrance MacMullan’s words at the beginning of this essay. MacMullan, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Honors at Eastern Washington University, explains that we “Americans don’t like smart people because we suspect they might trick us like we trick our dogs” (MacMullan 58). Intelligence and honesty have somehow managed to become mutually exclusive in the eyes of the American public. MacMullan cites the “radicalization of American universities in the 1960s,” which he says “led many intellectuals to write off non-intellectuals as dupes, and many non-intellectuals to dismiss academia as a hotbed of leftist propaganda” (61). This led to the public’s distrust of academia and academia’s refusal to address the public; the two stubborn sectors choosing to have nothing to do with each other. Fast-forward forty years and you can see how we got to where we are today, a place when the common man is revered over the learned man, and where the intellectuals seclude themselves from society in order to feed their own narcissism. Furthermore, because the extremes are so adamantly opposed to mixing, we end up with a lack of effective intelligent dialogue between the two. Society loathes the conceited nature of the intellectuals. Intellectuals fear that the “dupes” down below might put up a fight or prove them wrong. It is only logical to assume that this divorce negatively affects Higher Education, the supposed middleman of society and academia.

The second source of this scourge is the good intentioned but ill-conceived ideology that everyone should go to college. This is the lie by which Murray says our educational system lives (and dies). “The lie is that every child can be anything he or she wants to be” (Murray 11), or rather, anything that their parents wish they could be. College therefore ends up as the summit of the developmental Mt. Everest and becomes the number one priority in the lives of many American children and teens. This would not be a problem if many of the myths about the benefits of college weren’t so completely untrue.

There’s the myth that everyone should experience college because as a whole it resembles “real life” and serves as a good transition space for young people to adapt to the “real world.” Murray points out that the University where students spend much of their time developing robust work habits, routinely engaging the professors as they would employers, and answering the calls of demanding intellectual pursuits does not exist anywhere in the United States. In fact, he says, the American college system does more to “prolong adolescence” than to foster maturity (101). I find it hard to disagree with him, especially after seven semesters at Loyola Marymount University, a school that attracts applicants for its beautiful campus and even more beautiful female population, as opposed to the promise of an enriching educational experience. The idea that a university student as scholar has been replaced with the image of the college slacker who thirsts for “facile knowledge, served up in easily digestible, bite-sized chunks” (101). Higher Education’s willingness to appease this want is both frighteningly real and completely devastating to the integrity of the University.
Then there’s the myth that you cannot be successful without a college degree. Because this fable has society by the throat, we are at the point where we send far too many people to college. Many of the superfluous extras resemble Murray’s example of the fifteen-year-old “who cannot make sense of algebra but has an almost mystical knack with machines, [but] is told to stick with the college prep track” (12). Since a college degree is supposedly the only way to adequately measure success in our society, our fifteen-year-old is dissuaded from pursuing a trade school in favor of a liberal arts education he doesn’t really want nor need. He is likely steered that way by a parent or high school counselor who has bought into the lie and, while meaning no harm, ultimately hurts the student’s chances at success. By forcing them into a situation where they would not succeed (that is, would not succeed if not for curriculum becoming laughably easy and grade inflation painting mediocre students to look like Stephen Hawking), the student’s talents, interests, and perhaps optimal opportunity to help society (not to mention himself) go down the drain. What could have been a budding mechanic is now another statistic of overindulgence in Higher Education.

The third big reason why the University system is broken is society’s illogical love affair with making the grade. Grades in and of themselves are highly overrated and have a negative influence on what is perceived as the goal of education. That goal has ceased to be the pursuit of knowledge for personal enrichment, giving way to the value of simply getting the best grade possible. In an ideal world, these two would go hand in hand. As we’ve already extensively explored, that ideal world doesn’t exist.

Instead we have plights like that of 2010 Coxsackie-Athens High School Valedictorian Erica Goldson who, in her graduation speech, discussed how our ridiculous fascination with grades has helped to poison American education. “I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning,” Goldson said in cap and gown, the owner of the highest grade point average in the graduating class. When she discovered that her success was emblematic of a system that trounces merit and effort in favor of a phony figure, Goldson was overcome with an emotion not many valedictorians feel when looking toward the future - “Quite frankly, now I'm scared.” Goldson was hit by the reality that an educational system that emphasizes SAT scores, grade point averages, and percentage points as much as ours only devastates individual creativity, breeding drones who focus more on the black-and-white destination than the Technicolor voyage.

Additionally, America’s marriage to grades has allowed those many who are intellectually lacking but particularly adroit at playing the system to succeed while those who are plagued by the vice-versa are left behind. Quite frankly, any moron can manage an A on a test with a good study guide and their roommate’s prescription Adderall. Any system where an earnest student gets a B+ simply because he is not a good memorizer, but the world’s best crammer can score an A on a test he won’t remember a week later, is seriously flawed. Out of this comes a mentality among students that the ability to regurgitate information is much more important than the information itself, resulting in students who base their educational approach on the most efficient way to get an A. Lost are the joy of learning, the critical reflection, and the perceived importance of class material.

These three elements – the loss of society’s faith in intellectualism, the influx of unnecessary students cluttering the University, and the emphasis of “success” over substance – are the three largest culprits in the tarnishing of the University. Unfortunately, identifying the problem in education is only half the battle. We have to fully understand why the diagnosis is so bad before we can explore possible cures. We must fully realize the peril we potentially face if we allow this terrible disease to spread further.

Analyzing the Threat

The two main consequences we face if we do not subdue the infection are the risk of the college degree losing its value and the wounding of America’s academically gifted students.

This semester, one of my classes held a discussion about our personal reasons for attending college. A considerable number of the students made it very clear that they enrolled primarily to ensure a better shot at landing a good job after graduation. Some even expressed surprise when introduced to the notion that there would be any other reason to attend the university. While there is nothing wrong with hoping to utilize one’s degree to reach professional success, there is something unnerving about apathetically gliding through college for a piece of paper that supposedly leads to buried treasure. “Young people think they are going to make a substantial income just by having a college degree” (Billitteri), says Penn State professor emeritus Edwin L. Herr, acknowledging the belief that the University is the gatekeeper for social ascension. But Syracuse finance professor Boyce Watkins unveils an unfortunate truth. Like many treasure maps, that expensive college degree has the potential to lead you nowhere:

“When you have students who are going to college for economic advancement and they choose majors that don't fit that particular objective and then take a lot of debt on in the process, then … you have to ask them, well, did you plan it all the way through when you ended up with an outcome that you didn't quite expect?” (Billitteri)

Watkins refers to the fact that, while on average people with degrees earn more than those without, not all degrees are created equal. A student pursuing Law or Medicine is much more likely to find success than the one who played eenie-meenie-miney-moe and landed on Communications. What you end up with is a huge demographic of people overcrowding the University who wouldn’t even be in college if they were not under the impression that it automatically leads to financial success. The University and society itself would save these folks quite a bit of money if the myths that college leads to fortune were to be dispelled.

Related to this is the fundamental flaw in the “everybody should go to college” ideology – Economics. Basic supply and demand applies to college degrees just as it does to pretty much any commodity. If more of something exists, the less valuable it becomes. This is especially true with degrees in an economy such as our current one, where growth has all but ceased. What you inevitably end up with are more “qualified” workers than positions available. Once you have a surplus, value plummets. What happens when a desperate student cannot find a job out of college? Many will take out more student loans and enroll in graduate school, assuming a Master’s degree will guarantee for them what a Bachelor’s failed to produce.

If we continue on this path where we allow college to be a cakewalk, it won’t be long until Master’s degrees go the way of Bachelor’s. You already see this happening with many Law School graduates who lug their degree and massive debt straight into the unemployment line (Koppel). Such is the case of 25-year-old Fabian Ronisky, who after being turned down by over 50 law firms had to face moving back in with his parents, $150,000 of debt in tow.

This unfortunate situation is as much a result of the ridiculously poor conditions of the economy as it is a side effect of our diseased education system. At the same time, I seriously doubt many of the 40,000 yearly Law School graduates are worth their weight in case documents. When Higher Education allows ill-equipped students to succeed, there is a huge risk that it is only setting them up for failure. Therein develops a question of Ethics – is it better to allow this to continue happening and see alumni chewed up and spit out by a field they should not have been entering in the first place, or should universities adopt some tough love and weed out the weak ones before they amass more debt than a small nation? The answer is the latter. There is a strong moral argument for cleaning up Higher Education.

Perhaps even worse is that as the University dumbs itself down to cater to the apathetic or unskilled, truly gifted students are presented with an educational experience that fails to adequately challenge them. This fundamental flaw exists everywhere from Communism to No Child Left Behind – you never improve the plight of the lowest demographic as much as you decimate the others. Murray argues that, because natural abilities intrinsically vary from student to student, there exists a small echelon of truly gifted individuals who are most likely to positively affect society (Murray 108-109). It makes sense then that our efforts in the University should be to provide this elite group with the best possible education to train them to be able to achieve their potential.

“By definition,” writes Murray, “the top 10 percent in academic ability included about 410,000 eighteen-year-olds in 2005, when about 1.5 million students enrolled as freshmen in four-year colleges” (111). While one might immediately suppose that most of those students fit in at the nation’s most prestigious schools, Murray says the top twenty national universities and liberal arts colleges brought in only 48,000 freshman, “and not all of them in the 10 percent” (111). This means that 90% of America’s most gifted students are spread out among the nation’s many other schools. While Murray focuses more on how he would overhaul the liberal arts education to better impart upon these elite the necessary wisdoms to lead the country (113), I am tentatively more worried about the effect of an apathetic atmosphere on one of these gifted minds.

As we’ve discussed earlier, the typical 18-year-old freshman could be the smartest person in the world and yet still be incredibly immature. There have to be negative effects when, instead of a University that truly cherishes academic endeavor and intellectual stimulation, he or she is dumped into an ecosystem driven by scholarly indifference, selfish objectives, and the unconscious endorsement of half-assed effort. Instead of honing skills that will augment their abilities, college actually hurts those who get swallowed up. This is a direct result of making college accessible to those who don’t need to be there. This is not a situation I expect applies to the majority of gifted students, but any university that does not act to eradicate the risk is performing a disservice for the gifted while, presumably yet erroneously, providing a service to those who are not.

The Cure

As we have explored, if we allow the infection in Higher Education to fester, we run the risk of devaluing the work of college graduates and sabotaging the mental development of those who are truly gifted. The current mentality leads us down a road that potentially brings us to the complete collapse of the University as a respectable establishment. The current output of graduates, many whom only achieve success by taking an easy road, is unsustainable and poses a societal risk. Ethically, pragmatically, and in the best interest of the United States, we need to revamp Higher Education at risk of watching the entire system implode around us.

With such a daunting task in front of us, it may seem that a strategy toward rehabilitation of the University addicted to mediocrity would be huge and complicated and nearly impossible to enact. The veritable truth is actually quite the contrary. There are two huge things that need to happen in order for us to turn this ship around before we star dancing with icebergs. First, we need to raise the standards by which we measure our University students, challenging them to prove themselves worthy of the privilege of Higher Education. Second, we need those haughty hermits, the intellectuals, to lay their egos at the side of the road and become the type of Public Intellectuals that Terrance MacMullan feels hold the key to revitalizing the nation.

First, quite simply, we need the University (and remember, by this I mean the entire nation of Higher Learning) to make a united conscientious decision to revert the itself back to a place of honor. We cannot continue to allow our willingness to admit and pamper mediocre students to continue and bring down the entire system, hurting those who truly deserve to reach the heights offered only at a University devoted to education of the gifted. We must not be afraid to incorporate tough love and turn away those who do not meet the expectation of excellence. This does not mean that we need to transform the University into a sort of dystopian institution where we build a small elite class to rule the country. All will be welcome to attend; our most basic want is for the students to simply try harder. We cannot allow the current academic tone of apathy to continue.

If we manage to raise the bar of what we deem academically excellent, universities will find that many of those students who previously showed educational apathy will pick up their game in order to stay afloat. This is to be desired, as is the departure of those who choose not to abide by our new stricter standards. Even though our main focus will be to nurture those with true smarts, we will not let our meritocracy disappear for those who rigorously labor to improve themselves. The University needs to be about hard work, and a strong work ethic needs to be restored to an America that has never been lazier. Not only will a tougher University challenge those who deserve to be there, it will build character through the struggle with adversity.

The facilitators of this more honorable University will be the intellectuals who must descend from their Ivory Towers and become like MacMullan’s ideal Public Intellectual, who, interestingly enough, resembles Jon Stewart (not Mill). The quirky host of The Daily Show, behind the goofiness, bears “an unalloyed faith in the power of the American political project to improve people’s lives” (MacMullan 66). Likewise, our ideal Public Intellectual educator would live by the distinctly American philosophy of pragmatism, an ideology that “urges philosophers to be less academic and more publicly engaged” (60). While it may seem paradoxical for us to ask our intellectuals to be less academic while our University speeds in the other direction, the context varies. As our new University system will certainly favor the gifted over those who are not, we must make sure that our Public Intellectuals manage to be as relatable for the masses as Jon Stewart, whose “voice encourages debate and fosters democracy [while still being] cherished by many philosophers who think that philosophy should matter to all people” (60).

MacMullan describes the Public Intellectuals or the past – Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Jane Addams, and W.E.B. Du Bois, for example – and how their essential talent, one that has been lost by contemporary scholars who worship convoluted Derrida language, was how they could connect with diverse audiences while still preserving the magnitude of their message. These were thinkers who strived to be relevant to their public because of an inherent obligation to serve society. Like our favorite fake news show host, our new Public Intellectuals must similarly strive to employ their smarts for the greater good instead of locking themselves away in a cloister of brains (or, God forbid, delving into the ooze of Glenn Beck punditry).

What this will invariably do, as Stewart and his brilliant stooge Stephen Colbert have already begun to set off, is a societal return to respecting intellect. Basically, if we can manage to invoke the power and mission of our Public Intellectuals of old, we can make being smart cool again. This will lead to an increase in knowledge, wisdom, and ability as societal values, which will eventually lead to a more efficient and intelligent public, even without a million Bachelor’s degrees floating around.

There are inherent risks in this plan, not the least of which being the vital decision of our intellectuals to turn away from the dark side and focus on being thinkers for society instead of simply for themselves and their own conceited communities. Still, I believe the enacting of this process will only improve America, as the road we are currently traveling brings upon us an unsustainable structure of academic chaos that must be avoided at all costs. It is clear that our current system of Higher Education is afflicted with a bitter infection that must be cured for the sake of protecting our gifted youngsters, maintaining the integrity of the University, and increasing the efficiency of our academic structure. The long-term effects of simply raising the bar when it comes to University students could bring the United States into a new golden age of intellectual curiosity and academic enterprise. We as Americans owe it to ourselves to perform surgery on Higher Education and remove the causes of all our aches and pains, insuring that an America built on intelligent discourse and social awareness remains in good health for years to come.

Works Cited

Billitteri, Thomas J. "The Value of a College Education." CQ Researcher 20 Nov. 2009: 981-1004. Web. 15 Dec. 2010.
Goldson, Erica. "Here I Stand." Speech. Coxsackie-Athens High School Graduation Spring 2010. Coxsackie-Athens High School, Coxsackie, NY. 25 June 2010. America Via Erica. Blogger, 7 July 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2010. . [YouTube] -
Koppel, Nathan. "Wall Street Journal." The Wall Street Journal. 5 May 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2010. .
MacMullan, Terrance. "Jon Stewart and the New Public Intellectual." The Daily Show and Philosophy: Moments of Zen in the Art of Fake News. Ed. Jason Holt. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007. 57-68. Print.
Murray, Charles A. Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality. New York: Crown Forum, 2008. Print.