A recent, lengthy post at Talking Points Memo blames conservatives, liberals and accrediting agencies for a decline in the excellence of American higher education–a decline that is widely remarked upon.
First comes conservatives seeking a corporate transformation or restructuring of higher education. One option comes through the rise of for-profit private colleges, offering a game plan of expensive tuition and pricey administrators, delivered mostly with low cost adjunct professors in often cookie-cutter, interchangeable curriculum delivered online.
This is Fordism coming to higher education… The other option is traditional schools adopting this model; employing business leaders to run schools and developing cost containment policies aimed mostly at standardizing curriculum. It is top-down decision-making premised upon treating faculty no differently than an assembly line worker….The result: a market-driven product devoid of innovation, creativity, and intellectual challenge.
Liberals come second, often joined by religious conservatives, bent on enforcing political correctness on campus and in producing a curriculum that offends no one. Captured in the Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” there is a push to insulate students from ideas and words that they do not like. Across the country schools are adopting policies demanding trigger warnings or alerting faculty to forms of microaggression that students find objectionable. The result is not only an erosion of academic freedom but a curriculum that is uninteresting and devoid of learning.
Finally comes the accrediting agencies who have taken the assessment lessons from K-12 and are imposing them on higher education. They demand schools measure and test students and curriculum by developing a complex process of goals, objectives, rubrics.
I would add to these indictments a more foundational issue: until we reach agreement on what we mean by education, we will never be able to focus on the question of how best to provide it.
Far too many “education reformers” at all levels fail to recognize the fundamental difference between genuine education and job training–between intellectual flowering and the inculcation of skills needed by the marketplace. It doesn’t help that state legislatures and Commissions on Higher Education focus on graduation rates and employment metrics to the exclusion of all else.
Evidently, if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count.
It’s probably heresy for a Professor to say this, but not every high school graduate is a candidate for college. There is nothing wrong with job training–it’s important and entirely legitimate– and such training can meet the needs of a number of students. If we were to reserve the university experience for young people who display intellectual curiosity, a capacity for serious scholarship and/or a demonstrable passion for the life of the mind, both the institutions and their graduates would benefit.
As a bonus, we could trim those bloated administrations, disabuse ourselves of the notion that educational institutions should be “run like businesses,” and stop coddling students who demand protection against ideas they find threatening.
Ideas can be right or wrong, comforting or offensive–but to find any idea “threatening” is a signal that one is unfit to be educated.