Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

The Diplomad cautions us about talk of “highly educated” voters—who are often astoundingly ignorant. He recalls interviewing candidates for internships at the State Department and asking them questions about World War II. Only one got them all right. (They’re not hard: “Who was Mussolini?” for example.) The amazing part is, none of the other fourteen got even one question right. The Diplomad concludes:

Every time you hear that phrase, “highly educated” substitute the phrase “attended a lame liberal college or university.” That’s what we are really talking about. Given the state of higher education in the world, including in our own beloved Republic, spending four years in a typical “liberal arts” institution generally qualifies you for . . . uh . . . well, not much, except, of course, to boast that you are “highly educated.”

My own students have very little grasp of history. When I talk about World War II—not to mention the Seven Years War or the War of the Spanish Succession!—I meet blank stares and questions like “Were you a history major?”

I’ve been working to create a Western Civ program to combat this kind of ignorance at my own institution. The administration has been supportive. But powerful forces on the faculty have arrayed to fight our growth. The last thing many faculty members want is for their students really to be highly educated.

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Who’s Failing?

A professor is fired at Norfolk State for failing too many students. This is more common throughout the educational system (especially at the lower levels) than many people think. I failed two students out of eleven as a student teacher at Radnor High School in suburban Philadelphia, and the principal made it clear that I was not welcome to come back.

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Inside Higher Education publishes figures on expenditures in higher education, confirming what those of us on the inside have known for a long time: the far-above-inflation increases in tuition over the past twenty years have not gone to faculty or anything else involving instruction.

Median Spending Per Full-time Enrolled Student, 2005, by Sector

Sector Direct Instructional Costs Other Educational Costs Non-Educational Costs Total
Private research university $14,134 $11,214 $8,940 $34,288
Public research university $7,255 $4,416 $9,393 $21,064
Private master’s institution $6,577 $8,520 $693 $15,790
Public master’s institution $5,064 $4,620 $1,734 $11,418
Private bachelor’s institution $6,655 $10,598 $1,208 $18,461
Public community college $4,051 $3,976 $1,092 $9,119

The percentage spent on instruction has been going down; the percentage on noninstructional costs has been increasing.  The absolute amount spent on instruction, moreover, has been increasing very slowly, far below the rate of inflation:

Further, across sectors, spending on instruction has become relatively flat, and is increasing at slower rates than in the past. For example, at private research universities, the report finds that the average percentage change in median spending per full-time enrolled student on instruction was 2.2 percent in the period 1987-1996. But in the period 1998-2005, the increase was only 1 percent. (For public research universities, the figures were 0.5 percent and 0.4 percent in those two periods.)

So, where does the money go?

Some goes to student amenities.  My own university has just built an outdoor pool complex that rivals that of any resort hotel.  I’m losing my parking lot to a new student activities center.

Some goes to student services—advisors, counselors, writing centers, etc.—some of which are badly needed, and others of which are a waste of money.

Much goes to administration.  What’s the function of a vice-president? To hire assistant vice-presidents to do his/her job.

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when it sounds as if it should be the other way around. “Worst professor ever”—well confirmed. What on earth is going on at Dartmouth? Consider her qualifications for a position at Dartmouth Medical School:

After obtaining a BA from Dartmouth College, I have an MS in Genetics from UC Davis and a PhD in Literature from UC San Diego.

Literature!  And the sentence is only marginally grammatical.

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Mankiw on Textbooks

The New York Times complains about the high cost of textbooks, and says that something ought to be done about it. Greg Mankiw points out that, if textbook prices really were unreasonably high, textbooks would represent an excellent business opportunity, and the Times should go into the business and undercut the current publishers, something they would actually be well-placed to do. But, of course, they won’t:

My guess is that the Times business managers would not view starting a new textbook publisher as an exceptionally profitable business opportunity, which if true only goes to undermine the premise of their editorial writers.

Textbook prices are unreasonably high. But the problem isn’t that publishers are charging an exorbitant amount or that authors (trust me!) are making a killing. It’s that the ubiquity and efficiency of the used book market means that authors and publishers have to extract whatever they are going to make on the book within three to four years. After that, profits and royalties disappear.

Remember when buying a movie on videotape cost at least $70, and the only viable option was to rent one from Blockbuster or one of its competitors? The rental model didn’t die, but it lost much ground as prices fell and it became possibly to buy a videotape or DVD for $15 or less.

The textbook market has been moving in the opposite direction. Students used to buy their textbooks and, most often, keep them. Now, they sell them back to used textbook dealers. Effectively, students are renting books for a semester; the real cost to them is the difference between the initial cost (often, that of a used copy) and the buyback price. As with the movie market, but in reverse, that leads to high initial prices.

That isn’t good for students who want to keep their books—or for book authors and publishers, or for students in general who face a cash-flow problem, paying high initial costs. But I don’t know how to reverse it.

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Doubting Thomas

Syracuse philosophy professor and noted virtue ethicist Laurence Thomas walks out of class when a student in the front row sends a text message, sparking a debate about the justifiability of his action and the collective punishment it involves. (HT: Instapundit)

I wouldn’t doubt Larry Thomas when it comes to a question of ethics. I admit, however, that it would never occur to me to do this, or even to get upset about a student sending a text message, which is not really very disruptive. In fact, I doubt I’d notice it.

Maybe my perspective is shaped by my having once taught eighth grade science and ninth grade geometry. Among my students’ more memorable habits were throwing the chalk out the window, throwing pistachio shells at me, and talking incessantly to each other in Russian. Compared to that, every day in my college classrooms has been a pure delight.

UPDATE: Two further thoughts: (1) Larry Thomas is a brilliant, funny, spellbinding lecturer; I don’t understand how a student in the front row could be doing anything but paying close attention. (2) He is also one of the finest people I know, and not at all a prima donna. I’m guessing this wasn’t the first time, and that the student wasn’t being subtle about it.

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David Mamet writes revealingly of his political awakening:

As a child of the ’60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart.

These cherished precepts had, over the years, become ingrained as increasingly impracticable prejudices. Why do I say impracticable? Because although I still held these beliefs, I no longer applied them in my life….

This is, to me, the synthesis of this worldview with which I now found myself disenchanted: that everything is always wrong.

But in my life, a brief review revealed, everything was not always wrong, and neither was nor is always wrong in the community in which I live, or in my country. Further, it was not always wrong in previous communities in which I lived, and among the various and mobile classes of which I was at various times a part.

And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.

This is a theme that Dennis Prager wrote about on the last day of 2002:

Very early on, I realized that perhaps the major reason for political and other disagreements I had with callers was that they believed people are basically good, and I did not. I believe that we are born with tendencies toward both good and evil. Yes, babies are born innocent, but not good.

Why is this issue so important?

First, if you believe people are born good, you will attribute evil to forces outside the individual. That is why, for example, our secular humanistic culture so often attributes evil to poverty….

Second, if you believe people are born good, you will not stress character development when you raise children….

Third, if you believe that people are basically good, God and religion are morally unnecessary, even harmful. Why would basically good people need a God or religion to provide moral standards?…

Fourth, if you believe people are basically good, you, of course, believe that you are good – and therefore those who disagree with you must be bad, not merely wrong. You also believe that the more power that you and those you agree with have, the better the society will be.

Mamet’s sense that liberals’ faith in human nature contradicts their sense that everything is wrong and requires intervention reminds me of half of a joke I heard many years ago. What’s the difference between liberals and conservatives? Liberals think that people are basically good, and that you need to stop them from doing what they want. Conservatives think that people are basically bad, and that you should let them do what they want. That makes both positions sound incoherent. But they’re not on a par. The tension in liberalism is real, and philosophers such as Rousseau and Marx have to appeal to implausible theses about the plasticity of human nature to try to resolve it. The tension in conservatism, in contrast, is resolved by structures that limit power—including government power—and channel conflict into competition and, ultimately, excellence.

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The National Association of Scholars has published a report on schools of social work throughout the country, finding that most are committed to ideological indoctrination rather than unbiased research: “Social work education is a national academic scandal.” Stephen Balch, NAS Director:

Defenders of the American university claim that the seriousness of the problem of political correctness has been greatly exaggerated by critics. There is, however, nothing subtle about political correctness in social work. It is the Jolt Cola of PC.

Social work is a field, perhaps, in which the line between advocacy and academic scholarship is subtle. But the line is nevertheless real. Social work, like medicine and engineering, is a practical field that has as its end not only understanding but doing. Just as medicine has as its goal health, we might expect social work to have as its goal helping people. But many in schools of social work understand what they do in a far more specific and contentious way. Barbara White, Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, objected to the report:

“We do not advocate any particular positions and definitely do not force them on our students,” White said. “Our profession is geared toward the issue of people working for justice and equality. And our responsibility is to serve the community.”

Justice and equality, notice, come first, and are the means to serving the community. What’s wrong with justice and equality? Nothing, of course, except that they are political concepts. People with different political ideologies construe them quite differently. There could be, and once upon a time were, courses in schools of social work that examined different conceptions of justice and equality without strong ideological presuppositions or biases. People used to feel responsible for arguing for the ideological positions they took against all comers. (I am thinking, for example, of Richard Lodge, former head of the Council on Social Work Education, whom I knew well.) But those days are long gone.

The Council for Social Work Education publishes a Code of Ethics that almost all schools of social work require their students to adhere to. It stipulates:

Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. These activities seek to promote sensitivity to a knowledge about oppression and cultural, economic and ethnic diversity.

Notice that poverty and unemployment are simply assumed to be forms of injustice. If I quit my job to write the great American novel, hike the Appalachian Trail, or pursue competitive tanning, that’s injustice? Note, too, the use of the loaded term ‘oppression’ and the ritual bowing to diversity.

The Code of Ethics continues:

Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.

So, to be a social worker according to the CSWE, you need to engage in specific kinds of political action. The saddest part of the report discusses particular students who have left or been failed out of social work graduate programs because they opposed abortion, refused to lobby legislators to adopt certain left-wing policies, or analyzed social problems from a conservative point of view.

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Ilya Somin makes the case against government subsidies for college tuition at the Volokh Conspiracy. His point is that the higher-than-inflation increases in the cost of college over the past forty years are justified by the even greater increases in expected returns on a college education. According to a 2002 Census Bureau study, a college graduate, on average, earns $1,000,000 more than a high school graduate over his/her lifetime.

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University Endowments

Gary Becker and Richard Posner discuss the use of university endowments, and, in particular, the question whether universities should be required to spend a certain proportion of their endowments each year. Posner especially interests me when he writes,

Given the competitive structure of higher education, it is hard to see why government should step in and try to limit tuition. The universities have a competitive incentive to provide financial aid to highly promising applicants who cannot afford full tuition; why those who can afford to pay for it should not be asked to pay for it escapes me. Forcing abolition of tuition would be a subsidy for rich kids. If universities were somehow prevented from charging tuition, moreover, applicants and their families would not have to think carefully about educational options. A free university education would be attractive to many people for whom it would be a poor investment if they had to pay stiff tuition, though it would not be completely free in an economic sense because they would have to forgo income from working.

Tuition increases over the past thirty years have far outstripped inflation—though there is now massive discounting, not only through financial aid but through academic scholarships that were virtually unheard of thirty years ago. Putting that aside, however, and given that some elite institutions are now deciding to offer free tuition to anyone admitted who falls within fairly broad income ranges, it’s worth asking whether free or almost free higher education is a good idea.

My own experience is that it isn’t. My own university didn’t raise tuition for thirty years. By the late 1980s, due to inflation, education here was almost free. The result was that a significant proportion of students placed no value on the education they were (or, in many cases, were not) receiving. “Studying” at the university was better for partying and meeting members of the opposite sex than working at a low level job. Of course, there were still many students who took their educations seriously. But if 20-30% of each class isn’t taking it seriously, isn’t doing the reading, isn’t attending class or paying attention in class, isn’t making any intelligent contribution to discussions, etc., it lowers the level of education for everyone. When tuition was finally raised, many of those students disappeared, and the level of classroom discourse improved dramatically.

This is consistent with my experience teaching at another state university with much higher tuition. Students there worked hard. You assigned reading; they did it. They thought about it. They discussed it and wrote about it as best they could. They were sacrificing to be there, and they wanted to get as much out of it as they possibly could.

The universities with the largest endowments tend to be highly selective private institutions that may be immune to these effects to some degree. But they may not be as immune as they think.

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