Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

How to Get Smart

There’s some evidence that thinking makes it so—not in the obvious sense that thinking makes you smarter, but in the sense that thinking you’re getting smarter actually makes you smarter. Positive thinking really does have power.

I hesitate to endorse this, because I’ve known plenty of people who thought they were smarter than they really were. But I suspect there’s something to it nevertheless. Your brain makes connections all the time. If you think negatively, react skeptically, or simply lack confidence, you’ll discard most of those connections before you devote any time to thinking about them. Many of course ought to be discarded. But quite a few are worth developing, and it requires positive thinking and a certain degree of tenacity to follow where they lead.

Good teaching, especially in a seminar setting, requires the same thing. You have to think positively and be willing to track ideas for a while, hunting them, noticing them, exploring them, and working through them. Sometimes that takes you off track for a while. But often it leads to something really interesting that you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Good research requires the same thing—it just isn’t done as publicly, in real time.


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Wretchard (in his new home in Pajamas Media!) writes of the political correctness of academia, with some optimism that it is now around halfway through its life-cycle. Picking up on his theme that higher education functions primarily to sort students by IQ, a commenter remarks that the growth of higher education stems from Griggs v. Duke Power, the case in which the Supreme Court held that employee testing is discriminatory, and permitted arguments from discriminatory effect, without the need to establish anything about intentions. It became impossible, in short, to identify smart people in any other way than demanding credentials. (Why the Court has not extended its reasoning to that demand is an interesting question, since it too is discriminatory in effect.) There’s something to this, though the large expansion in higher education preceded the decision, coming about in the 1960s for a variety of reasons (Sputnik, economic growth, Vietnam).

Many other commenters advise getting a degree in engineering, business, math, or the hard sciences, but avoiding the other parts of the university.

My perspective on this is somewhat more optimistic. Those fields are indeed still solid and offer excellent intellectual training. But so do philosophy, psychology, economics, and linguistics, fields minimally affected by political correctness at most universities. Even within fields rife with PC, there are large areas that are little affected. Empirically based social science is generally quite solid. Departments of English and History that house many leftist scholars who bring politics into their teaching still contain legions of professors who teach literature and history brilliantly without doing so. In all these fields, it remains possible to get an excellent education in reading, analyzing, writing, and problem solving.

It’s fairly easy to avoid most political correctness. Stay away from most _____-Studies programs. Look at course descriptions and book lists. Stay away from anything that talks about “theory” (not as in “quantum theory,” but sans phrase). Stay away from any mention of race, class, or gender. Stay away from PC buzzwords: “problematizing,” “contextualizing,” etc. Look at student evaluations from previous semesters. Talk to other students.

It’s easier to avoid political correctness at some universities than others. At my own university, it’s easy. At Duke, Brown, or Haverford, good luck. Students could learn a lot by looking at recent course offerings and descriptions when they’re applying.

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Rick Hills distinguishes technical abbreviations, which are helpful and often necessary, from shibboleths, which are designed to be unhelpful. Technical abbreviations function to express complex information efficiently by speeding communication. Shibboleths function to keep outsiders away by making communication difficult.

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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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