Who Is to Blame for Dumbing Down of College Education?

I just read a review of  Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz in the New York Times. You can find the review at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/13/books/excellent-sheep-william-deresiewiczs-manifesto.html?ref=arts&_r=0 (until the Times paywall kicks in). Basically, the book argues that higher ed at elite institutions has become narrowly focused on helping students go into careers in finance, and students (and their parents) have, in turn, become obsessed with grades and resume building. All true. Here at Suffolk, faculty are under increasing serious pressure to focus our teaching on specified, measurable learning objectives, and to tell them which readings, assignments, lectures, and other course components should contribute to which objective. Though many of us are resisting, the idea that somehow students would gain something by thinking about the course as a whole, trying to integrate the different parts — and, most of all, should think for themselves — is out the window.

It’s not just Harvard, and certainly not just Suffolk — much of the dumbing down of higher ed is being demanded by the US Department of Education, with the regional accrediting authorities as its catspaws. But those folks would say it’s really coming from the parents, who demand that the education they are paying so much for be more career-focused, and narrowly so. It’s no good anymore talking about the virtues of the liberal arts, they want their kids to learn specific job skills.

Before we blame the parents, though, we need to ask why they feel this way. When I was a student, my parents’ resources (my father was a pharmacist, with his own store in a small town; my mother didn’t work until the kids were all grown) were enough to get us all through college, and we were free to look around the world and think about what we really wanted to do. Today, everything has changed — at least, lots of things:

1. You have to be filthy rich to afford to pay for college on your own;

2. You will therefore have to have a huge burden of debt when you graduate. (When I graduated, I had a debt under the National Defense Education Act, which provided that 10% of the loan would be written off every year I taught.)

3. You will have to earn oodles of money to pay off the debt; and

4. You will have to earn even more oodles of money if your children will have any chance at all of staying out of poverty.

It all comes back to the growth of inequality, in which the one percent make themselves even richer by cutting their own taxes and making the rest of us pay for formerly public services ourselves.

So we can talk about misplaced values and fight to retain the liberal arts and creative education. We will, and we should. But until we go back to public provision of higher education, reduce inequality by taxing the rich and de-corporatizing public life, our fight will be very much uphill.

2 thoughts on “Who Is to Blame for Dumbing Down of College Education?”

  1. This is a global, not just a US phenomenon. It is also driven by employers’ demands for labor with higher qualifications, leading to a greater proportion of each age cohort to go on to tertiary education, while secondary education stagnates or deteriorates for lack of funds. Consequently more students are less well prepared to enter college and college education is high-schoolized. If the labor market were tight, the inefficiency of rising numbers spending more time in formal education would be a problem for capital. But unemployment levels are generally higher and a large proportion of college students are in full or part-time paid employment. Paid work leaves them less time for study (and political activity). It does mean that there is a greater potential for student and class struggles to interact, if either accelerates.

    1. Rick, I agree in general. The problem just looks different here where many students are paying US$50,000 per year for tertiary education. In the rest of the world, education is being “Americanized” in that students and families have to pay more of the cost. But in the US, rather than converging with the rest of the world, we are moving even more in the student-pays direction.

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