The Pyramid Ideal

I recently posted a brief exposition describing a challenge program I foisted on the honors students at the university where I taught for 37 years. There were several comments, but one from my fellow blogger, John, which was most encouraging, prompted me to explore a few thoughts connected with his remarks. I have blogged endlessly (some would say) about education, but it is close to my heart and I am sorely dismayed by the present state of education and seem always to be coming back to the topic closest to my heart.

It does seem to me that the ideal image of education would be the notion of a triangle, or pyramid, that stands on a broad base and tapers to the top. England followed this model for years with its public schools providing the broad education in the arts and sciences — mostly the former — while the university (or “uni”) providing the finishing touches in the way of specialization for the professions. Some American colleges and universities adopted this model but, of late, that model has been largely displaced by a more practical one that stresses job preparation and pretty much ignores education altogether.

Let’s one clear about some things: education should NOT be confused with job training or with mere schooling. There are manny people who have spent years in school — some with PhDs if you can imagine — who are not well educated people. And there are those with poor or inadequate schooling who are well educated people, which is to say people who have continued to read, think and grow as intelligent adults.

But in this country by and large we have been sold the idea that schooling and education are all abut preparing for a job or, as we like to call it, a “career.” This started years ago in order to keep young people in school and when it was clear that those who had a college degree made more money in their lifetime than those who lacked the degree. It’s when the colleges and universities started to be all about money, to be businesses run for profit. Whatever the reason, higher education, so-called, took a wrong turn and lost its sense of its proper purpose — which is to put young people in possession of their own minds, to prepare them for life, not work.

The model that provides the best idea of what education should be all about is that of the pyramid, as I suggested above. The base should be broad and strong and should start in the grades — or high school at the latest. That base should provide students with knowledge about literature, history, civics, mathematics, and the sciences — both the social sciences and the hard sciences. Those who go on to college should then begin to narrow that base and learn more about less. And at that point they might learn some of the basic skills that will prepare them for specific jobs. But the data show us that folks change their minds about what they want to do with their lives, and how they want to make a living, several times before they are forty. So the broad base is essential.

The broad base allows the young person to change direction. One who is trained in one field and who becomes disenchanted with that field after a few years cannot, as things now stand, change direction without going back to school and learning new skills. One who has had a broad base in the arts and sciences — what have dismissively been called the “elitist” liberal arts — does have that ability. They have learned to use their minds and how to learn new things on other own — without having to go back to school.

The data suggest that those with a liberal education make the most successful employees, ironically, because of those skills I have mentioned, skills of communication in speaking and writing, a broad perspective, and a lively imagination. They therefore have that flexibility I mentioned above, the ability to change direction later in life. And, moreover, the data suggest that they make more money in the long run than those with a narrow focus — even though the initial job may be hard to find. But, then, these days that seems to be true for all of those who graduate from our schools of “higher learning” no matter how early they started to prepare for a specific job — a job that is often not there when they graduate.

And that’s the rub. No one at the age of seventeen or eighteen can know what jobs will be available to them when they are twenty-one or twenty-two — no matter what someone tells them. The only certain thing is that things will change. And the best way to prepare for change is to have a pyramidal education, one with a broad base that provides a solid foundation.

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Why The Humanities?

I have referred to a book by Anthony Kronman defending, if not in fact attempting to resurrect, the humanities. He fails to define quite what he means by the term, but it appears he means what I and others have meant by the liberal arts, namely, those studies that help us better understand what it means to be human and how it is that we are to make sense of a world that seems on its face to be meaningless. His book has the cumbersome title: Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up On the Meaning of Life. Kronman stepped down as Dean of the Yale Law School in order to teach in a Freshmen elective course “Directed Studies” that focuses attention of the Great Books of Western Civilization.

In his book Kronman makes a strong case that the study of such things as great literature, philosophy, history, and the fine arts can help is to gain a wider perspective on our own lives, a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. He is convinced, as am I, that in our frenzy to follow wherever science and technology (especially the latter) lead we have lost the better part of ourselves. The only alternative for many people is fundamentalist religion.

Those who teach the humanities in our colleges and universities have bought into such things as political correctness and the research ideal that places careers ahead of classroom teaching and this, according to Kronman, has cost the humanities their very soul. They are dying from self-inflicted wounds, society and the academic community both agree that they have passed their must-sell-by date, they are passé and not worth pursuing. While students need more than ever to wonder what great minds have had to say about the meaning of life, humanities teachers are busy trying to convince the world that they are as respectable as the hard sciences by devising schemes that provide them with spurious “theories” about truth and reality. The end result is postmodernism, with its rejection of Western ideas and ideals.

There is considerable data that suggest that Kronman is correct in his assessment as increasing numbers of students ignore the humanities altogether in their pursuit of a career — which, they and their parents, are convinced, is the sole purpose of a higher education. As Kronman himself puts it:

“However urgently students feel pressed to choose a career, to get in a groove and start moving along, the college years are their last chance to examine their lives from a wider perspective and to develop the habit, which they will need later on, of looking at things from a point of view outside the channels of their careers. This is precisely what [the humanities] encourage. In doing so, they run against the grain of the belief  most students share that there is no point of view outside those channels. That a life is a career is for them an article of faith. [The humanities] put this piety in doubt by insisting on the importance of the idea of life as a whole. For the young person on the threshold of a career, nothing could be more disturbing or helpful.”

In a word, we live at a time when we need to ask the deeper questions about the meaning of our own lives and we are wasting our time, and that of our children and students , in pushing them into narrow career paths from which they lose perspective and forget what is truly important.

Kronmen is a bit overwrought at times and I hesitate to embrace his claims all at once. But he makes a sound point: our confusing and confused times demand a way, other than religious fundamentalism, to escape from the narrow world of self and relish the past accomplishments of our fellow humans, their remarkable accomplishments in the arts, science, and the humanities. We are cutting ourselves off from the past to our own detriment, forgetting those on whose shoulders we must stand if we are ever to get some sort of idea who we are and why we are here.

The colleges and universities are especially to blame for holding the humanistic studies in low esteem, but this simply reflects a world in which the practical and immediate are all-important and the past and the truly remarkable are ignored in an attempt to make ourselves more comfortable and make sure we are up to speed with the latest invention or the latest gadget that we are confident will make our lives more pleasant, if not more meaningful.

The Business of Education

Jeffrey Selingo, the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, has written a book titled College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means To Students. In his book he says, flatly, that “American higher education is broken” and lays to rest any faint hopes people like me have that the creature will somehow take on new life and make possible the education of generations to come. The creature has turned into big business and, like all businesses, it will adapt to changing circumstances and the demands of its clientele or perish. As one of the people Selingo interviews remarks, “In other industries, those who don’t innovate go out of business. . . Higher education shouldn’t be any different.” In a word, education is business and, like so many institutions in this country, including the Church, it has adopted the business model and is all about making a profit — not educating young minds. And in order to do that higher education will have to become whatever its prospective buyers want it to be, like Walmart. Selingo is not in the least sanguine about the current state of things; he recognizes the importance of the liberal arts to the students themselves who must acquire the skills of communication and thought to succeed in any enterprise whatever.  In a particularly telling passage he expresses his dismay:

“More than ever, American colleges and universities seem to be in every business but education. They are in the entertainment business, the housing business, the restaurant business, the recreation business, and, on some campuses, they operate what are essentially professional sports franchises. As colleges have grown more corporate in the past decade, they have started acting like Fortune 500 companies. Administrative salaries have ballooned, and members of boards of trustees are chosen for their corporate ties, not for their knowledge of higher education. Colleges now view students as customers and market their degree programs as products.”

As things now stand, it’s a booming business. There has been “an almost insatiable demand for college credentials.” And that is what education is now all about: credentials. Students approach colleges and universities in order to get a tailor-made program that will prepare them for the careers they hope to pursue for the rest of their lives. They refuse to buy off the rack: they want their suits made-to-fit. This is, after all, the age of entitlement. And the colleges are adept at meeting those demands, instituting 300 new majors in 2010 alone — added to the 1,400 already extant — to make sure they can attract and hold the growing demand and give the kiddies what they want. Gone are the days when folks like Robert Hutchins dreamed that colleges should be beacons rather than mirrors. They are mirrors, pure and simple. If they have not completely jettisoned the basic core requirement in the liberal arts — which used to be what higher education was all about — they have pared it down to a series of electives in a smattering of academic disciplines that guarantees the student very little knowledge about a range of unrelated subjects. This hardly passes muster as education in which the young are liberated from narrowness of vision and the short-sighted view of the world we associate with business where it is all about short-term profits. Despite the fact that these students have no idea what they  ought to know in order to propel them into a changing world and that they are practically guaranteed to change their career objectives several times before they are forty, they plunge ahead into a college that feels comfortable and take the courses that the brochures and marketing professionals hired by the colleges have assured them will guarantee them success and happiness here and now, and forever more.  Please note, the message is all about “information,” and, as Selingo points out, there is very little talk about how to process that information — i.e., how to think. This oversight is reflected in the results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment test given to currently enrolled upperclassmen in which over the years, especially, students who major in the more popular fields, such as, education, social work, and business tend to score low and follow-up research indicates that they are among the least successful college graduates — “three times more likely to be living at home with their parents, more likely to have run up credit card bills, and less likely to read the newspapers or discuss politics.” But, hey, caveat emptor.

The effects of the changes are widespread. For one thing, students “have come to regard their professors as service providers, just like a cashier at the supermarket or a waiter in a restaurant. . . . who must constantly innovate to serve students better, servicing students’ curiosity and their desire to apply knowledge to create impact.” This has resulted in a “major power-shift” in the classroom in which the students call the shots and evaluate their professors in the social media — hard graders scoring low. Selingo recounts a case in which an elderly biology professor who was giving low grades to his students was summarily removed from his classroom, in mid-semester, and replaced by another, younger professor who immediately boosted the grades of all students remaining in the class by 25% (many had already dropped out). After all, we don’t want to displease our customers: they might take their business elsewhere. And we wonder how grade inflation became rampant in the colleges and universities!

I have always felt as though I was on the bow of a huge ocean liner pissing into the wind as the ship heads blindly and very erratically into the unknown. I have this fear that the captain learned his trade online and hasn’t the slightest idea how to captain an actual ship — how to manoeuver in the fog or avoid icebergs. I have grown hoarse over the years trying to fight the inevitable — and I have known all along it was inevitable. And despite the groups like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni who have joined me on the bow of the ship trying to insist that colleges hang onto at least a semblance of a core, liberal education in the midst of handing out easy credits for whatever happens to be the day’s most popular fad, it seems clear that the future of education has been determined. From the perspective of the colleges and universities, the students are customers, they are not young people who need to be put in possession of their minds. In fact, their minds pretty much belong to the corporations that have molded them and who now own the colleges and universities and influence what students will learn in order to become obedient followers of the corporate piper in years to come.

 

In Defense of Education

I have referred in my blogs to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent group in Washington, D.C. that has been working since 1995 to improve the quality of America’s colleges and universities — to restore the word “higher” to higher education, as they would have it. I have supported this group from the beginning because I am convinced, like Madison and Jefferson, that our democracy cannot survive without an educated citizenry and it is clear that our schools are failing. My hope is that if the ACTA can apply pressure from above — to the faculty, alumni and trustees, the power-brokers at our institutions of higher education, then that pressure will be felt all the way down to K-12 where the problems that begin at home are exacerbated. To this point, the ACTA is having remarkable results and deserve the support of all those who care about the survival of our unique form of government, whether they have kids in school or not.

There are those, of course, (including many of those employed by the schools themselves) who deny our schools are in trouble. But as the recent annual report from the ACTA points out,

“Instead of providing students with a broad-based liberal arts education, too many schools allow the students to pick and choose from a smorgasbord of niche courses on ‘hip’ topics. 82% of schools do not require a basic survey course in U.S. History or Government, over 95% don’t require a course in Economics, and over 40% don’t require any college-level mathematics. Instead, students take courses like “The Fame Monster: The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga” and “The Sociology of the Living Dead: Zombie Films.”

As a result, as President Anne D. Neal of the ACTA points out in her report,

Surveys show that college graduates, including those from elite institutions, lack fundamental academic skills and are ignorant of the very basics of citizenship. They don’t know the term length of Congress and they can’t identify the father of the United States Constitution.”

Further, I would add, they cannot determine the amount required to tip in a restaurant and an alarming number of them graduate from college at an eighth-grade reading level.

Clearly, there is a problem. As noted, the ACTA’s goals are to return “higher” to higher education, to hold colleges and universities accountable, to keep tuition and costs affordable for students, to reduce the number of support staff and administrators and to reduce the bloated salaries of administrators, protect academic freedom, to restore rigor and real accountability to higher education. As Ms Neal puts it,

“Ours is a call for an education of intellectual growth, an education that expands perspectives and liberates minds, an education that prepares students for career and community.”

These are worthy goals, indeed. And they are being achieved by this remarkable group of people as more and more institutions turn to them for assistance in re-thinking curricula and planning for the future. If, as hoped, this puts pressure on the lower grades to prepare their graduates better for the challenges of a viable education and for life after school, this can only help get our democratic system back on track. It seems at the moment to have lost its way and the failure of the schools is, at least in part, responsible.