Ignoring History

As Santayana famously said, “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” But I would add that those who ignore history will find themselves lost in an increasiomghly confusing world. For all we know many of them would vote for a megalomaniac demagogue for president! Can you imagine??!!

I have referred in the past to the excellent group in Washington, D.C. — The American Council of Trustees and Alumni — that is acting as a watchdog over American higher education, drawing attention to the fact that the colleges and universities in this country (including most of the so-called “prestige” colleges) are failing their students. One of their favorite topics is the astonishing ignorance of American college students, across the country, regarding the history of their own country.

As we know, high schools no longer require a civics course, which would attack the problem a bit. But many do not require history either and the colleges that used to fill in those gaps are increasingly inclined to simply teach what the students want to learn rather than what they ought to learn. Call this a lack of confidence on the part of college faculties who lack conviction about what it is students ought to know. Or call it simply a lack of courage. But whatever we call it, it demonstrates why there is such wide-spread ignorance on the part of an electorale that has elevated a moron (and, some have said, a sociopath) to the position of one of the major candidates for president of this country — though one must note the exception of the students at Harvard in the Republican Club who recently voted (for the first time in Harvard’s history) not to endorse the Republican candidate for president! However, I stand by my generalization: this exception proves the rule, as they say.

In a recent publication by the A.C.T.A. we read about the depth of ignorance of which I speak:

“In surveys commissioned by the ACTA less than 20% of respondents could identify — in a multiple-choice survey — the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. Little more than half could identify the purpose of the Federalist Papers. Only 23% could pick James Madison as the Father of the Constitution.

“American colleges and universities are failing their students. . .only 18% [ of those institutions] require students to take even one course in U.S. history or government. . . .

“Despite the colleges’ purported commitment to the noble ambition of training graduates ‘to be responsible and active participants in civic life’ or ‘civic leaders for our society,’ American history has disappeared not only from the schools’ general education curricula, but also from the requirements for history majors.”

The report goes on at some length. But you get the idea. People from other countries who must take citizenship tests to become citizens in this country and earn the right to vote are asked to know more than those born in this country who are simply assumed to know enough to pull the right handle in political elections, or color in the correct box. It is appalling. But it certainly helps to explain why there are so many in this country who are prepared  to vote for Donald Trump and who hate Hillary Clinton because they have been told by those sitting on the political right that she is the devil incarnate. Without thinking they believe what they hear.

In a word, the failure of educators to take their responsibility seriously in helping students gain control of their own minds is at least partially responsible for the wide-spread ignorance in this country that has become gallingly apparent in recent months. But parents must also take responsibility for not demanding that the schools teach their kids what they need to know in order to become informed citizens of our democracy, and for insisting that their college-age kids avoid the Humanities and Arts (where they might learn to think). There’s plenty of blame to go around. But in the meantime, we are faced with a close presidential race when it ought to be a blowout!

Choosing Blindly

It’s time to take a break from the depressing news about the upcoming election in which the Trumpet keeps bringing more and more idiots onto his bandwagon. Here’s a post about something I have always regarded as very important and which I am realistic enough to acknowledge will not change.I speak about my opposition to electives in college. And while I am aware that most of my readers who have graduated from college have taken a host of electives I must mention that I am not talking about them. I am talking about the norm. Most students going to college these days are subjected to a system that has undermined the real strength of American higher education and rendered it a crapshoot.

The elective system was first introduced in Harvard by President Charles William Eliot in the 1920s. It was designed to provide young men [sic] who came to Harvard well prepared a number of choices at the upper levels of their education.The idea was to supplement the basic core education with a few courses in the student’s area of special interest to provide him with both a broad and a specialized knowledge. It made sense at the time. But it has become the bane of American higher education in my mind because — aside from the major courses which faculty members defend with their very lives — students now often have more electives than they do requirements. And this at a time when they come to college unprepared and in need of careful guidance. The elective system has even now filtered down to the level of high school where a growing number of schools allow the students to pick courses of varying merit from long lists of options.

The problem here is that the system rests on the assumption that the students are in position to make choices that will benefit them in the long run. It presupposes that they know something about each of the options they face before they make their choice — they know that physics is more important than badminton. This was a reasonable assumption in Eliot’s day. It most assuredly is not any more.

Imagine, if you will, a hungry young person in France who speaks no French facing a table filled with food labelled in the native language they do not speak. They are allowed to choose any food they want from the table with the proviso that what they choose will be both healthy and beneficial to future growth. It won’t happen. Obviously. They will hesitate, ask friends, and in the end take what look best in the off-chance that it will fulfill the requirements demanded of them. In the end, I predict, they will eat the sweet foods and leave the vegetables and become sick and emaciated. The parallel here is almost exact, except that in higher education we are concerned about mental health rather than physical well-being.

The problem has arisen because since the 1960s college faculty members have grown increasingly uncertain about just what it is that students need in order to become intelligent, thoughtful adults. They understand their own area of specialization and because territory has become increasingly important to insecure faculty members who worry about their continued employment, they seek to increase major requirements at their college and reduce the number of “core” courses that are the residue of what was left after students attacked requirements as “irrelevant” in the 1960s. In many colleges and universities, those core requirements have been totally replaced with electives, either free electives of selected electives in groups that give the student the illusion of real choice.

The problem is the students are not in a position to choose sensibly, unless it were possible to have them choose in close association with a faculty member of demonstrated objectivity who is clearly concerned primarily with what is best for the student and not what is best for his or her department or career. Such a person is rare indeed, and most faculty sluff-off advising because there are too many students and they prefer to spend their time doing things they regard as more important. Furthermore, they are primarily concerned with filling their own classrooms.  I know this from personal experience and from the talks I have had with colleagues from around the country whose experience mirrors my own.

The point is that students are given choices before they are in position to choose wisely. They are like the hungry young person facing a table filled with food that is entirely foreign to them: they choose blindly and stupidly, at times for the worst of reasons — “I have that hour open,” “Fred told me the professor was easy,” “I needed another elective.” What’s important is that the course they choose benefit them in the long run, helps them gain control of their own minds. That will not, cannot, happen unless they choose wisely and that presupposes they know what they cannot possibly know until after they have made the choice. It’s a classic “Catch 22.” But the fault lies not with the students, who do not know any better; it lies with the faculty who should know better.


Failing To Deliver

I have from time to time bemoaned the fact in these blogs that our schools are failing to educate students. I have also noted that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington, D. C. has decided to do something about the failure of the colleges and universities, in particular. I would argue that the lower grades are failing their students as well, but the approach of the ACTA is to embarrass higher education into cleaning up its house in the expectation that this will require that the lower grades do so as well. If, for example, colleges and universities required two years of a foreign language upon entrance (as they once did), then high schools would have to provide such courses for those students who plan to attend college (as they once did). And this is true even for such basic things as English grammar which is now being taught in remedial courses in a majority of the colleges across this great land of ours — and a few professional schools as well — if you can imagine.

In any event, the ACTA recently sent out a mailing to help raise monies to further their cause. In that material they sent along some disturbing facts that help them make the case for a solid core requirement in all American undergraduate colleges to provide their graduates with the basic tools they will need in order to be productive citizens in a democracy and better able to advance in whatever profession they chose to follow after college. They identify seven areas from composition and literature to mathematics and science which all colleges need to cover; moreover, they have found after an exhaustive survey over several years that the vast majority of American colleges get failing grades. My undergraduate college received an “A” grade, but my graduate school received a grade of “D” because their undergraduate core includes only foreign language and science. If you want to know more you might check out their web page (info@goacta.org). The only question that is not raised in their material is why the high schools aren’t teaching these basic courses. One does wonder. In any event, here are some of the facts that they bring forward to make their case against so many of our colleges today:

Even after the highly publicized television series on the Roosevelts, “recent college graduates showed, in large numbers, that they simply don’t know or understand what the Roosevelts did or even the difference between Teddy and Franklyn.” Further, one of the ACTA’s recent surveys showed that “More than half of college graduates didn’t know that Franklyn D. Roosevelt served four terms in office; A third of college graduates couldn’t pick FDR out from a multiple list of the presidents who spearheaded the New Deal; Barely half of the college graduates could identify Teddy Roosevelt as leading the construction of the Panama Canal.” The problem extends much further than failure to know about the Roosevelts. In general terms, quoting from an editorial in the Wall Street Journal,

“A majority of U.S. college graduates don’t know the length of a congressional term, what the Emancipation Proclamation was, or which Revolutionary War general led the American troops at Yorktown. . . .The reason for such failures, according to a recent study: Few schools mandate courses in core subjects like U.S. government, history, or economics. The sixth annual analysis of core curricula at 1,098 four-year colleges and universities by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that just 18% of schools require American history to graduate, 13% require a foreign language, and 3% require economics.”

The truly astonishing (and distressing) thing is that an increasing number of American colleges and universities allow “Mickey Mouse” courses to count as core courses: the University of Colorado offers “Horror Films and American Culture.” UNC-Greensboro considers “Survey of Historic Costumes” a core course, and Richard Stockton College of New jersey lets students satisfy the core history requirement with “Vampires: History of the Undead.” I kid you not. These are examples picked at random from a list that continues to grow as college faculty seek to draw students to their classes (and thereby guarantee their jobs) without any consideration whatever of the benefits of such courses — or lack thereof — to the student. Believe me, I know whereof I speak. As former Harvard President Larry Summers wrote recently:

“The threat today is less from overreaching administrators and trustees than it is from prevailing faculty orthodoxies that make it very difficult for scholars holding certain views to advance in certain fields.”

What Summers is speaking about is the determination of a great many faculty members at our colleges and universities to teach courses they want to teach simply to increase enrollments or, perhaps, to remedy what they perceive as past injustices; most are unwilling to teach courses that draw on Western tradition, the subject matter that has informed generations, because they firmly believe the works of “dead, white European males” are at the core of what is wrong with the world today. Worse yet, they discourage their students from taking such courses and disparage their colleagues who want to teach them. In my experience, many of these same people reveal their own ignorance of the very tradition they turn their backs upon and deny to their students. And they certainly don’t care whether the courses they teach instead will benefit their students in the long run — which would appear to be the central question.

The ACTA seeks to publicly embarrass trustees and alumni at American colleges and universities into putting pressure on the administrations and governing boards to remedy this situation. And it is working. The organization has attracted a great deal of attention to the problem and keeps a list of the colleges and universities that have modified their core requirements; they annually gives grades to all in an attempt to draw attention to the fact that in so many cases parents and students are simply not getting their money’s worth — especially given the escalating costs of college tuition these days.

Finding Meaningful Employment

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, written by a graduate student in English at the University of Cincinnati bemoans the fact that there simply is no work out there for young doctoral students in the Humanities. The student’s name is Katharine Polak and she says, in part,

For instance, Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, wrote in the January/February 2010 issue of Academe that “the only thing the Ph.D. now reliably confers is the potential for lifetime poverty and underemployment.” Apparently, though my program is excellent, I will be among the snookered, vagabond English adjunct scholars milling around the countryside, doomed to a life of the vicissitudes of enrollment and discretionary spending. Or, more likely, I will pursue my second career choice: swamp hermit. I will scream my Lacanian analyses at unsuspecting families hiking through my territory. There will be some dignity in my bog.

This is not new, of course. The job market for young people coming out of graduate school in English, history and philosophy, especially, has been bleak for some time. When our university hired an adjunct professor in philosophy some time ago, the man had been selling men’s clothing for a living — after getting his PhD at a prestigious university. That was nearly forty years ago! And more recently, when we advertised a tenure-track position the applications came in the hundreds. It is depressing. And the young woman who writes this article is correct: the professors in the graduate schools need to be honest and open with the students and brace them for the tough road ahead. Further, graduate schools in the Humanities ought to consider limiting the number of students they admit in the first place, though one hesitates to discourage people who want to continue to learn — as long as they know what’s in store for them.

I spoke with a medical doctor recently whose daughter had just completed her PhD at Yale in Art History and had no idea whatever where she would go from there. He was astonished that people could work for 4 or 5 years (or more) at the graduate level getting a degree with no guarantee of work to follow –unlike those in his field who were pretty much guaranteed a job at the outset. But at the risk of sounding unsympathetic (which I am not), I would point out that the object in earning a degree — any degree — is not to get a job. It never was or never should have been. The idea is that we stay in school in order to continue to learn. The degree simply marks stages of intellectual growth along the way. If we get a job, that’s icing on the cake: it’s not the goal of getting the degree in the first place. There’s something to be said for dignifying the bog.

But I fully realize that this is pie-in-the sky idealism. The hard realities are that people need to work, and after spending eight+ years after high school earning a PhD, one really doesn’t want to spend the rest of his or her life working in Walmart (for starvation wages) or dignify the bog with “Lacanian analyses.” But reality also screams out that the on-line universities are gaining speed and, given the rising tuition costs, will make further inroads into enrolments at the college level like nothing we have seen so far. If we think things are bad now, imagine what it will be like when increasing numbers of students earn their degrees online and don’t need to be in contact with live college professors at all!

I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation with a fellow-blogger named Jennifer who is very much interested in this situation. There’s no doubt that online “education” is growing and expanding its reach — even in respectable schools like Harvard. And this situation will make it even more difficult for young PhDs to find meaningful work. But I proposed in a comment on Jennifer’s blog that some sort of compromise be worked out to control the monster that threatens to grow large and eradicate real, meaningful education. In this model, online instruction would be restricted to the lower levels of college and students would be required to attend classes on campus with live students and professors in their last two years, preferably in small classes or seminars. In addition, teaching assistants would still be employed in grading and responding to online questions at the lower levels. It is not ideal and the problems listed by the young woman in Cincinnati will continue to get worse. But it is an attempt to restore some sort of order into educational chaos that seems to be getting worse and which also threatens to make the future job market for PhDs in the Humanities even more bleak.

Inflated Grades and Ethics

In a presentation to an ATHENA Roundtable sponsored by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, former Harvard President Larry Summers made a provoking comment, noting that grade inflation in our schools and colleges is a moral issue. “A society that tolerates the grade inflation of its students should not be surprised when it finds the inflation of corporate earnings in those students 20 years later.” Grade inflation is indeed a moral issue, because it is dishonest and disrespectful for teachers and professors to give students grades they don’t deserve. And the teachers and professors are shirking their responsibility.

There is no question that grade inflation is common in our academic communities and has been for some time. The data are compelling and need not be recounted here. But one glaring example is Columbia University Medical School which no longer gives preferential treatment to Harvard graduates because they all have an “A” average. I recall a few years ago when I was chairman of a large department and had access to copies of grade reports I saw that a number of my colleagues, especially in the education department, simply weren’t giving grades lower than A-. This is absurd. Worse, it is dishonest and, and as I say, disrespectful of the students. They deserve better: they deserve to be treated fairly.

When the lowest grade in a course with 30 students in it is an A- the student who has worked hard and has done really well gets what is essentially the same grade as everyone else. And when the poorer students who have been passed along with high grades graduate and go to work they are in for a shock. Employers are not likely to be so generous. In this regard, one could argue that giving a higher grade than the student deserves is not only disrespectful, but also mean, since it fuels the students’ illusion that he or she has a greater mastery of the material than is in fact the case.

We are fond of saying that the problems we have in the schools merely reflect the larger problems in society as a whole. This may actually be true in this case, though I doubt it as a general rule: some problems in the schools are peculiar to the academic world. But grade inflation is assuredly a symptom of our permissive society. We hate to say “no” to our kids for fear we will stunt their growth and development. That’s what we have been told for years by pop psychologists and we have taken it to heart — even though it is a lot of hogwash. Kids need to be told “no” when they make mistakes; it’s one of the first words they should be taught at home. Further, they can learn important lessons from their failures. That’s one of the most persuasive reasons to keep sports in the schools: sports are one of the few places left where kids are asked to do things they may not want to do and failure is a given. Not everyone can win. And not everyone should be given an A grade when their work is only average.

So what can be done? There’s a simple solution. And that is to record all of the students’ grades with a parenthesis after each grade noting the average grade in that class. Thus if Susan gets an A in biology and her report notes that the average grade in that class was a C- we know Susan did a great job. If Sarah gets a B in sociology where the average grade was B+ we know her performance was below par. The grades will start to mean something and faculty will be more inclined to give honest grades as the reports will reveal how “generous” they were in grading the students in the class. No one wants to be found out!

But in the end, we need to accept the fact that grade inflation is indeed a moral problem, as Larry Summers noted. And in doing so we need to consider what we can do about it instead of simply looking away with a shrug and saying “that’s a common problem; it’s just  the way things are.” It doesn’t have to be.

Effective Teaching

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had an article about a conference at Harvard on teaching and learning. This was apparently newsworthy because it happened at Harvard. I have attended such conferences over the years that never made the Chronicle. But it raises questions about what on earth Harvard has been doing for the past century while other, lesser, institutions have been holding conferences to try to improve teaching and learning “delivery systems,” as we like to call them. The article begins with the following paragraph:

A growing body of evidence from the classroom, coupled with emerging research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, is lending insight into how people learn, but teaching on most college campuses has not changed much, several speakers said here at Harvard University at a daylong conference dedicated to teaching and learning.

Impressive, no? You bet. “Emerging research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience.” Big words. Must be earth-shattering. Not really. What these people conclude in the end is that lecturing is not an effective method of teaching. This is especially the case since today’s students are less curious than previous generations of students. THAT I didn’t know! But I have always known that the lecture, where students sit passively and take notes only to regurgitate the information on a test and then forget it is not all that effective. For most people. My wife learned that way and still remembers most of what she was taught. It works for some who listen carefully and take good notes — and have exceptional memories. But studies done years ago showed that the lecture is the worst method to use in teaching. The student is passive and misses the majority of the material, as a rule. We didn’t need Harvard to tell us that.

So for the majority passive learning really doesn’t work. Consequently, conferees at Harvard recommend having the students write a good bit. This would work for large classes if the professor is willing to read what has been written and then engage the writer in a dialogue about the subject written about. Verbal exchange is essential. In small groups there is no substitute for the Socratic method — dialogue among students and faculty, with the faculty member(s) simply trying to move the discussion along rather than taking over and filibustering. The temptation to filibuster is strong, because those on the teaching end are convinced they know so much more than their students. But it’s not all about what we know. It’s about what happens in the student’s head. In order to get the thinking process started (especially in students who are not overly curious) one cannot beat the provocative question.

The best man I ever taught with — in a team-teaching situation — was very good at this. He asked his question and then just sat quietly waiting for the students to respond. If students are not familiar with this approach, it can take some time for one of them to speak up. The leader’s temptation is to jump in and answer the question himself. But that defeats the purpose and accomplishes nothing. Further, it’s what the students come to expect, since all their lives the teachers have done all the talking. But when they know they must say something, they will finally jump in. If necessary, the leader can ask a specific student a direct question related to the opening one. It’s all about asking questions and waiting for the students to respond. It can take time, and it takes patience and a willingness to keep quiet. But it works, though it is certainly not new, and hardly requires a conference at America’s “leading” university. Socrates knew all about it centuries ago.