The Eighth Circle

“Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States”

(William DuBois)

As last year started to draw to a close — and what a year it was — my mind turned to self-scrutiny and it occurred to me that a confession of sorts is in order. As one who has spent his entire adult life attempting to put young people in possession of their own minds (and free them from the clutches of others, myself included), it occurred to me that what we are doing in higher education is a bit fraudulent. This put me in mind of Dante whose extraordinary Inferno deals with those of us who are guilty of fraud. I speak of the eighth circle of Hell.

There are ten levels in the eighth circle, the so-called “malebolges.” In the sixth of those ten levels — all worked out as if by magic with Dante’s poetic eye on medieval dogma and the wisdom of Aristotle — we find those who are the hypocrites, those who have been duplicitous, leading others to follow the wrong path. As the excellent translator, Ciardi, says in his introduction to this Canto in the Inferno,

“Here the hypocrites weighed down by the great leaden robes, walk eternally round and round a narrow track. The robes are brilliantly guided on the outside and are shaped like a monk’s habit, for the hypocrite’s outward appearance shines brightly and passes for holiness, but under that show lies the terrible weight of his deceit which his soul must bear through all eternity.”

In Dante’s own words, which we can feel in spite of the fact that they are translated for us:

“All wore great cloaks cut to as ample a size

as those worn by the Benedictines at Cluny.

The enormous hoods were drawn over their eyes.

 

“The outside is all dazzle, golden and fair;

the inside, lead, so heavy that Frederick’s capes,

compared to these, would seem as light as air.

 

“O weary mantle for eternity!

We turned to the left again along their course,

listening to their moans of misery.”

Why all the fuss? And why charge myself and my fellow “professors” with hypocrisy? Because there is hypocrisy in the willingness of those of us in “higher” education to say one thing and do quite another. We promise those who pay their tuition that they will be educated. The evidence suggests that this is simply not happening. The students who attend college go away thousands of dollars in debt but little affected by their four years — except, perhaps, having learned how to binge-drink and party hearty. And, perhaps, one or two have picked up a bit of knowledge along the way. So many slip between the cracks. So many go away unchanged in important ways by what has occurred.

The problem is that education has become a business and like any business the only measure of success is the “bottom line.” And the bottom line reveals that higher education, so-called, is taking the undergraduates for an expensive ride and not getting the job done. Students are charged high tuition fees and are promised an education– and, at best, they get job training or, perhaps, an occasional glimpse into a world not of their liking, a world of ideas and wisdom that demands of them more effort than they are willing to put out — or, indeed, are used to putting out — and little assurance of employment after graduation.

There are notable exceptions, of course. There are a few colleges, mostly small ones, that stress the “liberal arts,” that do attempt and at times succeed in educating their charges. But on the whole the entire education edifice rests on sand. The promises have become mere words on paper, they mean little and they smell of gaseous air. Instead of committing themselves to the education of those that come, hat in hand, to be educated they instead provide them with emotional counseling, a country-club atmosphere, and a smattering of tips designed to help them get a job after graduation — whether it fulfills them as human beings or not.

In a word, the colleges care not a tittle about the students and their real needs. Instead, they deliver what the students want and the faculty are willing to deliver — as long as it doesn’t take them away from their own personal and professional diversions — and they get a decent paycheck.  Surely, this sort of behavior is precisely what Dante was talking about and what those who promise one thing and deliver quite another are deserving of in the end.

(My tongue is only part-way in my cheek. My concern here is serious and the problem deserving of serious thought — as is the failure of education on the whole.)

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The Short Term

Some years back my wife and I attended an informational meeting in a nearby town where the plan was to build a new coal-burning plant to generate electricity. There were many questions following the presentation — which was clearly designed to let people think they were a part of the decision-making process (which we all pretty well knew we weren’t). At one point a farmer asked what would happen to the large area where the plant was to be built after it had run its course and was shut down. The representative from the company smiled paternalistically and noted that his models didn’t allow them to predict what would happen more than, perhaps, five years down the line.

At that point the farmer rejoined that he didn’t need models; if they didn’t build the plant he knew exactly what would become of the land, to wit, it would still be producing corn and beans! He received a well-deserved round of applause and the representative from the company that was proposing the plant was silenced. Silencing a bullshitter is a good thing, which is why the farmer received well-deserved applause. There needs to be more of that sort of thing.

In any event, I have been going on for many years about the value of a broad, liberal education to teach young people how to use their minds rather than to simply learn a trade — or what we now call a “profession.” I noted in a recent post that data show that in the long term young people will make more money if they do at least combine liberal courses in the arts and sciences along with their more “practical” major. I also noted a recent study that shows that increasingly parents encourage their kids to take practical courses of study and avoid the liberal arts as a waste of money. In a word, their parents are focused on the short term.

One of the comments I received was from a mother of several children who is rightly concerned about the high costs of higher education — now leaving young people with huge debts after graduation. They need to find a job and start paying back the loans they required to attend college in the first place. No question. I am not blind to the fact that many colleges now cost more than most families can afford and that debt is the name of the game. But my point in that post was that short-term thinking has become pervasive in this country and it has affected the way we think about such things as education.

The worry about that first job after graduation is understandable, but the notion that one must take a course of study that promises immediate employment (if there is such a thing) ignores the fact that people change jobs several times before reaching their forties and in many cases they must return to college and be retrained for a new job. It also ignores the critical fact, noted above, that the students who take a broader approach to education — at least combining liberal courses with their narrow major field of interest — will make more money in the long run.

But that’s the point: we have lost sight of the “long run” because we have been convinced by the business world — the world of coal-burning plants that generate electricity — that we must focus on the short run. In the business world, of course, this is profit and loss.

But, as I noted previously, business has no business determining the paradigms for education at any level. Indeed, even in business focus on the short term is not always the wisest course of action. We all need to think about the long term effects of decisions we make today. This includes such things as concerns about global warming which is not so long-term as it was a few years ago, and, of course, education where the long term — the young person’s entire life — is at issue.

Beacon or Mirror?

Like so many colleges and universities around the country, tiny Iowa Wesleyan, a college with an enrollment of 650 students in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, has recently announced that it will be eliminating sixteen academic majors, mostly in the liberal arts, in order to concentrate on majors in more practical disciplines — where the student demand and the jobs are. As the president of the college said in a recent statement:

The reorganization will allow Iowa Wesleyan College to focus its resources on academic programs that have high demand and strong student enrollment. They include business administration, nursing, elementary and early childhood education, human services, physical education, exercise science and wellness, psychology, pre-medical studies, biology, criminal justice, and music.

The irony is that recent studies reveal that college graduates who majored in one of the liberal arts (contrary to popular opinion) make more money in their lifetime than those students who major in one of the “useful arts.” But I will ignore that, since the problem here is that Iowa Wesleyan is simply following a national trend and it is one that has serious repercussions for us all.

Let me begin by stating that I am fully aware of the financial pressures on small colleges (especially) these days, with tuition increases and the pressure from low-cost online colleges promising the sky to those who demand an education. The students around the country are taking courses in “practical areas” where they are convinced the jobs are and they are eschewing the liberal arts and humanities where the jobs are not. I get that. It’s been going on for some time. But it is not only wrong-headed but also short-sighted — and a serious problem when one considers that the trend takes our young people away from an education that develops their minds and simply trains them for jobs. I have blogged about this before, but it remains a problem. Indeed, it is a growing problem. Ignoring for the momenbt the fact that liberal arts graduates make more money in their lifetime, since this really shouldn’t be the issue, democracy needs citizens who can use their minds and the trend away from education to job training does not promise much in the way of enlightened citizens in the future. It worried an astute thinker such as Antonio Gramsci many years ago in Italy which stressed job training for its students and eventually went the way of fascism, and it should be worrisome to us in a nation founded by men who knew how necessary a good education was to the survival of this democracy. Education breeds leaders who can think for themselves; training breeds followers who will do what they are told.

Years ago Robert Hutchins remarked that colleges should be beacons, not mirrors. They should stand fast and hold the line against the latest fashion and the various trends that come and go. An education, properly conceived, prepares a young person for an uncertain future and also enables them to train for whatever jobs that might be available when they graduate — and, moreover, enables them to change direction quickly as trends change and/or their preferences become altered as they mature. Job training prepares that person for a specific job and if they later find it stifling they must go back to school to re-train and redirect their energies elsewhere. Colleges, as Hutchins suggests, are supposed to provide the students what they need for their future endeavors, whatever those might be, and not simply give them what they want at present

My suggestion to my students when I advised them was to find something they loved to do and concentrate on that field while they are in college, even if the subject is viewed as “useless” by their parents or the marketing people. Of course, they might be wise to also take some practical courses in such things as business and computer science to enable them to find that first job. But they shouldn’t succumb to pressure and prostitute themselves to a narrow career path that might lead to a lower income in the long run and eventually a dead-end. I have had letters from students years after they graduated who thanked me for that advice and one letter from a young woman who did not take the advice and told me years later she wished she had. In any event, the breadth of preparation is essential to a young person’s future happiness and the colleges do them a great disservice to simply cater to their current whims and eliminate those courses that have little market appeal even though they are central to a good education. The only thing certain about the future is that it will change.

Thus, Iowa Wesleyan, like so many of its sister institutions around the country, is making a mistake of the first order. It is, obviously, driven by marketing strategies (though I note in passing that the college supports fourteen different sports programs, including football, with no plans to cut any of them). But even in a nation where the demand is for the practical and the useful it is the purpose of the college to show young people the direction they should take, not simply to blindly follow their lead. As Hutchins said, they should be beacons, not mirrors. And they can survive in a very tight market by making clear what their ideals are and convincing the young that those ideals will translate into the best possible preparation for their own uncertain futures.

The Kids and The Critics

When Mark Bauerlein joined the ranks of such thinkers as Maureen Stout, Jane Healy and Charles Sykes (among many others) by seeming to attack the younger generation in his book The Dumbest Generation he was both praised and pilloried. One of his critics sounded one of the most hackneyed mantras around by attacking the author in a familiar ad hominem: “Here we go again, an aging schoolmaster knocking the kids. The old ones did it when Elvis arrived and now they do it because of Grand Theft Auto. We’ve heard the grievance many times, the lament of graying folks, so let’s not take it too seriously.” Well, as one of the graying folks who has added his shrill, small voice to the chorus, I take offense at the ad hominem and would simply say: look at the evidence. Today’s kids are generally wasting their time in school — when they even bother to attend. They are learning very little and the emphasis on job preparation and the love affair the teaching establishment has with technical gizmos is depriving the kids of the chance to expand their minds and become vital participants in our failing democratic system. More than anything else, a democracy requires an educated electorate — or at least one that knows how many Senators each state has and how many Supreme Court justices there are. Today’s kids do not: civics is seldom even taught in the schools any more. Worse yet, the kids simply don’t care.

I do wonder how many of Bauerlein’s critics have actually spent time in the trenches — in the classroom with the kids they glorify and defend as tomorrow’s answer to today’s problems. It certainly makes sense in this youth-worshipping culture where aging is regarded as a certain sign of senility that there would be fierce defenders of the kids, defenders like James Glassman and William Strauss (authors of The Next Great Generation) who are convinced the kids are under immense pressure these days and are being unfairly attacked by people like Bauerlein and Stout and the rest. But as one who spent 42 years teaching kids from 9 years of age through graduate courses I can say I have seen first hand what all the data reflect: the kids in fact experience very little academic pressure and they spend precious little effort on things academic — the average college student spending 3 hours and 41 minutes a day watching television and enjoying seemingly endless weekend parties. There is a serious problem in the classrooms of this country as the kids are taking advantage of a system that asks very little of them. Please note that I do not fault the kids, so those who defend them can save their pet ad hominems. I fault the system, of which I was a part for so long, because it is defrauding the kids and their parents who are spending large sums of money to pay for something that isn’t worth much in the final analysis.

I kept examples of my many of tests and syllabi that I passed out during my years of teaching at the college level and I saw first hand the deterioration of the education process: I simply could not assign difficult reading assignments or ask complex questions on tests toward the end. The students weren’t able to understand what the authors wrote or what I was asking – with notable exceptions, thank Heavens! If Bauerlein meant by “dumb” what the word literally means, he was perfectly justified in ascribing that quality to today’s youngsters. They are dumb: they cannot speak. Nor can they read or write or add. They are, for all intents and purposes, illiterate, and recent studies show they are defiant and even proud of that fact. They regard reading as a waste of time. It’s not surprising that their vocabulary has shrunk by 72% since the 50s when it was already shrinking. They cannot grasp such things as hypothetical sentences where consequences are dependent on antecedents for their full meaning.  They cannot understand what authors are saying in books that have been read and understood for centuries. Many cannot grasp the “cheaters” that are written down to the ill-equipped in order to explain what the books say. Worse yet, in a recent N.A.E.P. civics exam a full 45% could not understand basic information on a sample ballot. They cannot calculate a tip in a restaurant — even if it’s only 10%. And they cannot write complete sentences, though, I am given to understand they tweet endlessly in a kind of newspeak which we must assume they do understand. The data are overwhelming and it makes perfect sense since very few of them read even the backs of cereal boxes any more and they are allowed to use calculators in math class. They have traded their books (which, admittedly, many of us read only grudgingly lo those many years ago) for their electronic toys. These toys are rotting their brains, from all reports. And this is what has people like Bauerlein and Jane Healy worried. They have collected the data which so many others choose to ignore and it stares them in the face. As educators themselves, they know what those data mean and it disturbs them deeply.

So those who fault the “graying folks” for merely turning over the cold ashes of past worries about the younger generation should take notice. There really are new and serious problems and they cannot be dismissed with a toss of the hand and smart remarks about the age and character of those who point them out. It’s time to stop shooting the messenger. To be sure, there may be some exaggeration amid the reams of criticisms of today’s youth. But in both education and in the general culture as well what we’re seeing is a descending spiral in which many of those who should be addressing the problem are part of the problem itself, simply because they refuse to admit it is there.

Back In School

The Chicago teachers’ strike has been resolved to the relief of many. The teachers are happy to be back at work and parents are relieved that their kids are back in school. Sounds euphoric. But a couple of comments by parents in a recent story about the return strike me as most interesting. Consider:

“I am elated. I couldn’t be happier,” said Erica Weiss, who had to leave work in the middle of the day to pick up her 6-year-old daughter. “I have no one else to watch her. … I can’t even imagine the people who could have possibly even lost their jobs over having to stay home with their kids because they have no alternate care. It just put everyone in a pickle.”

Wilonda Cannon, a single mother raising her four children in North Lawndale, a West Side neighborhood beset by gang shootings and poverty, said she was relieved that her two youngest kids would be returning to class after spending the last seven school days with their grandfather.

Now I’m not completely out of touch with reality, philosopher though I am, but this strikes me as worthy of comment. These parents are relieved that their kids are back in school because it makes their lives easier. I know, I know. It’s not just about that. But it does seem that for these people, like so many others, school is just a way to keep the kids busy while the parents are off at work, doing what really matters. I hate to say this, but it sounds like teachers are being relegated to the roles of baby-sitters. No?

Clearly, this is part of the relief the parents feel — and rightly so. It is a confusing mess to try to figure out what to do with the kids when there is no school and parents have to work each day. But what about the real meaning of an end to the teachers’ strike? What about the fact that the kids are returning to school to improve their minds, to get an education?

I realize that in Chicago this argument may be a hard one to make. The teachers make  salaries well above the national average while it appears their students aren’t doing very well. This would seem to be the case if we look at the usual signs: drop-outs, which are high; graduation rates, which are low; SAT scores, which are below national averages; number of students attending college, which are also below the national average. But then the challenges the teachers have in crowded schools in a city like Chicago must boggle the mind. It’s a wonder they get anything done — and there are success stories that stand out above the dark numbers that scare critics.

In fact, it is a wonder that teachers in America’s schools get anything done across the board: they are underpaid — for the most part — and subject to constant scrutiny and criticism by people who want tangible results and are unable to grasp what education is really all about. And beyond that they are asked to raise the kids because their parents are otherwise preoccupied.

And that is my point. The comments by the parents quoted above, while understandable under the circumstances, reveal a lack of awareness of what education is really all about that is shared by the vast majority of people in this country. Education is not about keeping kids off the streets, though it does do that; it is not about helping the kids get jobs later on, though it does that (given the restraints of the economy); nor is it about making sure they get into good colleges, though that is a plus; and it is certainly not about raising the kids the parents have too often ignored. Education is about putting young people into possession of their own minds, making sure today’s kids are tomorrow’s thinkers and leaders – at the very least astute enough to detect the smarmy politician posing as one of society’s great benefactors!  Let’s not lose sight of what is important in the tizzy of seeing the teachers off the picket lines and back behind their desks — and the kids once again somewhere else being taken care of while Mom and Dad go to work. What’s important are the minds of today’s kids which seem to be a low priority with most of us.

Crimes In Our Colleges

One of the crimes committed each day in our colleges nationwide is the crime of poor advising. The students are manipulated to fill classrooms in order to protect faculty positions. Let’s take a typical case. The names will be changed to protect the innocent.

Sandy is a young 18 year-old women who has entered Myway State University and meets with her faculty adviser on the first day of registration. She enters college without knowing what she wants to do with her life — after all, she’s only 18! But she has a notion that it would be fun to sell things, so she ends up in the room with the Marketing adviser. That person greets her with a smile and promptly sits her down with a class schedule and tries to help her decide which among the hundreds of classes will be best for her. To begin with, she has to get her “generals” out of the way, as the adviser tells her with a sneer (thereby forever turning the young woman’s mind against “General Education,” which she now perceives to be a waste of her time). Once they are “out of the way” she can get to the important classes — in Marketing, of course.

Long story short, Sandy graduates with a good G.P.A. and discovers that there are very few jobs available and the few she applies for go to people with more experience. She is told again and again that what she learned in college is pretty much passé and she would have been better off waiting to learn marketing skills on the job, should she ever find one. Sandy is now caught between a rock and a hard place. She has narrow job skills and very few prospects. What went wrong?

It started in that room where she met with her adviser, of course. It started with the sneer about “generals.” The general courses are precisely the courses that would have broadened her perspective and given her a wider view and better skills once she found herself a job. Recent studies even suggest it would have helped her find a job in the first place. There are still jobs out there for good people, people who can use their minds, have good communication skills, can prepare a clear presentation, and write a coherent report. In other words, liberal skills, the skills that are taught in the “general” courses her adviser snickered at when she was a Freshman. To be sure, a few marketing courses would have looked good on her résumé, though she may have already begun to have reservations about going into that field by the time she graduated. After all, it was four years ago and she’s a changed person. In any event, those courses should have been kept at a minimum and most of her time would have been better spent on general courses, the ones her adviser steered her away from.

That crime, and thousands like it are repeated every day on college campuses across the country. And the faculty advisers keep guiding students into narrow channels from which they cannot escape when it turns out later they cannot find employment, or they find themselves in a dead-end job. The skills that comprise what have been called the “liberal arts” are precisely those skills that allow young people to negotiate in the rough waters of a changing world and avoid the rocks of disappointment. And they have come into disfavor on college campuses because so many faculty members were themselves trained in narrow specializations and that’s all they know about higher education. In order to keep their jobs it behooves them to advise students to do what they did: become narrow and over-specialized. But whatever you do, take my classes!

During the thirty years I advised honor students who were majoring in various disciplines I saw this time after time — and not just in fields like marketing but in every academic area. Further, everything I read led me to conclude that it was happening in colleges and universities all over the country. It is a crime, indeed, and one for which no one gets punished except the students who are paying through the nose for an “education when, in fact, they are getting narrow job training that restricts them for life.