Watch Out For Snakes

I reached back to 2011 for this repost. It deals with one of my favorite topics and remains as relevant today as it did then — especially with an election coming up. 

If I enter a room filled with paper bags, one of which holds a rattlesnake while the others are filled with treats, am I free to grab a bag filled with treats? In one sense I am, in another I am not. I am free to grab any bag I want to because no one is holding a gun to my head and my hands are not tied. But I am not free in the sense that I do not know which bag holds the treats and which might hold the rattlesnake. Real freedom consists of knowledge and if I am ignorant I am not really free. There is a fundamental difference between blind choice and informed choice.

This is a simple illustration of a very important point that has been lost on most of us because we think that the more bags we have, the more bread in our stores, the more items on Amazon, the freer we are. And in this sense we in America are more free to grab almost any bag we want to — well, most of us are, and the wealthier we are the more bags we can grab. But real freedom is not a function of the number of bags. Unless we know which bag holds the snake, we are hopelessly ignorant and our ignorance can render us very sick or even dead from a fatal rattlesnake bite. Just think about political elections and the snakes we have grabbed, especially of late, to guide the country!

This is why education is so important: because it is only through an education properly conceived that we can be truly free. A liberal  education sets us free from ignorance, that is, from the things that can truly harm us. Ironically, Harvard College introduced the concept of “elective courses” into their curriculum in the 1930s when they mistakenly assumed that freedom is a matter of blind choice. Other colleges soon followed their lead, as did the high schools and even many grammar schools (the “free schools”). Now the idea has become so entrenched in the heads of educators that they are eliminating any semblance of liberal education by reducing — or eliminating altogether — the core courses that are pretty much all that remains of the notion that there are some things people should know in order to become truly free. The assumption that the young are free is absurd, since freedom does not consist in the ability to choose the bag with the rattlesnake in it.

Freedom regarded simply as blind choice will eventually become chaos when carried far enough. Real freedom comes from a restricted number of choices based on knowledge and the ability to think about the clues that might lead us to the bag with the treats and away from the bag with the rattlesnake. Education, properly understood, is about real freedom, not about blind choice.


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.

Beware of Thugs!

Back in the Dark Ages when I was in graduate school, we had a professor who would occasionally wander off the subject of 19th Century philosophy and into the realm of current politics. After he was finished he would always apologize and invite members of the class to take equal time to present their own take on the subject. I don’t recall that anyone ever took him up on the offer, though I never doubted that he was sincere. But that impartiality in the classroom is apparently becoming a rare thing.

According to a number of studies, increasing numbers of college professors are using class time to get on their soap boxes and deliver political harangues. Many of these studies have been conducted by conservative groups who are concerned that the kids are being brainwashed by left-leaning professors who always hold the power of the final grade over the heads of their impressionable students. Now while we can question the impartiality of those studies, there are grounds for concern. To begin with, the majority of college professors, though certainly not all, are liberal. Further, they do have captive audiences of young people who may fear repercussions if they speak out in opposition to their professors. I suspect this has always gone on to an extent — by right-leaning professors as well as those who lean to the left. But apparently if these studies are to be believed it is becoming increasingly common. Professors are selecting works to be read that reflect their own ideological preferences and they don’t hesitate to comment on current affairs of a political nature and hammer home political messages. And given the current state of politics in this country it is quite likely that these comments from mainly liberal professors are not favorable to the conservative powers that control the Congress in this country and are determined to make sure that the Democratic president is hampered in his attempts to govern as he should.

In any event, this is a mistake of major proportions, whether the comments reflect a liberal or a conservative bias.  The greatest compliment ever paid to me after I retired from teaching — as I mentioned in passing in a previous blog — was in a review of my latest book on Amazon where a former student said he looked forward to reading the book because when he took my classes he never knew what my political position was. I dare say this is hard for readers of these blogs to accept since I never hesitate to sound off and reveal my prejudices whenever possible — though I do attempt to be fair. But in blogs this is to be expected; in the classroom ideology and personal takes on  tough political problems have no place. Neither does gearing the course toward the professor’s own personal ideology by carefully selecting material that supports his or her own take on things. Education is not indoctrination and as Mark Van Doren said long ago in his book on Liberal Education, we must always protect our students from “thugs who would teach them what to think, not how to think.” Indeed.

Picking and Choosing

As the twentieth century dawned Charles Elliot, president of Harvard College, introduced elective courses to the world. At that point it seemed to make a modicum of sense — after all the young men (no women, of course) who attended Harvard were on the whole well prepared for college work and had a pretty good idea what they wanted to do with their lives. And as Elliot said they were in a better position to determine what courses they needed than their professors who were not omniscient. Indeed not. But even at the time the argument wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny. The professors were not omniscient, but they had a better sense of what young men would need to prepare them to go forth in a changing world than the young men themselves.

At that time education was not as focused on jobs as it is now and the young were better prepared for college — compared to today’s entering college students. But if elective courses were questionable in Elliot’s day they are even more so today, given the facts noted above — and they are facts, sad to say. To make matters worse elective courses are now common in high schools as well as colleges where they have become commonplace.

By 1983 more than 50% of the units required to graduate from high school in thirteen states were elective courses, that is, courses young kids could pick and choose among at random. And that number has proliferated since that time. Not only were the courses elective, but they allowed students to take “life adjustment” courses such as “Life and Leisure,” “Home and Family,” Tools of Learning,” Work Experience,” and “Occupational Adjustment.” Often these courses replaced required courses in such things as civics and history, among others. The idea was to whet the appetites of disinterested and unmotivated students to keep them in school and hope that they learn something by the way. Research done by a variety of disinterested sources reveals that the vast majority of those graduating high school students are ignorant of their own history and how the government works. A great many of them also have difficulty reading, writing, and figuring — the three things that have always been the staples of basic education. As a consequence, roughly half of the students who enter college today are required to take remedial courses in spite of the fact that there are some exceptional teachers in the high schools who are asked to do the impossible for very little money.

I must confess at this point that I attended a high school in Baltimore where the entire “college-prep” program was laid out beforehand. I had no electives. I then attended a unique college in Annapolis, Maryland where the entire four years were spent in reading the “great books” and taking four years of required courses leading to a liberal education. I never questioned the right of the faculty to tell me what I ought to study. If I were choosing my own reading material I might have chosen to read trash like Atlas Shrugged, if you can imagine!  It was simply a given that the faculty knew what would best prepare me and my classmates for a changing world — contrary to Mr. Elliot.

Needless to say, I think Elliot was terribly wrong, even in his day. Admitting my bias I would still maintain that today’s students — especially — need to be told what to learn by faculty who are admittedly not omniscient, but who know more than the kids do. How on earth can we expect a disinterested, ill-prepared 17-year-old person to know what college courses will make them wiser and better informed? We can’t. But we do. We hand them a course schedule and turn them loose on hundreds of courses of unequal weight and benefit and hope for the best.

I think it is time to admit that Elliot’s experiment in education went terribly wrong and that the colleges should shore up their basic requirements, at the very least. However, the trend is in the opposite direction as general courses are shrinking in our colleges and universities while electives and major requirements gain in numbers. This is a mistake from the students’ point of view as it makes them increasingly narrow at a time when they need greater breadth of learning across a wide panorama of subjects.

College faculties must take responsibility for the education of the young people who come to them embarrassingly ignorant and who are supposed to leave several years later able to make informed decisions that greatly affect their lives. The job of these faculties is not to turn out historians, poets, artists, accountants, or biologists. It is to turn out educated citizens. As things now stand, college professors refuse to take responsibility as they fight over territory and seek to protect their academic domain while the students look on perplexed and disinterested and wonder where the party will be this weekend after the football game.

A Modest Proposal

(With apologies to Jonathan Swift!)

There are a number of serious problems facing higher education today. To begin with, as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has been proving beyond a shadow of a doubt, the vast majority of American colleges and universities are failing to deliver quality education. To make matters worse, the cost of tuition at our nation’s colleges and universities has risen nearly 440% in the last three decades leaving many graduating students deep in debt and discouraging others from even matriculating in the first place. This has given impetus to online “universities” which are proliferating at a dizzying rate while a number of legitimate universities are scrambling to get on board and marginal ones face bleak prospects. I have discussed some of these problems piecemeal in past blogs, but I have not yet discussed them as a whole together with my suggestions for a model that would address many of these problems simultaneously. That is the purpose of this blog.

I have suggested that universities might offer lower-level courses online while requiring that students attend classes on campus during the last two years (at least). I would like now to be more specific, while at the same time addressing the problem of a lack of solid core requirements in most of our nation’s colleges — as shown by studies done by the A.C.T.A. I would suggest that students be allowed to take this core of courses online — including, in semester hours, Grammar and Composition (6 hours), World Literature (6 hours, including 3 hours on campus in a 3 hour “capstone course” in the senior year), Math and Logic ( 6 hours) Natural Science (12 hours), Foreign Language (12 hours), Economics (3 hours), and Government or History (3 hours). This brings us to a total of 48 semester hours for the core. Given that the usual minimum for a B.A. or B.S. degree is 120 semester hours, this is certainly a larger requirement than is usual, but it is reasonable given the legions of uneducated college graduates who have been allowed to attend college for four years taking whatever they want outside their major requirements and are now finding it hard to succeed in the “real” world. In this regard, major requirements, which have exploded of late, should be limited to a maximum of 48 semester credits, leaving at least 24 semester credits for elective courses. If specific disciplines feel the need to pile on more major courses, they would have to encroach on elective courses, or add an additional year. Except for the “capstone course” in world literature this core program could be delivered with lectures and testing done online. Professors would be assisted by T.A.s to respond to questions and grade the tests.

Once the basic core has been completed the students would move to campus and take major classes and elective courses with other students and professors, providing them with a “college experience” that would involve interaction with other learners and teachers. It is essential that at least two years be spent on campus in classes with other students if anything approximating a genuine college education is to be achieved. Human interaction is of vital importance to any meaningful education.

Pre-med students would take the same core as other students, though they might need an additional year at the end in order to prepare for medical school. This would broaden their horizons a bit. The same is true for education students who now take a separate track for most of their undergraduate career, with many “methods” courses that are worthless. After completing their four years of study with an academic major, education students would take a year of internship with a master teacher and learn “methods” on the job. Other disciplines, such as music, for example, would have to decide whether or not it is worthwhile to remain “certified” by outside agencies, as this now translates into a great many courses on top of those that would be sensible for an undergraduate major. In my experience, many music departments, even in smaller colleges, forget that they are not the Julliard — just as many theater programs forget they are not “Actor’s Studio.” I have never seen the advantage, to the student, of piling on major requirements — though it is all the fashion these days. In my day we kept the philosophy major to 30 semester hours in order to allow students to double major — thereby increasing the breadth of their undergraduate program.

The costs to the students would be greatly reduced in this program, while more colleges and universities would survive. And it would involve a shoring up of a very weak undergraduate core requirement that we find in the vast majority of American colleges and universities. The downside is that students would miss a year or two of the human interaction that comes with life on campus and taking classes with other students and live faculty. But this is happening right now and threatens to grow worse in the years to come. This proposal would stem the tide which threatens to overwhelm what is left of higher education in this country.

Nuts and Bolts

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal tells about how disenchanted employers are with their employees who have majored in business but can’t use their minds. That comes under the heading of “Duhhh.” As the article notes, The biggest complaint: The undergraduate degrees focus too much on the nuts and bolts of finance and accounting and don’t develop enough critical thinking and problem-solving skills through long essays, in-class debates and other hallmarks of liberal-arts courses. I have been saying this ad nauseam, as readers of these blogs and my book on education and published articles will attest. It has been known for years that those trained to do specific tasks are too close to the trees to see the forest.  For example, students who major in business have historically scored low on the LSAT tests required by law schools, a fairly accurate indicator of weak analytical skills. As this article notes, such students lack communication skills as well. Employers have been saying for some time that they need employees who can make an oral presentation, read and write memos, and “think outside the box.” This complaint is not all that new.

The explanation is not hard to find. Increasingly in recent years local school boards, made up of small businessmen and businesswomen, farmers, and a cross-section of the local population have embraced the business model that stresses the bottom line and have been pushing vocational courses in the public schools. At the level of higher education, the business model has been adopted as well and administrators are increasingly trained in “academic administration,” with a smattering of liberal arts courses and the faculties themselves are for the most part trained in narrow disciplines while the liberal arts wallow in obscurity and enrollments dwindle. It is perfectly understandable that the business world would now discover that its employees cannot use their minds even though they can do a few things fairly well. But it is not only business that has suffered from the increased emphasis on vocational training.

Society, especially a democratic society, needs people who can think, who can make the intelligent choices and work through the mud that surrounds them. But while companies, especially large corporations, may complain about the inability of their employees to think critically,  they assuredly do not want people who are likely to stir up the mud. And you can’t have it both ways. So they have not been willing to endorse a meaningful course of study in the liberal arts for future employees and have been only too willing to push for more business courses and increasing emphasis on “career” paths through the minefield of both lower and higher education. So the result is a plethora of well-trained but uneducated employees who have a narrow focus and cannot see the wider canvas.

Employers will continue to complain that they need employees with communication skills who can write an intelligible memo and make persuasive oral presentations, solve problems and think critically. But, liberal arts courses are expensive and don’t appeal to the masses of poorly trained students coming out of the high schools who want a piece of paper that will make them marketable in the short term. Furthermore, employers will continue to choose those graduates with business and marketing majors because they don’t need expensive training, and they won’t be likely to think too much about what they are doing. Eventually the companies will figure out that they can’t have it both ways and they will have to choose between employees who can think for themselves or employees who will do what they are told. It’s not hard to guess which choice they will make.

Note the irony: the education establishment has increasingly embraced the business model and even introduced a plethora of business courses into high school and college curricula (with the encouragement of business itself) and now those in business are complaining that the people working for them can’t use their minds.  It’s called being “hoist by your own petard.”

The Illusion of Freedom

One of my favorite characters in literature is Edith Wharton’s Pauline Manford, the empty-headed heroine of Twilight Sleep. Readers of these blogs will recognize her name. She has the amazing ability to gather together in her mind seven or eight impossible ideas at the same time, convinced that each is absolutely true. Consistency be damned: if it feels right, that’s good enough for Pauline. Sounds like some people I know.

Late in this novel, Pauline drops an aside that is stunning. She tells her daughter how proud she is to be an American, then adds “Don’t you think it’s glorious to belong to the only country where everybody is absolutely free, and yet we’re all made to do exactly what is best for us?” Now, even in the context, it is not clear exactly what Pauline means. It seldom is, though she drops all sorts of gems in passing, almost without effort, certainly without thought. In this case, I will try my hand at interpretation. I will add a couple of words to make the comment look like this: “Don’t you think it’s glorious to belong to the only country in the world where everybody is absolutely free, and yet we are made to do exactly what [business thinks] is best for us? This seems about right.

We equate freedom with the ability to take whatever product off the shelf we want to, yet we are blind to the fact that persuasive advertising has led us directly to the shelf and virtually made the choice for us. Persuasive advertising manufactures “wants.” Even a quick look at the typical commercial on TV bears witness to the fact that we are being sold products we have no need for whatever.  But we buy them anyway. One obvious example is the new five-hour energy drink that promises to give us an instant lift so we can do our best work. No one needs such a thing. One could simply have a cup of coffee. Moreover,  it may even be bad for our health. But I am told that the company that sells this product is selling them by the thousands. The drink is a hit. And it is typical of the kind of thing we buy every day.

The method works so well the politicians have adopted the business model. They all now routinely hire advertising agencies to sell themselves to us. They hit us with endless deadly repetitions of the same stupefying 30 second message  in the hope that we will buy the “product” —  whether it is good for us or not. We buy politicians the way we buy soap and detergent, based on short, uninformative commercials because we are too lazy to take the time to do the research on the product to make an informed choice: we prefer to go with our “gut” feeling.

We are clearly deluded about just what freedom is — just like Pauline, though perhaps not to such a degree. We are “absolutely free” but we do what we are told is best for us. The most blatant example of this is the advertisement directed at kids on Saturday mornings, since the kids are clearly not able to tell what is and what is not worthy of their attention. But adults are supposed to know better, yet we don’t. The fact that this statement rings true is an indictment of our educational system, of course, since we are supposed to be smart enough to avoid the traps and pitfalls that are set for us every day by advertisers. Once again, we have found grounds for requiring a course or two in logic and critical thinking in the schools, But we hear no talk about this sort of curricular change. Instead we hear about practical courses that will lead directly to jobs — jobs that almost certainly will not be there when the time comes to apply for them.

The most practical education possible is one that prepares us for change, since that is the only thing we can be certain of in this world. And that sort of preparation will also allow us to see the absurdity that lies behind the comments of people like Pauline and the advertisers who inundate us with drivel and seek only to sell us their products — whether they are “best for us” or not. And that sort of education is a liberal education and it just happens to also be the one that will set us free — absolutely.


Let’s start with an obvious truth: high self-esteem must be earned, it cannot be handed to us. This is a truth that has apparently been lost on educators who have embraced the notion that by simply pouring praise into the heads and hearts of their students, no matter whether they deserve it, their self-esteem will rise and they will perform miracles. Or at least, they will pass their tests and make the teachers look good. This is absurd. Its absurdity was augmented in California not long ago when a school board member was confronted by data that showed that heaping praise on students doesn’t improve their performance one whit. His response: “I don’t care what the data show, I know it works.” Methinks the man is brain-dead. Perhaps he didn’t get enough praise as a child. But unwarranted praise doesn’t improve performance. You know it. I know it. Kids know it, too.

Maureen Stout knows it. And she knows whereof she speaks. Indeed, she has written a book that seeks to undermine the self-esteem movement in the schools. She says, in part, “The self-esteem movement infiltrates virtually all aspects of schooling from teaching methods to evaluation to curriculum planning. It is the most popular of all the fads [in education], and the most dangerous. But . . . it is not essential. In fact, it doesn’t even make much sense.”  The fact that Ms Stout taught in the public schools for years, holds a PhD in education, and now teaches in one of the prestigious California teaching colleges carries no weight with the education establishment. What she said in her book has been widely ignored. The education establishment doesn’t take kindly to criticism from the outside — or the inside, apparently. The self-esteem movement has taken over the schools.

As a result, as Ms Stout points out, “Schools are providing more courses in ‘life skills’ and paying less attention to academics, which is the core of a liberal education. The very essence of public schooling is thus being transformed. We are in danger of producing individuals who are expert at knowing how they feel rather than educated persons who know how to think. This is a radical transformation in the role of schooling.” And it is by no means clear that this transformation is of benefit to the children or society. On the contrary.

Nevertheless, the movement has so much steam that it has passed into the world of the elderly as well — though they worry more about lower self-esteem, which, they are told, is a function of aging. Only by continuing to act young and foolish will they maintain some semblance of their self-esteem. But it’s quite possible, as Wallace Stegner reminds us, that it is society that lowers the self-esteem of the aging, not age in itself. He has a powerful passage in The Spectator Bird that makes the case as only he can. After his narrator receives a questionnaire in the mail he vents as follows:

“Who was ever in doubt that the self-esteem of the elderly declines in this society which indicates in every possible way that it does not value the old in the slightest, finds them an expense and an embarrassment, laughs at their experience, evades their problems, isolates them in hospitals and Sunshine Cities, and generally ignores them except when soliciting their votes or ripping off their handbags and their Social Security checks? And which has a chilling capacity to look straight at them and never see them. The poor old senior citizen has two choices, assuming he is well enough off to have any choices at all. He can retire from that hostile culture to the shore of some shuffleboard court in a balmy climate, or he can shrink in his self-esteem and gradually become the cipher he is constantly reminded he is.”

Hyperbole, perhaps. But it is certainly the case that the elderly don’t get the praise they have earned, while the kids get praise they don’t deserve. Ironic, isn’t it? Maybe by the time today’s kids become elderly their self-esteem will have been boosted so high it can’t be lowered by treating them with disdain. I doubt it. They will feel cheated all over again. Things today, including praise, are simply too easy: nothing costs anything. And we don’t even have to wait until tomorrow to get what we want. This is unhealthy, and it breeds self-contempt, not self-esteem.