This morning, while scrolling through my twitter feed, I came across several articles lamenting the current state of education, including:
- Marilynne Robinson’s plea to Save our public universities.
- Patricia Cohen’s overview of the Rising call to promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding
- Kevin Kiley’s description of Another Liberal Arts Critic
- Valerie Strauss’ warning to college profs from a high school teacher
In my latest writing project, I want to include some context for my troubling (and troubled) feelings about education. These articles provide some useful information and ideas:
What is the value of a public university?:
The assumption now current, that the test of a university is its success in vaulting graduates into the upper tiers of wealth and status, obscures the fact that the United States is an enormous country, and that many of its best and brightest may prefer a modest life in Maine or South Dakota. Or in Iowa, as I find myself obliged to say from time to time. It obscures the fact that there is a vast educational culture in this country, unlike anything else in the world. It emerged from a glorious sense of the possible and explored and enhanced the possible through the spread of learning. If it seems to be failing now, that may be because we have forgotten what the university is for, why the libraries are built like cathedrals and surrounded by meadows and flowers. They are a tribute and an invitation to the young, who can and should make the world new, out of the unmapped and unbounded resource of their minds (Robinson, “Save our Public Universities).
What is a university for? A tribute to “a glorious sense of the possible” and an invitation to those “who can and should make the world new….”
How do we assess that value?
- How many graduates have jobs?
“I’m looking at legislation right now – in fact, I just instructed my staff yesterday to go ahead and develop legislation – which would change the basic formula in how education money is given out to our universities and our community colleges,” McCrory told radio host Bill Bennett, who was education secretary under President Reagan. “It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs” (Kiley, citing North Carolina Governor, Patrick McCrory
- How much money do they earn?
The Obama administration, for example, proposed, much to the horror of many in academia, rating the country’s 7,000 colleges and universities not only on measures like completion rates and student loan debt, but also on earnings after graduation (Cohen).
- How competitive are they in global marketplace?
The argument against our way of educating is that it does not produce workers who are equipped to compete in the globalized economy of the future. This has to be as blunt a statement as could be made about the urgency, currently felt in some quarters and credulously received and echoed everywhere, that we should put our young to use to promote competitive adequacy at a national level, to whose profit or benefit we are never told. There is no suggestion that the gifts young Americans might bring to the world as individuals stimulated by broad access to knowledge might have a place or value in this future, only that we should provide in place of education what would better be called training (Robinson).
- How well do they do on tests?
No Child Left Behind went into effect for the 2002–03 academic year, which means that America’s public schools have been operating under the pressures and constrictions imposed by that law for a decade. Since the testing requirements were imposed beginning in third grade, the students arriving in your institution have been subject to the full extent of the law’s requirements. While it is true that the U.S. Department of Education is now issuing waivers on some of the provisions of the law to certain states, those states must agree to other provisions that will have as deleterious an effect on real student learning as did No Child Left Behind—we have already seen that in public schools, most notably in high schools (Strauss).
The “Uselessness” of the Humanities
What has incensed many educators is not so much the emphasis on work force development but the disdain for the humanities, particularly among Republicans. Several Republicans have portrayed a liberal arts education as an expendable, sometimes frivolous luxury that taxpayers should not be expected to pay for. The Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio, for example, has called for more welders and fewer philosophers. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida criticized anthropologists, and Mr. McCrory belittled gender studies (Cohen).
Since Plato at least, the arts have been under attack on the grounds that they have no useful role in society. They are under attack at present. We have convinced ourselves that the role of the middle ranks of our population is to be useful to the economy — more precisely, to the future economy, of which we know nothing for certain but can imagine to be as unlike the present situation as the present is unlike the order that prevailed a few decades ago (Robinson).