“Is Our Children Learning?” Part, the Second.

The situation, alas, is dire:

What good does it do to increase the number of students in college if the ones who are already there are not learning much? Would it not make more sense to improve the quality of education before we increase the quantity of students?


Students are adrift almost everywhere, floating in the wreckage of a perfect storm that has transformed higher education almost beyond recognition.

Politicians and the public are quick to blame college faculty members for the decline in learning, but professors—like all teachers—are working in a context that has been created largely by others: Few people outside of higher education understand how little control professors actually have over what students can learn.

The author goes on to list lack of student preparation, grade inflation, and plummeting admissions standards among a number of  other reasons that a Bachelor’s degree is becoming an increasingly worthless piece of paper that otherwise disinterested undergraduates feel entitled to after slouching their way through four (or five, or six) years of college. I have to say, unfortunately, that I largely agree with his assessment. College is swiftly turning into “high school without parents, but with more partying and more debt.”

In my experience, even excellent students are sometimes cowed by the fact that they’re outnumbered 30-1 in the classroom by peers who, simply by showing up and spending their time texting, doodling, or playing around on Facebook, are creating a massive wall of inertia that resists any attempt to create an environment were learning can happen. If the instructor or professor tries to do anything more with the class than simply providing a PowerPoint slide with a list of bullet points that give the answers to next week’s quiz, many students will simply not participate Assigned reading is simply ignored, and usually resented. “Increasingly,” writes Benton,

…undergraduates are not prepared adequately in any academic area but often arrive with strong convictions about their abilities. So college professors routinely encounter students who have never written anything more than short answers on exams, who do not read much at all, who lack foundational skills in math and science, yet are completely convinced of their abilities and resist any criticism of their work, to the point of tears and tantrums: “But I earned nothing but A’s in high school,” and “Your demands are unreasonable.” Such a combination makes some students nearly unteachable.

“Studying,” or so one undergraduate told a colleague of mine, “is only part of college.” For many, it seems to be the least important part. Moreover,

[i]t has become difficult to give students honest feedback. The slightest criticisms have to be cushioned by a warm blanket of praise and encouragement to avoid provoking oppositional defiance or complete breakdowns. As a result, student progress is slowed, sharply. Rubric-driven approaches give the appearance of objectivity but make grading seem like a matter of checklists, which, if completed, must ensure an A. Increasingly, time-pressured college teachers ask themselves, “What grade will ensure no complaint from the student, or worse, a quasi-legal battle over whether the instructions for an assignment were clear enough?” So, the number of A-range grades keeps going up, and the motivation for students to excel keeps going down.

This also matches up with my experiences fairly well. The expectation is that an “A” grade is the baseline, and only by making serious errors should a score decline from there. Instructors routinely receive student evaluations complaining that their grades were too low because they felt that they were graded on the quality of their writing, rather than the brilliance of their ideas, as if the two can be meaningfully separated. “This was not an English class. It was unfair to have been graded on my writing.”

Unfortunately, reforming American higher education faces a feedback loop that will be extremely difficult to change. Parents, believing that their children won’t be able to get ahead in life without going to college, frequently push their kids to go to college no matter what. In the end, the glut of degree holders fosters a mentality among employers that potential employees who don’t hold a degree are inferior to their credentialed peers. A Bachelor’s degree has thus become a minimum requirement even for positions where the skills ostensibly learned during the course of a 4 year degree program are of little or no use. This expectation, in turn, reinforces parents’ belief in the necessity of going to college.

Meanwhile, universities are in the middle, happily raking in millions of dollars a year from undergraduates, whose useless educations are financed by easy credit. A simple comparison between the staggering growth in administrative budgets and the relatively modest growth in instructional budgets illustrates the ultimate outcome of this: the student body has become little more than a cash cow for the University’s administrative class. In a sort of Faustian bargain, our educational system offers millions of undergraduates the opportunity to enjoy a half decade of irresponsibility after high school. The price of this five years of freedom (punctuated, of course, by unwelcome term papers and resented final exams) is a mountain of debt.

The “educational” aspect this arrangement is looking increasingly like little more than a cheap facade papered over the messy truth: that American higher education is bilking millions out of students each year, and providing almost nothing in return.


1 Response to ““Is Our Children Learning?” Part, the Second.”

  1. 1 CJ
    February 28, 2011 at 4:06 am

    Yeah, whenever I had a class that was actually difficult, students would bitch to no end. I remember one bro in my communication law class getting snotty with the professor because he wouldn’t grade tests on a curve.

    “Are the tests going to be graded on a curve?”
    “Because they’re not.”
    “But why?”
    “Listen, I don’t grade on a curve. It’s my class, and that’s how I run it.”
    “Well, I just think we deserve a reason.”

    I was embarrassed for my generation.

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