Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Death of the Liberal Arts Education?

As I have mentioned several times in these blogs I recently discovered the American version of the British debate programme Intelligence Squared on PBS World. One of the debates I watched with some interest recently, I did go to college and I have taught college courses after all, was the debate over whether too many kids were going to college” these days.

Arguing that not enough kids were going to college today were former Northwestern president and vice chairman of the for profit Rasumussen College Henry Beinen and entrepreneur turned academic researcher Vivek Wadhwa Arguing in the affirmative that too many kids are going to college were PayPay founder and Stanford graduate Peter Thiel and Charles Murray, controversial author of The Bell Curve, a book he co-wrote Richard Herrnstein which argued that intelligence is a better predictor of things like income, job performance, and educational achievement than class background, and fellow at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute.

Beinien and Wadhwa made the usual arguments about the importance of and need for a college education. They offered the economic argument, the argument that it is important for kids to go to college because if they do they will earn far more money during their lifetimes than their non-college going counterparts. They offered the civics argument, the argument that it is imperative in a democracy (I guess they mistake the oligarchy that exists in the US for a democracy) that citizens of that “democracy” learn about American history and American values if they are to make educated choices about a host of things including who to vote for. They made the personal growth argument, the argument that college is essential for young people if they are to learn how to deal with failure and how to do what is essential in life, compromise. They argued that far too few kids are going to college given its importance for young peoples economic futures, civic responsibilities, and personal growth.

Thiel and Murray brought out some old warhorses in their arguments that there are too many kids going to college these days as well. They countered the economic argument by pointing out that, as successful high tech pioneers like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs show, a college education is not essential to monetary success. They countered the economic argument by asserting that colleges replicated rather than broke down America’s class and status barriers. They argued that, as the 40% college dropout and the fact that most students go to a liberal arts college not to major in a liberal art show, too many young people are ill prepared for and little interested in what a liberal arts education has to offer. They argued that the increase in the number of college students going to college primarily to increase their career chances was undermining the very mission of the liberal arts college and a liberal arts education through the dumbing down of the liberal arts curriculum and grade inflation. They argued that the increase in the number of students going to college has made the bachelor’s degree essentially worthless. Over supply. They argued that the new digital high tech age changes everything and that an educational system still operating under a pre-digital age model is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the needs of a digital age population. And they argued that though colleges and universities were promising students a bright economic future, in order to get them to come, they were actually undermining the very economic futures of young people by saddling them with thousands of dollars in debt so those from the middle and lower classes could come to college.

The audience in Chicago, where this debate of Intelligence Squared was held, thought that the affirmative side won and that there were indeed too many kids going to college today. If I had been in the audience for the debate, the audience votes for or against the proposition before and after the debate begins and the side that gets the largest increase in their support wins, I would have voted for the proposition before the debate and for the proposition at the end of the debate for a number of reasons, though not always for the reasons Thiel and Murray offer.

There are many things that are going on in higher education in the US these days that are troubling to many in the “chattering classes”. College costs are on the rise and have been going up particularly since the 1980s. Some blame inflation in general for the rise in college costs. Others blame declining public and governmental support particularly for public colleges. Still others blame colleges and the bloated salaries particularly of their administrators (the academic equivalent of CEO’s and high level managers), for it. It is probably a bit of all three though I would put a lot of the blame on declining public support for colleges and universities. College costs, over the last thirty years, have risen and they have risen faster than inflation in general. According to "Trends in College Pricing", college costs at public four year universities rose by 21% between 1977-1978 and 1987-1988. They rose by 49% between 1987-1988 and 1997-1998. They rose by 54% between 1997-1998 and 2007-2008. Over the same years costs at four year public colleges rose by 39%, 40%, and 33%. During the same years the US inflation rate ranged from a high of 13.5% in 1980 and a low of 1.6% in 1998 and 2002 while generally remaining in the low to middle single digits during most of those years. College costs have continued to rise in recent years. In 2011 alone, according to Freakonomics online, published college costs for in-state students at a four-year public college and university were up 8.3%. They were up 4.4% at already expensive private colleges and universities. For-profits, by the way, were not exempt from rising costs. Costs at for profit institutions rose 3.2%, the average inflation rate for the US in general in 2011.

Another problem, one intimately linked to rising costs of education, is how Americans, particularly those Americans in the middle and lower classes, are paying for a college education in an era of rising college costs. More and more students, as Thiel and Murray note, are paying for college by taking out student loans and this has had, or so some claim, negative consequences. According to some pundits, journalists, and politicians there is too much student debt in the United States at present. Student debt as a whole is approaching $1 trillion dollars as I write and has led some to bemoan how it is weighing down not only the economic opportunities and fortunes of a generation—students, by the way, thanks to the power of the banks and the influence of the financial sector cannot wipe college debt off their books through bankruptcy—but is also straining an economy barely keeping its head above water in the wake the disastrous economic crash of 2008 (Andrew Martin and Andrew Lehren, "A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College",12 May 2012, New York Times). So even though it is true that college graduates do earn more, on average, than high school graduates—according to "The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings”, those with a bachelor's degree can expect to earn $2.1 million while those with a high school degree can expect to ear $1.2 million over their working lives—many of those who graduate from college, particularly those from the middle and lower classes, can also expect to be saddled with significant debt thanks to the loans they took out so they could go.

Beyond the cost and debt issues I think there are a number of other problems in contemporary higher education. Far too many students in the United States see college as a partying, boozing, and wenching rite of passage. The curriculum has, as Murray in particular claims, been dumbed down. When I did my undergraduate degree at Indiana University in Bloomington in the 1970s and 1980s I routinely had to read—and did read—five, six, ten, and sometimes thirteen books per class. Today students seem to have trouble reading two or three books let alone one so, as a result, I generally only assign no more than two or three books in my classes. Far too many students today don’t want “boring” lectures but neither do they want to prepare for class discussions by reading and watching assigned material or to watch relevant documentaries outside of class either. If I want to make sure students do watch documentaries on relevant topics in my classes I have to show them in class taking up much needed class time. What is a teacher to do? There has been grade inflation in all colleges public and private (and particularly in private colleges). Grade point averages rose from 2.93 to a 3.11 between academic year 1991-1992 and academic year 2006-2007 ("National Trends in Grade Inflation, American Colleges and Universities", gradeinflation.com). A’s, as a percentage of total grades, rose from 15% in 1940 to 43% in 2008 (Catherine Rampell, "A History of College Grade Inflation, 14 July 2011, New York Times). Over the same period C’s dropped from 33% to around 15% of total grades (ibid.). Some might argue that this means students are better today, I, however, wouldn’t. I think most students think they are entitled to high grades but I wouldn't say they are better than the undergraduates I went to college with in the 1970s and 80s. The traditional model of the Liberal Arts college and university is under attack not only because of changes in communication technologies but also because most students major in Business, Health Sciences, and Education, the practical it will get you a job “crafts” rather than the liberal arts. College and university boosters, those people who have sold students the bill of goods that a college education should be all about getting you a good job, in other words, are undermining the very essence of what it has traditionally thought a liberal college and university education should do, namely to examine the things about existence that are worth knowing. At places like the University at Albany in Albany, New York, for instance, liberal arts departments like Classics, Theatre, and Languages are being slashed and burned while millions of dollars are being pumped into faculty growth, faculty salaries, incentives, infrastructure improvements, and tax cuts for the that latest fad to bring the Rust Belt upstate Capital District back from the deindustrialised dead, the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.

What to do? I think there are several things we can and must do about all of the problems associated with higher education in America today. Like Germany and Switzerland I think we need an alternative apprenticeship system for those whose career interests are not well served by the liberal arts college and university. I think we need an even more vibrant vocational and community college higher education system than we have now and a vocational and community college system that isn’t looked down on as much as it is by many, as it is now. I think we need increasing public and governmental support for higher liberal arts education, vocational education, and an apprenticeship education. I think we need to update education bringing it into the modern cyberworld. A residential liberal arts experience may not be necessary for everyone. I think we need to put an end to the self-interested boosterism of college and university salesmen and women who have increasingly turned the liberal arts college and university into professional and vocational institutions in order to increase college enrollments and in order to increase their piece of the financial pie. But hey, that’s just me, a me who once thought that it would be really cool if some enterprising entrepreneur founded a private for profit institution where all the students did was learn how to party and booze and wench in the classroom and and on field trips outside it as an alternative to the liberal arts college.

For an excellent analysis of the businessification of the American liberal arts college in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century see Thorstein Veblen's The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Businessmen (1918). Veblen was and is one of America's great intellectuals, social theorists, social and cultural analysts, and social and culture critics, one who knew no disciplinary boundaries.
For a fascinating take on one of Britain's new universities watch the first two series of the BBC black comedy and satire A Very Peculiar Practice (1986, 1988). A Very Peculiar Practice was based on Andrew Davies's experiences as a lecturer at the University of Warwick, one of the new British universities modelled, to some extent, after the business dominated American German inspired mass university.

1 comment:

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