Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Problem With College

I read a troubling article from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, here

The gist of the article is that a number of Professors at the school are eschewing "dusty" old books, and assigning contemporary, pop-culture friendly works instead. There is nothing wrong with this. Great new works are being written (though not necessarily consumed) every day. More troubling is the attitude behind the book's selection.

It is a fairly well-known fact that college students seldom read all of what they are assigned. This is particularly true for those who major in History or English, where a rigorous courseload might result in the assignment of some 25,000-30,000 pages of reading material. However, the goal of assigning, say a comic book, seems to be less about shining a new light on course content, and more about pandering to spoiled college brats. Read the quote below from one enlightened student.

"You know what kind of class it's going to be from the way the professor chooses a textbook," said Shannon Taylor, a sophomore at UNCG. "If it's exactly what you expected when you walk in, the professor could just be going through the motions and teaching the same thing the same way they've been doing it for 20 years or whatever. If they choose something they think will interest you and challenge you, you know they really care."

So if you don't get to watch cartoons in class, or read The Da Vinci Code, your professor doesn't care. That's nice to know.

I've said before that I think our country views a college education with undue esteem. Certainly, a student who has spent four years navigating difficult texts, learning difficult mathematical and scientific theories, and producing interesting work deserves special consideration. But I have a growing suspicion that this is seldom the case.

Years ago, only those who were intellectually (and financially) able could attend college. The advent of loan programs, improved economic conditions, and federal funding initially opened the door to gifted students who previously lacked the means to go to college. Good development.

Somewhere along the line, however, we got carried away. 4 years of schooling became a de facto requirement for any white collar career (I mean that in the broadest sense possible.) As a result, college has gone from bastion of intellectual growth to teenage rite of passage. Now, some 80 percent of high school graduates attend college. This means that fully 37.5% of those receiving a higher education are academically BELOW AVERAGE.

Now, our obsession with higher education has created a cottage industry for colleges, whose reputation relies upon the ability to compete for picky students. With the exception of 40 or so schools wherein the aforementioned equation is reversed, (think Harvard or Swarthmore) colleges are forced to compromise in an attempt to show how much they "care" about students.

Goodbye James Joyce; hello Dan Brown.

Worse, since college is now perceived as a passage into civilized society, we are urged to pump more and more of our tax dollars into funding it. We need scholarships, loan programs, grants, and bloated state university budgets to make sure students have the opportunity to learn with such luminaries as Shannon Taylor.
College is now seen as a rite of passage, one that consumes roughly 5% of one's predicted lifespan.

Further, since everyone now has a college degree, such degrees have been rendered meaningless. Thus, we have adults "heading back to school" to earn further degrees that are, at best, tangential to their career goals. Seminaries are a popular choice , with their relatively high acceptance rates, and their spiritual thematics. What on earth we need a million Seminarians for is completely beyond me, but we're gettin' em, nonetheless, and even paying for them.

Is there a solution? Yep, but it sounds mean. Shut off the valve. All the money we continually pour into this increasingly-useless system has outlived its usefulness. Get rid of state colleges and Universities, which spend more to attract students than they do to educate them. Direct aid to the truly gifted and truly disadvantaged.

What will happen? If forced to pay for it themselves, many will forego college. Those schools that provide a valuable service to their student will remain, bolstered by the donations of enthusiastic alumni. The remainder will fall by the wayside. The poor will have greater access to good paying jobs, without the unnecessary 4 year hurdle that divides haves and have-nots.

And The Da Vinci Code will never see the light of a classroom again.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Colledge Stud said...

What the *!@# is your problum, dood?!

How can you not see the valyoo in colledge studi...stu...uh...kids watching Pokemon in place of some dum old books written by old, dead men? What's really gonna make me more well rowndead?!

2:06 PM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

Great post Kev. I agree with you that college degrees have been rendered meaningless. Not only has college become a teenage rite of passage, but parents put a lot of pressure on their kids to waste those valuable 4 years of their lives to become educated idiots.

I would rather see more of a trend toward apprenticeships than college degrees emerge in our society.

2:33 PM  
Anonymous Thom said...

Well, I could see using the Da Vinci Code...if the course was "Silly Historical Theories and Absurd Thrillers inspired by Them 101".

3:04 PM  
Blogger Kevin Sawyer said...

Thom,

Not only is that a course, but you can major in it at UNCG.

3:47 PM  

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