How did our education go downhill?

Marie Burns
Fort Myers, Florida

As you imply but don't specify, the problem started in the Vietnam era. I started college before the war revved up, & we had to crack the books to get as much as a "C." I used to see students who were about to flunk out doing what appeared to be studying. We all studied. Or we were gone.

But as opposition to the Vietnam War increased, & as the Selective Service Administration took a series of steps to make student deferments harder to get, many professors started giving "B"s to young men so they could stay in school & keep their deferments. The professors didn't want blood on their hands. Since it wasn't fair to give high marks to some substandard students & not to others, "B" became the lowest grade you could get in some classes. It was kinda like we were all star athletes!

After the war, those low standards never returned to pre-Nam levels. A student could still get a good education at a good university, but it was by his choice, not because the university demanded it.

Then, as the cost of college rose, and as the business of education became more of a business -- competitive, cutthroat and greedy -- and less of an ivory tower, university administrations went pro, especially in private schools. They adopted a strange new sense of in loco parentis, a replacement for the one that kept us girls under lock and key so the boys couldn't have their way with us. In the revised in loco parentis concept, college administrators think they have an obligation to give a sheepskin to every student they admit. So they do.

Often when a professor gives a student a failing grade, say, for seldom showing up for class & flunking the exams, the administration will reverse the professor's decision. This is true in graduate programs as well as in undergraduate schools.

As long as university administrations see students as commodities, not as products, American college standards will remain low. And boasting you graduated with a 3.1 average will be an admission of failure.

The Constant Weader at www.RealityChex.com

Doug Terry
Out Beyond the Beltway/Md
Where have fellows been the last thirty years? The downward spiral of rigor in the academic setting has been noted in many forums. A Harvard graduate (you have perhaps heard of that school?) wrote a book some years ago saying that he found there was no real sense of a core of academic experience and no substantial guidance in finding his way toward one. He described a sense of being set to sea without a compass, taking courses often taught by graduate assistants and adjuncts. When he finished, he had no deep sense of enrichment or broad knowledge. He described his experience as more of a random encounter with unrelated courses that were woven into nothing like a fabric of learning.

As employers began to demand a four year degree as the price of admission to certain types of employment, there emerged the professional student: someone who was merely in college to avoid being excluded from those jobs. The colleges and universities moved to accommodate this student by opening a pathway to a degree that did not involve deep challenge to the mind. Without this student, perhaps 1/3 to even 2/3s of college enrollment would be gone. The colleges would have lost a massive amount of cash flow if they hadn't taken steps to make the process easier. A good friend of mine, a renowned internationally known painter, told me one assignment given his children in college was to describe what elements they would need for a super bowl party. They were attending a well known, respected college where the tuition is about 40,000 dollars per year per student.

To cover over the massive misdeed of taking rigor out of student life, the colleges created "honors" programs for those who still had aspirations of using their brains on a regular basis. Isn't all of college supposed to be at the honors level? Isn't the entire experience, for every student, supposed to be rigorous? Apparently not.

The word of this easy pathway through four years has filtered down to high school students who know what lies ahead of them. If they don't know how to game the system in their first college semester, they soon learn.

Higher education has always depended on two important elements not supplied by the school or the faculty: the intensity of the student's desire for learning and the contact that student has with other vigorous young minds. The latter factor is one of the main reasons so called elite schools are better places than others: they have their pick of students from all over and can therefore construct a social/cultural environment conducive to learning and inquiry. If many of the brightest students suddenly chose to go to Hogwallow University (a very nice place, by the way), then that would be a great school to attend, the faculty not withstanding.

As for faculty in general, everyone knows that professors have abandoned undergrads as if they all carried body lice. (Perhaps they do.) The colleges have likewise downgraded teaching, in the name of saving money, by having adjuncts and teaching assistants heading up many, if not most, classes. A full professorship at many colleges, in terms of teaching, has become something like a part time job with full time pay. The feeling seems to be that if the student is any good, they will struggle their way into grad school and show themselves to be worthy of a decent education (which they will get largely on their own, through reading and research).

To be sure, college was never what it was imagined to be sixty to a hundred years ago. In that era, those who attended turned out to do rather well because the were drawn (surprise!) from the families of those who had already done rather well and thus embarked in life ten paces ahead of others. Historically, some schools have, nonetheless, managed to teach thinking and instill in their students a desire for a lifetime of learning. The careerist, professional student cares for none of that, until it is too late. The goal is the degree, mixed and stirred with lots of fun getting it. Who can really blamed them?

The end result is more than a problem, it is a disaster. All social and political institutions have a tendency toward corruption unless they face challenge and correction. Instead, our colleges are isolated, secretly and quietly rich and thumbing their noses at our national need for truly educated people who can lead toward a more moral, decent and fair society. It is being done in the name of keeping the process moving, paying good salaries with rich benefits, like sabbatical years, and not rocking the boat. The students and the parents are being ripped off and the nation is being cheated.

Doug Terry

Nowhere Man
Nowhere, CA

This is only one aspect of what is now a systemic failure.

The "self-esteem" foundation of K-12 education ensures we produce 18-year-old humans who know little, have no discipline and are spoiled brats. Johnny didn't do well enough to pass to fourth grade? Well, we'll have to promote him anyway -- we can't have him feel bad about himself.

The colleges and universities are interested mainly in the money. They will enroll anyone who can get a student loan to pay the too-high tuition fees, book costs, etc. Anything to keep those administrators making their $400K annual salaries. The primary goal for students is to have fun -- and to keep renewing the student loans to keep the money flowing. I suspect many of the students know they won't get jobs that will enable them to repay the student loans that will haunt them the entire lives. Why not party while you can!

The day after graduation reality sets in. After a couple of years working at a big box store or as a clerical temp, they realize their lives are untenable. They can't make enough to pay for food, housing, health care, transportation, student loans, etc., and it looks like a treadmill they can't get off. What then?

I've seen some go to blue collar jobs that pay decently. They become auto technicians or electricians or plumbers, reasoning those jobs are not being exported to Pakistan any time soon. Maybe they get a job driving trucks and being away from their families for weeks on end. Even if they can make what used to be "middle-class" wages, they still have to contend with those student loans and the never-ending interest charges that pile on like bad luck in a crooked gambling casino.

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus published the book "Higher Education?" last year about this whole corrupt system (his description), and I wrote about that at:


Like so much gone wrong in this country, greed seems to be a root cause. The future looks grim for anyone who can't find some way to get rich quick.

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