Monday, February 27, 2012

"College At Risk", says Andrew Delbanco

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The Chronicle of Higher Education is one of the most widely-read journals for college professors.  Recently Andrew Delbanco (a professor at Columbia, according to the Chronicle,) wrote an articulate and insightful article, in which he describes many of the issues facing American citizens and the American education system.

First of all (he points out), both President Bush and President Obama have said that education is an important aspect of getting the country ready to compete in the future. The products and inventions and new industries of the future will be in countries with the best education. Delbanco quotes Obama as having said in 2009: "Countries that outteach us today will outcompete us tomorrow."

In what follows I will describe some of the points that caught my attention, but you should read the article for yourself.

Education has various functions. Elementary education provides one with the skills absolutely necessary for day to day existence. Secondary education provides a basis for the skills required by someone who works in a clerical occupation, anything that requires moderate mathematical and literary skills: a mechanic, a grocery store clerk, a low-level worker in an office. In the past, a secondary education was enough to teach, be a nurse, do all sorts of things that today requires a college education. More young people complete high school today, but not all of them have learned as much as high school graduates in the early 20th century. Education has declined simply because today, more than in the past, people of more varied skill levels remain in school, and today's teachers must cope with far less motivated and capable kids. But we want all these kids to learn a great deal, because life today is more complicated than it was 80 years ago. To a minor extent, we succeed in educating all our kids.

In ancient Europe, where higher education was first provided to the elite, it was intended to promote the kind of thinking and reflection that is very far from the utilitarian product obtained in most American colleges. Delbanco reports that the President of a well-known for-profit college said: "I'm happy that there are places in the world where people sit down and think. We need that. But that's very expensive. And not everybody can do that." This encapsulates perfectly the attitude that just thinking is a waste of time; what most students (and their parents) want is for the students to be efficiently filled with information and skills that will enable them to get a job.

It is hard to convince someone who has never been blessed with a liberal education of the value of one. (Even those who have had a liberal education are not convinced about its value; a large proportion of those who have been through even a good college, leave their alma mater baffled by the whole experience. College should never have been inflicted on them. But of course telling them so is hardly a kindness.)

The increasing cost of college education results in increasing class sizes, and students in such environments are less likely to get the benefit of the carefully orchestrated discussions, and the one-to-one interaction with adults with various intellectual gifts and specializations, and the experience with teaching young people. The young people hardly have the opportunity to get to know their classmates, and, as the author explains, these lateral interactions are at least as important as the interaction between the instructor and the pupil.

The author proceeds to describe how new technology might help to give means of salvaging some of the benefits of college given the problems of the present time.  But I'm more fascinated with the description of the problem: the author is eloquent in describing the benefits of higher education, and just as insightful in seeing how these benefits cannot be understood by present-day students and their parents. Modern society makes it impossible to obtain a good education, and even if one is put through the education machine, to appreciate what one has experienced, and to capitalize on it.

What follows are my own thoughts.

What is frustrating about the life we lead today is the boredom we feel all the time, on the one hand, and the lack of time for doing anything interesting on the other.

How can this be? Doesn't boredom imply that we have time on our hands? If we don't have time to do anything interesting, how can we be bored? But ask any kid, and they will tell you that they are both exhausted and bored.

One of our primary challenges in this millennium, is to plan for ourselves, and for our society, how to increase the amount of leisure each citizen enjoys, and to provide each member of society as far as possible the wherewithal to use that leisure time wisely. If great things are to come from anyone in the next several centuries, I predict it will come from our leisure time, and not from work. We must separate the drudgery that pays the bills from the work that we do that creates new and useful and wonderful things. Education must equip us for this leisure time activity.

More importantly, I think education in the new century must be a leisure time activity. I don't think it is practical to force all our education into a few desperate years in which we have to learn it all, and then expect us to lead forty years of pure work. Our learning will be just as useless as the years of education were desperate, and our years of labor will be hardly worth living; we may as well kill ourselves, and get it over with. We must find ways of making the years of our maturity satisfying and productive, and that means less work, and more play.

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