Against Schooling

This morning I was clicking around in the quasi-harmless trade journal The Chronicle of Higher Education and I came across an opinion piece entitled, “America’s Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor’s Degree.” The author, Marty Nemko concludes “College is a wise choice for far fewer people than are currently encouraged to consider it.” But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, here’s the beginning:

Among my saddest moments as a career counselor is when I hear a story like this: “I wasn’t a good student in high school, but I wanted to prove that I can get a college diploma. I’d be the first one in my family to do it. But it’s been five years and $80,000, and I still have 45 credits to go.”

I have a hard time telling such people the killer statistic: Among high-school students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their classes, and whose first institutions were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later. That figure is from a study cited by Clifford Adelman, a former research analyst at the U.S. Department of Education and now a senior research associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Yet four-year colleges admit and take money from hundreds of thousands of such students each year!

Even worse, most of those college dropouts leave the campus having learned little of value, and with a mountain of debt and devastated self-esteem from their unsuccessful struggles.

Nemko continues:

Perhaps worst of all, even those who do manage to graduate too rarely end up in careers that require a college education. So it’s not surprising that when you hop into a cab or walk into a restaurant, you’re likely to meet workers who spent years and their family’s life savings on college, only to end up with a job they could have done as a high-school dropout.

What about those that do stick around and graduate in 4-6 years?

…in the latest annual national survey of freshmen conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, 44.6 percent said they were not satisfied with the quality of instruction they received. Imagine if that many people were dissatisfied with a brand of car: It would quickly go off the market. Colleges should be held to a much higher standard, as a higher education costs so much more, requires years of time, and has so much potential impact on your life. Meanwhile, 43.5 percent of freshmen also reported “frequently” feeling bored in class, the survey found.

Well, ok. Duh! That last highlighted line is interesting, but rather misleading. Or maybe I’m just being cynical. They must learn though, right?

A 2006 study supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 50 percent of college seniors scored below “proficient” levels on a test that required them to do such basic tasks as understand the arguments of newspaper editorials or compare credit-card offers. Almost 20 percent of seniors had only basic quantitative skills. The students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station.

Unbelievably, according to the Spellings Report, which was released in 2006 by a federal commission that examined the future of American higher education, things are getting even worse: “Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined. … According to the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, for instance, the percentage of college graduates deemed proficient in prose literacy has actually declined from 40 to 31 percent in the past decade. … Employers report repeatedly that many new graduates they hire are not prepared to work, lacking the critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today’s workplaces.”

Yikes! Not surprising, given the amount of money is spent on education throughout the US. While Nemko’s diagnosis is interesting, one aspect of the cure he offers is just plain shitty. Have a look:

A national test, which could be developed by the major testing companies, should measure skills important for responsible citizenship and career success. Some of the test should be in career contexts: the ability to draft a persuasive memo, analyze an employer’s financial report, or use online research tools to develop content for a report. Just as the No Child Left Behind Act mandates strict accountability of elementary and secondary schools, all colleges should be required to administer the value-added test I propose to all entering freshmen and to students about to graduate, and to report the mean value added, broken out by precollege SAT scores, race, and gender. That would strongly encourage institutions to improve their undergraduate education and to admit only students likely to derive enough benefit to justify the time, tuition, and opportunity costs.

I agree that we should teach our students “skills for responsible citizenship” and that there should be minimal standards because let’s face it, there are shitty students, shitty teachers and shitty schools out there, but these “practical skills” Nemko proposes simply turns colleges and universities into business schools. Unfortunately, for many, the bachelor’s degree has become simply a means to an end. Now, I guess I could stop being so sensitive and not really care. After all, many of my students don’t really care about the content, it’s simply an activity they must do in order to get the credentials, it’s like washing dishes. Now, perhaps philosophy is like washing dishes, but it isn’t identical to washing dishes. And by the way, any student that makes it through the English 101-102 sequence should be able to do all of those things, and why not, any student that takes an Intro to Philosophy, Logic and/or critical thinking course should be able to as well. More on this later.

Here’s some of Nemko’s suggestion that I like:

  • Retention data: the percentage of students returning for a second year, broken out by SAT score, race, and gender.
  • The four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates, broken out by SAT score, race, and gender. That would allow institutions to better document such trends as the plummeting percentage of male graduates in recent years.
  • If your child’s high-school grades and test scores are in the bottom half for his class, resist the attempts of four-year colleges to woo him. Colleges make money whether or not a student learns, whether or not she graduates, and whether or not he finds good employment. Let the buyer beware. Consider an associate-degree program at a community college, or such nondegree options as apprenticeship programs (see, shorter career-preparation programs at community colleges, the military, and on-the-job training, especially at the elbow of a successful small-business owner.
  • If your student is in the top half of her high-school class and is motivated to attend college for reasons other than going to parties and being able to say she went to college, have her apply to perhaps a dozen colleges. Colleges vary less than you might think (at least on factors you can readily discern in the absence of the accountability requirements I advocate above), yet financial-aid awards can vary wildly. It’s often wise to choose the college that requires you to pay the least cash and take out the smallest loan. College is among the few products that don’t necessarily give you what you pay for — price does not indicate quality.

Well, I’m not so sure about directing students into the military, but that’s just me, lots of people like the military, but there are those who are unfairly recruited with the lure of free money.

In an article I pulled of his website, “Against Schooling” [pdf: against-schooling], Stanley Aronowitz asks: “What are the requisite changes that would transform schools from credentials mills and institutions of control to a site of education that prepares young people to see themselves as active participants in the world?” This is a much better question than Nemko’s emphasis on practical skills and standardized testing.

Here’s some of Aronowitz’s diagnostics, not much different from Nemko’s analysis:

The rise of higher education since world war two has been seen by many as a repudiation of academic elitism. Do not the booming higher education enrollments validate the propositions of social mobility and democratic education? Not at all. Rather than constituting a sign of rising qualifications and widening opportunity, burgeoning college and university enrollments signify changing economic and political trends. The scientific and technical nature of our production and service sectors increasing require qualified and credentialed workers(it would be a mistake to regard them as identical). Students who would have sought good factory jobs in the past now believe, with reason, they need credentials to qualify for a good-paying job. On the other hand even as politicians and educators decry social promotion, and most high schools with working-class constituencies remain ageing vats, mass higher education is, to a great extent, a holding pen by effectively masking unemployment and underemployment Which may account for its rapid expansion over the last thirty five years of chronic economic stagnation, deindustrialization and the proliferation of part-time and temporary jobs, largely in the low-paid service sectors. Consequently working-class students are able, even encouraged, to enter universities and colleges at the bottom of the academic hierarchy- community colleges but also public four year colleges– thus fulfilling the formal pledge of equal opportunity for class mobility even as most of these institutions suppress its content. But grade- point averages which, in the standards era depend as much as the Scholastic Aptitude Test on high stakes testing, measure the student’s acquired knowledge, and restrict her access to elite institutions of higher learning, the obligatory training grounds for professional and managerial occupations. Since all credentials are not equal graduating from third and fourth tier institutions does not confer on the successful candidate the prerequisites for entering a leading graduate school-the preparatory institution for professional/managerial occupations, or the the most desireable entry level service jobs which require only a bachelor’s degree.(Aronowitz,2000)

Pierre Bourdieu argues that schools reproduce class relations by reinforcing rather than reducing class-based differential access to social and cultural capital, key markers of class affiliation and mobility. These forms of capital, he argues, are always already possessed by children of the wealthy, professionals, and the intelligensia. Far from making possible a rich intellectual edcuation, or providing the chance to affiliate with networks of students and faculty who have handles on better jobs, through mechanisms of discipline and punishment, schooling habituates working-class students to the bottom rungs of the work world, or the academic world, by subordinating or expelling them.( Bourdieu and Passeron 1979) Poorly prepared for academic work by their primary and secondary schools, and having few alternatives to acquiring some kind of credential, many who stay the course and graduate high school and third and fourth tier college, inevitably confront a series of severely limited occupational choices-or none at all. Their life chances are just a cut above those who do not complete high school or college. Their school performances seem to validate what what commonsense has always suspected: given equal opportunity to attain school knowledge, the cream always rises to the top and those stuck at the bottom must be biologically impaired or victimized by the infamous “culture of poverty”. That most working class high school and college students are obliged to hold full or part-time jobs in order to stay in school fails to temper this judgement for as is well known, preconceptions usually trump facts.( cicourel,1963). Nor does the fact that children of the recent 20 million immigrants from Latin America and Asia, speak their native languages at home, in the neighborhood and to each other in school evoke more than hand-ringing from educational leaders; in this era of tight school budgets English as a second langugage funds have been cut or eliminated at every level of schooling.

Here’s Aronowitz’s suggestions, some of which are aimed at those educators and institutions that teach our students before they get to us:

…abolish high stakes standardized tests that dominate the curriculum and subordinate
teachers to the role of drill masters and subject students to stringent controls. By this
proposal I do not mean to eliminate the need for evaluative tools. The essay is a fine
measure of both writing ability and of the student’s grasp of literature, social science and
history. While it must be admitted that math and science as much as language proficiency
require considerable rote learning, the current curriculum and pedagogy in these fields
includes neither a historical account of the changes in scientific and mathematical theory,
nor a metaconceptual explanation of what the disciplines are about. Nor are courses in
language at the secondary level ever concerned with etymological issues, comparative
cultural study of semantic differences, and other topics that might relieve the boredom of
rote learning by providing depth of understanding. The broader understanding of science
in the modern world—its relation to technology, war and medicine, for example– should
surely be integrated into the curriculum; some of these issues appear in the textbooks, but
teachers rarely discuss them because they are busy preparing students for the high stakes
tests in which knowledge of the social contexts for science, language and math are not included.

First we require a conversation concerning the nature and scope of education and the limits of schooling as an educational site. Along with this theorists and researchers need to link their knowledge of popular culture, and culture in the anthropological sense, that is, everyday life, with the politics of education. Specifically, we need to examine why in late capitalist societies, the public sphere withers, while the corporatization process penetrates every sphere of life. We need teachers who, by their own education, are intellectuals who respect and want to help children obtain a genuine education, regardless of their social class. For this we need a new regime of teacher education that is founded on the idea that the educator must be educated well. It would surely entail abolishing the current curricula of most education schools, if not the schools themselves. The endless courses on “teaching methods” would be replaced with courses in the natural and social sciences, mathematics, philosophy, history and literature. Some of these would address the relation of education, in all of its forms, to their social and historical context. In effect, the teacher becomes an intellectual, capable of the critical appropriation of world histories and cultures. And we need a movement of parents, students, teachers and the labor movement armed with a political program directed to forcing legislatures to adequately fund schooling at the federal, state and local levels and boards of education to deauthorize high stakes standardized tests that currently drive the curriculum and pedagogy.

I generally agree with Aronowitz, but my question is this: how realistic is such a broad reform? I do realize I’m being cynical, so like I’ve said before, maybe it’s just better to fuck with my students as best I can, close my eyes, and hope for the best.

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