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Gotta Keep ‘em Dumb II

December 15, 2010

Wow, didn’t take long to get more material for this series.  The New York Times’ Stanley Fish had a fine jeremiad yesterday against an “independent” report to the UK government on the future of higher education funding.  The report recommends

government support of higher education in the form of block grants to universities (which are free to allocate funds as they see fit) would be replaced by monies given directly to matriculating students, who would then vote with their pocketbooks by choosing which courses to “invest” in.

“Invest” is the right word because the cost of courses will be indexed to the likelihood of financial rewards down the line. A course’s “key selling point” will be “that it provides improved employability” and students will be asked to pay “higher charges” for a course only “if there is a proven path to higher earnings.” (There is a verbal echo here, surely unintended, of the value nowhere to be found in the report, the value of higher learning.)

The result, anticipated and welcomed by the report’s authors, will be that courses of study that “deliver improved employability will prosper,” while those that don’t “will disappear.” This will hold also for universities, which will either prosper or wither on the vine depending on the agility they display in adapting themselves to student-consumer demands. “Institutions will have to persuade students that the charges they put on their courses represents [sic] value for money.” (Adapt or die.)

It hardly need be said that under this scheme the arts and the humanities (and most of the social sciences) will be the losers: the model of rational economic (as opposed to educational) choice does not encourage investment in medieval allegory or modern poetry or Greek history.

A few weeks ago, we learned that the students of Shanghai were kicking our ass in reading, math and science, at least on standardized testing.  However:

A 259-page Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report on the latest Pisa results notes that throughout its history, China has been organized around competitive examinations. “Schools work their students long hours every day, and the work weeks extend into the weekends,” it said.

Chinese students spend less time than American students on athletics, music and other activities not geared toward success on exams in core subjects.

This sort of educational regime, based on test-taking, grade-grubbing, and a narrow focus on skills related directly to “employability” in the current marketplace creates imitators, not innovators.  Moreover, we’ve see where this leaves students who’ve prepared for jobs in computer science, only to see those jobs go to India, or finance, only to see those jobs cease to exist.  It doesn’t stimulate the kind of thinking that creates new products never mind new lines of business or thought. 

Inarguably, much of what makes an individual “well-rounded” on paper in our current system is a fraud, with students and their parents hiring consultants to tell them which musical instrument to play to look good on a college application, or an Aynrandian sociopath volunteering at a soup kitchen to make sure the “community involvement” box on his “well-rounded” checklist gets ticked off.  But to up and abandon the whole principle in exchange for a Rumsfeldian “cheap as you can make it” educational system seems to defeat the whole purpose of the higher education system, however flawed.  If every college is only a vocational training college, why even bother to get a degree?  Why not just take (as I plan to do with art history) the classes you need and to hell with the rest?  Why not abandon the whole degree system and replace it with certification programs?  Then we too can be as regimented and obedient and only employable in one line of work as the Chinese workforce – which inarguably some employers would like quite a lot, but not the ones who value a workforce capable of growing, changing, questioning, learning, innovating – skills that can’t be measured on a standardized test.

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