Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dr. Pat's Advice to our Best Universities

Of late Georgetown has been crowing about the crushing number of applicants for "Early Action." While I'm sure the rise in numbers has something to do with my institution's excellence, an article in today's New York Times makes clear that the dramatic rise in number of early applicants has more to do with the cessation of Early Admissions programs at Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia.

It's difficult to ignore the hypocrisy of our elite institutions which, on the one hand, like to be seen publically lamenting the hyper-competitiveness among roughly 20 of the nation's "top" Universities and the way that it disfigures the lives of young persons, even as they crow over and advertise their high rankings in U.S News and World Report and publicize the crushing number of student applications (applicant numbers and rankings, of course, are intimately linked, and thus the two create a mutually reinforcing, self-fulfilling cycle).

Another of today's articles only further attests to the staggering absurdity of our current college admissions game: students are now "branding" themselves - a term we used to use for differentiating cattle herds and is now used to describe slick and often superficial ways that advertisers and marketers distinguish nearly identical products. This same term is now embraced by both institutions of higher learning and their potential students in the effort to differentiate themselves - and may have just as much substance as the marketing techniques to which they refer.

The article states:

Branding is a buzzword among corporations, and colleges, too, are desperate to distinguish themselves. And so the philosophy — some might call it an affliction — has filtered down to those applying to the most selective colleges.

Yet it would be wrong to blame either the students or their counselors for what is a sickness of the zeitgeist aggravated by the mushrooming number of applicants and misguided notions that only 20 colleges are worth attending. The herd of applicants [PD: see!] is so teeming that students really do find it difficult to distinguish themselves from others who have scored in the SAT stratosphere and spent summers in Guatemala working with the poor. Hannah Lindsell, a sophomore at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School on the West Side of Manhattan, offered an eloquent articulation of the problem.

“People sometimes worry that they’re being packaged, but at the end of the day you’re just a sheet of paper,” she said. “If you’re not packaged to a degree, you’re all over the place. It’s important to be focused. Having someone like a coach helps you decide where the focus is going to be."


[One such coach said]:

“Just as it would be ridiculous to expect a company like Volvo to stop marketing itself as the premier safety car, it would be ridiculous to expect applicants applying to extremely competitive schools to not use branding to stand apart from the competition,” she said.

If our elite colleges were really concerned about the damage that their incitement to hyper-competitiveness was wreaking, and if they really wanted to dampen pernicious incentives that now encourage 17-year olds (or their parents) to spend $4,000 and up to win the meritocratic sweepstakes and turns students into little achievement machines with narrow careerist mindsets, they would have to do more than wring their hands and sing lamentations of woe. Yet, most administrators shrug their shoulders and attribute the madness to the broader culture without reflecting either on the way that their own universities have contributed to the creation of that culture or could serve as an agent of change in altering it.

So, speaking now as a social scientist - indeed, for this exercise you may call me Dr. Pat, as I hereby invoke my expertise and highly valuable advanced degrees that clearly brand me as hyper smart and worthy of your attention and deference - I offer two concrete suggestions to reverse the malicious effects fostered by the hyper-competiveness of our university system. Of course, I will be applying for a grant from the NIH and NSF to test the hypotheses that these proposals would have their desired effect. We will only use lab mice to run our tests, guided by the strictest ethical standards and respectful disposal of the innumerable itty-bitty corpses we'll be producing.

1. Reinstitute a serious core curriculum with extensive course requirements in the humanities - particularly philosophy, theology, history, political philosophy, literature and classics - along with less extensive requirements, but requirements nonetheless, in the social sciences and physical sciences; moreover, require the faculty to re-acquaint (or, more likely, acquaint) themselves with the reasons for a core curriculum (familiarity with Newman's Idea of the University would be helpful) and to demonstrate that they will teach core courses guided by that understanding. If they are not willing to sign on to this basic purpose of the university, make such unwillingness grounds for demotion or dismissal. The President and Trustees will have ultimate say over the proper governance of the University, not individual faculty who tend increasingly only to be concerned with narrow academic specialization and the incentives that reward such narrowness.

2. Since a significant number of courses will be required - and thus students will have no choice about which courses to take - make it clear to faculty and students alike that high academic standards will be expected and grade inflation will cease (this will be possible since students won't be able to shop for the easy classes and the current "market incentive" to dilute grades in order to attract students will cease). Re-introduce the full grade scale, not our constricted grade scale in which a B- is now considered by students to be a failing grade. Be willing to fail students who do not demonstrate competence in understanding or writing.

I am willing to put good money down on two counts:

1. Instituting these two reforms would dampen the huge number of applicants to the University that adopted them;


2. Not a single top 20 university will adopt these measures. Indeed, watch for news of continued diminution of core requirements. For instance, rumors (and, for many, hopes) to this effect abound at Georgetown.


Sardonicus said...

Prof. Deenen,

Have you considered, in any of your posts, that volunteerism, has now become a "check-the-box" for admission into a "good" college, and is no longer (for most) an activity truly motivated by the virtue of charity?

Black Sea said...

This process is fueled by the fact that it is next to impossible to know what "product" a university is going to deliver to a given student.

To extend the automobile analogy, Volvo, a typical manufacturer, produces cars. Your abilities and enthusiasm as a driver have nothing to do with the intrisic quality of their cars. Their performance is either good, bad, or indifferent, independent of your driving skills. Yeah, over time, a bad driver can screw up a good car, but that's different.

An "education" is an amporphous, intangible, and perhaps imaginary entity. There is no real consensus as to what constitutes a quality education, nor what makes for an educated person. Much less is there any assurance that the same education will be delivered to each paying customer. (It won't.)

Again, imagine trying to evaluate competing brands of automobile if the primary variable involved were the operator's driving skill and love of the road, and each test drive took a minimum of four years. Not an easy thing to do, particularly if there is no shared agreement of what made a car "good" to begin with.

As a consequence, universities market themselves, not on the basis of education, but on the strength of their prestige. Even a directional state college has some prestige to offer, and a two-year school holds out more prestige than a high school diploma and nothing more.

This explains how it has come to pass that we have an over-abundance of students in university, combined with a diminishing quality of education, and a furious scramble for the top few slots. Kids vying to get into Harvard and Yale (with some exceptions) aren't usually freaking out in their competitive zeal because they crave an Ivy League education; what they and their parents crave is the Ivy League credential, which mostly means you were clever enough to get in. The education itself is of marginal relevance even before the classes begin.

This frame of mind is hardly limited to the students and their parents, since much of the faculty think exactly the same way. Actually, there are slews of people rattling around in universities who think the place would be near-perfect if we could just get rid of the goddamned kids.

Finally, let me share an anecdote passed on to me by a friend and professor of engineering. In the U.S. News and World Report Survey, faculty members in various disciplines are asked to rank university departments in their particular field. So, for example, mechanical engineering professors rank mechanical engineering departments.

When the rakings were released one year, Purdue scored in the top 10 in an area of engineering - let's say ceramic engineering, though I don't recall the exact discipline. Anyway, Purdue was particularly pleased with this result since, at that time, it had no program in ceramic engineering. But since they were already ranked so high, they thought maybe they should go ahead and start one.

Patrick Deneen said...

I agree with Mr. B.S. in many of his particulars, but perhaps I may also play with the automobile metaphor a bit. In our automobile culture, we are told that we have innumerable choices - accessories, options, color, make, model, a car for every "lifestyle" - but we don't really have much of a choice, or very few are capable of seeing, much less making possible a real choice, in whether to own a car or not. The culture has been so structured to make car ownership tantamount to a necessity. We extol our choices, but all those choices tend to obscure the deeper absence of choice about car ownership.

I would say the same analogy applies to a University education for anyone who wishes to join the upwardly mobile "aristo-meritocratic" class (to use Tom Wolfe's term from "I Am Charlotte Simmons"). Why is that? Well, because college is the path to mobility and a passport to joining the class of "elites" described so well by Christopher Lasch in the title essay of his book "The Revolt of the Elites." So, can we really say for sure that - yes, acknowledging variations - that "there is no real consensus to what constitutes a quality education." A quality education is one that, like an automobile, gets us to the place that we are a going. This explains why students overwhelmingly are driven (as it were) by concerns about their future careers - they have been infused in a set of cultural assumptions that the purpose of a college is to give us the credentials to enter the upwardly mobile society. So, the form of education that comports with that is really one that, in the first instance, does not stand in the way of that future mobility, and further, offers a variety of ways to ensure access to that mobile society (internships, study abroad, an "international" education, campuses that often will block the existence of ROTC programs but readily invite in an infinite number of "Consulting" firms, etc.).

The reason I "proposed" the renewal of a serious core curriculum (beyond thinking it's a good idea) was to point out how inconceivable - how undesirable - such a program would be under current presuppositions. This is not - as our postmodernists like to believe - because it would be too oppressive and narrow (the core never was - as if Aristotle, Rousseau and Nietzsche are saying the same thing because they're dead and white). It is because it would fundamentally contradict the reigning model of the university, which is oriented to producing the placeless cosmopolitan, not a person steeped in the West, that is, our own place, as well as orienting our education to a different end - knowledge, not mobility. Such a program would make us less economically "viable." So, let's not overstate how wholly "open" our educational options are. Yes, you can find alternatives if you look, and some students do. God bless them - I really mean that. But the vast majority, I would submit, never have their deep cultural presuppositions challenged (David Brooks incisively pointed out in his book "On Paradise Drive" that postmodernism and our meritocratic free market system in which our values must be under constant revision are deeply compatible). Most students thus reflect a culture that they assume not to exist - like a fish "sees" water - but which governs them almost entirely.

I guess you could say that I'm trying to get a few of these fish to notice that the waters are damned polluted.

Black Sea said...

I believe that you have quite usefully extended the automobile metaphor.

Exactly, the function of the modern education is to "get one somewhere." The place to which one is supposed to be "getting" is defined in terms of career and income. I believe that your point here and mine are essentially the same, which is that what now defines a "quality" education is its prestige value, how far it can carry you professionally, and perhaps socially.

I very much like the point that what once was considered a luxury with a multitude of options, is now a necessity, forcing even those who might prefer to walk or cycle to buy a car. What's more, the available options are largely superfical, since the chassis and the engine generally remain the same. (I feel thar I may have a future at GM.)

Someone once observed that the push for universal public education in the 19th century was publically justifed by the need for an educated populace (read workforce) and that there was some truth to this (basic math and literacy made workers more productive).

However, so the argument goes, the more covert function of 19th century public education was to break down the resistance of young people to the conditions of factory life, such as remaining at a workbench for hours at a time, moving from place to place at the sound of a whistle, following the foreman's detailed but rather uninteresting instructions.

How true is it? I don't know, but I suspect that it is to some degree. And I believe we see the same process at work in the modern university, for reasons that are not so much deliberately insidious as ubiquitous and subconscious.

I'd like to say more, but oops, I've got to meet a 9:00 class, so . . .

By the way, it has been observed more than once on the internet that in my case, "Mr. B.S." is all too appropriate a moniker.

Anonymous said...

Great conversation!

I began to realize the challenge of consumer-driven education when my undergrad started having sculpted ice swans at the lunch buffet on admitted students day in the early 1990s. I imagined a parent saying dismissively, "Vassar had a bigger ice swan." So the Sculpted Ice Wars began.

Unknown said...

Those are both excellent suggestions, but may I add one more? Increase the numbers of classes that faculty - even, cough, cough, "chaired" faculty - must teach. Rumor has it that even the top professors at the top universities taught 6 or more classes a year as recently as the 1960s. Today, they can get away with 1 or 2 (if you average in their frequent sabbaticals, leaves, etc.). Forcing faculty into the classroom more would have, to my mind, at least three salutary effects. First, it would expand the range of classes taught by people who are purportedly trained to do so (instead of grad students or adjuncts). Second, it would focus faculty's attention on teaching and students (since they'd be spending that much more time on them). And, third, there would be much less crap published in our academic journals.

dick said...

As one who attended a university in the late 1950's and early 1960's that did in fact have the requirements you speak of I would like to strongly approve of this initiative. I know that many times over the past years in my profession I have used the thought processes and analytical methodology that I learned in those liberal arts courses.

It brings to mind something my first boss after I left the service told me. I was hired as a computer programmer trainee on an accelerated program and my boss and I really got along very well. Her statement was that the best programmers she knew of were either history or English majors. There was something about having the ability to keep in mind the broad concept at the same time that you also kept track of the details that those who had studied the liberal arts were capable of that made them better. She said that math majors and science majors tended to get bogged down in the minutiae and took forever to get anything accomplished.