John Havelock: A faculty colloquium about future of higher ed

"Eighty-percent of college student attending 'State U' shouldn't be there," announced Professor Adams. He was citing a new book by Thomas Frank, (of "What's the Matter With Kansas?" fame), blasting elite colleges as "bastions of preservation of US class structure" and the rest as "loan traps for destroying the poor student's future hopes."

"Adams" (all names here are fictitious to protect the guilty) was enjoying a post-term libation with a half-dozen colleagues.

Hamilton rejoined, "Frank ignores the real point of college. He probably has not read (conservative icon) Charles Murray's "Real Education."

Adams retorted, "With all due respect (meaning not much), Frank is right; he is actually backed by Murray and (Stanley) Fish. The difference between what is asked of students at selective colleges or in honors or engineering programs and what is asked of those marking time at State U., majoring in communications or sports management, is incalculable.... Frank says what the 80 percent are learning, if anything, isn't going to serve them well in life. In any case, they're going out with a huge debt, retarding their financial future."

Adams then turned on his real target: "And where is the money going that the 80 percent transfer to State U.? - to hefty salaries for administrators, fancy athletic facilities, upscale dormitories and training in soon-obsolete information technology. Is this helping anyone learn anything meaningful? Fish says college's only purpose is to be a college. Robert Hutchins argues that college should be for those who want to learn to read The Republic. Both argue that most students in college aren't capable of what we used to call college work, directed toward what used to be understood as the purpose of higher education - that is, a greater understanding of humanity. Gift a diploma to the rest so they can get a job."

Monroe then chimed in with a personal observation, "If getting rich is a measure - then college was a waste for me! But how could I have known, prior to going to school, how radically different my thinking would be?"

Monroe then conceded, "I have to agree with Murray and Fish.... I wonder if debt were not the issue - if we had a way to change from a growth economy that has no future - to a sustaining economy - if going to college would still be considered a waste for so many? We should move away from the capitalist, consumer-based model for education. The real loss for so many is not debt but the mental development they didn't get for it. Frank skips this."

Jefferson then spoke: "We should not decide who is worthy of college. Advanced education may be beneficial, as determined by the needs of a culture and economy. While an evolved society would financially support everyone's right to the best forms of education, I am not any more distressed at the debt incurred by students today than I am at the other ways in which society wastes money."

Monroe responded, "I imagine myself teaching and trying to slow down for those with a different learning style. I hate to say it, but I really think - and please don't have me fired for this - that it's not a different learning style but an indication of not enough prior practice thinking. Teaching slowly, using more stories to explain things and avoiding bullet comments helps the slow learner but doesn't get a thesis written by term's end. Maybe I am politically incorrect and culturally biased."

Adams responded finally: "A good bit of tommyrot has percolated up from Schools of Education about different learning styles. Mostly it camouflages well-intentioned but destructive strategies to pass youngsters through the system who don't have the ability to think about complex subjects. New 'learning styles' joins grade inflation in damaging both teaching and learning. To be too sensitive to the tommyrot is to cripple your own capability to teach, and to bore your students into cynicism.

This is a case where the best teaching advice is: Be who you are. Advice for the student: Consider hard your life objectives before choosing college."

Professor John Havelock, now practicing law with Havelock & Duffy, retired from UAA long ago after 10 years teaching and directing the Justice programs.