Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Crumbling of the Ivory Towers

All schools now want to push all their students to college. It’s in their mottos, slogans, mission statements, “educational philosophies”, etcetera. All kids must pursue a four-year degree in some abstract study whether they like it or not. This academic priority is based on some brilliant research that shows that people with college educations earn higher salaries than those without college educations. Never mind that these statistics reflect basic pattern of American workers over ten years ago and not an actual guarantee of success. The schools remain convinced that this ensures a higher quality education, better numbers on tests and graduate rates, and step towards progress.

Unfortunately, the opposite seems to occur. Education, especially the seemingly untouchable ivory towers of higher education, suffers from these campaigns for a college education. The standards fall, the numbers for tests go down, and dropouts continue. It also doesn’t help that most school leaders can only feel obliged to preach and set deadlines but have absolutely no clue how to achieve it. Their method usually involves maintaining the same atrocious learning environment for the students while yelling at teachers more often and assigning them more useless staff development sessions. Obviously, when this does not work out, most people recognize this ongoing drama for what it is: Another way of hiding the gross inadequacies of public schools today.

However, this drama of making every student a scholar has successfully wreaked havoc on educational standards. Colleges must now sustain the vast onslaught of unprepared slackers ready to get their priceless piece of paper known as a college degree. To do this, many colleges have created developmental classes (in other words, a mini-high school sponsored by the exorbitant tuition of worthier students) or they have sacrificed their standards altogether. This sacrifice has led to a disturbing trend among universities who now forsake the fine-tuning of academic aptitude for “practical career know-how” in order to save face about plummeting standards. In particular, literature courses have opted for shorter multi-cultural books and contemporary short stories rather than tomes of the respected Western canon. While these books might exhibit openness to diversity, many of them are easy reads, and even the most sanctimonious professors acknowledge that. In the other disciplines power point presentations replace writing compositions, Wikipedia replaces actual sources for research, and derisive jibes (often spouted from asinine professors) replace competent discussion.

The academic standards of high schools have also suffered. In the spirit of making every student a college prospect, many schools have streamlined honors courses and loosened the methods of tracking that separate the wheat from the chafe in the student body. They now drag at-risk students (educational term for prospective drop-outs) literally kicking and screaming into an advance placement class where they continue to kick and scream for the whole year. The teachers would normally fail these dunces, but they have so many of these students that failure is not an option anymore. At this point of no return for the teacher, their expectations normally take a beating on their grade book for a few weeks before they inevitably drop to a lower level.

Naturally, schools pushing college have done away with programs intended as alternatives to college. Many have disposed of useful vocational programs that could immediately equip kids with practical skills that the job market always requires. Rather, they are forced into classes that attempt to teach them the beauty of poetry, obscure theorems in advanced algebra, and the cultural celebrations of Mauritania. While a minority might appreciate this well-rounded though not altogether practical curriculum, a majority usually space out and hone their skills as slackers just to get through their days. Kids who might want, or need, to work after high school often come into the workforce handicapped because school has trained them to lazy, dishonest, and irrelevant.

The strangest fact that high schools seem to somehow overlook is that most universities lie outside the price range of most kids, even middle-class ones. Parents and students begrudgingly paying off their loans understand that universities, both public and private, presently charge extortionate tuitions. These costs especially encumber students in states that have deregulated tuitions. Considering the quality of education received in these institutions that cater to profitable endeavors over educational ones, the notion of paying the equivalent of year’s salary of a white-collar worker is downright absurd.

Community college has become the only choice for many young adults seeking some kind of credential that might attract an employer. Unfortunately, they provide financial relief at the cost of accepting all students indiscriminately. Thus, the hopes some smart kids cherished in their bosoms of finally separating from the imbeciles of the class fly away. The state that needs them so badly has left them an additional two years of high school in the guise of a college.

To define success in terms of a college degree limits the definition of success completely. Students come in many different forms with many different mindsets. They all have a talent and a passion, and school must tap that precious resource in each of its students. Universities do not deserve the power that high schools give them, determining a person’s overall success in life. They should humbly serve as supplemental academic training to students desiring it. Other outlets need to exist for the other students ready to work or gain a profitable skill. A high school that respect this and aspire to opening more possibilities ultimately succeeds as a beneficial institution over one that alienates students and tears down academic standards due to their narrow-minded view that college is the only way.

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