Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Higher ed: Mercedes vs. Geo?

Here’s a challenge to every higher education "stakeholder" (that includes parents and students):

Universities and colleges have no magical power. The value of the education acquired at most middle to upper ranked schools (by any criteria) is mostly dependent on the commitment and focus of the student rather than on the miraculous power or luxury characteristics of the institutional process. Moreover, most colleges and universities sell a commodity product, an education that at its core is fundamentally similar between institutions. The amenities may differ — luxury dorms, elaborate student centers, complex and fully equipped recreational facilities — but the chemistry and English classes are pretty much the same.

Luxury is a good thing if you want it and can afford it. If someone will deliver a Mercedes for the price of a Geo, why not ride for the four years in style? Nonetheless, if you find yourself in a Geo, you will get to the supermarket at almost exactly the same time as your friends in the Mercedes. What you do when you get out of the car, however, depends almost entirely on you, not on the luxury of your ride.

Viewed in terms of economically quantifiable outcomes, this may be right. Within relatively capacious limits, a credential is a credential. But I’d raise two questions, one that Lombardi doesn’t address at all and the other challenging an assumption he makes.

The first has to do with the "quality of life" education helps students cultivate (and I’m not talking about quality as produced by income). Could not one curriculum be better than another in encouraging and preparing students to lead more thoughtful or "spiritually richer" lives?

Connected with this is my second question: are courses commodities, with Shakespeare taught at one place essentially the same as Shakespeare taught at another? The books may be the same, and they may be sufficiently powerful to overcome differences in teaching. But you can’t tell me that there’s not better and worse, less or more serious, teaching of Shakespeare that goes on in classrooms all over the country. For some students, then, reading Shakespeare under the tutelage of an exceptional teacher could be a life-changing experience; for others, it will be a yawner, fodder only for shouting correct answers at "Jeopardy" on the TV. For most, it will likely be something in between.

But let’s try to understand higher education in the light of exceptional possibilities, rather than in the light of the average (and quantifiable) outcomes to which Lombardi calls our attention.

Update:I had an interesting email exchange with John Lombardi. Here’s the question I posed to him, elaborating on what I said above:

As someone who had "transformative" experiences as both an undergraduate and a graduate student, I can’t simply think of higher education as a commodity, as a more or less nicely appointed vehicle to get me to the supermarket. In both instances, my experiences changed my destination, and I’m acutely aware of the fact that if I had blundered into different institutions, my "career" would have taken a different direction. (Imagine, for example, if I had studied political theory with Sheldon Wolin at Princeton, rather than with Allan Bloom at Toronto; as an undergrad, I was certain enough of "theory," but not of the brand. And had I not encountered compelling teachers as an undergraduate, I probably would have ended up in law school.)

I of course recognize that my experience, while not totally unique, is not the norm. But at the same time, I wonder whether regarding higher education as largely a credentialing mechanism is the most helpful and enlightening way of looking at it. I’m thinking in part of the rapid growth of the religiously-affiliated colleges and universities described by Naomi Schaefer Riley in God on the Quad. Clearly the parents and students attracted to these institutions don’t regard education simply as a credentialling mechanism. And just as clearly, this is the kind of "measurable" phenomenon of which economic analysts (and "marketers") of higher education can and should take account. Or would you just say that religious identification is just a color scheme or bundle of options chosen by a subset in this particular automobile market, so that nothing about this phenomenon alters the general outlines of your analysis?

Here’s his response:

The issue of the commodification of higher education is indeed something to worry about, but it’s also important to recognize that this process is well along. There is indeed a difference between the generically titled course taught by one or another instructor within different institutional contexts, but the rapid rise of amenity driven higher education recruiting tells us that the importance of content has declined, perhaps because the content is pretty good at most places and other contextual variables take on a great role in differentiating various alternative academic experiences. The great difficulty, of course, is predicting what effect these different contexts may have on an individual student and how much the parents and student ought to pay for the anticipation of these different effects.

Are those of us who care about curriculum simply at the mercy of the marketers and the consumers, who apparently or allegedly don’t (at least within very broad limits)? Is there anything that we can do to focus or refocus parents and students on the actual substance of higher education?

Discussions - 2 Comments

I speak only as a parent when I ask, how do we demand anything from an ideological faculty that is running the university system as if they were Kings? One of my daughters came home one time certain in the knowledge that LBJ had Kennedy killed; another now knows that the war in Iraq is over oil, and our fascist government-business interests to causepoverty in the Third World so we can get rich. Neither had ever been exposed to ANY books that might show this country in a good light. I gave books that had different POVs but I doubt they will be read. At least for now.

I acquired my education piecemeal, in conjunction with my military service. I spent time in the classroom off and on from 1964 through 1987. I had some great teachers (Dr. Richard Chardkoff, who now teaches at the University of Northern Louisiana, an Early Literature teacher in New Mexico, a technical writing teacher in England), dozens of adequate to mediocre teachers, and dozens of bad ones. My grades varied from the Dean’s List at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, to academic dismissal from the Air Force Academy (brought on by both academic deficiencies and an accident that left me hospitalized the last three weeks of the semester). I’ve found that great teachers make learning fun, good teachers make it tolerable, and students exposed to mediocre or bad teachers will either drop the course or grit their teeth and struggle through, usually with a lower grade than they would have received under different instructors. I’ve always tried to make learning fun when I’ve been in a teaching position. Otherwise, the material might just as well be posted on the Internet, and do away with classroom teachers entirely.

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