Welcome to College, 2019 Style

Posted on May 26, 2019

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Welcome to College, 2019 Style

As I periodically review life inside of colleges and universities today, I’m not sure whether to cry or laugh hysterically. An article in the WSJ, “College Wouldn’t Cost So Much If Students and Faculty Worked Harder” (April 11, 2019) caught my attention. The author, Richard Vedder, wondered why colleges cost so much more today and students learn less. And while he was at it, he added “students don’t study much, professors teach little [and] few people read most of the obscure papers the professors write.”

And he admits, and I agree, “I assign far less reading, demand less writing and giver higher grades than I did two generations ago.” If you read about universities doing magnificent things, a lot of it is breathing their own vapor.

The author is an economist, so he loads his piece with data. Fair enough. In the mid-twentieth century students sent 50% more time studying than they do today. Ergo, since learning takes time, they are learning less. What’s the data say?

The typical college senior “has only marginally better critical reasoning and writing skills than a freshman.” Furthermore, there is a demonstrably declining literacy among college grads. A literacy test (remember civics?) shows, among other things, that “only 24% of graduates know that the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of an official church.” I’m surprised it’s that high.

So, why aren’t administrators and professors doing something about this? It could be because professors who usually taught three classes a week in 1965 now only teach two classes a week and the big researchers teach only one class. “The excuse is that professors today are publishing more research.” But it they are, who is reading it and how much is it influencing their teaching? Anecdotal evidence suggests that faculty in the mid-twentieth century were just as smart, just as productive, and demonstrably more successful teachers than today.

If professors avoid teaching on Fridays today to have more research time to publish, as the author writes, in the equivalent of the “Journal of Las Resort” which no one reads, then what about administrators, the guys who run the colleges. How effective are they? There are sure more of them. “In 1970 at a typical university there were perhaps two professors for each administrator. Today, there are usually more nonteaching administrators than professors.”

There are exceptions to this picture of a bloated bureaucracy, underperforming students, general mediocrity and self-serving pronouncements.  On some campuses students study more, especially those in engineering who work harder “than communications or gender-studies majors.” And some professors are in their offices more than a few hours a week. Medical school and law school students work very long hours.

But, as one set of data from the Labor Department suggest, today “students spend more time on recreation and partying than on academics and professors are not often found during daytime hours in the office, classroom, laboratory or the library,” although the library, in today’s high tech, IT world is becoming an extinct institution.

So, what needs to be done? I am a firm believer in offering fixes for all the ills we identify in this column. Here it is.

We need to reexamine closely the values and ethics which gave this country its distinctive character. And then, before the collective memory of those attributes fades away into some corner of our memory, a footnote—like the fall of the Roman Empire—to appear occasionally on history tests, then we need to recapture that spirit and bring it alive into the twenty-first century.

I propose establishing an “Alpha College” as the most challenging forum for teaching students the values and ways that made this country

As I see it, the world is taking us. The signs are all around us. Most everything we buy seems to be made in China.

Our unparalleled lead in technology is eroding.

Cheating in schools is rampant. There is in fact a culture of entitlement and mediocrity where there once was excellence and pride in one’s work. A huge spike in the suicide among students cries for attention.

To change our culture, we begin by changing ourselves, one by one. I am not offering a solution for all people, for all time. Here’s the way we begin.

Establish an “Alpha College” at any university wishing to take the lead. The curriculum of Alpha College will be decided by faculty and people in society whose values and accomplishments we admire. Alpha College will emphasize learning the fundamentals of our civilization just as in times past, and how to apply them, justly and wisely.

It will not be a replica of any one curriculum from the past.

The first Alpha College Dean faces three different tasks: one, identify those core values which make a successful civilization; two, study past educational tracks and institutions to see which ones encouraged and inculcated those values; three, create a modern track for Alpha College, one for the 21st century incorporating not only the best of the past but also the best of today into a package for the future.

That is what we are lacking, a vision of the future that lifts us up from simply existing (a job, a home, financial security) and accumulating (wealth, power, acclaim, fame) to one that looks with hope, learning, discipline, and study to a future that truly lights our eyes with wisdom and pulls us forward with hope.

Discipline, hard work, and accountability will be cornerstones of the new Colleges.

We need to reach back to the values that allowed us—a free people living under republican institutions—to realize our potential as human beings, and, two, to fashion the new frontier before us, invoking the best from the past, and the promise of the future.

We need both tradition and the future, Shakespeare and computers, history and nanotechnology, and we need to teach these with conviction and high expectations.

What will be the Alpha College curriculum? Alpha College will foster true thinking and a deep appreciation for the Western tradition (recognizing its flaws as well as its merits), but with a knowledge and respect for the other great traditions and civilizations of the world.

When—if—you get your diploma, you will come away with two major accomplishments.

One, you will be an educated person.

Two, you will be prepared to compete in the global marketplace of ideas, economies, ideologies, religions, and politics. You will know that you have passed the most rigorous and demanding curriculum in the U. S.

The challenge is for some institution—great or great-in-the-making, national or regional, large or small—to make a reality of Alpha College and set the model in place.

Or, perhaps, an aspiring candidate for President could absorb and reflect the vision in his or her platform.

The King James version of Proverbs 29:18 shows us the way: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Published as “We need a new kind of college, with a new vision,” April 21 2019, in The Tuscaloosa News