Thoughts on Higher Education, Part 1

When Peter invited me to contribute to Pigs and Sheep, I asked if he would prefer that I write about anything in particular. “Write about what you know, as long as it is freedom-related” was the reply. So today I will write about education, which touches upon issues of freedom in such myriad ways that I will only have space to touch upon a very few points. I anticipate returning to this subject frequently, so it may help to know a bit about my perspective.

I have been a college professor for 23 years at five different universities (four state schools, one private). I am also the father of two boys, currently a college sophomore and a high school senior, so I have interacted with my local public school system (as well as a couple of private schools they attended previously). And of course I was a student myself before that, not just K-12 but undergrad (double majoring in English and music) and grad school (just music). I have never taught anything but college, having gone directly from completing my doctorate to my first full-time college teaching gig. My entire life since kindergarten has flowed to the rhythm of the school year, and will continue thus until that blessed day when I can retire.

With my current employer, where I have been for 15 years (and am likely to finish out my career), the music major degree program is very small, so most of my teaching load is not spent on my specific areas of expertise (piano or music theory). Rather, I spend most of my time teaching Music Appreciation as a required “gen-ed” or “core” class to freshmen. This, along with the fact that the school itself is an entry-level state school rather than an elite institution, has given me what I believe to be a very good perspective on the challenges we face regarding the education of average students—which is a more general and numerically larger problem than the education of the smaller numbers of either special needs or elite high-achieving students.

Since I am writing about my job in a public space, prudence demands discretion. There is much I might like to say which must wait for that aforementioned blessed day! But a clarifying principle comes to mind; in this space, I will only write those things which I would not hesitate to say directly to the faces of my colleagues, administrators, and especially my students. I believe strongly that as a teacher, my most important obligation to my students is to tell the truth, as I imperfectly see it. In fact, after reading the boilerplate off the syllabus, this is the very first thing I tell them. A parent or a friend has the primary obligation to love you, which might mean the occasional lie to assuage your feelings. But a teacher must always tell the truth, and also keep an appropriate distance (which a parent or friend will not) to enable that candor.

Because I do want my students to succeed — that is, as long as they want to succeed, because there is no point in me wanting it more than they do — I want them to be well-informed on what they are in for, what challenges await them, which paths are more likely to lead to success. So here is the second truth I lay on them, on or about their first day of college; The biggest problem with the typical (again, not the elite, but the typical) college student, based on my decades of experience, is not that they are dumb or entitled or sensitive snowflakes. It is that they are passive, to the point of being practically inert. They almost never ask questions in class, even when prompted (and I prompt often, because I love the sound of crickets chirping). They almost never come to office hours for extra help. On average, I will get perhaps one visit by one student per semester (very often, none). They almost never email me with questions about the material, though I practically beg them to do so. Is this because their grasp of the material is such that they don’t need to do any of these things? Well, I do make the class about as easy as I can and still have it be, by my lights, college level. Yet many of them fail test after test, and still never raise a hand or come for help. Many of them stop coming to class (I don’t take attendance, on principle, as they are attending of their own free will), and can’t even be bothered to drop the class by the deadline. I don’t know how many of them are doing the assigned reading, or have even bought the required text, but I have suspicions and opinions based on what I see and anecdotes from colleagues. To their credit, I suppose, they are also too passive (or more charitably, too stoic) to complain about the low grades so many of them receive. This may be because I try very hard to make the grading criteria simple, clear, and consistent, so their grade shouldn’t be a surprise. But in my 15 years at this institution, I can count on one hand the number of times a student emailed me to question their grade in the course — and in a couple of those cases, I had actually made a calculation or computer entry error.

Why are so many students so passive and silent, seemingly sleepwalking their way through college? I must confess I don’t really know, because in order for me to know they would have to open their mouths and tell me. I may as well be asking the statues on Easter Island how they got there. But I have suspicions. The overriding one (which touches on issues of freedom, as I am bound to do in this blog) is that they are simply in the wrong place, or perhaps in the right place for the wrong reason. Usually when this kind of thing happens, it is because there has been a distortion in the market or in society, a signal which has been obscured or sabotaged which has shunted some information, good, service, etc., down the wrong track.

Education is like a business in some ways, but very unlike it in some important ways. Leave aside for a moment the fact that most universities are (at least nominally) non-profit, and that many (such as mine) are state institutions. A more fundamental problem is the nature of the product itself, which is either (depending on your perspective) a degree/transcript, an education (for which the degree/transcript is but a symbol), or perhaps an educated student — a graduate. In a more conventional business — the automotive business, for example — a person walks into a dealership to buy a car, and everyone knows that’s why he is there. Both the buyer and the salesman will usually have some experience with the product. They will know how it operates, what it is good for. The buyer can do a few minutes’ research and know as much as the salesman about a particular car, and about similar models offered by the competition. He can even do a quick check online to see if the price is competitive. Eventually a deal is (or isn’t) struck, and one party or the other makes out better or worse based on a number of possible variables. The buyer is handed the keys and the paperwork, and drives home in his new car. His wallet will be significantly lighter, and he will have to start making payments in a month, but at least he is secure in the knowledge that if the car breaks down within a reasonable period of time, he can get it fixed under warranty.

Now consider Higher Ed. Why does the student enter? Is it to learn — that is, to get an education — or is it really just to get a degree, a necessary credential for a job (which, if given the option, the student might gladly accept without having to sit through all those boring classes)? Is it because his parents or “society” expected him to go to college, or because he wants to get away from home for a while? Is it to play sports, to meet girls or guys, to party? The University doesn’t really care, up to a point (that point being just beyond Double Secret Probation). They will take your money either way.

But, just whose money is it they are taking? The students’? Not really. It is their parents’, or the taxpayers’ (since taxpayers both backstop student loans and pay taxes which support state schools). Or maybe it is hazy hypothetical future-money—a loan, which he won’t have to start paying back until after he graduates, and maybe not even then if we can elect a President who promises to forgive student loan debt (or maybe he won’t pay it back at all — after all, they can’t throw you in debtor’s prison or repo your degree). The student probably doesn’t even know how much he is borrowing, what the interest rate is, what his payment will be, or for how long. College students typically have no experience with credit or debt or basic financial literacy, and yet they are saddled with the equivalent of a hefty mortgage. But since they don’t have to come up with a big chunk of money from the get-go, they don’t seem to value the product. As I tell my students, borrowing money to pay for an education then skipping class or not reading the book is like borrowing money to buy an expensive car and then neglecting/trashing it. That which you have forked out your own hard-earned money for in advance (or, which you must pay for as you use it, every single month), you will tend to value more highly and treat accordingly. That which you have been given by somebody else, or borrowed hypothetical future-money for, you might not care about.

Even if the student is sincerely and earnestly there for the very best reason — to get an education — there is a big existential problem. If they are there to obtain an education, they must necessarily be in a state of ignorance. Unlike with the car, there is no way that the buyer (student) and the seller (professor/administrator) could be on anything like equal footing about the value, or even the most basic aspects of, the product (the education). In order for the student to truly know these things, he would have to have the education already! Thus, he is at the mercy of the institution. It would be as if the car buyer had no way of knowing whether the car was anything like what the salesman described until he had already paid for and driven it for several years.

In fact, it is worse than that, because the education itself is an invisible, intangible thing. The degree and the transcript are the only tangible things (symbolic, but tangible) you walk away with after graduation. This is analogous to getting the keys and the title to your new car, but not knowing whether there is an actual car until you need to use it to get somewhere. In principle (and unfortunately, in practice), a university can take your money and give you a degree and send you on your way even if you have learned very little about the subject you have studied — or worse yet, if you have learned things which are demonstrably false! There are countless examples, but I urge you to look no further than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her degree in economics from Boston University.

Finally, there is no warranty on an education. If it turns out you don’t know jack about economics after all, and can’t get anything but a bartender job, you can’t go back and get your education fixed for free.

In what kind of crazy world would such a business model thrive, would such a product be in such demand, despite the crippling debt needed to obtain it as its price tag climbs every year—faster even than the cost of health care? Only, of course, in a world with diabolically perverse incentives – with social, legal, and market distortions which are legion. More on those next time.

David Curtin

About David Curtin

David Curtin is a classical pianist and college professor who also enjoys working on old cars, landscaping with rocks, and freedom.


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