Last week I opined on the dysfunction of Higher Ed — or rather, one particular aspect of it, since Academia is broken in so many ways. I began by trying to impress upon my readers the utter passivity of the freshmen students in my Introduction to Music (a required non-major “core” class), who are unwilling to either ask or answer questions in class, or come to office hours for extra help. They seem uninterested in learning, not only for its own sake (which is perhaps understandable of an 18-year-old at an entry-level state school) or even as a means to an end – a good grade. Too many of them fail test after test, yet in a typical semester, not one of them will ever visit me during office hours for extra help, or even ask a question in class. It is like being in a calm sea full of drowning people, none of whom wave or call out for help.

How many is “too many?” I have had many semesters where over half the class got a D or lower (while a few students got A’s and B’s, meaning those grades are achievable). This would seem to defy a good statistical outcome — a bell curve which peaks at a C, assuming C means “average.” But this kind of outcome can only be expected if all the students are trying.

I try to be as forthright as possible with my students, about grades and everything else. I explain to them my concept of grading, about what is traditionally understood to be communicated by the common letter grades. This understanding is sometimes upended by trendy professors (like this guy and this guy) who think everybody can and should get an A, but I adhere to it because I feel I owe it to the society which I serve, which still has that traditional understanding, which will be scrutinizing transcripts as it considers my students for jobs, grad schools, etc. I explain about the bell curve, how they should not be overly dismayed by a C, because that should by definition be the most commonly given grade (in reality, the most commonly given grade in higher ed is probably the A, but again I am a cranky traditionalist). I explain that if you measure any attribute or capability of human beings, given a large enough sample size, you will start to see that bell-shaped curve appear in your data points.

For example (I tell my class), I am sadly of average height for an American male — 5′ 8″. I am a C when it comes to height, but I don’t feel too badly about it, because I shouldn’t really expect to be exceptional — especially for those attributes which I cannot control. But imagine if I took a survey the height of everyone in this class — EVERYONE must be measured. Most would be close to the average, some would be shorter, some would be taller, a few would be truly exceptional on either end — and the result would be the curve. What if there were a few people who didn’t feel like showing up to class that day (remember, EVERYONE must be measured)? What if some people didn’t feel like expending the effort to stand up so that I could measure them at their full height? I don’t just throw out the results. The no-shows get measured at zero inches, and the people who refuse to stand up (because they are free to choose, and I can’t physically make them) get measured at their seated height — which for me is about 4’3″, depending on the chair I’m in. Now my bell curve is not going to appear, I am going to have more of a plateau and then a downward slope. There will be a disproportionate number of data points on the low side, because willingness to exert some minimal effort is a factor. Thus it is with test taking, with learning generally. Not everyone has equal aptitude, but also, not everyone has equal willingness.

In the case of higher ed, one would think that this problem would be self-correcting, because those who are not willing to learn would not opt to go to college in the first place, or would not be admitted even if they tried, or would fail out. Ideally, this would be the case. But what if Higher Ed conformed to the lowered expectations and standards of K-12, rather than establishing a bar to be overcome, and thus signaling back to K-12 schools that they need to do better? What if Academia was more interested in the well-being of its own administration, staff, and faculty, instead of the best interests of the students? What it became understood within society, if perhaps only subconsciously and very gradually, that college was not really primarily about learning anymore? What if it was more about getting a four- or five-year vacation (on a manicured campus complete with dining halls akin to trendy urban restaurants and rec centers with rock-climbing walls) after a lifetime spent at home under the watchful eye of Mom and Dad? What if it was a place where you can go for free to play sports, and yeah maybe go to classes too, but only often enough to maintain that scholarship (and if you are a star, they will make sure you pass)? What if it was really more of a place to party and hook up?

Or for the students who are more goal-orientated, what if it is really more about getting some credential which is “needed” to get a certain job, rather than an education? What if it is about “following your passion” and “changing the world” – an absurdly inflated expectation to serve up to a naive idealistic 18-year-old, which seemingly EVERY university tries so hard to sell? Mere learning, of a broad-based education, is pretty mundane when compared to all these things in that 18-year-old brain. It suggests time spent in dreary libraries, studying things you might have no interest in (like Classical music). It suggests that you don’t know everything already, that despite having spent practically your whole life in school, there is much more learning to do.

Most of my students, the ones who get below-average grades, exhibit very little interest in learning. They may also have little aptitude, but in order to ascertain that, they would first have to exhibit interest and try. They may graduate anyway, because many of my colleagues are only too happy to give them easy A’s in their rigor-free classes. Nonetheless, they are fundamentally in the wrong place. Or maybe the University is becoming a different kind of place — the wrong place for me, but the right place for them.

All disillusioned people are idealists at heart, because if you don’t have ideals you can never have them dashed. A university like mine is supposed to be all about learning, acquiring a broad-based education for which the degree is supposed to be merely a tangible symbol. My students could choose to go to a different kind of school—a trade school perhaps — and graduate in half the time for much less money and with more earning potential to boot. If you are a skilled welder here in the heart of fracking country and are willing to work long hours, you can make more than a tenured full professor! But they aren’t going to those schools, they are going to mine. Why?

One reason may be that, unlike the 4-year college, the technical school really does require that you know and can do something if you are going to graduate. A good weld vs. a crappy weld can be a matter of life and death (or lawsuits, environmental disasters, bankruptcy, etc.), so the trade school has little incentive to inflate grades and decrease rigor just to keep the diploma mill humming. But the 4-year college offers something the technical college doesn’t, which in fact no other institution Academia can offer—entry into that social class known as The College Educated.

Americans are not terribly class-conscious, thank goodness. A vast majority of us identify as “middle class”, whether we are working in retail and making low five figures in flyover country or living in the suburbs of DC or LA and making millions. If you are neither in a housing project on welfare nor living off a trust fund in a penthouse, you are middle class, by your own lights at least. This is why politicians love to pose as “champions of the middle class” — they know they are talking to 90% of the population. But the one class consciousness we seem to be keenly aware of is college-educated vs. non-. Most parents desire and assume that their kids to go to college. From early childhood, their children breathe in that assumption, and in the age of the helicopter parent they are carefully shepherded along that college-bound track. A kid who doesn’t want to go to college is often something of an embarrassment. This is also something politicians know, which is why they like to crow about how “every child should be able to go to college” – even if it is not really the best thing for every child, or for every parent (since they might be paying the bills), or for the taxpayer (who supports state universities and backstops student loans), or for society at large. Politicians know you are willing and eager, like the commoners of the Ancien Regime who wished to become Nobles of the Robe, to buy a title and a coat of arms, so that you (or at least your progeny) can enter their ranks. They’ve got a plan! And whenever a politician has a plan, watch out! It comes at a cost—in tax dollars and societal dysfunction.

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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