Educational blues

Posted: Aug 27, 2003 12:00 AM
There is some gloom in the land, expressing doubts as to whether the good old USA can successfully contend with all the burdens we face. At one end, there are the negative fiscal figures. The morning news tells us that the federal budget deficit next year may exceed the $500 billion anticipated.

We hear from Sen. John McCain that we are critically shorthanded in Iraq. And we learn incidentally that Iraq's police-training institutes just can't handle the 28,000 Iraqis we proposed to train as policemen.

We are told in a front-page story in The New York Times that President Bush's "compassion" agenda has fallen gravely short of expectation, and that, in the words of one plaintiff, "(Bush's) policy has not come even close to matching his words." That, of course, should not be surprising -- that there should be a disparity between the unburdened rhetoric of the politician and the downed ducks spread out on the floor for us. But there is a special exasperation tracing to the paradox of high unemployment, and work undone.

On education, the indictment becomes fervid. A Times editorial speaks of straitened state budgets resulting in underfunding of education. Legislative "indifference" has led to raised tuition rates. "Some universities have begun to cannibalize themselves by increasing class size and cutting course offerings, making it difficult for students to find the courses they need to graduate." This "downward spiral" began in the 1980s "when many state legislatures began to back away from their commitments to public higher education."

That is not the view of things held by the California Association of Scholars, a branch of the National Association of Scholars. Their spokesman, professor and author Thomas Reeves, sends out what he terms "Heretical Thoughts for a New Academic Year." These thoughts look at the doomsayers on U.S. education and ask truly subversive questions.

Foremost of these is the question, Are too many young Americans bent on higher education as a matter of form, rather than substance? The figures absolutely establish the appetite for college education. In 1960, 7.7 percent of Americans had had four years of college. In 2000, that figure had risen to 25.6 percent. The question being raised by the California Association of Scholars has to do with whether the rewards of higher education are being attenuated by the lack of preparation for college work by many high-school graduates.

Professor Reeves gives some figures. "In Michigan, Colorado, Texas and New York, academic tests have been altered or thrown out because of low scores." But some data cannot be hidden. "A third of the freshmen at the relatively select University of Wisconsin-Madison do not return for a second year. I toiled for decades on a Wisconsin campus on which a mere 18 percent of the entering freshmen ever graduate." That's one problem, those who undertake to go to college but drop out.

The statistical rewards for staying in college and completing the work are widely advertised. College graduates earn 50 percent more money, on average. But the National Association of Scholars worries, too, about those who do stay the four years and graduate. What have they learned?

The suspicion grows that the emphasis should be on reforming the work done in secondary education. High-school dropout rates have been sharply reduced, from 27 percent in 1960 to 11 percent today. But SAT scores move in the opposite direction, and professors addressing matriculated freshmen are often dismayed not only by the lack of preparation, but also by the lack of genuine interest. "The most well-intentioned professor cannot educate those who refuse to be educated. All too often, such students demand that they be passed through the system and awarded a diploma, as they were in high school."

Someone wrote that education is "for those who will not do without it." That's a little high-brow callous; sure, you can teach yourself Chinese, but it helps to learn it from somebody. On the other hand, professor Reeves desponds, you don't get very much learning in classes that teach women's studies and current affairs to listless students whose interest is not in learning, but in receiving a diploma.

America is a can-do society. We educate tens of millions and fight successful wars and create poets and musicians. But one reason we prevail against bad winds is that we isolate our shortcomings and criticize them, and end up coping simultaneously with college standards in Wisconsin and terrorists in Iraq. This aptitude for finding a way to do it is the American thing that most annoys our European friends.