Saturday, May 31, 2008

A response to Professor X, Part II: Colleges as polar bears

Image found here.

[Professor X's article is here; for the curious, Part I is here.]

This won't be as well worked out as I would like, but on Monday I'm leaving town and will be away from "here" for the better part of June, so I want to post the follow-up to my comments on Professor X before the subject becomes too stale.

I've been thinking about polar bears a lot lately. Of all the members of genus Ursa, they are my favorites, for reasons I've not spent a lot of time pondering. I just know I like them. I also know they are the one animal that regularly hunts human beings, which alone would make them worthy of respect. But I've been thinking about them a lot because, whereas most every other species of bear is quite adaptable (I remember reading a naturalist saying somewhere that bears could thrive quite easily in Manhattan if people would leave them alone), the polar bear has no such luxury. Without sea ice from/on which to hunt its usual diet of seals, it runs the risk of becoming extinct; and as we all have heard, sea ice in the Arctic is becoming scarcer and scarcer. This is, obviously, not the polar bear's fault; it is, rather, a sad irony that it is so supremely suited to an environment that is changing, faster, many fear, than it can adapt to those changes.

Do colleges these days find themselves on the same ice-floe, as it were?

Obviously, on one level the analogy in this post's title doesn't hold up in every respect: the environment for colleges has been changing while colleges themselves have changed only cosmetically, true, but in one sense colleges have never been more needed than they are now. But that's precisely the problem. It's not that colleges are needed, but that the nature of that need has changed into something that colleges--yes, even community colleges--just aren't in their essence intended to meet. I think what Professor X might be saying by indirection is that some colleges have been rather too successful in allowing their public image to conform to what the public (students, taxpayers, potential employers) tends to assume colleges do: confer legitimacy upon knowledge acquired by their students. But the thing is, colleges in their essence aren't about conferring legitimacy. They are about providing those students who have paid their tuition opportunities to learn things that may or may not be "legitimate" (as an example of what I mean, I tell my Intro. to Humanities students that what we'll be learning here won't get you a job, but it will make you more interesting to talk to at parties).

Obviously, though, people are understandably drawn to that conferral-of-legitimacy image, including many, many people who, a generation ago, would not have felt compelled to attend college. The reason I say that has nothing to do with their intelligence or ability; it has to do with the fact that a generation or so ago, a high school diploma would have sufficed for them. Really (scroll down to the italicized "Aside" passage). I think it's also true that, fancier machines aside, that remains true. More than once I have thought, regarding the jobs many of my students hope to land, that these are the same sorts of jobs that, were this, say, the late-'70s, they could have gotten straight out of high school or would have trained for on the job. But, as high school voc-ed programs have become socially-devalued and/or cut or underfunded, and as the BA and BS have come to be seen as the default settings for the minimum educational level needed to signal that one has Arrived, colleges are going to see more and more of these folks. While this fact fattens up the school's coffers and obtains for those students that above-mentioned conferred legitimacy and makes potential employers happy, many of those students will drift about in their algebra or sociology or art appreciation classes wondering what on earth any of that has to do with running an x-ray machine.

The Bush Administration, to its great credit, recently declared polar bears an endangered species; this requires the government to take measures to preserve and protect their environment. Maybe, following my analogy, one thing we could do to preserve the integrity of the college environment would be to improve high schools--to make them more valuable than they have become.

Last month over at Evolution, J.D. linked to an article that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education (the link for which seems to be broken) that decries the poor literacy of college graduates. The rest of his post is well worth having a look at. At any rate, here's part of what I said over there by way of response:

I’d . . . suggest that some of those supposed problems are actually misperceptions of higher ed on the part of some: chiefly, that college’s chief mission is to provide students a sort of voc-ed program with a liberal-arts varnish. Once upon a time, the task of basic preparation for adult life was the job of high schools; the fact that that now seems to be the assumed role of colleges is implicit in the Chronicle article: Yes, it’s shameful that such low percentages of colleges grads are deemed “literate” and should probably have never have been admitted to college in the first place; but I and my peers would note that college didn’t make them less literate. Should not the public schools have done more to ensure that they are graduating kids who can read and write? If college is indeed perceived to be more important than it was a generation ago yet has not in that time appreciably changed what it does, doesn’t that suggest that what happens in high school should assume greater, not lesser, importance so as to better prepare them for college and life?
I can't dwell on this any longer except to say that I know that among some public educators and elected officials there is indeed a lively discussion about different ways of re-conceiving high schools--not their content, but what they should be. The consensus is that high schools have become less and relevant at their very core, so what can be done to enhance their value? Such discussions, assuming anything comes of them, can only benefit high schools, colleges, and the students each serves.


May said...

I am a Taurus and my favorite animal is the bear, brown though.

R. Sherman said...


I've got a zillion comments and you have the audacity to take the month of June off? It's all about you, isn't it, and never about us, your devoted readers.

Seriously, have fun or get work done, or whatever and we'll see you when you return "here." In the meantime, I'll probably comment on this over at my place, as what I'm thinking would be too long to be polite. I will say this: Good thoughts worthy of pondering, as always.