It’s the end of higher ed as we know it, and I feel fine?

This was the final post on the Moveable Type blog, and simultaneously the first post here.  Two years later, I’m finally finishing the transition.

I’m not much of a book person, but one of the most influential I ever read was The Big Test, by Nicholas Lemann.

I was a big-time test nerd growing up (and I still remember my SAT scores: a very good 740 on the math, a decidedly OK-to-good 530 on the verbal), and so a book that on its face was about the development of the SAT and the ideal of an American meritocracy was deeply appealing to me. I was absolutely in favor of the construction of a society that only rewarded talent and where anyone regardless of race, creed, or gender could have access to the American elite, and the test nerd in me loved the idea of setting up this Scholastic Aptitude Test to separate those type of people out. (And the fact that I thought – and many people around me told me at every opportunity – that I could beat this system and gain access to that elite myself? I was all for that noise.)

I thought I was getting a book that told the story of how that system put itself together, and I did get that; but I made the mistake of reading the book through to the end, and what I wound up getting was the story of Molly Munger.

The initial encounter with the person of Munger – middle class, ultra-high achiever (Lemann called these people “Mandarins” for reasons that I never really understood) who graduated from Harvard both as an undergraduate and as a J.D. – was compelling enough. She married a fellow Harvard Law graduate, both pursued legal careers with great gusto, required au pairs to help with the raising of the children. And when she met those au pairs, young women of mixed race (but culturally black), she began to realize how little access to the quality of education they needed they actually had; and, in turn, how little access to elite society they would have without intervention.

Like any good liberal, Molly Munger intervened, and was a matron to both women in their path through academia. But that was merely an intervention in two people’s lives; there were so many others in Southern California who needed that kind of support, and no one person can be that for that many people; so what to do in her life then?

I won’t spoil the story; if you’re interested in higher education and mobility in American society, you should read the book. (Or, if you’re lazy and/or cheap, a ten-year-old Reason book review – critical but fairly so.) But it’s even more compelling now that I read it again and I have a better grip on my modern American history. (Example: I didn’t think anything of it, the first time I read the book, that Molly was a daughter of Charlie Munger. Now, though, I actually know a little bit more about Berkshire Hathaway, and realize that even if Charlie Munger didn’t join Warren Buffett during Molly’s rearing, this still wasn’t your garden-variety middle-class home she was raised in.)

And what it convinced me of, beyond anything else at the time, was very unexpected: not only was the SAT not my friend, as I thought nearly a quarter-century ago, its use in the interest of advancing meritocracy was nothing short of an abject failure.

The stories about the many ways the American educational system is seriously beyond messed could, and have, filled many books. Grade inflation has not only its own Wikipedia article, but its own domain. Equity in funding for public schools (and the extent to which such formulae are tied to property taxes) is an issue across the country, in both K-12 and in higher ed. And of course, there is the always-explosive issue of race.

I don’t think I have to build much of a case that poorly-funded, rural and minority school districts in the United States have been generally spiraling downward in terms of quality of education, and that this has been going on for some time. It’s my belief – and I may need to find a little more support for the idea than I’ve got right now – that while individual students of privilege may find ways to take advantage of opportunities they’re provided, the vast majority of students in ALL educational situations have proceeded to regress to the mean, because of the lack of competition from all corners of society. There may be a greater competition for places in elite colleges and universities, but the competition is not of a greater quality than it was in the 60’s and 70’s, when Molly Munger was on her way to a J.D. from Harvard.

(Please note – that’s only a hypothesis, it’s my hypothesis, and I’ve been singularly horrible at supporting it. I’ll gladly take further support from whoever wants to give it.)

If you accept that hypothesis, articles with titles like “What happened to studying?” shouldn’t be surprising. Of course undergraduates aren’t studying; they’ve never been genuinely shown how to study, and the pressure to perform in this time is not what it might have been long ago. And the temptation to blame these infernal internets and talk about how much damage the MTV generation did to the cause of higher education winds up falling shy of the research mark:

According to time-use surveys analyzed by professors Philip Babcock, at the University of California Santa Barbara, and Mindy Marks, at the University of California Riverside, the average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week. Today’s average student hits the books for just 14 hours.

The decline, Babcock and Marks found, infects students of all demographics. No matter the student’s major, gender, or race, no matter the size of the school or the quality of the SAT scores of the people enrolled there, the results are the same: Students of all ability levels are studying less…

But according to their research, the greatest decline in student studying took place before computers swept through colleges: Between 1961 and 1981, study times fell from 24.4 to 16.8 hours per week (and then, ultimately, to 14). Nor do they believe student employment or changing demographics to be the root cause. While they acknowledge that students are working more and campuses attract students who wouldn’t have bothered attending college a generation ago, the researchers point out that study times are dropping for everyone regardless of employment or personal characteristics.

It’s my suspicion that, over the course of the past 50 years, most metrics are going to give you the same sort of problems, and the decline isn’t going to be connected to one technological advance or specific societal shift, but is going to be broad over long periods of time.

Every time there’s this burst of thought on my Facebook wall and on the walls of these friends, past and present colleagues, and past and present students, I’m incredibly grateful for what’s happened to me over these past 20 years. I have this unique core of people who are in my life, and who share these ideas with me and allow me to share ideas with them, and outside of any formal realm of scholarship I get this feedback and feel intellectually fulfilled in ways that the formal structures of academia have not provided for me in my lifetime.

(The fact that these wonderful 20 years have neatly overlapped my 20 years as an evangelical Christian is a coincidence deserving of reflection…but another time.)

I honestly feel like I’m a participant in the end of the traditional liberal arts education. Please don’t hear what I’m not saying; there’s nothing about the end of the traditional liberal arts education that makes me happy. The weaving of the liberal arts throughout my hard-science education was very much responsible for making me the teacher I’ve become, and something of that system needs to be preserved because, for a student of a strong preparation, that development of critical thinking is every bit as relevant and valuable today as it was when it first developed.

Further, the ideals of the liberal arts education – the importance of higher education not merely as training for a job, but as exposure to many different ways of knowing, and the development of a young mind’s ability to think in all of those different ways of knowing – doesn’t need to go away. When it’s done right, liberal arts education changes lives, and makes people who otherwise would cynically chase after the money (hi, yeah, that was me) believe that the world is much bigger than just the job you’ll have after graduation, and that greater things are possible in this world.

But there was a bargain that was implicit in my effort to participate in providing this liberal arts education, and that is that the secondary education system would provide students that were prepared for the learning I would provide. As a general rule, I have not received those students, regardless of the supposed quality of their high schools, regardless of the SAT scores on the books, regardless of the supposed privilege in their life. The complaint of the article is valid; the students don’t study. But we haven’t convinced them that this study, this formal academic knowledge is valuable.

Something else is going to take its place. The good news is, we have the tools in front of us to create something else. With positive effort, as we mourn the passing of the liberal arts as we have known them, we can develop a new philosophy of learning that meets the needs of this society better.

I’ve long said that the best education is education that teaches the students that we have now, that meets the needs of the students now, and that any lamenting that they’re not the students we wish we had misses the point. There are so many things we can say and so many complaints we can make about where we’ve wound up in 2010. I’m tired of the laments and complaints. What do we do about what we’ve got?

This effort is far shorter on answers than I thought it would be when I started, and at this point I probably ought to close it.

But there was an extremely impressive flurry on my Facebook page this week, and it started this thought process. I’ve tagged (hopefully) everyone who participated. Consider that my thanks for continuing to have this role in my life, for continuing to ask these questions of me.