Education Reform Humbuggery

Kevin Carey, writing in The New York Times last July, said this of American colleges and universities: “These organizations are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence. When it comes to exerting influence over teaching and learning, they’re Easter eggs. They barely exist.”

This is humbug. It’s an attempt to channel the conversation about education in America through baseless assumptions that will lead to nothing more than the parting of the public and its money.

The vocabulary has been developed for selling educational snake oil: “Coherent… enterprises… consistent… excellence.”

Of course, none of these (except the last, which all salespeople toss about) reflects what American higher education was designed to be. Nor are they part of what makes for a strong educational system. They are perfectly fine words, but their use by Carey carries assumptions far outside of what has created the great American system of higher education.

What has made American higher education succeed has been, in large part, a diffuse system of governance—especially over course content—called “shared governance,” protection of faculty dissent, “academic freedom,” and a progression of courses that can expose students to as many as 40 different professors during an undergraduate career. All of this, taken together, gives the student the chance to take control of his or her own education—the bedrock act upon which real learning is built. American higher education is not necessarily coherent when taken as a whole outside of the experience of the individual student, nor does it need to be. Coherence results from limitation and limitation should never be a goal of education. It is not an enterprise, for that is a concept of commerce, and education is not commerce. It is not Emerson’s foolish consistency, for it is an attempt to step beyond the boundaries developed yesterday. At its finest, higher education calls on the student to craft a path with the assistance of scholars familiar with the efforts of the past, a path unique to each learner.

The result has certainly been one of excellence.

The crisis Carey alludes to in the first sentence of his essay, “the failures of the modern American college system,” is an illusion being used to create a more controlled and controllable system of education, not only at the college level but in K-12 as well. As I write in my editorial in the current issue of Academe, “American public education is quite healthy, thank you. But it is under attack. From preschool to grad school, public educational institutions are being pressured through new funding constraints, demands for quantifiable accountability, competition from the for-profit sector, and more.” Carey, one of the leading cheerleaders for this effort, is Director of the Education Policy Program for the New America Foundation, a group that styles itself as promoting “big ideas, technological innovation, next generation politics,” among other things. Big ideas, I suspect, are things like “creative disruption,” an excuse for knocking down whatever happens to be in one’s way. Technological innovation involves failed concepts such as MOOCs as the savior of education and digital badges as a way to replace learning with skills acquisition. I have no idea what next-generation politics might be.

Carey’s article is headed “The Fundamental Way That Universities Are an Illusion.” They aren’t. They have a proven track record in the United States going back at least a century in their current form. They have been—and continue to be—the most robust educational institutions in the world, and by any measure.

That is, by any measure of their results.

Trying to apply yardsticks to their various internal operations, however, is impossible. And it is this that allows leverage to Carey and all of the others who want to “reform” American education. They argue that reality is based in numbers, that all else is fictive. Because education, in operation, cannot be quantified, it is nothing. To make their point, they have to ignore the continuing success of education in the United States, success that keeps the country at the forefront of intellectual pursuit in all arenas.

They are doing the same thing to us as those people who come to the door telling us that our houses are in dire need of repair—repair only they can provide. Oh, and don’t talk to the person who has been maintaining the house since it was built. He or she obviously doesn’t understand the problem or would have fixed it and, besides, she or he is never going to admit to having done a bad job. When we hesitate or say we want to look into it further, the pressure starts: This needs to be done now. Waiting even a day will have dire consequences. The fact that we have been living in the house for years means nothing. The foundation is in immediate danger: See, look at this chart. Besides, you have no proof that it is solid. Besides, today’s changing environment clearly necessitates a complete rebuild. Second opinion? You don’t have time for it. Examples of our work? We’ve made tons of money in other fields; we can do it in this one.

Oops.

That lets the cat out of the bag. All they are interested in, ultimately, is our money. Not our homes. Certainly not education.

American higher education is most certainly in need of repair. Its foundations are still strong, however–and their strength is not illusory. All you need for proving this is to look at how a degree from an American college or university is perceived globally. And at how American college graduates outperform just about anyone else.

The repairs need to be performed by those who understand the structure and how to strengthen it, not those from outside whose agendas, quite frankly, have little to do with the building itself but with profits for structures elsewhere.

One of the movements of the past generation has been toward disparagement of teachers of all sorts. We are no longer trusted by the vast majority of American citizens though we have continued to buttress the greatest educational process the world has yet seen. It’s time we start listening to teachers again, just as we listen to the craftspeople who have taken care of our homes since they were built. We certainly don’t need to listen to the humbug of this generation’s P.T. Barnums.

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