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It's No Better Up North

Two Canadian professors say that their country doesn't deserve its reputation for "world class" higher education

By George Leef

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May 13, 2011

The United States is supposedly “falling behind” Canada in education because a higher percentage of young Canadians are getting college degrees than are young Americans.

After reading the new book by University of Western Ontario sociology professors James Côté and Anton Allahar, Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education, you’ll be about as worried that we’re “falling behind Canada” as you are worried about an invasion by space aliens.

Higher education in Canada, these authors show, is as costly a sham as it is in the United States.

Côté and Allahar believe that the responsibility of colleges and universities is to provide students with a liberal education that helps to make them informed citizens. Sadly, they write, “This responsibility is being eschewed as universities drift toward a vocational—or worse, pseudo-vocational—mission.” And instead of engaging the minds of students with challenging coursework, much of what Canadian universities do now is simply compensating for the deficiencies of lower education.

Sound familiar? Higher education in Canada and the United States are both suffering from mission drift and “dumbing down.”

In the U.S. and Canada, educational standards have deteriorated in pre-college education, but colleges (led far more often by revenue-seeking managers than by real educators) eagerly accept students who have little ability to benefit from higher education and negligible interest in it. The Ontario Ministry of Education’s “no student must fail” policies not only leave many students woefully unprepared academically, but also lacking “self-management standards expected of responsible adults.”

What Canada offers those weak and often disengaged students is a “BA-lite” that entails very little reading, thinking, and writing, but simply calls for the ability to regurgitate some basic points. University administrators acting in what Côté and Allahar call a “corporatized” mode, are happy to process students through to their degrees. It may do little for the students, but it does a lot for the institution’s bottom line.

Like their previous book, Ivory Tower Blues, this one is very argumentative. The authors have many intellectual opponents and devote many pages to jousting with them. For example, they tackle the proponents of “human capital theory” who believe that taking college courses augments a person’s thinking skills and knowledge. They argue that the courses that go into BA-lite degrees don’t build human capital any more than Twinkies build muscle.

The authors fire back at a hostile review of Ivory Tower Blues by a writer employed by the Educational Policy Institute, a supposedly non-partisan think tank that Côté and Allahar rightly term an advocacy organization.  The EPI, they write, “targets funding and carries out research on post-secondary ‘access’ and ‘retention’….” That is to say, it gobbles up grants by coming up with conclusions supporting the “college for everyone” idea.

Sure enough, the EPI reviewer panned Ivory Tower Blues, arguing that we should stop complaining about credentialism and the fact that the college for all crusade is devolving our universities into high schools. Côté and Allahar offer a devastating rebuttal to that “don’t worry, be happy” mindset.

They also fire back at people who say that the status quo is fine and college professors should just make their peace with inflated grades, low academic expectations, and a degraded curriculum to accommodate students (especially minorities) who have poor educational backgrounds and complicated lives. “Those who champion students from disadvantaged backgrounds, for whom they see a university education as an opportunity for upward mobility, need to take stock at this point. Simply handing someone a credential, without the personal and intellectual resources to back it, is to shortchange that person,” they write.

Most of all, they argue with individuals who say that college would really connect with the typical student if only schools and professors would adjust to their “learning styles,” which means using computers, the internet, and other modern technologies rather than antiquated things like books and lectures. Côté and Allahar are highly skeptical that disengaged students will catch fire just because professors adopt the new digital media and use them to supplement or even replace the traditional pedagogical methods.

One author whose work they find particularly galling wrote that professors should abandon lecturing in favor of “collaborative techniques that have been made possible by the Internet, and platforms like Facebook and wikis.” The trouble with that notion, Côté and Allahar respond, is that none of that is of any use unless students first have knowledge of the subject matter:

Even if all of the relevant information were on the Internet, which is not the case, how many students would spend the enormous amount of time it would take to learn the history of educational philosophy by surfing it? And without this knowledge, how are they going to know what to look for?

Similarly, neither on-line courses or podcasts solve the essential problem. Just because students may be “digital natives” does not mean that they will eagerly absorb course material presented to them on their computer screens. While the new technologies can be helpful teaching aids, their use is no panacea for the weak reading and analytical skills of what Professor Mark Bauerlein calls The Dumbest Generation (Côté and Allahar reference his book), much less the attitude fostered through the years of lower education that schooling should be easy and enjoyable.

That brings us to the authors’ recommendations. Key among them are stopping the practice of grade inflation, both in high schools and universities, adopting university entrance exams that demand at least a minimal level of literacy of students before they’re admitted, requiring that senior administrators do some teaching, and implementing exit exams for students, compelling them to demonstrate that they have attained at least a minimum level of proficiency.

Lowering Higher Education is a sharp defense of the university as a place for higher learning rather than a glorified high school offering a thin gruel of pseudo-vocational training. My only quibble with the book is that the authors don’t go far enough in showing that the training students often get is in fact pseudo-vocational.  

Large numbers of students enroll in generic “business” programs, sometimes with specific occupational tracks, such as hotel and restaurant management.  As a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education showed, however, many business majors take an “Easy Does It” approach. So do their professors. Does this kind of non-stressful business preparation do much that a company’s training program wouldn’t do better and at far lower cost?

Harrah’s, for example, has an intensive training program for newly hired managers. A young person who is interested in a career in the gaming industry might be better off applying directly for that, as opposed to taking a university program like Casino Resort Studies.  Even if university casino management programs were as good or better than the training done in the industry itself, that still wouldn’t be a good reason for universities to clutter the curriculum with them. If they’re just pseudo vocational training, that clinches the argument.

That’s a point worth further investigation.  In any case, Lowering Higher Education stands strongly for the idea that our colleges and universities have gotten way off track.

 


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