Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Big Thirsty from Des Moines Danny on a Proffie's Responsibility.

There's been a bit of a stream on this page lately about the horrible nature of colleges, the debt, the uselessness, the conspiracy, culminating with the hysterical vidshizzle from yesterday.

I've never felt that college was for everyone, or that it's the thing one MUST do. I was a first generation college student, and had lots of friends who didn't go. I have friends now without college experience.

But I do recognize that many parents push kids along every year into our classrooms and institutions. (I know because the students tell me.) And I recognize we've created a glut of PhDs, especially - or so it seems to me - in the Humanities.

Q: What is the regular proffie supposed to do about this? Do we defend college and our place in it? Do we shut out the newest cohort of PhDs and hang on to our jobs. Do we stand up and say ENOUGH! When someone bitches about the ubiquity of college, what is your response? Do we have a responsibility to defend the idea of college, remake the idea of college?

- Des Moines Danny


  1. A healthy democracy requires an informed, critically thinking populace. High school is not providing this, so we have to. If we can't educate everyone, we can at least educate enough people to make a difference.

    Of course, that defends undergrad. Grad school is of course indefensible.

    1. Whups, too many 'of courses' there. I should learn to use the preview button.

  2. I bet three dollars that Archie has the answer to this Thirsty.

    1. Three dollars and a half-empty bottle of bourbon.

    2. Yep. This question was created about 3/100,000ths of a second after the Big Bang with Archie in mind.

    3. I'm guessing that by now the bet is back to three dollars (and, perhaps, a bottle that once held bourbon).

  3. We can defend college while still arguing that it's not for everyone. We can encourage students to have a plan before they enroll, and we can try to make sure we give them something valuable in return for the tuition the adminflakes take from them. We can give them what is valuable, instead of what keeps them happy as customers. We can stop creating the glut of PhD's by not taking on students unless they really know the odds and have the chops to succeed. We can refuse (especially those of us lucky enough to have tenure) to use students as a means of advancing our own careers, or the university's ends, and insist on being scholars instead of entertainers, or shills. We can stand up to the adminflakes who want to turn us into used car salesmen, and we can tell them when they are wrong and self-defeating (rocky on Square State Suzy).

    But I admit I keep coming back to something Anouilh wrote (pause while I hunt for my copy of Antigone): "You don't say these things because it will do any good to say them: you know better than that. You say them for their own sake; you say them because you learn a lot from them."


  4. Most of my undergraduates are going into engineering, K-12 teaching, and the health sciences. All these fields require higher education. No one wants to pay anyone to do these things unless they have one of them highfalutin' bachelors' degrees, minimum.

    Even for general ed, my undergraduates are getting a whole lot better educational value than I got, as an undergraduate. I like to think that this isn’t only because the state school where I work still charges only $6k for yearly tuition.

    I was an undergraduate at a top-25 university that likes to call itself "the Harvard of the Midwest." I was a grad student at a genuine Ivy. Most of the students there were much wealthier than I'll ever be, and that was before they got their degrees. Do you think they're cutting back on general ed? Of course not, and it's yet another symptom of the widening class divide in American society.

    I give all my students a thorough background in what every citizen needs to know about science, because it affects so many aspects of their lives so deeply. I also give them a rigorous training in reading carefully, following directions, writing clearly, critical thinking, and history. Life loves its ironies, of course: now that I'm a professor, I have no shortage of students who squander the opportunities I knock myself out to make for them.

    All of this goes for my grad students, too. My physics department doesn’t have a Ph.D. program, only M.S. One can still make more money with an M.S. in physics than a bachelors’. I still always make sure that my students know that there aren't many jobs for Ph.D.s, particularly not in abstruse fields like mine, astronomy, and that I recommend that they take an interest in immediately practical fields where one can make real money, such as energy. They're sick of me telling them this, so I equip the few determined to do astronomy the best I can.

    Much of the trouble with college in America today is that the costs have risen much faster than inflation for decades, so that it is becoming out of reach for people like me. That's not the fault of the professors. A society that turns against its teachers doesn't have a promising future.

  5. Like Frod, I'm pretty comfortable that what I teach has value, and would have value to pretty much anybody, though I don't think everybody can or should go to college. I teach writing in the disciplines (increasingly, because of demand, a version aimed at the STEM + health fields Frod lists). Students learn how scholars in their fields conduct original research (either by doing a bit of it themselves or writing a review of the literature), and how the ideas from that research spread into the wider world (both accurately and less so), and they practice writing about research in their fields for varying audiences. Those are pretty versatile skills, applicable to a wide variety of jobs, and also help to foster the sort of critically thinking/informed citizenry Dr. Nathaniel mentions.

    And in defense of my home field of literary studies (which I rarely get to teach), the questions central to that discipline -- how meaning is made, explicitly and implicitly, through words; at whom writing/speech/communicative acts are aimed and to what purpose; how they arise from and contribute to larger cultural and political structures -- are equally central to understanding the world in which we live and make decisions. Or, to take a somewhat more old-fashioned approach, conversations about characters, plots, etc., how they do and don't change over time, and how we evaluate their decisions and implications, develop our understanding of our fellow human beings, and of ourselves and our own values.

    From my perspective, college is a chance not only to learn how to do something, but also to realize that the way we choose to do it is in part a function of our culture, background, historical moment, etc., to learn about past and present conversations/debates about how we do it, and to think about whether we should continue doing it that way, and why (or why not). In short, it's a route to the at-least-somewhat-examined life. It's no guarantee that people will behave well (I'm pretty sure that the vast majority of the bankers and other corporate types who created some of the disasters of the last decade had at least one ethics and/or philosophy class), but it beats the alternative. On a more practical note, people who learn *why* we now do something in a particular way (instead of just learning *how* to do it) are less likely to need (and have to pay for) periodic retraining, since they can adjust as they go rather than wait for someone else to recreate the system and then teach it to them. That strikes me as one of the most valuable results of a college education: it gives people the opportunity to be part of the system (for good as well as for ill) rather than to be in the position of reacting to systems made by others. Perhaps that shouldn't require a college education, and for the most brilliant, it still doesn't. But for most people, it's a big leg up, and a few may actually learn from us, in the course of four years, that they can make, or at least modify, knowledge as well as absorb it. If our students get even an inkling of that, I think we've done our job, and given them value for their money.


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