Kevin Rogers, center, studies chemistry at Grand Rapids Community College. (Photo: Paul L. Newby II / Press Photos)
Hardly a week goes by without dire headlines about the failure of the American education system. Our students don't perform well in math and science. The high-school dropout rate is too high. Minority students are falling behind. Teachers are depicted as either overpaid drones protected by tenure or underpaid saints at the mercy of deskbound administrators and pushy parents.
Unfortunately, all such headlines collectively fail to address a fundamental question: What is education for? At so many of today's so-called institutions of higher learning, students are offered a straightforward answer: For a better job, higher salary, more marketable skills, and more impressive credentials. All the more so in today's collapsing job market.
Based on a decidedly non-bohemian life - 20 years' service in the military and 10 years teaching at the college level - I'm convinced that American education, even in the worst of times, even recognizing the desperate need of most college students to land jobs, is far too utilitarian, vocational, and narrow. It's simply not enough to prepare students for a job: We need to prepare them for life, while challenging them to think beyond the confines of their often parochial and provincial upbringings. (As a child of the working class from a provincial background, I speak from experience.)
And here's one compelling lesson all of us, students and teachers alike, need to relearn constantly: If you view education in purely instrumental terms as a way to a higher-paying job - if it's merely a mechanism for mass customization within a marketplace of ephemeral consumer goods - you've effectively given a free pass to the prevailing machinery of power and those who run it.
Three Myths of Higher Ed
Three myths serve to restrict our education to the narrowly utilitarian and practical. The first, particularly pervasive among conservative-minded critics, is that our system of higher education is way too liberal, as well as thoroughly dominated by anti-free-market radicals and refugee Marxists from the 1960s who, like so many Ward Churchills, are indoctrinating our youth in how to hate America.
Today's college students are being indoctrinated in the idea that they need to earn "degrees that work" (the official motto of the technically-oriented college where I teach). They're being taught to measure their self-worth by their post-college paycheck. They're being urged to be lifelong learners, not because learning is transformative or even enjoyable, but because to "keep current" is to "stay competitive in the global marketplace." (Never mind that keeping current is hardly a guarantee that your job won't be outsourced to the lowest bidder.)
And here's a second, more pervasive myth from the world of technology: technical skills are the key to success as well as life itself, and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide are doomed to lives of misery. From this it necessarily follows that computers are a panacea, that putting the right technology into the classroom and into the hands of students and faculty solves all problems. The keys to success, in other words, are interactive SMART boards, not smart teachers interacting with curious students. Instead, canned lessons are offered with PowerPoint efficiency, and students respond robotically, trying to copy everything on the slides, or clamoring for all presentations to be posted on the local server.
One "bonus" from this approach is that colleges can more easily measure (or "assess," as they like to say) how many networked classrooms they have, how many on-line classes they teach, even how much money their professors bring in for their institutions. With these and similar metrics in hand, parents and students can be recruited or retained with authoritative-looking data: job placement rates, average starting salaries of graduates, even alumni satisfaction rates (usually best measured when the football team is winning).
A third pervasive myth - one that's found its way from the military and business worlds into higher education - is: If it's not quantifiable, it's not important. With this mindset, the old-fashioned idea that education is about molding character, forming a moral and ethical identity, or even becoming a more self-aware person, heads down the drain. After all, how could you quantify such elusive traits as assessable goals, or showcase such non-measurements in the glossy marketing brochures, glowing press releases, and gushing DVDs that compete to entice prospective students and their anxiety-ridden parents to hand over ever larger sums of money to ensure a lucrative future?
Three Realities of Higher Ed
What do torture, a major recession, and two debilitating wars have to do with our educational system? My guess: plenty. These are the three most immediate realities of a system that fails to challenge, or even critique, authority in any meaningful way. They are bills that are now long overdue thanks, in part, to that system's technocratic bias and pedagogical shortfalls - thanks, that is, to what we are taught to see and not see, regard and disregard, value and dismiss.
Over the last two decades, higher education, like the housing market, enjoyed its own growth bubble, characterized by rising enrollments, fancier high-tech facilities, and ballooning endowments. Americans invested heavily in these derivative products as part of an educational surge that may prove at least as expensive and one-dimensional as our military surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As usual, the humanities were allowed to wither. Don't know much about history? Go ahead and authorize waterboarding, even though the U.S. prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II. Don't know much about geography? Go ahead and send our troops into mountainous Afghanistan, that "graveyard of empires," and allow them to be swallowed up by the terrain as they fight a seemingly endless war.
Perhaps I'm biased because I teach history, but here's a fact to consider: Unless a cadet at the Air Force Academy (where I once taught) decides to major in the subject, he or she is never required to take a U.S. history course. Cadets are, however, required to take a mind-boggling array of required courses in various engineering and scientific disciplines as well as calculus. Or civilians, chew on this: At the Pennsylvania College of Technology, where I currently teach, of the roughly 6,600 students currently enrolled, only 30 took a course this semester on U.S. history since the Civil War, and only three were programmatically required to do so.
We don't have to worry about our college graduates forgetting the lessons of history - not when they never learned them to begin with.
Donning New Sunglasses
One attitude pervading higher education today is: students are customers who need to be kept happy by service-oriented professors and administrators. That's a big reason why, at my college at least, the hottest topics debated by the Student Council are not government wars, torture, or bail-outs but a lack of parking and the quality of cafeteria food.
It's a large claim to make, but as long as we continue to treat students as customers and education as a commodity, our hopes for truly substantive changes in our country's direction are likely to be dashed. As long as education is driven by technocratic imperatives and the tyranny of the practical, our students will fail to acknowledge that precious goal of Socrates: To know thyself - and so your own limits and those of your country as well.
To know how to get by or get ahead is one thing, but to know yourself is to struggle to recognize your own limitations as well as illusions. Such knowledge is disorienting, even dangerous - kind of like those sunglasses donned by Roddy Piper in the slyly subversive "B" movie They Live (1988). In Piper's case, they revealed a black-and-white nightmare, a world in which a rapacious alien elite pulls the levers of power while sheep-like humans graze passively, shackled by slogans to conform, consume, watch, marry, and reproduce.
Like those sunglasses, education should help us to see ourselves and our world in fresh, even disturbing, ways. If we were properly educated as a nation, the only torturing going on might be in our own hearts and minds - a struggle against accepting the world as it's being packaged and sold to us by the pragmatists, the technocrats, and those who think education is nothing but a potential passport to material success.