One expects better from The Economist.
Or perhaps not.
Lately, the venerable magazine seems to have become more liberal, more interested in advancing a point of view than in reporting fact.
Note how it opens a recent article about higher education in America:
Higher education has two sets of customers: students and the government. Students want all sorts of things from it—to make friends, sharpen their minds and get away from home. But most of all they want it to improve their economic prospects.
The magazine has cleverly left out an important customer: the business world. Higher education is supposed to prepare students to enter the business world. They cannot all work for the government.
The magazine is correct to point out that American education is failing. Unfortunately, it has not provided a very comprehensive analysis of the problem. Links here and here.
It does not seem to distinguish between STEM and non-STEM courses of study. And it has failed to hold those who run the educational system and those who teach in it accountable for what they have done.
In non-STEM subjects, colleges and universities seem more concerned with proselytizing political correctness and diversity. Non-STEM professors seem most interested in indoctrinating their students in radical politics.
Why can’t Johnny think?
Simply put, universities have diminished the amount of time and energy devoted to the “canon” in favor of mediocre works by authors who have been chosen for reasons that have little to do with excellence.
If you do not read the great books of Western philosophy, your ability to think will be compromised. If you do not read the great books of Western literature your ability to write and speak will be undermined.
Even when students are assigned readings from the great books, they are taught to deconstruct the texts, to perform something like a pogrom on them. They are not taught that they should learn from them.
Unsurprisingly, the results have not been good.
The Economist reports:
America’s best universities still do more top-class research than any other country’s; the problem lies in getting value for money on the teaching side. Tests suggest that many students do not learn enough these days. They work less than they used to. The average performance of America’s graduates, compared with those of other countries, is low and slipping. Higher education does not increase social mobility but reinforces existing barriers. At the same time costs have nearly doubled in real terms in the past 20 years. The enrolment rate is falling. Technology offers the promise of making education both cheaper and more effective, but universities resist adopting it.
Most college students know that they are being indoctrinated. They could not have made their way into college if they had not learned how to game the system.
They know that they do not need to devote very much time and energy to their course work. They can often get good grades simply by telling their professors what they want to hear. So, then learn less. The result is what the magazine calls “a failed model.”
Compared with their peers around the world, American students are falling behind:
In 1995 America had the highest graduation rate in the OECD. Now it lags behind seven other countries. President Barack Obama has set a target for his country to return to the top of the graduation league by 2020, but it is unlikely to be met. Young American graduates are below the OECD average in numeracy (see chart 5) and literacy, and are doing relatively worse than older ones. Some of the explanation lies with the poor performance of America’s schools, but the most expensive tertiary-education system in the OECD might be expected to help students catch up.
Students understand the game. They tell teachers what they want to hear and get good grades. Employers know that the grades do not mean anything, so they base their hiring practices on credentials, not knowledge.
The magazine astutely underscores a point that I and several blog commenters have often noted. Students are not attending college to gain an education. They are buying credentials.
Degrees matter when they signal to prospective employers that an individual went to a selective university. Future employers still believe in the selection process, the game of admissions… far more than they believe in grades or test scores:
Employers are not much interested in the education universities provide either. Lauren Rivera of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management interviewed 120 recruiters from American law firms, management consultancies and investment banks. Their principal filter was the applicant’s university. Unless he had attended one of the top institutions, he was not even considered. “Evaluators relied so intensely on ‘school’ as a criterion of evaluation not because they believed that the content of elite curricula better prepared students for life in their firms…but because of the perceived rigour of the admissions process,” Ms Rivera wrote. After the status of the institution, recruiters looked not at students’ grades but at their extracurricular activities, preferring the team sports—lacrosse, field-hockey and rowing—favoured by well-off white men.
Why should employers look at certain sports? Perhaps because athletic competition builds character. Or else, because they know that the admissions process, with its interest in diversity, admits a certain number of candidates who are not at the same level as the rest.
One expects more from The Economist than a gratuitous sneer about white privilege. After all, businesses hire people to do a job. As it happens in the high tech world of Silicon Valley, they hire the best people. If the selection process at many colleges and universities has been skewed, businesses find a way to see through the subterfuge.
The sneer about white privilege should not blind us to the fact that Asian-American students are often considered to be more desirable employees, especially in the high tech world. The Economist does not seem to recognize this salient point.
Strangely, the magazine seems to blame student laziness on the fact that businesses do not much care about grades any more. Might it not be the case that businesses do not care about grades because of grade inflation and because they know that students are not learning very much of anything in their non-STEM subjects.
If employers are not interested in grades, students might as well take it easy. That is, indeed, what they seem to be doing. Time-use studies show that the time students spend in class or studying has dropped from 40 hours a week in the 1920s to the 1960s to 27 hours a week now. And since academics are promoted largely on the basis of their research, they might as well give up teaching. That is, indeed, what they seem to be doing. Tenured faculty—the ones with the well-paid, secure jobs—spend less and less time with undergraduates. Increasingly, teaching is done by “non-tenure-track” faculty on short contracts. Mr Arum and Ms Roksa conclude that “no actors in the system are primarily interested in undergraduate student academic growth.”
True enough, more and more teaching is done by adjuncts. But, as I and many others have pointed out, American institutions of higher learning have been spending more of their money on administrators than on new faculty hires.