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Henningsen: Lowering Higher Ed Expectations

10/09/12 5:55PM By Vic Henningsen
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(Host) As politicians debate the cost of college and cheating scandals rock many of the nation's campuses, teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen considers our changing perceptions of the importance of higher education.

(Henningsen) At a higher education conference this summer, former PBS education correspondent John Merrow painted a dismal picture of universities in which students are customers and the customer is always right, a circumstance made more difficult by the growing number of students unprepared for college work. The resulting dumbing down was best exemplified by a professor who told Merrow homework was optional and that he'd be fired if he held students to higher standards. To Merrow's horror, the university president agreed.

It's all about retention - doing everything possible to make sure that the largest number of students who enter a university actually graduate. Particularly in public universities, crucial state funding depends upon retention figures.

This is an example of the growing commodification of higher education. "What do you want," asked my college dean years ago, "an education or a degree?" In those days the answer seemed obvious. But Americans increasingly view a college education, not as an investment, but as a credential to be secured as painlessly as possible. "After all," said one of my students when I was teaching at Harvard, "It's not what I'm getting here, it's what people think I'm getting that matters." Another put it more cynically to a colleague, "Let's face it, the A students become teachers and the B students work for the C students." In this view, a little learning isn't a dangerous thing; it's actually profitable.

And so, in too many of our colleges and universities, we see students pretending to learn from teachers pretending to teach. For example last spring at Harvard 125 students in a government course were implicated in the largest cheating scandal in the university's history, because both professor and students were quite sloppy about procedures regarding academic integrity.

But the larger point, as Megan McCardle recently pointed out in Newsweek, is that people seem willing to bend the rules when they seek a credential. They wouldn't, if they believed that the skills they gained in college really mattered and not having them would hamper their chances in life, but they don't see it that way.

This is dispiriting to one who's made a life in teaching. I really do believe I'm teaching ideas and ways of thinking and acting that enrich one's life - and not just materially. Dr. Johnson said it best, that such study enables one "a little better to enjoy life or a little better to endure it." Sounds simple enough, but it isn't when you think about it, which is, after all, the point.

But at times I resort to the self-interest argument myself. "Look," I tell my students, "Either you learn how to do this or you're always going to be under the power of those who did."

Perhaps that makes me part of the problem too. But in the end, one thing's for certain. When we treat higher education purely as a commodity, and encourage students to go into ruinous debt to acquire it, we're in trouble.
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