The other night, on the way home, I listened to the Sixty Minutes segment on The Duke University fiasco on the car radio. This has been much in the news lately and though I am of the opinion that the DA is trying to railroad these boys, they certainly have nothing to be proud of. Even that is not what motivates me to post.
The college system is, for the most part, a fraud and a waste of time. That does not mean there is no larger purpose to going on the four year trip to Winter Camp or to what, for some, is voke ed.
In prosecuting the indictment, Let me bring before the court as Exhibit A, one of the most egregious examples, moi. No great student in high school but a fairly quick study with a retentive mind, I punched above my weight class on the SATs to make up for grades that did not make the admissions office hearts' quiver. The only extra curricular activity I participated in was debating. The one college that accepted me was a power in that field and I guess that put me over the top.
As the Summer before college started, a reading list arrived. Amongst the books was The Idea of a University by John Henry Cardinal Newman. I have no standing to critique the book, other than to say that even though my reading of it was not deep, it came as no great epiphany for me to realize that there was a vast discrepancy between what a college student should be and what I intended to accomplish (or, not accomplish) in attending. An honorable young gentleman would have withdrawn his acceptance and decided to pursue one of the blue collar opportunities available in the area. September saw me on my way to school.
Many of my classmates were generally more serious than I was in that they were there to get a sheepskin that would lead either out of the working class or to continued existence in the prosperous middle. As to true seekers of knowledge for its own sake, I would estimate there might have been between five and ten true scholars in my class. Did I establish that I was not one of them?
All this was a shame as there were many fine professors who loved their subjects and were happy to impart knowledge. The one academic subject I ever liked was history.* Almost all the professors were fine speakers and the one who wasn't still gave classes with excellent content. I remember one of our professors who specialized in Medieval History describing a guest speaker as a "consummate artist as a lecturer" and thinking that was an apt description of himself.
Such artistry was wasted on almost all of the student body. They were either interested in enjoying themselves (my segment) or studying merely for its resume value. From the description of the Duke Team, I suspect that they were not great scholars. They did well enough for the resume (one was on his way to Wall Street), but they were there to play ball first and enjoy the college experience as did the jocks in "I am Charlotte Simmons" at Duke, I mean Dupont. Mr. Nifong's case is a sieve and only extreme ideologues even pretend to believe it. Still, I cannot help but wondering as to the cultural changes that have occurred since the stone age when I was an undergraduate. I was involved in numerous stunts and almost all of them could have been described as mischievous. A couple could have been dangerous to mostly myself, but might have caused damage to others such that I regret them to this day. Generally, I knew enough to step back from the brink and stop.
One thing I know for certain is that I would never have been part of a group that would hire a stripper. It is possible, in my not so sober travels, I might have ended up at a party where one arrived (it never actually happened to me), but I would never have planned to. Why? Because I had some modicum of decency? Unfortunately, no. My fear would have been that my parents would have found out. There is not too much they could have done except stop sending tuition which held no real terror as worry about being kicked out never made me study. No, my fear would be that they would think I had no character (too close to the truth, actually). They held a great moral power over me and still do to this day though one has passed on and the other will very soon. Their influence is greater now in that I have more respect for, than fear of them and what they stood for.
One of the lads in the interview admitted it was a wrong thing they did. I suspect he has had a lot of time to think about it. If the two dancers had just performed and left he would never have had that moment of introspection. He would have gone on with his life , playing Lacrosse, going to class, getting fair marks and partying. On and on this would go with parents ponying up for the party and never giving thought to any purpose other than just that you go.
But that is only part of the circus. Much of the faculty at Duke made fools of themselves. They acted out a wish. A wish for the guilt of the class enemy. President Brodhead's letter of April 5, 2006 appears the act of a man who fears angry children and hopes to appease them or worse, is a true believer. If the Neville Chamberlain award is to be given out for 2006, there is an obvious frontrunner.
All this would be bad enough, but there are horrible costs due to our national educational follies. Now, I am not saying in all cases is it an error to shovel out cash so the kids can matriculate. There are some wonderful benefits to going to an Ivy League school. Les enfants will network with people who will slot in to important positions and that rolodex will be a prize in itself. If little Brooke takes Women's Studies at Princeton, that's a ticket to a secure future. If Crystal takes it at State, she better make sure her telemarketing skills are good. Majoring in sociology at Pepperidge Farm College will probably not provide an adequate return. That millions of parents and children are paying tuition and taking out loans for such a dubious investment is tragic.
There are also societal costs. In a system where, as the Dodo said, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes,.” we are telling a very big lie. The fact that anyone with a near detectable pulse can, after sufficient attendance, refer to him or herself as bachelor and the equivalent of any other bachelor's degree holder in the land is a fraud that most people know about, but probably not all. Certainly, all the fashionably caring who attend the candlelight marches to protest privilege at Duke know it and ratify it. What is the purpose of going to the Harvard of the South, investing time and treasure if there is no privilege at the end. The administration knows it, no matter how many unctuous statements they release. What is the purpose of being Duke or Dartmouth or Smith other than privilege?** .If President Brodhead wanted to do something real, he would announce that from today North Carolina Central University would be amalgamated with Duke and all would be awarded Duke diplomas. Anybody see the cows come home?
So why does this system continue? I have two theories, neither which I vouch for nor did I expend any effort over. Theory 1: We do not really have much for people to do. We shall have less as automation continues. Keeping young folks diverted for four years keeps them out of the job market and helps to keep down unemployment figures.
Theory 2: Now this is based on observation as a subject and also as a dorm resident director at an undistinguished institution. I drank an ocean of beer in four years as an undergraduate. During my tenure as dorm dad, I observed trash barrels filled with beer cans daily and overflowing on weekends. My wife and I took the job to save money for a house and we were successful. If I had taken the cans and turned them in for the deposit, I would be blogging now from our villa in Provence.
So stop wasting time and get to the theory. Virtually all of the cans thrown away where we were in charge were red and white in color, as were the cans that held the liquid I consumed. The second theory posits that the greatest beneficiary of widespread collegiate attendance is Budweiser. If college were only for true scholars, the King of Beers would be dethroned and sent to the guillotine in no time at all. I don't know how they did it, but it is the most brilliant stroke of marketing genius in history. Yes, Budweiser is conspiring to keep this game going.
So, what is to be done. The voice of humility would feel derelict if he did not suggest a solution. Let us recognize the problem as it is. We have three classes of students, scholars, voke ed types and party animals. How do we accommodate them all honestly. First, we stop the denial and admit the truth. Then we can redesign the institutions to work for all.
Let's take two representative institutions and change the names. We shall call them Ivy University and Generic State University. Ivy and State will continue to have departments of Philosophy and Physics and other true academic areas of study with professors.
Some of the more obviously job oriented departments are to be transferred to Generic State's School of Vocational Education. Students who wished to study Accounting, Exercise Science, Hospitality and Tourism Management Science and other such "trades" would be accepted into the School of Voke Ed. As the guy who taught shop was not called professor, neither must we so call our voke ed teachers. We can save mom and dad some money here on salaries. Ivy will not have a vocational division as they could never admit they were doing training.
Now for the real savings. There will be a place for that vast population of kiddos in school because they had no idea what else to do. Both Ivy and Gen. State will have winter camps. They don't have to call them that but that will be the reality as it is now. They can still go to watch athletic performances on Saturday and even play if they qualify. They can even sneak out of camp curfew and hit last call. We just will not demand anything of a real academic nature. Let us admit, that what they want is amusement and give it to them. They will not need professors, we can hire counselors from summer camps, paying far less than for tenured professors in academic disciplines who currently are forced to look out over a sea of blank faces. We will be able to cut costs on salaries to the bone.
Now, please don't think I am trying to set up a class of underpaid serfs. The corps of counselors will do very well. They will get to redeem the deposits on the cans.
*In spite of my near spotless record of not studying during my secondary school sojourn, I read a lot of history. Indeed, I can honestly claim that in high school history classes, I always knew more than my teachers. The problem was being a history nerd had all the drawbacks and none of the benefits of being a techie nerd. No matter how goofy they looked, there was gainful employment, if not great wealth waiting for them. My type of nerd has no sure road to wealth as all the rewards to reading history tend to be non monetary. Also, being a history nerd is one sure way to flunk socially. Wax poetic about the past and the best you might get is a bemused look, more probably, eyes will glaze over, but never will a babe's chest heave with passion as you describe what a disaster for Athens the expedition to Syracuse was.
I could console myself with the words of Cicero that "the person who does not know of events before his own time remains ever a child,". except for the fact that I had a very long run as an adolescent and did my best to defer growing up as long as possible.
**It is well observed here in Nova Anglia that if you are an Ivy, but not hereditarily so, within a minute of meeting someone you will have let out the fact. Once in my town a school committee candidate was soliciting my vote and going on about her plans. Very early on she just happened to mention, "And I went to Wellesley." I was not really talking with her to any purpose, she was obviously the smartest candidate. My only question was would she do more or less harm because of that fact. After awhile, for what reason I have no recollection, I asked her for the definition of education. She mumbled something irrelevant and to prove what a horrible fellow I am, I pressed her until she admitted ignorance. Four years for what she had no clue, and neither do most of us.
***Of course beer was not the only substance our charges were partaking of.. On weekends the kids would be doing so much (un)controlled substance the dorm got high enough that if we had been in a war zone, it would have drawn anti aircraft fire.