The NY Times Editorial page takes aim at online education on Monday. It turns out that studies show that more students in online classes drop out of classes, more fail, and fewer graduate. This is not surprising. But one might ask so what? Online courses are proliferating and will continue to do so because they are less expensive. For some students, they may even be better. But for high-risk students, the track record is poor. Here is the Times editorial board’s conclusion:
A five-year study, issued in 2011, tracked 51,000 students enrolled in Washington State community and technical colleges. It found that those who took higher proportions of online courses were less likely to earn degrees or transfer to four-year colleges. The reasons for such failures are well known. Many students, for example, show up at college (or junior college) unprepared to learn, unable to manage time and having failed to master basics like math and English.
Lacking confidence as well as competence, these students need engagement with their teachers to feel comfortable and to succeed. What they often get online is estrangement from the instructor who rarely can get to know them directly. Colleges need to improve online courses before they deploy them widely. Moreover, schools with high numbers of students needing remedial education should consider requiring at least some students to demonstrate success in traditional classes before allowing them to take online courses.
The Times’ solution is based on a common lament, that young people are caught in a double bind, what Joseph Stiglitz recently described as a Catch-22:
Without a college education, they are condemned to a life of poor prospects; with a college education, they may be condemned to a lifetime of living at the brink. And increasingly even a college degree isn’t enough; one needs either a graduate degree or a series of (often unpaid) internships. Those at the top have the connections and social capital to get those opportunities. Those in the middle and bottom don’t. The point is that no one makes it on his or her own. And those at the top get more help from their families than do those lower down on the ladder. Government should help to level the playing field.
Stiglitz, like the NY Times editorial board, worries that the current higher educational system is poorly suited to addressing questions of class. Both are right. College education is too expensive for most poor and even many middle class Americans. This is especially true since many people spend much of their time (and money) in college taking remedial courses where they learn little of extra value. And when these at-risk students do attend college, they too often emerge with life-altering debt rather than a transformative education.
What both the Times and Stiglitz want is to change the system of college and how we subsidize it. I leave aside the argument over whether government subsidies for higher education are the right answer. That becomes a question of how much money we want to pay as a percentage of our GDP.
But what does seem strange is that we continue to see our colleges as the problem here. As the Times rightly sees, the problem is that students arrive at college unprepared.
Our overburdened public colleges must spend a fortune on remedial education for students. And then we charge students for this remedial education, which frequently fails, leaving them with debt and nothing else.
Whereas colleges cost students money, high school education is typically free. The first line of attack on inequality through education should be reforming and improving high schools. Yet no one speaks about that. President Obama’s education initiatives focus on early pre-school education and community college. High Schools are left out. But if we could divert the huge resources currently spent on remedial college education to high schools, maybe college wouldn’t be so necessary. And maybe those who attended college might then be ready to work at a college level.
You know elite universities are in trouble when their professors say things like Edward Rock. Rock, Distinguished Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and coordinator of Penn’s online education program, has this to say about the impending revolution in online education:
We’re in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge. And in 2012, the internet is an incredibly important place to be present if you’re in the knowledge dissemination business.
If elite colleges are in the knowledge dissemination business, then they will overtime be increasingly devalued and made less relevant. What colleges and universities need to offer is not simply knowledge, but education.
In 1947, at the age of 18, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a short essay in the The Maroon Tiger, the Morehouse College campus newspaper. The article was titled, “The Purpose of Education.” In short, it argued that we must not confuse education with knowledge.
King began with the personal. Too often, he wrote, “most college men have a misconception of the purpose of education. Most of the "brethren" think that education should equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses. Still others think that education should furnish them with noble ends rather than means to an end.” In other words, too many think that college is designed to teach either means or ends, offering the secrets that unlock the mysteries of our futures.
King takes aim at both these purposes. Beyond the need for education to make us more efficient, education also has a cultural function. In this sense, King writes, Education must inculcate the habit of thinking for oneself, what Hannah Arendt called Selbstdenken, or self-thinking.
“Education,” King writes, “must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking.” Quick and resolute thinking requires that one “think incisively” and “think for one's self.” This “is very difficult.” The difficulty comes from the seduction of conformity and the power of prejudice. “We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda.” We are all educated into prejudgments. They are human and it is inhuman to live free from prejudicial opinions and thoughts. On the one hand, education is the way we are led into and brought into a world as it exists, with its prejudices and values. And yet, education must also produce self-thinking persons, people who, once they are educated and enter the world as adults, are capable of judging the world into which they been born.
For King, one of the “chief aims of education” is to “save man from the morass of of propaganda.” “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”
To think for oneself is not the same as critical thinking. Against the common assumption that college should teach “critical reasoning,” King argues that critical thinking alone is insufficient and even dangerous: “Education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.” The example King offers is that of Eugene Talmadge, who had been governor of Georgia. Talmadge “possessed one of the better minds of Georgia, or even America.” He was Phi Beta Kappa. He excelled at critical thinking. And yet, Talmadge believed that King and all black people were inferior beings. For King, we cannot call such men well educated.
The lesson the young Martin Luther King Jr. draws is that intelligence and critical reasoning are not enough to make us educated. What is needed, also, is an educational development of character:
We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.
Present debates about higher education focus on two concerns. The first is cost. The second is assessment. While the cost is high for many people, it is also the case the most students and their families understand that what colleges offer is priceless. But that is only true insofar as colleges understand their purpose, which is not simply to disseminate knowledge or teach critical thinking, but is, rather, to nurture character. How are we to assess such education? The demand for assessment, as well meaning as it is, drives education to focus on measurable skills and thus moves us away from the purposes of education as King rightly understands them.
The emerging debate about civic education is many things. Too often it is a tired argument over the “core” or the “canon.” And increasingly it is derailed by arguments about service learning or internships. What really is at issue, however, is a long-overdue response to the misguided dominance of the research-university model of education.
Colleges in the United States were, up through the middle of the 20th century, not research-driven institutions. They were above all religiously affiliated institutions and they offered general education in the classics and the liberal arts. Professors taught the classics outside of their specific disciplines. And students wrestled with timeless questions. This has largely changed today where professors are taught to specialize and think within their disciplinary prejudices. Even distribution requirements fail to make a difference insofar as students forced to take a course outside their discipline learn simply another disciplinary approach. They learn useful knowledge and critical thinking. But what is missing is the kind of general education in the “accumulated experience of social living” that King championed.
I am not suggesting that all specialization is bad or that we should return to religious-affiliated schools. Not in the least. But many of us know that we are failing in our responsibilities to think about what is important and to teach students a curriculum designed to nurture self-thinking and citizenship. We avoid this conversation because it is hard, because people disagree today on whether we should read Plato or Confucius or study Einstein or immunology. Everyone has their discipline to defend and few faculty are willing or able to think about an education that is designed for students and citizens.
Let’s stop bad mouthing all colleges. Much good happens there. Yet let’s also recall King’s parting words in his essay:
If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, "brethren!" Be careful, teachers!
King’s The Purpose of Education is your weekend read.