Is College Worthwhile? Was It Ever?

The Plastic Age, a 1924 novel by Percy Marks which became a bestseller, takes a close-up look inside a men’s college in the days of  prohibition, jazz, and bootleg whiskey. it finds “The college is made up of men who worship mediocrity; that is their ideal except in athletics.”

As they near the end of their college careers, the men reflect on what they’ve learned and find themselves wanting. One says, “Here I am sporting a Phi Bete key, an honor student if you please, and all that I really know as a result of my college ‘education’ is the fine points of football and how to play poker. I don’t really know one damn thing about anything.”

The men take their questions about the value of college to one of the college’s few good teachers. He says, in part:

The average college graduate is a pretty poor specimen, but all in all he is just about the best we have. Please remember that I am talking in averages. I know perfectly well that a great many brilliant men do not come to college and that a great many stupid men do come, but the colleges get a very fair percentage of the intelligent ones and a comparatively small percentage of the stupid ones.

Some day, perhaps…our administrative officers will be true educators; some day perhaps our faculties will be wise men really fitted to teach; some day perhaps our students will be really students, eager to learn, honest searchers after beauty and truth. That day will be the millennium.  I look for the undergraduates to lead us to it.

Has anything really changed in 90 years?

Will anything really change in the next 90?

Training and educating are twin roles for schools

Many teachers are perplexed by the Common Core State Standards and similar slates of educational objectives. They cannot understand how they can be expected to teach a skill such as “analyze the interactions between individuals, events and ideas in a text” (ELA: RI.7.3) unless someone tells them which text, which individuals, which events, and which ideas they are to present.

These teachers are confusing training with educating.

Last week Thomas Ricks was on the PBS NewsHour  to talk about his new book  The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. In his conversation with Ray Suarez, Ricks said this:

You train for the known … but you educate for the unknown, for the critical, ambiguous, the complex battlefields you find.

That distinction is one educators need to understand. We can—should—train students for the world in which they live. But we also need to educate them to live in a different world that hasn’t been created yet.

Ricks went on to say that in battlefield situations a general must:

Figure out what’s going on here, what’s important about it, what’s trivial. How do I devise a response? What’s a solution? And how do I implement it through the actions of thousands of subordinates?

The kind of  critical thinking and strategic solutions required of generals is also required of teachers and school administrators today if our students are to become educated for tomorrow’s world.

Training and educating are both essential. We shouldn’t neglect either.

And we certainly must not confuse them.

[Repaired broken link 04-03-2014; repaired broken link 2016-01-22.]

Education enables knowledge acquisition

Educators today regular proclaim that the kind of memory work required by standardized tests isn’t real learning. The statement, while true, is not exactly news.

A chapter in the Harold Bell Wright’s novel Their Yesterdays is about knowledge. In the chapter, the nameless hero enters the workforce and realizes that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thought he knew when he finished school.

See if you don’t think this passage from Wright’s novel is as relevant as any topic trending on Twitter.

To repeat what others have thought is not at all evidence that he who remembers is thinking. Great thoughts are often repeated thoughtlessly. A man’s Occupation betrays him or establishes his claim to Knowledge. That which a man does proclaims that which he thinks or in his thoughtlessness finds him out.

Of course, when the man had learned this, he said at first, quite wrongly, that his school days were wasted. He said that what he had called his education was all a mistake—that it was vanity only and wholly worthless. But, as he went on gaining ever more and more Knowledge from the thing that he was doing, and, through that thing, of many other things, he came to understand that his school days were not wasted but very well spent indeed. He came to see that what he had called education was not a mistake. He came to understand that what was wrong was this: he had considered his education complete, finished, when he had only been prepared to begin. He had considered his schooling as an end to be gained when it was only a means to the end. He had considered his learning as wealth to hold when it was capital to invest. He had mistaken the thoughts that he received from others for Knowledge when they were given him only to inspire and to help him in acquiring Knowledge.

Project Guteneberg banner ad

Their Yesterdays was the number two bestselling novel in the United States in 1912. Today it is available free online from Project Gutenberg. I will post a review of Their Yesterdays later this year on my blog of vintage novel reviews, Great Penformances.