The Professor & the "System"

Western Kentucky University professor Aaron W. Hughey, in an opinion-piece in the Lexington [Ky.] Herald-Leader of 25 June, mentioned that despite the contrary claims by “many self-proclaimed experts, higher education in the United States is not in any danger of becoming irrelevant” and that “a drastic overhaul would serve only to weaken the academy.”

Hughey makes the point that college is not for everyone and it’s good to hear an academician make that statement. I listened to an audience-participation program the other evening (TV-Huckabee) in which a 24-year-old woman bemoaned the fact that she had borrowed $200,000 to pay for college only to discover that she can’t find a job. This lady, for whom college was not a real-time financial possibility, might as well declare bankruptcy since she obviously does not have a marketable skill, at least for now.

Hughey probably didn’t have finances in mind; rather, he probably meant that a multitude of people should opt for vocational/technical training because they’re not scholarly types. Though not the scholarly type, I finished college and even taught school and otherwise worked professionally but the last half of my working-life was spent as a railroad locomotive engineer, requiring no more than a high-school regimen, if that. I get Hughey’s point.

Hughey said that some people misunderstood the president when he, in the State of the Union extravaganza that went on and on, claimed that higher education should be more accountable because they read him as advocating gainful employment as the standard for gauging institutional efficacy. No…that’s precisely what he meant, meaning that Obama misunderstands what higher education is. And why not? That’s the same line used by everyone from parents to…yeah…a lot of educators.

Hughey: “… colleges and universities have an inherent obligation to provide students with accurate and trustworthy information about their prospects for finding a suitable job in their selected field.” A couple paragraphs later: “The goal of higher education should never be to prepare an individual for a specific career in a specific discipline.” Well…which is it? This seems to be a colossal oxymoron. People could hardly hope to become doctors, for instance, if higher education didn’t prepare them (at least 90%-wise) for a specific career.

Hughey probably meant that higher education should be thoroughly rounded, mixing the technical with the abstracts such as the arts, and later says: “we will also need graduates with extensive exposure to the humanities,” arguing that otherwise “everything human civilization has achieved is in danger of being lost.”

Hughey has a point but uses a strange illustration, that of Albert Einstein, to wit, that “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” Einstein was a genius, but science without religion is just science, not at all affected by religion, lamely or otherwise. He was right that religion without science is blind, but religion with science is also blind because faith is defined biblically, at least, by Paul in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (NIV©1984). [italics mine]

Hughey mentioned that another questionable interpretation of Obama’s speech was that higher education is disconnected from society. He says that the folks believing this would make the academy more “standards-based.” That’s probably what Obama thinks, too, because of his obvious bent toward socialism, which insists on sameness for everyone – people as just apparatchiks, equal pieces of the machinery, no matter how actually unequal – the human condition.

Nothing could be farther from the truth regarding higher education; however, with regard to public-school education, standards are vitally important, if only for reasons of accountability. Accountability occurs in higher education as the best schools prove their efficacy through the achievements of their graduates. There’s a difference between Harvard and Podunk State. In a recent year, 40% of graduating education majors at Kentucky State University couldn’t pass the test for teaching certificates, although they were welcome to try again…and probably again and again. Other state and private institutions did much better, thankfully.

Higher education can be faulted for its frivolousness. Western has its gender/women’s program, though there’s no men’s program, thankfully. It has a sizeable staff for its African-American studies program. Degrees in either of these fields are tangibly worthless to society: they just perpetuate the fields/studies. Western has a China-studies Department but it’s called the Confucius Institute. There’s no argument with the concept but try calling something at a state institution the “Christian Institute” and see how quickly the ACLU and Attorney General Holder’s storm troopers arrive at the door.

Top priority at all higher education institutions is the graduating of all students, but at the University of Kentucky the announced official policy in the athletic department (at least in basketball) is to turn freshmen into professional athletes in just one year. The school-year is over at mid-semester when the NCAA finals are played. Is it any wonder that people often look with jaundiced eyes at the academy? Imagine inviting freshman – sometimes just semi-literate, at that – to come for free…and immediately leave, while earnest, qualified students can’t come up with the cash. Disgusting!

Hughey mentions that there was a time when an “A” meant the student had conquered the material and would perform accordingly. He says a lot of folks don’t believe that now but that creating accountability schemes to prove that an “A” means something is a “colossal waste of time … a meaningless distraction from the real educational process.” He says the solution, presumably, is getting rid of the “standards-mongers” and “let the true experts [whoever they are] navigate at will.” Good luck!