Friday, May 20, 2011

Can't Buy Me Smarts

Apparently I am not good about updating on school days. So, here is the belated post about education. Before I start, however, here are some interesting supplemental articles. This New York Times article about what people get out of their undergraduate educations these days is the primary motivation for this particular post. Also interesting is the Washington Post article about the perils of evaluating teachers based on the performance of their students on standardized tests. Finally, here is a wonderful YouTube video on the nature of education by all around thought provoking guy, John Green.

The first article asserts that the quality of an undergraduate education is fairly poor, and has been better in the past, giving some reasons for this conclusion. One of the ways that they explain this phenomenon is the rising prevalence of a commercial mindset in the educational community, where, "students are increasingly thought of, by themselves and their colleges, as 'clients' or 'consumers.'" I think I've talked about that subject at sufficient length in other posts.

They see the importance of student evaluation as another, related, problem. Relying on student assessment of educators, "creates perverse incentives for professors to demand little and give out good grades." This is, of course, related to the problem of grade inflation.

Another problem that I see, also related to the commercialization of education, not mentioned by the article, is the changing cultural interpretation of the importance of education. Perhaps considering education to be a commodity instills a sense of entitlement in the student/customer, but I also think it makes an education more of an instrumental value than an intrinsic one, that is, I think people have become more interested in what an education can do for them, rather than attributing obvious worth simply to the quality of being educated.

While I think that is understandable considering the changed role that education has in our society, no longer an upper class privilege it has become much more of a working class necessity, I think it damaging to the educational system. If the end goal of one's education is a certification that the possessor is capable of laboring in a certain field, rather than the betterment of one's understanding of the world, the student's motivation to excel is crippled, after all, "C's get degrees." Much better for everyone, except perhaps the ruling elite, if the goal of every student, and every person, is to cultivate themselves as a thinking being. Furthermore, I would venture to say that approaching education with this mindset would even improve the acquisition of those skills considered useful for obtaining gainful employment.

Here we tie in to the topic of the second article, evaluating teachers by their student's performance. Considering how apathetic many of their students are about the educational project as a whole, I think this is like evaluating a hair stylist by the hairdos of customers who do not show up for their appointments, an architect on the basis of a building built by crooked, incompetent construction crews. As I have often said before, the only real solution that I can see is a fundamental reprioritization of education in society as a whole (see here for the most pertinent post, I reference Smart Guy and Boy Meets World, it is good stuff.). Neither test scores, nor funding hikes, nor even Superman can save us from ourselves, only we can put in the work to make that happen.

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