When the late Allan Bloom wrote his best-selling The Closing of the American Mind a few years ago, a debate ensued about just what might be wrong with American higher education. Bloom took what he considered to be a very serious approach to his subject matter and concluded, essentially, that American colleges and universities have become hotbeds of philosophical relativism, the position that in the end everything is equally important, there are no objective standards by which to judge educational performance or even what is important to learn and what may be less important. Bloom said, in effect, that we have a philosophical problem with our educational system, one that has serious harmful practical consequences by leaving us without a compass, by disorienting us about values.
Bloom’s views were dismissed as elitist by many college administrators and professors. This means that Bloom didn’t accept that everything is equal, that all views and ideas have equal merit. This elitism does, of course, fly in the face of a certain feature of American education, one that many associated with it fully embrace. This is the belief that everyone, regardless of interest, motivation, and aptitude ought to receive the benefits of education. Such an egalitarian doctrine, which is a supporting assumption of the welfare state, does indeed conflict with the view Bloom championed, namely, that education should aim to teach those who have a chance to make the most of it.
But even Bloom didn’t realize the depth of the problem of American higher education. A recent report, “An American Imperative: Higher Expectations for Higher Education,” paints a sorry picture of America’s colleges and universities. This report emphasizes the lack of skills of students who emerge from American higher education. It points out that the majority of students graduate without any useful skills. The report also states that institutions of higher education “certify for graduation too many students who cannot read and write very well, too many whose intellectual depth and breadth are unimpressive, and too many whose skills are inadequate in the face of the demands of contemporary life.”
Yet, the report’s authors, 16 prominent educators, leaders of industry, heads of institutes and foundations, and others, do not make any valuable proposals other than to urge that higher education be subjected to “a self-assessment.” Since the obvious seems to escape these experts, let me make some observations based on my teaching experience throughout the country’s higher education system since 1967.
The most radical but also most elementary remedy for our educational woes is the abolition of compulsory schooling. This is necessary because children are simply not suited to the sort of massive uniformity that elementary and high school education imposes upon them. Children, like adults, are individuals. Individuality means, among other things, that one should be treated as a unique human being, something that is possible only if one is offered diverse developmental opportunities in one’s education. Young people are ready to learn at different speeds, different subjects, with different aptitudes, by different methods. The type of uniformity that is part and parcel of public education simply is not suited to them.
A system of higher education that follows in the steps of the schooling provided in public education is destined to serve most students very badly. While some percentage of those students will have received just the sort of education they need, most will have been miseducated. As a result, they arrive at universities and colleges without motivation, skill, interest, or even elementary curiosity.
Day after day, over nearly three decades, I have taught entering college and university students who show an attitude of disdain and a lack of interest. The main task before me has been to inspire them to learning (never mind what it is they might come to learn). Having been coerced to attend school for 12 years, most of these students treat college as prisoners treat the outside world–indulging their desires, satisfying their pleasures, resenting anyone who reminds them of what they had to do in the elementary and high schools they were forced to attend.
Many professors lack the will to apply the strict standards that preparation for the adult world would actually require. Only a few students have the discipline to apply themselves after years of having their own needs and aspirations totally ignored. That for the first couple of years of their higher education they choose not to apply but to enjoy themselves is no wonder–they have, after all, been in confinement. During these first few years all one hears from them is complaints about having to do anything at all. Tests, papers, quizzes, and the like are resented. Day after day students ask whether class might be canceled — just for the fun of it. Indeed, fun is their primary objective, having been robbed of many of their childhood pleasures by a system of imprisonment, of involuntary servitude.
There may have been a time in the past when societies required the forcible training of their young to carry out the drudgery that amounted to surviving, but we no longer live like that. We ought to realize that our society is supposed to bring up sovereign citizens, not serfs or slaves. And such sovereign citizens are not going to be educated by means that fail to take into account the budding sovereignty of children.
Yet, that is perhaps the one lesson nearly all the watchdogs of American education deny. The nearly total opposition of the educational establishment to the very idea of educational choice, never mind that it wasn’t nearly the sort of choice that is actually needed, testifies to this. Educators seem to be far more attached to the orthodoxy of public school than to the actual education of our children.
Not until we realize that a free citizenry is going to be left uneducated or at least undereducated without strict attention to the need for adjustment to individual differences, to the freedom to choose from different approaches to education, will we manage to reform education for the benefit of those whose education is supposedly our concern. And higher educational institutions will continue to miseducate those who get such a very awful start in their human development.