Cheap Education

From last Sunday’s New York Times (February 7, 2010)

To the Editor:

Many of us have dedicated nearly a decade of training toward the profession of college teaching, only to face permanent economic insecurity and deplorable working conditions.

Elimination of tenure-track positions began long before the recent economic downturn. Both aspiring and tenured professors are alarmed at how the ranks of unprotected, underpaid adjuncts have grown over the past two decades. That change has also been an effective way to consolidate power at universities within the administrative class, and to alter the fundamental nature of college education.

The American university has long positioned itself as a place where the twin goals of research and teaching are brought together to promote advancement of thought. This model has largely explained why the best students worldwide covet degrees, particularly graduate degrees, from American institutions. The question we should be asking is what the casualization of the academic labor market means for our ability to continue as a leader of ideas.

Alicia Gibson; Hiroshima, Japan, Jan. 31

I traveled last week to a very prestigious institution on the East Coast to co-present on a very important, and relatively new, topic in my field. The school is one founded on the principles of intensive, expansive, high-quality education, and the development of informed and inquiring minds. The building was constructed decades ago to pay tribute to these lofty ideals — grand entrances, windows and ceilings that soar, ornate woodwork, beautiful tile. The students were eager, friendly, engaged.

I searched the internet at length the other day, trying to find a picture of a high school I’ve seen from up in the hills of northern Michigan to post here. It looks like a penitentiary. I’ve never actually walked the halls — it is possible, I suppose that the “view” from inside is pastoral and pleasant. The view from the outside and the idea of driving daily up to its doors fills me with dread.

One of the things we seem to have lost sight of in this country is the importance of actual learning, the importance of thought. In our quest for “fixing” the educational system, we develop more and more tests which teachers then must “teach to,” add teaching hours to the load, take away benefits or administrative support. It often seems that the people in charge are more concerned about the body in the front of the room than they are about what that “body” knows, or what contribution that person might be able to make to the field at large if they weren’t being driven to exhaustion.

Meanwhile, public-school classes in logic, debate, music, art, are either moved to zero hour, subject to enormous fees, or cut altogether. Windows are bricked over so the students aren’t “distracted.” Is the message then, in our pursuit of enlightenment, to look inward?

As the economy limps along, and I sock away every dollar I can so that my children can get what may end up to be an entirely inadequate college education, I wonder if most of the people “in charge” are completely missing the point. We need to be teaching our children, children of ALL ages, enthusiasm, creativity, discipline, ambition; not facts, but ideas.

A curriculum of thought. Sign me up.

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