Wednesday, October 03, 2007
An Open Letter to Mayor Richard M. Daley
Dear Mayor Daley,
I've seen some idiotic pronouncements over the years. “The insurgency is in its last throes,” “The Segway will change everything,” “Ladies and Gentlemen – Britney Spears!” Among the consolations of middle age is the realization that the worst-laid plans of mice and men at least occasionally go astray.
Still, you've really outdone yourself. Even a jaded academic like myself stands awestruck.
According to this article in the Chicago Sun-Times, you've decided to address head-on the real reason for tuition inflation at colleges and universities:
“They should cut half the courses. It would cut down the cost tremendously. What are the basic courses that you need in college? Cut some of the unnecessary courses out...”
Of course! That's the problem! Sometimes it takes an outsider to notice the obvious.
For example, twenty years ago, tuition/room/board at my alma mater was $20,000 a year. Now it's almost $50,000 a year. How do we explain this rapid increase? Clearly, the shift from “four years to graduate” to “four years to graduate” is to blame.
Silly us. We've been spending all this time and energy trying to explain variables by looking at things that vary – you know, like declining levels of public support for public colleges, or increased costs for health insurance and HVAC, or the need to keep up with current technology in the fields we teach. You've taken the opposite tack – explain drastic change by looking at things that haven't changed at all. It's almost Zen in its simplicity.
I'll tell you what. Why don't you drop by and explain to my faculty senate just exactly which courses are unnecessary? Surely, a man of your high office wouldn't pop off like that without knowing specifics. Just off the top of my head, take English. Most of our students are already fluent! Obviously, this is dreadful waste. Besides, who really needs communication skills? After all, it's not like we have a service economy or any such thing.
Or maybe it's the expensive high-tech stuff you have in mind. Who needs it? Let the Japanese own the tech sector; they're better at it anyway! After all, if students graduate with less debt, they won't need good-paying jobs in the first place. It's the circle of life.
Maybe we could just get rid of all those business majors. Let the kids learn on the job! Who needs “accountants,” anyway? It's only money. Besides, Worldcom had accountants, and look what happened to them! Besides, if the kids won't be qualified for good-paying jobs, they won't have to worry their silly little heads about 401(k)'s or returns on investment. Why burden them with information they won't need?
And don't even get me started on Nursing programs! At the rate at which health insurance is hollowing out and leaving most Americans utterly unprotected even with insurance, soon most people won't be able to afford medical care anyway. Why prepare students for a profession on the way out? Better to create useful, short-term certification programs in, say, grief counseling.
Mayor Daley, I stand in awe of your self-confidence. Truly, it takes what we, in a less enlightened time, used to call balls of steel to spout such verbal antimatter around journalists, some of whom actually write down what you say. Of course, about half of what you say is probably unnecessary. If you like, I'd be happy to tell you which half.
Now-a-days those of us striving for genderless correctness in all things say 'nads', as in 'got a lot of nads, that one'.
Although I think I know what his answers would be. All the courses taught by the liberal pinkos that are intent on brainwashing our little babies.
I eagerly await your guest appearance on The Daily Show or Countdown.
On the engineering side, I'd ask Hizzoner which he would rather omit from the civil engineering curriculum, sewage or bridge engineering?
Serious question: if you look at a course catalog today, does it have more courses than it did 20 years ago?
I make a distinction between disciplines and courses; it's my very uninformed impression that in many of the humanities disciplines, there are many more courses than there were in the past.
Mayor Daley reveals the depths of his DePaul education, perhaps? Yep, that private school privilege comes in handy when trying to cut public school funding even further.
A few responses, beginning with the fact that the number of courses that run in a given semester is entirely a question of supply and demand, i.e., that if students don't fill the courses, then those courses don't run. Moreover, enrollments at universities have increased in the past 20 years. Take those two things together, and there may need to be more courses in order to satisfy student demand. With less rigid curriculum requirements at many universities, that also opens up more room for a greater diversity of course offerings. Is that really a bad thing? Thus customers - woops, I mean students - seem to be on board with this and to appreciate it.
Second, number of courses on the books in a catalog does not necessarily reflect number of courses regularly taught. Many departments have a dead weight curriculum, which reflects retirements among other things, and so even if it seems like there are more courses, there may not necessarily be more courses that students actually take. You may wonder why departments don't remove those courses from the books. Well, at my institution it's partly because when you take a course off the books you lose the number for something like 5 years, and so it's better to leave courses on the books than to take them off and risk not having enough numbers for the number of courses that need to be offered for a five year period.
Finally, isn't the point of scholarship generally that people will gain more knowledge, greater insights, new perspectives, whether on old material or new material? Wouldn't it make sense that, for example, an English curriculum would need to expand to include, I don't know, writers/perspectives beyond those who were taught 50 years ago? Do people really think that the humanities are unchanging and that our curricula never need to change? Really?
I wasn't even going to read the article, because I enjoyed the DD snark and figured I'd just get aggravated. I did read it though, and thought this line was equally funny in contrast to his "plan": "The American dream is to get a good quality education." (this is another direct quote).
What wasn't clear to me from your post, DD, is that he's actually suggesting 2 year degrees, rather than 4 year degrees, so the requirements for graduation are halved, not (necessarily) the number of courses offered. And, I'm not saying this reading is better (I don't think it is), but I do agree with him when he argues that the standards for employment are artificially inflated -- i.e., you need a BA to do work for which you really don't need BA-level skills. And it sort of pains me to agree with him about anything, even if only a little bit.
You're great, but you're also taking Mayor Daley more seriously than most of us in Chicago do. He's not a smart guy, but he's clever and wily---a political survivor. I personally don't listen to Daley unless his latest pronouncement involves taxes or the Chicago Transit Authority. Period.
Anyway, treat the man like the rest of us Chicagoans do: as entertainment!
Except, well, that's not what he said. I think it might be what he *meant* but that's only after scrutinizing his rhetoric.
Is this what our country has come to? Our politicians are so completely ignorant and inarticulate that we have to GUESS what they mean because they say something so completely ludicrous that we are left thinking 1/ they are lunatics (potentially dangerously so), or 2/ complete morons whose speeches we have to parse for meaning (and probably should be afraid they got elected).
When I was teaching writing to undergrads, they would made these sorts of mis-statements all the time. If Daley is an example of what a 4-year degree can produce, maybe the system needs to add MORE YEARS to earn a degree instead of removing some.
What irritates me most though is that Daley missed an opportunity to openly support and encourage the community college experience as a viable and important alternative to what people see as the typical college experience [of the 4-year-school variety].
Instead of saying "cut half the courses," he could have said that the A.A. from a community college should be what many students choose post-high school, and that employers [and the larger society] should encourage this as a viable alternative for many students.
Now *THAT* would have been nice. But it's not what we got.
I laughed my rear end off! Just because politicians have (presumably) been to school doesn't mean they know how to run one. I've been in a garage....doesn't make me a car!
Huzzahs to you, DD for calling BS when you see it. We, as a society, need to lighten up and do more of the same.
I'm from New Zealand, and started my first year law intermediate aged 17 3/4. It's entirely possible to graduate the four year degree, 3 month professionals course and start practising law here at age 22, although you can't go into practice on your own account for another two years after that.
England and Wales you can do a 3 year Law degree, a 1 year bar course and qualify in 4 years.
Or a 3 year general degree, 1 year law conversion course 1 year bar course and qualify in 5 years.
In New Zealand our general undergraduate degrees are 3 years, some professional degrees - e.g. Engineering, Speech Therapy are 4.
Medicine is 6 - an intermediate year, then 2 pre-clinical, 2 clinical and an internship. NZ doctors find it very easy to get work all round the world (so much so, that there's a shortage back home).
I've heard that the that US schools may not have proper science labs as it's assumed that that will be picked up in college. So it may be we expect General Education requirements to be covered in Secondary School. I'll leave it up to US citizens to comment on that one.
Having had a "tour" of 4 schools for one HS Diploma I can bear witness to the truth of the above comment. Yet, I am sure some of my tireless long-lost educators of yore would not take joy in hearing the nation to tell them to "kick it up a notch (or 28)." The shame is that someone along the assembly line needs it.
Additionally, from having been in the Chicago Public school system for 3 consecutive years prior to that, I can personally say that outside districts were quite fearful of "overwhelming" a student from CPS with their curriculum regardless of 99th percentile test scores.
I may have not read all of the comments above thoroughly enough to avoid repetition. That said, Missles (or Minnows) away...
As a near-recent student to that system, I'll put my 2 pennies towards suggesting ground-up improvement rather than Daley cutting the graduate cap from a student's head to look inside and see what is fit to be jettisoned. Of course, how much should you be able to justify in the institution's deficiencies when the largest public campaign is the annual end-of-summer "Please show up for the first day" cry backed by the Bud Billiken Parade?
To add small note, while I may graduate with a baccalaureate degree in the near future, the inferiority struck into the minds of CPS'ers like myself will have me (hopefully others as well) seeking more maths and sciences for the rest of my life . End goal? To finally feel "caught up" with development of the rest of the world so as to be able to operate and even understand any of the Big Ideas to Come or those already had.
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