Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Montesquieu Goes to College

Should different economic classes have different colleges?  And should those colleges have different missions?

I’m not talking about the elite-of-the-elite letting in a few scholarship students, as welcome as that is.  I’m thinking more of art history and philosophy at community colleges.  

With what I have to assume is basically good intent, President Obama and many governors are pushing the idea of community colleges becoming workforce training centers.  They’re redirecting funding from general operational budgets -- the budget that supports every program at a college -- to grants targeted at favored programs.  Generally speaking, that means either STEM fields or fields with presumed local employability.  The motivation seems to be to do something about jobs, in hopes of getting the economy moving (and the votes flowing).

On the ground, though, the effects are disturbing.

This report from Diverse Issues in Higher Education suggests the effects of, in essence, replicating the K-12 “tracking” system in higher education.  Simply put, it increases the social separation between those who can afford (or can slip into) elite institutions, and everyone else.  

Tuesday’s post discussed the value of cross-class exposure and interaction in college.  That kind of interaction is only possible when different classes are present.  And that will only happen when colleges aren’t rigidly stratified by class.

This isn’t -- at all -- an argument against vocational programs or training.  Those programs meet specific needs, and they’ve done wonders when done right.  

Instead, it’s an argument for properly valuing the liberal arts in a community college setting.  Literature, philosophy, art history, political science, and economics shouldn’t be the privilege of those who have money.  They’re the shared (if contested) heritage of a culture, and they bespeak possibilities beyond the present.  They’re enriched by a panoply of perspectives, but that panoply is unlikely to be robust if everyone in the discussion went to prep school.  

Besides, if you take the whole “student loans are choking the young” argument seriously -- which I do -- then a robust liberal arts transfer route from the community college level becomes part of the solution.  If you do two years at the community college, incurring little or no debt, and then transfer to a traditional four-year college, you can escape with a lower debt burden than you otherwise would.  To the politicians out there, I’d mention that this is its own form of workforce development.  The student who transfers to a four-year college and then goes on to medical school -- and yes, we have those -- does quite well in the job market, thank you very much.  

Some faculty locally have opined that the drive to reduce community colleges to workforce training centers is based on a desire to strip the lower classes of the faculties of critical thought, the better to keep them down.  That argument strikes me as a little self-flattering, a little patronizing, and oddly enough, a little too credulous.  A good nurse needs critical thought to do the job well, for example.  More to the point, though, in my discussions with political leaders, I just don’t think they’re that deep.  They aren’t trying to wall off philosophy from the proletariat for fear of revolution; they just want to get past the recession as quickly as possible, and this seems as good a way as any.

In other words, the issue isn’t so much nefariousness or corruption as shallowness.  Paradoxically enough, the shallowness goes all the way down.

Perorations on the wonderfulness of the liberal arts are fine, as far as they go, but they tend to land on deaf ears.  If we academics want to keep the liberal arts available for students of limited means -- and having been one, I am firmly on board with that -- the arguments to make are around cross-class contact, transfer, and student debt.  We can orate to each other to keep up morale, if we want, and the old-time religion makes great fodder for graduation speeches.  But if we want to preserve this audaciously idealistic mission of bringing the liberal arts to the masses, we have to start from where we are.  

The alternative is to recreate the economic segregation of our neighborhoods in our colleges.  And that would be a loss for everybody.

This makes no sense at all for my students, who are all in the "STEM field". First, the humanities are required for engineering accreditation at every school, those with the most extreme technical focus as well as those at universities with a liberal arts tradition. Quite a few students choose something like art history or literature over more generic "humanities" courses just for the change of pace.

Second, economics is sometimes a required course in one of those fields as a pre-req for more advanced courses on engineering economics.

These are not luxuries. They just look that way to lawyer-politicians who can spell STEM but have no idea what is in an actual STEM curriculum. The same comment applies to financial aid policies that assume it only takes 4 years to get through an engineering program even if you aren't prepared to take calculus as a freshman.
I agree that the average politician probably just wants to get the recession over ASAP. On the other hand, there is also the strain that thinks American is being attacked by Satan personally, and the first thing to fall (due to vanity) was academia (
I suspect that to such a person, "vocational education" sounds less threatening than "liberal arts".

Some people truly object to art history and philosophy as they are practiced in the academy. And lots of people object to funding the study of them, usually because they were interested in them but chose something else that would be more 'practical'.
It's too bad we've more or less dropped the idea of education as citizenship training...but I guess to be truly universal in that sense it would have focus on K-12 anyway.
i think this is too funny.

if you're an engineer, you can knock out 75% of all of your liberal arts requirements through passing of AP tests in high school. lots of kids do this. why would someone who is trying to get their MS in engineering want to waste a full year of college taking liberal arts classes, when they can do it in high school? it's a lot easier to test out of English 1 & 2, PolySci, Spanish, and Economics than Differential Equations, Signals & Systems, and Organic Chem.

and if critical thinking were so important, then clep tests wouldn't exist.

the fact that students can test out of these courses in high school, graduate, and do just fine in the real world is a tell-tale sign that their importance in "critical thinking" is insanely overhyped.

unfortunately, only wealthier people tend to know/realize this. someone needs to tell low income 10th graders that if they were to work really hard in high school, they can test out of a years worth of college (and reduce their cost by 1/4). they're the ones who need to skip those classes the most.
This is really tough. I agree that every post-HS educational institution (like every HS) should be able to offer courses like Philosophy and Art History (and not just to the students who are obviously headed for transfer to 4-year institutions). But the reality is that what many students need (and could cope with) is a different version of Art History and Philosophy than the ones who aspire to rigorous 4-year institutions do. Why? because they are not ready for a research- and writing-intensive course. We cannot take students with an 8th grade reading/writing level (or, let's face it, sometimes lower than that) and expect them to boost their writing skills by 5 years in two semesters (which is what is attempted in remedial writing classes). So what's needed is a second set of courses that do expose students to the big ideas and trends, and are heavy on classroom discussion and debate, but not heavy on writing. This, of course, would be criticized as educational segregation. But what happens now (and happened to several relatives of mine) is that the more career-tech oriented students enroll in Humanities classes that include writing, but they drop them when faced with the task of producing an 8-page paper.
"With what I have to assume is basically good intent,"

...why? Obama's been adamant that the wealthy are better than the rest of us. His is the Impunity Presidency.

1) Dean Dad is not talking about the students had good preparation and AP programs in high school.
2) Students who "test out" by taking AP courses (if this isn't obvious) took AP courses. That they go on to succeed can't be used as an indictment humanities classes, because they took those classes. CLEP tests are also designed for students who have studied the material in some way, the course just isn't linked to the exam as in AP.
jas, you are talking about the 1% with that set of expectations. If we "only" restrict engineering to the fraction of the 5% who pass the AP calculus test and actually go on to engineering, the number of engineering grads in the US will go down, not double as people with an active fantasy life dream about. Any change in the current situation requires using CCs to develop the skills of kids who didn't know they could be engineers until they served four years in the Marines or finally had a math class with a good teacher. And that "workforce" program requires the humanities at the CC level.

On your other point, it is not true that only wealthy people know about those options. Our CC has an active program to get kids to graduate from HS with an AA degree at the same time they get their diploma, and no one would mistake them as "rich". However, the typical kid in a program like this, or the you describe, is actually behind if they want to be an engineer. They have 4 semesters of liberal arts classes and enter college as a junior, but are not even close to the junior level in math and science.
Ditto what CCPhysicist said. My son is in one of those middle college programs. They get a broad sampling of 100- and 200-level courses and enter college as 2nd semester sophomores or juniors. But they typically take a gen-ed science class and a required math class for non-majors which is intended to be terminal (not prep for calculus). This isn't true for all of them - son has a friend in the program who is taking 2nd yr college calc courses as a 15 year old - but he's the exception. So...if they decide to major in STEM fields when they enter college, they'll have their liberal arts gen eds covered, but most will be 2+ years behind on the math & science.

Still, at least they're exposed to a wide range of humanities courses, taught by (mostly) good instructors to students who actively chose to be there. This is of great value in expanding world views and encouraging better thinking, writing, and communication skills. This is also a big improvement over traditional high school, even with AP options available. And the socio-economic diversity of student in the program is quite broad. In fact about half of students are fleeing from the very poor (quality & money) school district in the town right next to the college, where our "middle college" has a strong recruiting presence.
Interesting discussion.

I find myself of two (or three) minds about some of the observations made here.

College-level humanities and arts courses are not on a par with high-school courses in English and social studies (or at least, they shouldn't be). This includes AP courses.

When I ask AP graduates in my lower-division courses why they don't have the faintest idea how to do simple research in a library and compile the results into what we used to call a "term paper," they consistently tell me they have never written a sourced paper but instead were asked to write short stories, journals, and poems. They come to my classes practiced at writing self-absorbed squibs of this nature and at cranking out five-paragraph essays on cliched topics. But besides being somewhat articulate (one might say "glib") with the written word, they're not a lot better prepared for college-level work than their non-AP classmates.

According to a friend who has chaired the math department at Arizona State, entering students' math skills are on a par with their writing and critical thinking skills.

Accelerating students' progress so they can get through college-level programs with minimal expense and minimal waste of their time sounds good. But we really do need to accelerate them, and not just jump them through hoops a little faster than their classmates can jump. And personally -- this may just be my quirk -- I don't think we do STEM students any favors by shorting them on humanities and arts instruction.
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