The New Republic posted an interesting article discussing the merits of university education and whether the universities commonly known as’great’ universities (Ivy League, those on top of the Times Higher Education University Rankings or Shanghai Ranking) offer a truly outstanding education experience. Interestingly, the author taught at Yale, one of those great universities, for 10 years.
The article touches upon many of the problems with organizing, recognizing and measuring quality education. Do read the article in full, but here are some take-aways:
- Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocratic—the development of expertise—and everything is ultimately justified in technocratic terms.
- Professors and students have largely entered into what one observer called a “non-aggression pact.” Students are regarded by the institution as “customers,” people to be pandered to instead of challenged. Professors are rewarded for research, so they want to spend as little time on their classes as they can. The profession’s whole incentive structure is biased against teaching, and the more prestigious the school, the stronger the bias is likely to be.
- What Wall Street figured out,” as Ezra Klein has put it, “is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what to do next.”
- Diversity of sex and race has become a cover for increasing economic resegregation. The truth is that the meritocracy was never more than partial. Kids at schools like Stanford think that their environment is diverse if one comes from Missouri and another from Pakistan, or if one plays the cello and the other lacrosse. Never mind that all of their parents are doctors or bankers.
- This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead. The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT (a college-readiness test) is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely.
“I used to think that we needed to create a world where every child had an equal chance to get to the Ivy League. I’ve come to see that what we really need is to create one where you don’t have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education.”
Indeed, although I regret the decision by the Open University (forced upon by government) to raise tuition to the extent they did, the non-financial barriers to get a first-rate education (despite the fact that, as an online university they are absent from international rankings) are low, making them a force for social mobility.