By Roger Repohl
THE BRONX, N.Y. - It’s etched in my memory, an icon of education: Warm spring day in New York, sun streaming through the open window of my office at the college, trees in bud, birds in song. Half a dozen students are there, declaiming on politics, religion, and dorm food. One sits on the window sill, sunning herself; another sits atop the office desk, yoga-style; a third sits on an uncomfortable wooden chair; the rest sit cross-legged on the floor. They’re there for no reason in particular; they were roaming the halls, found the open door, and settled in. They’re seniors now, chafing to graduate. Two years before, they’d taken my intro course in religious studies and, sometimes to my annoyance, had challenged just about every idea I put forth. They’d relished the verbal battle, and I’d relished battling back.
The dialectic went on past the final exam, and two years later they’re still at it. I’m still at it, too, testing their reasoning, rebutting their assertions, and having my own rebutted. They’re in training for the life of the mind. Beyond the confines of classroom and library, there in that sunny room, they’re getting an education.
This indelible scene dates from 1994. In the years that followed, fewer and fewer of these free-wheeling sessions occurred. Students still came to argue, but seldom about politics and religion; instead it was about grades. “Be careful, they’re little lawyers,” the department chairman warned me. “They’ll press their case till you relent.”
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education issued a report by its Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Among other things, it called for standardized testing of college students, primarily to bring “accountability” to colleges, similar to what is happening to elementary and high schools under the No Child Left Behind Act. In a way, it’s understandable. Average costs for four years of college now range from $63,400 to $133,000. Shouldn’t parents and prospective students, the argument goes, have some hard criteria by which to judge whether they’ll get what they’re paying for, whatever it is that they’re paying for?
Like the SAT for college applicants, these tests would check students’ ability to read, to write, to analyze, and to solve mathematical and logical problems. They would be administered in the freshman and senior years, thus revealing the effectiveness of the teaching. Apparently, the testing would be generic; knowledge of the information and analytical tools within one’s major would not be included.
The thought of measuring the results of a “higher education” infuriates and insults many professors and administrators, but the thought was inevitable, because non-elite colleges have now become higher high schools, trying to do something with the growing numbers of students whom they accept though they are practically illiterate. It is not uncommon for professors (myself included) to complain that they have been forced over the years to lower the bar of performance in their courses, assigning fewer readings because students cannot read, assigning more basic readings because the students no longer possess core knowledge in any subject, assigning fewer and more basic writing projects because the students can barely write.
Of course, an institution could just turn those candidates away, but they need the income-stream. When my college instituted an “open enrollment” policy late in the last decade, taking almost anyone who applied, it was good for the bottom line but spelled the end of college as we knew it.
Today, college has become what high school was 40 years ago, yet another four-year attempt to shape people up for the work-force. The mission is now to stop the hemorrhaging of lower education.
Despite this dumbing-down, statistics show that a good number of people graduate from four-year colleges with little more than a piece of paper to show for it. One federal study done in 2003 revealed that just 31 percent of college graduates were able to explain and analyze non-technical passages. A college degree by itself is no longer a reliable indicator to employers that a person possesses the skills necessary to perform acceptably. And thus the cry for standardized tests.
The traditional college model is based on the presumption that the work in the lower grades was basically informational and operative, involving the memorization of vast amounts of facts and the acquisition of language and computational skills, both of which can and should be subject to standardized testing. College could then build upon this foundation and, in the liberal arts at least, be “philosophical” in the literal sense, involving the acquisition of wisdom through wide reading, incisive writing, and intense dialogue with the wise. Becoming philosophical is not something that can be subject to standardized testing.
That’s the very idea of the traditional college horarium: Unlike the lower grades, rigidly structured with classes five days a week, class-time is reduced to three hours precisely to allow the leisure to read and to dialogue on critical ideas and issues. There isn’t much leisure in college today, for faculty or for students. Faculty are too busy doing remedial work (and in the future, teaching to the test) to engage in the interplay of ideas. Students hold part-time or even full-time jobs to make tuition, and the courses themselves have become little more than just another job, except they have to pay for it instead of getting paid. Do the work, get the grade, get the diploma, get out.
I’m sure there are still places where students will invade professors’ offices to hold forth on politics and religion, but in my academic life, it’s just another beautiful memory of springtime in New York.