The value of a practical education

A few weeks ago, I was reading Jerry Pournelle’s thoughts on debt and higher education. The comments were prompted by Joseph Rago’s Wall Street Journal editorial describing a lawsuit by former Dartmouth professor Priya Venkatesan, who argues that her students created a hostile working environment for her in a freshman composition class.

After a winter of discontent, the snapping point came while Ms. Venkatesan was lecturing on "ecofeminism," which holds, in part, that scientific advancements benefit the patriarchy but leave women out. One student took issue, and reasonably so - actually, empirically so. But "these weren't thoughtful statements," Ms. Venkatesan protests. "They were irrational." The class thought otherwise. Following what she calls the student's "diatribe," several of his classmates applauded.
Ms. Venkatesan informed her pupils that their behavior was "fascist demagoguery." Then, after consulting a physician about "intellectual distress," she cancelled classes for a week. Thus the pending litigation.

Pournelle put the episode into a different context: after all, these students are paying hefty tuition, and taking on significant debt, to have an English professor teach them about why “scientific knowledge has suspect access to truth.” Many students across the land are not Dartmouth freshmen, and don’t have the luxury of paying for such nonsense, which is nonetheless all too common.

The points here are two: first, pretending that everyone is competent to go to university drives the cost of university education up to the point that many will have to go heavily into debt in order to afford a university education; and secondly, the major universities are so awash in money now that they can afford -- and WANT to afford -- Priya Venkatesan to teach French Narrative Theory in Freshman Composition.
Many go to University who ought to have learned their career skills in high school -- or at least in junior college. It is not necessary for all the citizens of a republic to have gone to university and learned French Narrative Theory. One need not know know anything at all about Foucault or Deconstruction to be a good citizen, vote in elections, pay taxes; and indeed I put it to you that being without debt is probably preferable to knowing French Narrative Theory.

I’m not hostile to the humanities – hey, I majored in English and French as an undergraduate. But as one with this experience, I can’t help but notice the cases where the humanities may be hostile to me. We do students a disservice when we divorce scientific knowledge – increasingly important to the future – from humanistic and traditionally liberal arts pursuits. They are not antithetical to each other; they should complement each other. But too many humanists are either unaware of the process and results of science, or take the doctrinal stance that science may be ignored because it is “one way of knowing among many.”

I thought of these things when I read an article in The Atlantic by an anonymous adjunct instructor of English Comp, titled “In the basement of the ivory tower.” The author, Professor X, teaches mainly non-traditional students in evening and community college classes, and describes the indifference of his university higher-ups to the high failure rate of these students. He attributes this indifference to the university’s profit motive: a failing student must repeat the course, because it is required for the degree – the piece of paper – that she hopes will make a difference to her life.

Adult education, nontraditional education, education for returning students -- whatever you want to call it -- is a substantial profit center for many colleges. Like factory owners, school administrators are delighted with this idea of mounting a second shift of learning in their classrooms, in the evenings, when the full-time students are busy with such regular extracurricular pursuits of higher education as reading Facebook and playing beer pong. If colleges could find a way to mount a third, graveyard shift, as Henry Ford's Willow Run did at the height of the Second World War, I believe that they would.

This is a sad story, and well-written in a personalized manner. The author deserves to write. I wonder on the basis of his description whether he deserves to teach. But this is harsh, since so many people find themselves in the same position. Trained for jobs that don’t exist in nearly the numbers to employ the pool of humanities Ph.D.’s, they teach students with whom they have little in common.

I knew that Ms. L.'s paper would fail. I knew it that first night in the library. But I couldn't tell her that she wasn't ready for an introductory English class. I wouldn't be saving her from the humiliation of defeat by a class she simply couldn't handle. I'd be a sexist, ageist, intellectual snob.
In her own mind, Ms. L. had triumphed over adversity. In her own mind, she was a feel-good segment on Oprah. Everyone wants to triumph. But not everyone can -- in fact, most can't. If they could, it wouldn't be any kind of a triumph at all. Never would I want to cheapen the accomplishments of those who really have conquered college, who were able to get past their deficits and earn a diploma, maybe even climbing onto the college honor roll. That is truly something.

Well it may be something, but at least we should ensure that it’s not a waste of one’s money.