Sunday, October 19, 2014

Destroying Higher Education: A Rebuttal

By Professor Doom

Assignment 1: “Fill in the names and capitals of the 20 southeast Asian countries on this blank map.”
Assignment 2: “Use techniques of advanced calculus to show how perturbations in the measurements of Mercury’s orbit confirm the relativistic effects predicted by Einstein.”
---both of these assignments are from 4000 level, senior level, courses in state run universities with a reputation for partying, as capstone material for a degree. Assignment 1 comes from around 2014, assignment 2 comes from around thirty years ago. I totally concede neither has much to do with real life…but which of these assignments could a 10-year old complete with a bit of effort, and which takes years of knowledge and skill development before it can be attempted?

     I’m hardly the only one to notice that higher education has fallen very, very far in the last few decades, and I’ve certainly cited a dozen or two articles detailing the current problems. An older article acts as though it was all a plan, and details what steps were taken to destroy higher education.

How Higher Education in the US Was Destroyed in 5 Basic Steps

     It’s easy to see bad things happen, and see a conspiracy theory. Even when all the underlying facts are true, however, that doesn’t mean there was a plan. It’s easy to overlook simple opportunism as a reasonable explanation. Let’s take a look at the first two steps of the “five step plan” described:

1)     Defund Public Higher Education
     The article begins with a discussion of how funding for public colleges and universities has dropped off, leading to a shifting of priorities for schools, including a drop-off of support for the humanities.
     I acknowledge “put money into education” sounds reasonable, and “for profit education” is basically a scam nowadays, but this first step is a minimal part, at best, to the disaster of today’s higher education.
     Yes, the article is correct that States, desperately strapped for money, have been taking money away from the state run institutions, and I can see how this isn’t taken to be a good thing. But fully state-funded “lower education” (that is, high school and lower) has been mostly a disaster anyway. Throw in that non-profit institutions have also fallen along with for-profit and state run institutions, and the de-funding of public higher education is clearly simply not enough to explain what’s happened. It’s a true fact…but there’s no conspiracy here, because it doesn’t come close to explaining why it’s happening everywhere else.
     The article also tries to indicate how the shift in priorities was used to eliminate leftist thought on campus…anyone even remotely familiar with the political correctness and multiculturalism prevalent on campus knows that if reducing leftism on campus was the intention of reducing funding, it failed horribly. The article’s claim here isn’t even correct—it’s hard to claim it’s a conspiracy when the goal of the conspiracy isn’t even close to being met. You may as well claim all the blimps flying around everywhere are part of a big conspiracy.
     While this de-funding has been bad, realize that federal funding for higher education (i.e., the student loan scam) has replaced much of the money lost, anyway…and this dirty money has infected the non-profit and for-profit schools as well. The article would have done better to claim the student loan scam has destroyed higher education, since that would cover all schools, instead of just the publicly funded ones…and, for what it’s worth, the student loan scam is a big part of what destroyed higher education.
     Let’s look at step II:

Step II: Deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s).
    Again this is a true fact, most professors on campus are poorly paid adjuncts, paid almost nothing, with no job security. And, absolutely, there is a huge surplus of Ph.D.s.
     This is putting the cart before the horse: if higher education was legitimate, there wouldn’t be mills churning out Ph.D.s for very dubious “research” or that the Ph.D.s themselves don’t even understand. A century ago, you didn’t need a Ph.D. to teach on campus, and in fact most professors had a master’s degree at best—what you really needed was competence in your field.

Admin: “The committee found that your paper, ‘A Statistical Confidence Cone Technique for Improved Error Estimation in Geological Surveys’ could not count as research in your field because they could not determine if the research was mathematical in nature.”
Me: “But…one of the committee members has a Ph.D. in Mathematics, right?”
Admin: “In Math Education, yes.”

     Nowadays, many faculty are simply incompetent. They teach empty courses via PowerPoint presentations, ask nothing of their students, and are incapable of even coherently answering questions not already covered on the PowerPoint. I’ve seen many “Math Education” degree holders teaching college math courses, and doing so in an incompetent manner…they can’t even correctly answer questions in their own courses. There’s a reason for this, but it doesn’t involve the low pay and lack of job security.

“Vice-President Joe Biden…said that the reason tuitions are out of control is because of the high price of college faculty. He has no idea what he is talking about…At latest count, we have 1.5 million university professors in this country, 1 million of whom are adjuncts…earning, on average, $20K a year gross, with no benefits or healthcare, no unemployment insurance when they are out of work…”

     Not all such faculty are incompetent, and I agree treating people like this is rapacious…but I still don’t buy that doing this to the faculty is part of a plan.
     Over a century ago, scholars did what they did not for high pay, but for the love of knowledge and wisdom. Heck, in the Far East, poverty was nearly considered a necessity for a scholar. I’m not saying we need to go back to that, but, again, there are more than enough examples of scholars with little interest in money that I just can’t accept this fact, albeit true, as part of a plan to destroy higher education.
      The third step of the plan is actually the key step, the only one necessary to destroy higher education, without any need of a conspiracy. I’ll discuss that in detail next time.


  1. I noticed similar things at my alma mater after the current era of robber baron economics began just over 30 years ago.

    The provincial government reduced its funding of the institution. At the same time, it allowed a number of junior colleges to become universities in their own right, though many of them would never pass an accreditation inspection (even when that process was legitimate). That meant that everybody and his dog could get themselves a degree.

    It also gave the institution a reason to lower its standards, shifting its main source of revenue from the government to the students. That meant lowering entrance standards to increase the number of revenue units. But it didn't stop there. Each student (i. e., revenue unit) now had to pay more, even for the most trivial of services. (I found that out while I was finishing my Ph. D. I had to pay tuition, the amount of which was about a third of what a typical undergrad had to pay, just to keep my name active in a file. All I did was write my thesis and I did most of that at home and at my own expense and certainly without the assistance of my supervisor, who turned out to be next to useless.)

    Then came a succession of empire-building presidents, each of which were determined to not only leave a legacy of their presence (and, often, mismanagement), but leave one bigger and better than all their predecessors. The result is that just about every empty square metre that isn't devoted to road or sidewalk has something being built on it.

    Some of that construction was a result of inter-faculty or inter-departmental rivalry. If the Department of Hamster Fur Weaving gets a new building, why should the Faculty of Unicorn Taming be left out?

    As for hiring only holders of a Ph. D. being allowed to teach, I heard a rumour about the department I did mine in. For years, the engineering faculty hired sessional lecturers to teach specialty courses. Those lecturers were experienced practitioners and, thereby, were considered experts in their fields. The material they taught in those courses was in demand in industry, so it made sense to have those engineers teaching them.

    The department head at the time decided to can anyone who didn't have a doctorate. Gone were those lecturers who, by virtue of education and experience, taught courses which industry considered essential. (Industry? You know, where many of the graduates eventually found jobs?) I have no idea how the department made up for that deficit, if at all.

    Mind you, I'm not surprised. I actually met that department head a few years ago. How that man ever earned a bachelor's degree in engineering, let alone his doctorate, remains a mystery to me to this day. On the other hand, perhaps it's best he is in academe as he certainly would have been a menace out in the field or on a shop floor.

  2. US education has become steadily more bureaucratised while at the same time course content has become risible. But this too shall pass. The US empire is in slow-motion collapse, and there's a glut of unemployed and unemployable holders of advanced degrees. Consider this glut a function of late and senescent empire.