Thursday, June 16, 2011

Soap box

Sometimes I like it when Margaret Wente gets on her soap box. She has a couple of recurring themes, and our university education system is one she uses every couple of months. Here is her latest, and I will have to do some counting on the issues she brings up, and comparing them to my own, personal, experiences:


  • " A large number of students learn little or nothing in university. More than a third show no improvement in their skills at all." I personally don't have taught a first-year class, but I for now believe these figures until I have read the book. One for Margaret (I will call her Margaret, because of that strange phenomenon where you think you know somebody personally after reading her opinion pieces for years, I really wonder if she is anything in real life as I envision her, probably not).
  • "For these students, university is primarily a social experience, not an academic one." She implies that acquiring social skills is not the primary objective of a university education, and only secondary to "real" academic skills. I think both can be of equal importance, so let's call this a draw.
  • "They’re not hitting the books" vs. "Even so, graduation rates are stagnant or decreasing. " This to me suggests that the system actually works, at a very basic level, to a certain degree. I don't see the inconsistency that Margaret claims in these statements, so one disagreement.
  • "A lot of students are very good at strategic management of work." Sure, I completely agree, but seeing this as a negative aspect of students/education/university is, well, lame. This is comparable to complain that professionals check their email.
  • “disengagement compact”. Up to a certain point, yes. The term is very harsh, and covers again a complex social compact, but I can see where she is coming from, and where she is going to.
  • "most professors would rather not teach". I had to think hard about this one, but I fundamentally disagree. Teaching is our job, and we teach our colleagues (with publications), we teach our grad students, and we also teach our undergrad students.
  • Universities are "institutions that don’t deliver what they promise to so many of the people they are supposed to serve?" Very broad strokes that rely on definitions of "deliver", "promise", "many", "serve", but I do think we can do a better job, so let's call this one also a draw.
  • The fiction that "education will automatically enhance cognitive competence." That is indeed fiction, this does not happen automatically and takes a lot of hard work, both from the student's and instructor's perspective.
  • The fiction that "that universities have long been impervious to scrutiny". I don't agree. Universities are accountable, but I agree that we have failed to measure the right thing. So another draw.
So what is the final score? Only two statements where I disagree with Margaret, three draws (where I agree up to a certain point, or certain aspects), and a whopping four statements where I actually agree with Margaret! Who would have thought this possible.

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