University Professors Teach Too Much: Part III

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

Colleges themselves—which, I remind us, are to be separated from research institutes—should be broken in two: traditional college and technical or trade school (this break need only be administrative and not physical). As Russell Kirk tells us, college exists to impart wisdom, not knowledge, and certainly not information or even, as is by now commonplace, trivia. Trade schools should take students interested solely or mainly in obtaining a skill or a “degree”, a talisman which they must emboss on their resume to get a job at one of the many non-contemplative and undiscerning companies which require them.

Incidentally, this purblind requirement of a “degree”—and not of knowledge or ability—is why there are too many kids going to college.

Trade school will encompass majors like “business”, “marketing”, “sports management”, “diversity studies” of any kind, “communications”, “journalism”, “computer science”, “health”, “nursing”, “art” of any stripe, “engineering”, “security” (yes, it exists), “criminal science1“, “hotel management”, and so forth, which give students a taste—an amuse bouche, but no more—of the fields in which they will toil. Cosmetology and refrigeration schools have the right idea (I do not jest nor denigrate; these are useful, honest places).

Teaching as a major is not in the list, but should be. Many which are now universities, used to be colleges, which themselves used to be “normal schools” (note the grade inflation undergone by the second word). The functions formally provided by these schools should be restored.

Let the number of “majors” in trade schools increase without number. Whatever sells can be taught. It is here that the idea of student as customer comes closest to reality: businesses and students will provide the demand, trade schools will provide the supply. If a trade school promises to teach “communications” but few of its graduates find jobs in that field, then the school is selling an inferior product, with the necessary result that the school must charge less for it, must eliminate the program, or must invest real money to make improvements.

Colleges charge like movie houses: whatever is showing has the same price. Customers pay the same whether they screen Casablanca or Biodome (Pauly, God help us, Shore). Students pay the same for courses in logic as they do for lectures in women’s studies. It is far past the time for variable tuition rates—I do not mean across institutions, but within them. But this would work only if all acknowledged the trade-school nature of the education received.

Trade schools would house the semi-professional sports teams which are now at colleges. The athletes who, as employees of the trade schools, and are responsible for a significant source of income, should be paid accordingly (packages which include “degrees” in “sports management”). Football fans would thrill that playoffs could be a reality: but make ’em pay for it. College (not trade) students would only be allowed intramural sports.

College is not a place to learn a trade or skill of any kind. It is not job training. It is a place to think; rather, a place to learn how to think, to develop the habit of discernment. As Cardinal Newman said, college is a place to “open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, [and] eloquent expression.” College is the first step for those who would be future leaders.

Majors at colleges should be few in number and must only encompass the classics: the humanities first and foremost, with math and fundamental science nearly tying for first place. Allowed electives should be limited. As Kenneth Minogue writes, “A population of students who can only be persuaded to take an interest in anything if they can be convinced that it will be useful to them is at the mercy of its own limitations.” If we “base education of what the children themselves actually want to learn; the effect is to atrophy their capacity for self-movement.”

Only the best students—proved by on-site entrance exams—would be allowed enrollment. Colleges are not, must not be, and cannot be egalitarian institutions. The work required of students should be arduous, and this difficulty should be touted (and enforced): boasting will eliminate the hard feelings some of the less able students would otherwise feel.

As Albert Jay Nock said:

Our system is based upon the assumption, popularly regarded as implicit in the doctrine of equality, that everybody is educable. This has been taken without question from the beginning; it is taken without question now. The whole structure of our system, the entire arrangement of its mechanics, testifies to this. Even our truant laws testify to it, for they are constructed with exclusive reference to school-age, not to school-ability.

When we attempt to run this assumption back to the philosophical doctrine of equality, we cannot do it; it is not there, nothing like it is there. The philosophical doctrine of equality gives no more ground for the assumption that all men are educable than it does for the assumption that all men are six feet tall. We see at once, then, that it is not the philosophical doctrine of equality, but an utterly untenable popular perversion of it, that we find at the basis of our educational system.2

The weeping and gnashing of teeth that will accompany these changes will be titanic. The wailing from wounded pride would reach Heaven itself (it is no secret that egos of professors rival those of Hollywood actors). “What do you mean I am now just a teacher at a, gasp, trade school!” Title outranks reality. So call trade schools “universities”, let colleges be, say, “academies” (each prefixed with the name of the school).

Leadership at many schools is weak and simple; most administrators (largely a parasitic race) would fail in the ensuing storm. This being so, the only group capable of forcing change are those who pay the bills: students and parents. Let’s mothers march on the President’s office and demand an education for their darlings that actually has value. Parents are the one group that is (potentially) more frightening than faculty; however, their efforts must be concerted.

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV. I omitted many details (college or trade should only be three years maximum), but this is all we’re going to do (for now). The subject is worthy of a book; and if there is anybody who is willing to pay for me to write one, I’ll do so.

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1The old joke is that anything that calls itself a science isn’t.

2Thanks to Bruce Foutch for providing this reference.

If you are a professor or researcher, please email this article to a colleague or administrator.

20 Comments

  1. I agree with much of what you propose but only if pre-college education emphasizes critical thinking. Unfortunately, it seems that much of pre-college education resembles the “trade schools” you describe where the purpose is to learn skills. College education is then designed to teach one to “think critically”. However we must revise the approach to primary education so that those students entering either the colleges or trade schools already have a solid foundation in critical and abstract thinking. At this point the trade schools would be for those students looking to advance a specific set of skills, while the colleges would be for those students looking to advance their critical thinking. But without the foundation in critical thinking before college we risk producing a very inflexible and nonadaptive population, although highly skilled in a specific area.

  2. I agree in large part with you on the true purpose of the university, but not in this:

    “Majors at colleges should be few in number and must only encompass the classics: the humanities first and foremost, with math and fundamental science nearly tying for first place. Allowed electives should be limited.”

    Having a broad selection of majors and electives allows a university to fulfill its goal of being “universal.” That’s not to say that I’m thrilled by “______ studies” as a major, but studies such as a language major are of incredible value.

    I also think you’re a bit too hard on engineering and in particular computer science. Relegating those to trade schools would hurt American competitiveness. Having engineering faculties at universities allows engineers to gain broad liberal arts educations that they can later apply to their work.

    And why limit electives? To what extent? I understand the point of having a solid liberal arts foundation, but how can a university truly be universal if its educational options are self-limited? Some of the best classes (not the easiest, before anyone says otherwise) I took in undergrad were the most outside of my area of study.

    Wisdom comes from many places. We shouldn’t limit where students can gain it.

  3. Ari,

    See what I mean? Putting engineers in a (two- or three-year) trade school program is “hard” on them. You have fallen prey to the belief that those lessons taught in the college (and not trade school) are more valuable, hence more prestigious. They are not more valuable, and certainly far less prestigious, if the goal is to learn engineering.

    I never claimed that colleges should be “universal.” They should not. I did allow trade schools to teach whatever the market will bear, so that comes close.

  4. You’ve hit something I’ve thought for a long time: Movie tickets should change price more according to their elasticity. I suspect that part of the issue is that the studios have influence that may make this difficult, but I’ve always thought that varying prices day to day, movie by movie could get a lot more butts in seats, with the attendant higher concessions sales.

    I’d take some exception to “Computer Science,” but really because the term is too vague. For the code monkey producing type of Computer Science program, I would definitely agree with you, though I wouldn’t call that Computer Science.

    Maybe separate the code monkeys into something called Software Engineering (though personally, I think there’s as much art as engineering in producing good software). Then, the real “Computer Science,” which I think is more properly viewed as a branch of mathematics, could stay in the academy realm where it belongs.

  5. Computer Science is exactly the sort of discipline that *should* be moved to trade schools, along with medicine and law. Returning the University to the “community of scholars” that it once might have been would be refreshing.

    BTW, Mathematicians generally do not think of Computer Science as a branch of Mathematics, no matter how many large primes computer scientists are able to ferret out. The days when computer scientists had degrees in mathematics is 40 years in the past.

  6. Matt,

    Sorry, poor wording on my part.

    I don’t mean that we’re being “hard on them,” but that it’s of value to have our engineers receive a liberal arts education. I think you assume that they are just tradesmen with simple learnable skills, but much of modern engineering requires more than simple skills (I don’t mean simple as in “easy.”) I think part of the reason that people in Asia do undergrad in Asia but then come to the US for grad is that our engineering schools impart lessons that theirs do not, and if the IITs are any indication, then many schools abroad think of engineering as trade schools like you do.

    Put another way, we benefit greatly from having engineers, doctors, and even lawyers who are exposed to a solid liberal arts foundation at the university.

    You did not say that colleges should be universal, but the university, by its nature, should be. Perhaps I’m a bit stodgy in that regard.

    Besides, the liberal arts college: Williams, Vassar, Brown, Dartmouth, Pomona, etc. already exists. It is a wildly successful model, in my opinion. Perhaps all undergraduate study should be based on that model?

    But again, back to your argument regarding electives: how much do we limit them, and where? Do we nix languages? Or history that isn’t classically Western? To what level of mathematics do we require students to study?

    Keep in mind that I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you that the purpose of college should be a solid liberal arts (I mean this in the traditional sense) education, but I wonder if perhaps the road you would have us take there is the best one.

    I’ve often said that the greatest lessons in learning I received in college were in my language classes. Learning how to think can come from funny places.

  7. A note on doctors: I happen to be married to a lady who will be one, so I’m biased. However, having made friends with med students and doctors in other countries, one thing I’ve been told is that one thing that separates American physicians and surgeons from their counterparts elsewhere is that they tend to have significantly better education overall. This is partly due to the fact that medicine elsewhere is an undergraduate degree, but also the solid scientific education that American doctors receive in basic science.

    There’s nothing wrong with “trades,” and I think trade/professional schools would be best separated from the liberal arts education. However, I think it’s also true that we have tend to have the best professionals because of our peculiar system.

    One thing that I think would help a great deal, even with the current institutions, would be to simply nix the “pre-professional” or “professional” undergrad programs. I think those have helped accelerate the needless desire for bachelor’s degrees in every job imaginable at no benefit to the universities.

    I’d be perfectly happy to see undergraduate programs run like LACs.

  8. Given the medieval universities trained people and granted degrees in law (of both civil and canon law), medicine and theology, there is a long history of universities creating scholar/professionals who work mostly via logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, and natural philosophy. They continue to perform this function today, with a slightly larger base of fields that didn’t exist fully in the 14th century. It may just be that being a person with a mind trained in logic just isn’t that special anymore (although being able to use said logic usefully is still quite special) as we have a society that allows for the creation of a larger group of them .

    I have tremendous sympathies toward splitting the trivium and quadrivium from the rest of post high school education, but it seems that doing it will create one of two less than useful classes: An indolent class of public intellectuals (and we already have enough of those), or something that will basically be a luxury good, a form of self actualization for those able to afford it (and is that any better if the goal is creating better scholars?).

    Personally, I think universities do best when they teach people to think with general styles, a mathematician has a different thinking algorithm than a humanities scholar, who also analyzes topics differently than a lawyer. Given these specialized thought patterns, it’s probably a good thing to keep them under one roof to hopefully allow for cross-fertilization to occasionally occur a la C P Snow’s “The Two Cultures”. Otherwise, the professional fields have more in common with the scholarly fields (ie professionals work in applied scholarship), then the technicians in society.

  9. Engineers need liberal arts educations? Piffle and nonsense. If you are an engineer and you haven’t read the classics, or studied Greek mythology, or mastered home horticulture, so flipping what? Are you less of an engineer?

    Here’s a thought. Give every engineer a library card. Then they can study whatever liberal art they choose to, on their own.

    All undergraduate study should be based on the model of Williams, Vassar, Brown, Dartmouth, Pomona? I snorkle at the dystopic cultural bigotry displayed in that comment. It must have been sarcasm right?

    Different thinking algorithms? Imparting wisdom? I’m choking here, on laughter and tears.

    The main problem with colleges today is that they teach endless crap that is patently false and must be unlearned by the student afterwards if he/she is not to continue in life as a mental cripple.

    The foppish intellectual elite are functional morons, and it shows, and our country and the entire world suffer because of the dingledbrained stupidities prattled forth by those clods. Not to mention utter hoaxes they perp like “global warming” designed to rob the peasants blind behind Medieval superstitious nonsense.

    Liberal arts are liberal all right, but not artful and not worth a dime. Read a book if you feel deprived of an education.

  10. Honest to Pete. No business of any kind wants to hire a militant feminist who majored in Women’s Studies taught by Marxists.

    No private business, that is. There are plenty of government jobs for people like that, which is why government is failing like a rotten tooth.

  11. I could see something like “computer technology” in a trade school, but real “computer science” has no place in a trade school

  12. Will your new educational institution include economics as a college major? In particular will it examine this famous quote from F.A. Hayek: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”? I would prefer to remove education from government control and return it to the free market, despite the fact that I benefit from the current system.

    I would also like to point out that the Engineering Faculties, at least in Canada, do not allow their students to take much in the way of liberal arts courses. Therefore, this is not a valid objection to your proposal. This leads me to my next comment. What is a liberal arts education? In my many decades of experience with the university system, I have never seen this defined. It has an historical definition but not a modern one. Finally, I do not believe that one can teach critical thinking or that there is a distinction between training and some higher form of education. It is all training. They differ only in depth and subject matter. I teach Physics, by the way, and I try to train my students in the wonders and subtleties of that marvelous discipline.

  13. Certainly, a liberal arts education is, nowadays, anything but. However, there is a solid argument for a classical liberal arts education up to that point when one chooses his direction in life. Take for example the engineer. In his elegant book, Bridges, engineer Fritz Leonhardt speaks plainly of the need by engineers for a deep understanding of aesthetics and examines a selection of liberal arts disciplines, and, as well, reaches back in history to pull together the characteristics of aesthetic qualities that define his ten guidelines for design.

    In my own mind, I see a great need for engineers to be well versed in the historic conventions and social consequences of their craft. They, after all, design and build a created reality that can either move humanity forward or set them back. Take just a moment to consider the great social power of an engineer. From providing us shelter with appropriate privacy to surrounding us in immodest glass walls. From a structure that provides us physical and moral support to one that brings our spirit crashing to the ground. From elegant and functional beauty to horrid, useless ugliness. The engineer has the power and the responsibility to furnish humankind the former in each case. And, how will they recognize this requirement without at least some education in who we are as a species and in what provides us our sense of humanity. How to know what excites our senses and stimulates our creativity? How else other than an adequate familiarity with the humanities; the liberal arts?

  14. Mike D’s trolling, so not worth more than a curt nod of disdain, but The Man fails to appreciate (i)
    that one of Canada’s best Computer Science departments (Waterloo) is in their faculty of Math, and (ii) the publication records of people like Prakash Panangaden, Denis Thérien or Claude Crépeau (all at McGill, at least several years ago when I was there).

  15. Fred,

    Responding to Matt’s claim that real computer science can be “more properly viewed as a branch of mathematics” I made the obvious assertion that Computer Science is not a branch of mathematics. Of course neither is physics or statistics. There are many areas that employ mathematical methods but that doesn’t make them mathematics. And because the definitions are somewhat fuzzy it will always be possible to point to statisticians, physicists and computer scientists who are also good mathematicians. I dare say that there are chemists and economists who are good mathematicians (yes I know who they are too).

    None of this is a denigration of computer science (or any of the other disciplines I mentioned) it is just a recognition that, in general, trained mathematicians do not consider trained computer scientists to be mathematicians. I haven’t seen a survey to this effect but I have been out of academia for two decades so maybe times have changed. But during the time that I was active we taught computer science students the same sort of abbreviated mathematics curriculum that we taught engineers. Engineers got more analysis and computer science students got more discrete methods but neither was even close to what we taught undergraduate math students, physics students, or statistics students.

    I am aware of Waterloo but I have no idea why they decided to create a Faculty of Mathematics that included computer science. They also teach (I just looked) a business and accounting program in that faculty. Is that a branch of mathematics as well? At the end of the day, mathematics is whatever mathematicians say it is and I think we should all be fine with that.

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