While surveying my number two son’s final exam in meteorology (a class in which the answers are given out beforehand—in multiple choice format, of course), I recalled the old argument on why college attendance should be limited to only a few.
What follow is an obvious line of reasoning which shows that either college should be set aside only for those most able to meet its rigors, or “college” itself will have to be redefined.
Suppose (what is true) that college requires the learning of subjects that are difficult. The level of difficulty will naturally vary from subject to subject and from person to person, but we can all agree that this level should be high. The material should, for example, be more difficult than that found in high school or middle school. Further, most subjects will increase in difficulty as time passes. Think of history (more facts pile up daily), physics (from ceramic superconductors to string theory), and so on. College, then, is and should be difficult by definition.
It is also true, and known by everybody, that certain people are smarter and more capable than others, and some are stupider and less capable. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. Those at the bottom cannot master difficult subjects, while those at the top do so easily. Those in the middle sometimes struggle and attain mastery, or other times they struggle and fail. Obviously, it sometimes happens—but rarely—that lines are crossed and surprising talents are found among those otherwise incapable, and inexplicable blind spots are found among those otherwise capable. These scattered events in no way change the general conclusion that follows.
Under these premises, because college is difficult it is true that those who graduate have attained a high level of knowledge. The value of the education is thus high (in terms of knowledge; forget about money for now).
All would be well except for the fiendish group of people known as Those Who Care. They insist that “most people should go to college!” (we explore why they say this and its consequences next time). Very well. We must make it so that most do.
So imagine next year we open the gates and accept all comers (as City University of New York in 1970 did). Bad news. The difficulty of the material is such that few can master it, as we have already agreed. People flunk out, including a good number of those who the college is desirous of keeping. The dilemma is that either the people are flunked out—honestly told that they are not smart or capable enough to handle the material—or the material itself must be changed, watered down and made easier so that more people can master it. The watering down may be accomplished by either allowing inconsequential material to be taught, or lessening the difficulty of the current material, or both.
As will be obvious to all of us, this is exactly what has happened. The number of colleges and universities has grown dramatically over the past fifty years and a larger percentage of people are going to college now than ever before. Those Who Care want this percentage to increase. If they get their way, this must mean that the material will weaken further.
So instead of our assurance that college graduates have attained a high level of knowledge, we know that as college attendance increases, graduates on average know less. The value of education is decreased in direct proportion to the percent of the population that attend college.
But graduates knowing less matters little to Those Who Care. What they want is for people to have a degree. What’s a degree? A piece of paper, a diploma. The same thing the Wizard of Oz gave Scarecrow:
Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have! But they have one thing you haven’t got – a diploma. Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitatus Committeatum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th.D…that’s Doctor of Thinkology.
What did Scarecrow say immediately upon receiving his diploma? “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side.”
Pay attention Those Who Care, because that’s wrong. It’s the sums of the squares (not square roots) of the two short sides of a right triangle (not isosceles) that equal the square of the remaining side. But then Scarecrow only got a degree, he didn’t master any knowledge.
My argument so far has nothing to do with any sociological or economic circumstance, about what class of people can afford college and so forth—that is for next time. All we need for premises are that college material should be difficult and that some people are smarter and more capable than others.
It might be true that those most capable will still gain an education that befits their talents at college, but they instead seem to be doing so at graduate school (Masters and PhD). Plus, because colleges require sets of courses (core and majors) and those required courses must contain less content as attendance increases, it is inevitable that even the most capable are learning less at college.
If the most capable are still learning as much eventually, then it might be argued that those less capable are still learning something at college, and so it is worth it. That is a question of economics and knowledge, about which more next time.
It could also be that colleges maintain a high level of material but weaken assessments, passing more for the sake of passing more. This is grade inflation and it also happens.
Another way to answer the argument is to dumb down the high school and middle school material so that the college material is still defined as “more difficult”. More people can then master it. Sadly, a little of this seems to be at work, too.
The entire line above can also be adapted, though not entirely, to show why high school material has become weaker: most kids now go to high school, whereas 100 years ago few did, and everybody agrees that the material then was more demanding than it is now.