Education’s dirty little secret

Parents, what would you think if a salesman came to your door with this deal? “Listen, give me your 18-year-old offspring for 30 weeks a year for the next four years and it will only cost you $160,000.” If instead of slamming the door in his face, you asked, “What would my child get in return?” you probably would hear something like, “I will provide your child with a college education.” Sadly, that simple statement seems to satisfy most parents.

If you persist, however, asking impolite questions such as, “What will my child get in return?” you’ll hear words like “an opportunity to learn from some very smart people.” If you counter that your local library, besides shelves of marvelous books, now has on tapes and discs entire courses from the nation’s and the world’s great scholars, our college salesman will switch gears and say, “But we can provide your child with a stimulating academic environment where your child can actually interact with professors and have deep intellectual conversations with fellow students.” If he is good, he’ll be able to say that with a straight face.

If you give him the slightest encouragement, he’ll go on about the college’s fitness center, library, dorm rooms with broadband Internet connection to the world of ideas and how your child will graduate with a degree that will open up the “Door to Success” (i.e., a high paying job). What will not enter the conversation is that more and more employers are realizing that garden-variety college graduates are a dime a dozen. Most possess no salable skills and have just spent four years acquiring some bad habits (i.e., going through the minimal motions of gut courses, watching daytime television and engaging in various fringy activities).

Education’s dirty little secret is that in reality a college education has been hollowed out. Once having a college education meant one had mastered difficult bodies of knowledge and was at home in the world of ideas. The college grad had intellectual skills not possessed by those who didn’t attend college. That educational era is finished. Now higher education is a business and a rather suspect one at that.

Higher education today is a classic example of an over-built industry. They had a good thing. More and more “customers” wanted it. They expanded and expanded. However, since more and more customers didn’t possess the raw intellectual skills needed to do college level work, colleges dumbed down their product. Now there is a four-year college for virtually everyone!

Four-year colleges were designed for people with certain kinds of cognitive skills, people in the 115 and above IQ range. While that may sound undemocratic, so is the chance of being a spot guard in the National Basketball Association or playing with the Boston Symphony. The difference is that the standards for entrance into higher education could be lowered. And they have been. Once upon a time, high school teachers and college admissions people used the term, “college material.” Now, if you have an IQ above room temperature, there is a dorm room just waiting for you! That is, if you can write the necessary checks.

But then there is the myth that higher education will make one smart. You will be led to believe that your child’s mind with be stretched. You will hear about the stimulating intellectual life of the dormitory, with follow-on discussions of lecture hall topics and those deep, all-night bull-sessions on “the meaning of life” and other hoary topics. Wrong! More likely what your children will find in their dorm is a living situation devoid of adult supervision where their high school fantasies of unrestricted freedom are played out. Intellectual exchanges rarely raise above whether or not American Idol’s Simon Cowell is “the world’s biggest jerk,” or “How can I meet that redhead in Econ 101?”

It appears that four years of college actually represents a decline in knowledge and that college freshmen know more than seniors. A recent study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute concludes that “America’s colleges and universities fail to increase knowledge about America’s history and institutions.” In a 60-question multiple-choice quiz, “college seniors failed the civic literacy exam, with an average score of 53.2 percent, or F, on a traditional grading scale.”

The study goes on to report that at many schools “seniors know less than freshmen about America’s history, government, foreign affairs, and economy.” Among the schools where seniors lagged behind freshmen were Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth and Georgetown. Anyone acquainted with how hard students have to study to get into these places and how much they actually study once they get there is hardly surprised by the study’s results.

“But,” you say, “We’re going to send our child to a Catholic college where the liberal arts still live! And where the faith is taught with reason and intensity! Where the dorms are supervised and civility reigns.” Maybe. But probably not. As a whole, Catholic colleges have become just as empty and vapid as the secular schools. There are some striking exceptions, but the majority of Catholic colleges are weak reflections of their secular counterparts. A tragic difference, however, is that most Catholic college graduates think they have had a Catholic education.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.