Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Education and Government: Two Things That Shouldn't be "Run Like a Business"

My friend Mike pointed my attention to a wonderful rant, an open letter sent by a scientist named Gregory Petsko to George Philip, the President of the State University of New York at Albany. Philip is presiding over what will remain of his “University” after his October 1st decision to eliminate the departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian, and Theater Arts to cut costs, listing as one reason the fact that comparatively fewer students enroll in these degree programs these days.

In addition to his (scientist’s) eloquent defense of these now-abolished departments at SUNY-Albany, Petsko also points out that one of the reasons fewer students enroll in these programs is that like many institutions of higher learning today, students are allowed to essentially choose their own academic programs.

Ten million years ago, when I was a college student, we had to complete requirements in a broad array of courses and disciplines, not just courses in our declared (or, back in those draft-dodging days, non-declared) major. How else would a kid who’d just graduated from Hortonville High have learned a little bit about – and developed a lifetime appreciation for – the world’s great works of art? Was it related to my major? No. Nor were the courses in Philosophy which I had to complete before I could get my sheepskin. Nor were the two Phys Ed courses I was ordered to take.

As Petsko points out, young people aren’t wise enough yet to have the kind of freedom to set up their own degree-plan. It’s part of the job of the University to set up the program. Petsko argues that institutions of higher learning that dump programs like SUNY-Albany is doing should be called Colleges or Tech Schools or Career Academies, not Universities. I’m with him on that.

With Scott Walker taking office in a few weeks, and the likes of that horribly misguided Nass person in power over the legislature’s committee that deals with education, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if our governor-who-doesn’t-have-a-college-degree and his pals force massive plug-pulling on programs and departments and courses all over the UW System.

No doubt we’ll be told that we need to run government…and public education…more like a business.

Many of those of us who were coerced to take nine credits of Philosophy back in the 60’s will realize this for the shortsighted folly it is.


  1. Yah, back then, at the knee of Socrates....

    But before even YOU were in college, recall that the only coursework was Theo, Phil, Math, Music, (etc.): the Quad and the Triv. Not calligraphy, food science, mechanical engineering.

    And as late as the 1960's, a college education was only afforded to kids with certain minimum SAT or ACT scores--not anyone who can fog a mirror.

    What changed? Arguably, it was driven by sheer laziness on the part of companies' HR/ER functionaries who were unable or unwilling to actually evaluate people for hiring. Instead of finding and hiring talent, the determinant became "a degree."

    It's been, by and large, a catastrophe. You and I (and millions of others) know that the corporate world is populated by the same percentage of bright people/morons as before (say, the 1940's). But now we've loaded umpty-zillion dollars into State budgets to "edyumakate" many of those morons.

    The cost of laziness and incompetence at the corporate level has been offloaded to taxpayers.

    Progress, eh?

  2. Hamburger University of Illinois.
    Everyone should have the opportunity of a University Education.

  3. Colonel,

    >> Many of those of us who were coerced to take nine credits of Philosophy back in the 60’s will realize this for the shortsighted folly it is. <<

    You're howling at the moon, old son. The differences between the Mesozoic Era, when you were in collitch, and today are 1) the amount of money state governments are shoveling into colleges, 2) the pretty much indiscriminate college-goer selection process, and 3) the fact that colleges are now run like businesses.

    One result of #3 is that colleges and universities offer whatever the paying customers (mumsy and dadsy) want them to offer. One blowback of that is that the taxpayer (me) questions more stridently why he should have to subsidize these enormous academic playgrounds.

    I mean, it would be NICE if the number of taxpayer-supported colleges was brought back down to 1960s levels. Would that mean that not as many youngsters get into college? Yep. Would that be a tragedy? Nope.

    As Dad29 so pungently elucidates, the main qualification for college entrance these days seems to be the ability to fog a mirror.

    I'm a collitch drop-out. Perhaps that gives me a perspective similar to that of our governor-elect. He somehow managed to become Milwaukee County Exec and Wisconsin Governor without a college degree. Maybe what it takes to become Governor has something to do with qualities other than completing college courses.

    You're lamenting about different things: the good old days when a college stoont didn't have much choice in meeting graduation requirements...and that the enormous number of today's colleges have got to scrimp and save like the rest of us. They shouldn't have a free ride.

    The Town Crank

  4. And, by the way, Cranky:

    The engineer who designed the Hoover Dam's electrical internals did NOT have a collitch degwee, either.

    I oughta know. He was a next-door neighbor...

  5. Colonel,

    And there continues to be news on the college budget cutting move around the world:

    Italian Students occupy Pisa's tower, Colosseum in protest

    I just can't work up enough spit to have any sympathy with those who think they have a right to have other people pay for their college educations.

    The Town Crank

  6. Dad,

    >> He was a next-door neighbor... <<

    I suppose, like many war veterans, he didn't want to talk about it too much? If he did, wow!

    The Town Crank

  7. Colonel,

    Another huge gaggle of students incensed that the government has the gall to require them to pay more of their own college tuitions, this time in jolly old England:

    Student Nelson's Column Protest.

    The Town Crank

  8. What fascinating anti-intellectual maundering our blogger’s comments on education stirred up!

    Once upon a time, the lack of formal education was less of a barrier than it is today. Especially if you were a genius like Charles Proteus Steinmetz, a hunchback dwarf who suffered from hip dysplasia but had a phenomenal capacity for mathematics. About a hundred years ago he made the modern electrical grid possible by fostering the development of alternating current. His explanation of hysteresis led to efficient electric motors.

    The same could be said for Nicola Tesla, another phenomenal genius who lacked formal training, but I don’t wish to belabor the point.

    Nowadays Steinmetz and Tesla would have an advanced degree, or they would report to someone who did. You may not like that, but it is beyond changing. Suffice to say the success of these fellows, in an era unfathomably different from today, is hardly an indictment of higher education.

    I hope Dad29’s anecdote about his next-door neighbor’s role in designing the generation and transmission system embedded in Hoover Dam was not a suggestion that higher education is some sort of extravagance.

    The comment leads to a fun fact: Nothing got built at, on or into Hoover Dam without the approval of John L. Savage, who supervised the design and construction of not only Hoover Dam but Grand Coulee Dam as well. The efforts of Dad29’s talented, if not matriculated, neighbor had to pass muster with Mr. Savage, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin’s school of engineering.

    Meanwhile, dear old Dad29 laments that corporate America has slavishly hired people with college degrees instead of talent, then concludes “…It's been, by and large, a catastrophe.” So we should fix this imaginary problem making sure only wealthy kids can go to college?

    Somewhere along the line, The Town Crank, no sympathizer of elitists, if his past comments are any guide, picks up the cudgel. He holds that the education-averse doofus now in the Wisconsin Statehouse got there by virtue of “…qualities other than completing college courses.”

    Politics being what it is, I’ll not dwell on what those other qualities might be, except to say the observation is quite irrelevant. What is of relevance is that when it comes to higher education, Gov. Doofus seems to have a long knife under his toga. Being governor, and working in concert with his political organized-crime family, he is in a position to do the state enormous damage.

    Crank, who reports he departed early from his college experience, huffs about “…those who think they have a right to have other people pay for their college educations.”

    I suppose he plucked that sentiment out of thin air, to certify the depth of his analytical powers. Up to that point, nobody had espoused such a thing.

    Beware of looking at the world reflected in the fun house mirror much favored by policy makers. At turns it makes education appear too fat (“…they shouldn’t have a free ride”) or too lean (The popular canard suggesting that every country from Albania to Zimbabwe turns out smarter students than we do). Nothing reflected in the mirror ever looks quite right.

    We can take a stern fiscal line against higher education and disadvantage Wisconsin by making college unaffordable to many. That will go far to assure the wealthy and privileged will become a truly protected and exclusive class, maintaining their advantage by being the best-educated among us.