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Is America deluding itself with poor education? September 19, 2012

On 5 September 2012, the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy published a rather hard-hitting letter from Professor Richard Cocks, a New Zealander who came to the USA for his Ph.D. and stayed on as a professor at SUNY. Here's the link to the full article.

To summarize the main points in Prof Cocks' letter ...

I am a New Zealand native who has experienced higher education both there and in the United States. I came to the United States in 1990 to do a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Cincinnati, and I now teach at SUNY's Oswego campus. Let me share with you a few of my experiences in the United States and how they contrasted with higher education in New Zealand. But be warned: the end of the story is not a good one. Since I left in 1990, New Zealand seems to be following the path laid out by Americans.

In the United States, I quickly came to realize that "college" was not university, but more like a finishing school. Professors, though sounding grand in name to a New Zealander, have only a quarter of the status of a lecturer in New Zealand.

I also discovered that my so-called students couldn't write. Most (of my students) would have failed because their writing was deplorable. Later I came to believe that their poor writing was because they hardly ever read for pleasure.

High standards are attainable only by restricting enrollment to those capable of meeting those standards. Open enrollment and high standards are incompatible.

In New Zealand university was for the elite and strictly meritocratic. Only academic merit was considered. Community service and "leadership" abilities were irrelevant. There were no fees to speak of and the small government stipend meant  that all who were qualified could afford to attend.

There were no remedial classes at university. The American idea of  "college," by contrast, seems to me to be more like a venue for trying to learn some of the things one should have mastered in high school.

There is nothing "higher" about an education that requires no special abilities or effort to attain.

Among the worst features of American colleges is the importance attached to student evaluations of professors and their courses.

Teaching evaluations are counter-productive. Teaching, like parenting, is not a popularity contest. In fact, seeking to win the favor of your students is directly at loggerheads with one's mission to educate them.

I found out which professor had the highest evaluations and then quizzed him about the secret of his success. His candor was astounding. His emailed response was that "in response to pressure from students and the administration, I have lowered my standards and increased my grades."

Another problem with American universities is the fact that there is no attractive alternative. An incredibly important aspect of New Zealand's system was a workable alternative  to attending university, something called a Polytechnic.

Polytechnics were entirely focused on vocational training. The vocations one could train for at a Polytechnic included nursing, journalism, lower-level engineering, being a chef, graphic design and being a secretary. Those are not nasty, underpaid, low-status jobs.

The modern American habit of forcing prospective nursing students, for example, to take academic subjects seems almost punitive and possibly counter-productive. I imagine most nursing students are not terribly interested in academic subjects nor have any special aptitude for them, partly for that reason.

Polytechnics were not as high status as university, but graduates from the former knew that they were likely to be highly employable whereas university graduates had a much less certain future.

High school failure just meant shifting away from academic subjects, which I imagine came as a relief to many people, and toward vocational areas with a relatively bright and assured future.

Thus, from my years in the United States, I believe that the nation's education system would be improved by providing alternative vocational tracks to attending college, abandoning teaching evaluations (or limiting them to appropriate questions), and restricting enrollment at colleges to those few students who really want a higher education.

Post script: I am sorry to report that since I left New Zealand it has been moving in the American direction. Polytechnics have largely been converted to lower-level colleges. The well-established universities of old now admit thirty percent of the population instead of five, necessitating the lowering of standards. Following the dictates of revised government policy, New Zealand high schools have largely stripped the rigor and standards out of the system and now attempt to fudge the differences of attainment between students.

Instead of setting good educational examples for the rest of the world, the United States is setting bad ones.