Kevin Fischer is a veteran broadcaster, the recipient of over 150 major journalism awards from the Milwaukee Press Club, the Wisconsin Associated Press, the Northwest Broadcast News Association, the Wisconsin Bar Association, and others. He has been seen and heard on Milwaukee TV and radio stations for over three decades. A longtime aide to state Senate Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature, Kevin can be seen offering his views on the news on the public affairs program, "InterCHANGE," on Milwaukee Public Television Channel 10, and heard filling in on Newstalk 1130 WISN. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their lovely baby daughter, Kyla Audrey, in Franklin.
By Guest Blogger Thomas C. Reeves
For decades educators, journalists, and politicians have told us repeatedly that Americans need to be better educated, especially in engineering, the sciences, and business, in order to enable this nation to compete effectively in the world's economy. Similar stories have long trumpeted the disparity in income between those with and without a degree. This message has made a profound impact on people at all socio-economic levels, and this fall more than 70% of the nation's high school graduates will enroll in some form of higher education. Despite the often incredible and inexplicable tuition and costs demanded by colleges and universities in all parts of the country, students are flocking to campuses in search of future prosperity. Polls have often revealed that money is the most powerful motive in the pursuit of higher education.
At the same time, many observers have noted that the quality of popular culture and general morality has declined sharply as the number of college graduates has increased. Compare the general level of, say, television in 1959 and 2009, and compare the best-seller book lists of both periods. General literacy and taste in this country have slumped to the level of MTV and Twitter. Movies, as any fan knows, are deliberately designed to appeal to 14-year-old males. More babies than not are born of unwed mothers. Abortion has legally claimed some 50 million lives in this country since Roe v. Wade.
I would like to touch upon two questions that arise in these easily documented observations. First, should most high school graduates go to college? Second, what should professors be requiring of students to teach them that there is more to life than greed? If 70% of all young people were broadly and carefully educated, shouldn't we all be enjoying a renaissance of great literature, music, philosophy, and theology as well as a healthy stock market? In fact, despite our impressive technological and scientific advances, we seem to be declining at many levels, including the deepest and most profound issues of life: beauty, morality, and purpose.
Aberlour's Law number 13 states: "Education is for the able and willing." Let us begin with the assertion that our 70% can be expected to handle college level work. This is not much of an issue, of course, on elite campuses, institutions that accept only the very top students. But most of our 70% will enter the vast majority of colleges and universities that have virtually or literally an open-admissions policy. I write from 36 years on such campuses and can assure you that is often cruel and senseless to coax people to learn who are simply unable to learn.
The great preponderance of contemporary educational and political theory assumes, most naively, that all people have the same intellectual ability. Sensible people know that this is silly, but political correctness demands that we confine the discussion of educational policy to the impact of environment on the individual. We read that the "disadvantaged" deserve scholarships because they have been "short-changed" in life. This is not without some truth, of course, but as the sole consideration for opening college classrooms to everyone it is wholly misguided.
A subtle undertone of the desire to welcome more students involves the economic interests of campuses: admitting more students mean more jobs, higher budgets, and (in some quarters) more prestige. But even when we water down courses and majors (e.g. mass communications and recreational studies) and give higher grades (few professors are unaware of the relationship between high grades and student popularity), most students admitted to four year open-admissions institutions fail to graduate. In my experience, many of them leave campus after a semester or two. They simply can't learn. They may want to, but they can't. And they often leave bitterly; no one ever told them about the need to be able to read, write, compute, and think on the necessary level. Many of my former students were working a forty hour week off campus and expected to be able to handle four, five, and even six college classes at the same time. They were often stunned to learn that for a single class they would have to read two books. Or even one.
Then there is the issue of being willing to learn. Anti-intellectualism is rampant in the media and in the press (remember when big city and local newspapers contained reviews of serious books?), so it should be no surprise that it thrives on no doubt most college and university campuses. In open admissions institutions the refusal to think about anything deeper than the immediate and the self can be the toughest single problem facing professors. I taught history and spent hours of class time trying to relate the past to the present. One student demanded to know "What does Teddy Roosevelt have to do with me?" So I tried even harder to make the case. More often than not, the exams told me, I failed.
But what about those who make it through the hurdles of higher education? What are they prepared for? It seems sensible to me for people to be preparing for professional jobs. If business classes now dominate the catalogues of many former liberal arts colleges and universities, so what? We are no longer preparing "ladies" and "gentlemen" with the linguistic and literary requirements common to their class. If the contemporary business courses are intellectually respectable and occupationally designed, there is no need to dismiss them with a snobbish wave of the hand.
The failure comes with the unwillingness of the faculty and administration of campuses to require, for all students, a broad and meaningful range of courses, assuring a cultural and scientific knowledge that makes one yearn to learn more and equips them with the tools for understanding the past and present. (One just doesn't "look things up" in Wikipedia.) There's nothing wrong with studying to become a physical therapist. But the recipient of the degree should also know and appreciate the greatest achievements of both Western and Eastern civilizations. Solid examinations, required of all seniors to graduate, would also be of immense value to those who care about the integrity of higher education.
Do we need more college graduates? Of course we do. But let us not pretend that everyone can be college educated. And let us be sure that those who do graduate know enough to crave the highest culture and learning available. All Americans would benefit from the leadership of men and women who are not only vocationally competent but conversant with the ideas and ideals of the centuries; thoughtful people, now in very short supply.
Thomas C. Reeves is a retired UW-System professor living in southeast