He Was Right

“Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in the like manner, have their indispensable office,–to teach elements. But they can only higher serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns, and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit. Forget this, and our American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow rich every year.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar

I read this a couple of weeks ago and it has just stayed with me.  The words were first spoken by Emerson in 1837 during an address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now, I am not an expert when it comes to higher learning or the institutions of such, other than to say that I have a Bachelor’s Degree and aspire to even higher education.  Yet, when I think of my alma mater in terms of this quote, along with the incredible sense of urgency by politicians to get students enrolled into math and science programs with endless government subsidized loans, my eyes open and I see that few heed the warning Emerson gave nearly 200 years ago.

Consider also the meteoric rise of for-profit colleges and trade institutions and the point is even further illustrated.

Truth is that colleges and universities are becoming training centers rather than institutions of higher learning, and, as one that sees the importance of the arts and humanities, also math and the sciences, and how that combination gives a well-rounded education, that is troubling.

The traditional subjects, the arts, humanities, mathematics, and sciences teach one to probe more deeply, to ask questions and seek answers, to innovate in order to find solutions.  They promote thought beyond simple rote memorization, which is incredibly boring and less than stimulating to the mind.  There is always a question to be asked and answered, and there is always an answer seeking to be found.  To know the right question to ask is to take the first step in discovering what is being sought.  Other materials have failed to ask it and without the question, there can be no answer.  With answers still waiting for their questions to be asked, there is more knowledge to acquire, and with more knowledge to acquire, there is a continued need for education, rather than indoctrination or job training.  With more time spent indoctrinating students with “proven” techniques, models, and ideas, there is less time spent engaging creative areas and then a lack of true ingenuity creeps in and sets the ground for little to no innovation. With less encouragement for innovative thought or creativity, there is a loss of newly acquired knowledge, leaving education stale and, overall, unrewarding.

I was reading an article earlier today at Salon.com, the title of which is “Congratulations, Class of 2014:  You’re Totally Screwed.”  It states that the average student loan borrower that completes an undergraduate degree owes an average of $33,000 (I feel your pain. I still owe $23,000 on mine). Among other things, I highly recommend the piece and sharing it far and wide.  One sentence that stood out to me, “Actually, the opposite is closer to the truth:  college costs more and more even as it gets objectively worse and worse.”  I think there is probably some truth to that, in terms that previous generations’ educational experiences were a better bang for the buck. The article goes on to talk about the perils and troubles experienced by adjunct faculty that are hired by universities in order to cut costs for tenure-tracked positions.  Perhaps I am incredibly naive and maybe a bit utopian in my thoughts, but I believe education to be an endeavor that should not seek profit and growth for profit’s and growth’s sake, but to further the search for knowledge.  Not every worthwhile pursuit needs profit and infinite growth.  How large does a school need to be in order to maintain a healthy bottom-line which is being fed constantly by tuition costs that rise steadily and continuously?

Back to my alma-mater…

It is a public university, a part of the state university system.  I remember visiting the school and loving the campus. It was beautiful and not overly huge. If you humped it, you could get from one end to the other in about 15 minutes. Classes averaged about 20-25 students (my senior level classes and some of my junior level classes were less than 10) excluding freshman/general education courses and introductory classes, but even then I think my largest class was probably 100 students or so.

I’m not sure what the class size is now, but I know the school continues to grow. Every year that I lived in the area, about 15 years (I dropped out for a while and went to work.  I went back later once I got my shit together.), there was a construction project going on somewhere.  A new science building for the chemistry, physics and astronomy departments.  An addition to the old science building that houses the biology, geology, geography, and anthropology departments. A new dormitory or two or three.  A new cafeteria.  Two new parking decks on campus.  A new library (thank god.  The old one SUCKED). The renovation of the old library into a classroom building that contains the history and political science departments (where I was when I was not in the new library). A refurbished football stadium with expanded seating and press/spectator boxes. New athletic facilities for the baseball, basketball, softball, and tennis programs.  A new arena known as the Convocation Center. A new student recreation facility. And a revamped student union and student bookstore. When I left, the school was breaking ground on a new facility for the school of education. There are others, I am sure, but these stick out in my mind.

I love my school. I loved attending it, and I love the area. I am convinced that there is not a better place on earth. It is heaven. There are things that put a damper on the experience, though, and every one is due to growth of the university. The endless construction projects create havoc on the campus and are unsightly, taking away from the beauty of everything else surround it.  With growth, there are more people. Holy crap, more people and traffic. The traffic. Oh god, the traffic. It used to be only on football Saturdays that one avoided getting in a car unless you absolutely had to. Now, it truly is every day, especially during the academic year. It’s awful and you can damn well count on having a stroke or a coronary everytime you get behind the wheel and on the road.

I don’t know the total cost for all of these projects and the others that have surely sprouted up since I left the area a few years ago, but I do know how much tuition increased from my inaugural semester until my final semester as a full-time student some years later.  Over 300% just for classes, not including any price hikes for campus room and board or books and materials for class.

I’m just spitballing here, but what if the school spent more time, money, and energy showing what the faculty actually do in their classrooms and laboratories rather than shaping up the buildings that house them, it would get a more effective and efficient use for every dollar spent.  If schools are seeking students whose wish is to attend a university with stellar athletic facilities and shiny new buildings without a thought or care about what they will actually be learning or doing, then institutions of higher learning are most definitely missing the point.

Emerson was right and we can’t even see it, and that saddens me.


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