Education: right or privilege? (part two)

In the United States, educating children has been treated as necessary, delivering a right and not bestowing a privilege. Therefore, tax dollars are committed to operating public schools through the twelfth grade. Higher education at the college and university level, though, has been treated more as a privilege. Tuition and fees must be paid; not everyone expects to go to college in the United States.

In ancient times, teachers gathered a group of students or disciples and instructed them beyond the elementary levels. Jesus Christ had disciples, but so did John the Baptist and the Pharisees. For that matter, the Buddha, Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, and many others gathered adults to teach them more than the basics they could learn from their parents or from the local teachers.

In the Middle Ages, medieval churches began to run universities, places where adults could gather to be instructed by experts in various topics. Such education was grounded in Christian theology, but it was sorted into the trivium of communication skills—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—and the quadrivium of scientific skills—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The universities did not compete in football or basketball, but they did compete in theological and philosophic debate. The Reformation of the Church was sparked by this practice of scholarly debate.

Forty years after the United States Congress set aside land for public schools in each township, Congress voted to dedicate two townships in each territory and incipient state as “seminary lands.” (The terms “academy,” “college,” “seminary,” and “university” were often used interchangeably at that time—many such schools taught only at the high school level.) The major universities of various states evolved from that legislation. State governments later provided additional land for competing schools, which is why State universities also exist, as well as some with regional names such as “northern” and “eastern” colleges or universities. Students at these schools were expected to pay tuition and other fees, although scholarships were soon established to support deserving students who could not afford higher education.

After World War II, the federal government helped veterans to take part in higher education by the G.I. Bill. Soon, other programs were developed, including Pell Grants and guaranteed student loans. Unfortunately, every time the government provided financial assistance to help more students, colleges and universities absorbed the wealth by increasing costs, so that the price of higher education rose much faster than the rate of inflation. At the same time, many more careers required at least a college diploma and often an advanced degree as well. In the nineteenth century, many physicians and lawyers and other professionals were self-taught or were mentored by practicing professionals. This path to a career is almost impossible for most Americans today.

The rising cost of higher education, paired with the increasing necessity of college education for many careers, has required many students to borrow money, loans that must be repaid once they have graduated or left college. These loans often make it difficult for young adults to accomplish the steps expected from people of their age—to find homes of their own, to marry and begin a family, to contribute to churches and charities and to the alumni funds of their schools. Some economists worry that a massive default on student loans could damage the American and world economies even more than the Recession of 2007, which was caused by a similar collapse in the housing industry.

Some American politicians want to make college education free for all Americans. A few even want to pay off the loans accrued by recent college graduates. The first problem with this approach is the source of the money to cover these costs. The United States government has already added massively to its debt with stimulus checks to counter the economic costs of the virus crisis and its quarantines. The second problem is the risk that schools will increase their costs even more as more money becomes available to them through government programs. Costs spiraling upwards have been a problem for fifty years; increased funding will not end the spiral. The third problem is that students unprepared for college will be enrolled. Colleges already struggle to meet the needs of students whose twelve grades of public education did not give them skills needed to succeed in college. Paying for every high school graduate to attend college can only increase that problem.

The federal government should continue Pell Grants and other programs that assist competent students from poor families to receive higher education. At the same time, the government should reward institutions of higher education that cut costs rather than throwing money at all the colleges and universities. Schools that take deliberate steps to lower education costs should be first in line for government research grants and other programs that offer money to higher education. Likewise, students who go into debt preparing for careers that benefit the general population deserve more help reducing or eliminating their debt than their classmates. Health professionals—especially those who treat low-income patients—deserve debt reduction and elimination. So do teachers, social workers, and other professionals in lower-paying jobs that benefit the community. Some programs that meet this description already exist. They should be improved and also better focused.

A liberal arts higher education exposes students to many facets of life—the fine arts, history, science, foreign languages, and the like. These classes are required in high school, and that should continue. Colleges and universities also should continue to provide these classes for all students. But many high school graduates (and even those who do not finish high school) are qualified for vocations that are necessary for their communities and that can provide an income comparable to those available to college graduates. We need plumbers, electricians, carpenters, car repair experts, hair specialists, cooks, and bakers. More encouragement and support can be given to students preparing for these professions, rather than expecting every young American to enroll in college and have the government pay their bills.

If higher education were purely a privilege, then only wealthy students could go to college. Effort must continue to find ways of educating young men and women from poorer families who possess strong academic skills. The cost of higher education has been artificially raised in the United States over the past fifty years; this trend needs to be reversed rather than continued. Promising free college for all is the wrong answer. Better solutions are available. J.

E for effort

Leave it to college students to discover a new approach to higher education.

I was visiting with some students in a classroom one evening this week. One student described a video he had recently watched (presumably on YouTube) which demonstrated that contemporary education is failing because it is built on a social model that is obsolete. I replied that efforts to reform and restructure education have been around since the 1960s. Another student then remarked, “Why should a person have to take algebra in college if that person is going to be an artist and will never use algebra?”

“The usual answer,” I replied, “is that studying algebra develops thinking skills that are used in a lot of areas other than mathematics.”

The first student then said that education should be more career-oriented. The students were careful not to use history as an example—I am their history instructor—but the students did mention classes they are required to take that have no use in most careers. “The usual answer to that,” I said, “is that education includes more than learning how to do a certain job. Students need to learn how to make a living, but they also need to be exposed to various things that make living worth-while.”

A couple other students nodded. “But why should they have to pass those classes?” the second student asked. “Being exposed to other things is good, but—as long as they come to class and do the work—why should they need to pass the class or take it again if they didn’t pass?”

“That,” I told him, “is a very good point.”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation for a while. A high school graduate should be able to do basic computation—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. He or she should be capable of giving correct change, balancing a checkbook, and filling out a simple tax form. A high school graduate should be able to communicate—to read, to write, and to speak in public. Beyond that, a high school graduate should be exposed to science, to history, and to the fine arts—visual arts, music, literature, and drama. It’s best for a high school graduate to have skills in some vocation, especially if that graduate does not plan to continue on to college. For that matter, all those things are true of a college graduate. Each college student should go deeper into his or her chosen field while at college, while also being exposed to a range of experiences from the sciences, the fine arts, and the liberal arts.

But why should they have to pass the classes not related to their major or career?

We already have a grading system perfect for this change, since grades are assigned as A, B, C, D, or F (for failure). Why not add an E for effort? If a professor or instructor perceives that a certain student is trying his or her best in the class but just not getting it, why not give that student an E? Those who don’t show up for classes and don’t turn in assignments would still receive the F, but the student who tries to comprehend algebra or history or chemistry or music appreciation and fails should be given some credit for his or her effort. After all, the object of education is to expose the students to various facets of life. That object has been achieved. Why demand that the student take the class again, when that will only sour the student upon the subject matter, reversing the point of that exposure?

This idea would suit high school and undergraduate college work. Elementary students are still mastering basic skills, so an E for effort would not be appropriate at that age. Likewise, graduate students are focusing on deeper and narrower aspects of their chosen specialty, so an E for effort would be pointless. Honors students would not be allowed to accept an E, nor would an E be given for a class in the student’s major or minor department. In all other cases, though, whether the class is required for all students or chosen as an elective, if the subject has no bearing on the student’s career or personal interests, why not leave the teacher the option of awarding an E?

An E would not enter into a student’s grade point average. That average would reflect only the student’s basic skills in computation and communication, as well as the student’s mastery of knowledge and application relevant to his or her career. The artist would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to master algebra. The engineer would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to understand Shakespeare. But the artist was exposed to algebra, and the simple effort to handle it enriched his or her thinking skills. The engineer was exposed to Shakespeare, and he or she may return to Shakespeare’s work later in life with a better opportunity to understand and enjoy that work.

What do you think? Should high school and college teachers be permitted to grant their students an E for effort? Why or why not? J.