What’s the problem with Ivy League schools these days? According to William Deresiewicz, their problems are legion. In an article for The New Republic, he cautions parents and students against pursuing an Ivy League institution. The schools are mere machines, he writes, drawing students who are “smart and talented and driven,” yet also “trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” He explains further:
So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.
Peter Lawler has recognized this problem in the past, and points to our technification of education as a large part of the problem. “I’ve long believed that the main threat to liberal education—real higher education, in my view—is our tendency to judge the success of academics in technical terms,” he wrote recently at Minding the Campus. “… The art of teaching is becoming a technology defined by skills, competencies, machine-based grading, ‘smart’ classrooms, rubrics, and expert-generated ‘best practices.’” Lawler calls professors back to a mode of teaching in which history, philosophy, and literature are not lost in the quantifiable and scientific: in which professors mind their students’ “souls” and virtues.
In his article, Deresiewicz points to some problems in the admissions process, and offers some suggestions on how to fix it. A lot of his propositions are intriguing:
The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it. Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race, a change that many have been advocating for years. Preferences for legacies and athletes ought to be discarded. SAT scores should be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors. Colleges should put an end to résumé-stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars that kids can list on their applications. They ought to place more value on the kind of service jobs that lower-income students often take in high school and that high achievers almost never do.
… More broadly, they need to rethink their conception of merit. If schools are going to train a better class of leaders than the ones we have today, they’re going to have to ask themselves what kinds of qualities they need to promote. Selecting students by GPA or the number of extracurriculars more often benefits the faithful drudge than the original mind.
Deresiewicz is right: admissions departments are more likely to pull students based on their amount of technical abilities and measurable gifts than their more abstract (yet often more virtuous or innovative) talents. Even the colleges who acknowledge this problem are struggling to change. They are used to using numbers to measure and make all decisions, and their desire for quantifiable control can turn almost humorous. As Eric Hoover wrote for Nautilus, Read More…
There has always been a country-city divide in America, with a swath of stereotypes belonging to each. The urban and rural embody different art, culture, scenery, mores, and religious inclinations, more often than not. However, new studies show that these division may be solidifying and building into an ever-greater chasm. As The Atlantic’s CityLab reports, college graduates are migrating to cities (the larger, the better) in droves:
Overall, larger and more vibrant metros with strong knowledge economies, abundant artistic and cultural amenities, and open-minded attitudes are the ones that are attracting and retaining the most college graduates. On the flip side, these metros are losing less-educated residents who are increasingly unable to make ends meet. They are instead moving to smaller, less affluent, lower-cost places. In fact, we found no statistical association whatsoever between the movement of college grads and the net movement of those who did not finish high school. These very different migration patterns reinforce the ongoing economic and social bifurcation of the United States.
There are a few problems with this sorting pattern that are likely to affect (and indeed, already have affected) the cultural and economic structure of the U.S.
First, this pattern of migratory movement does not offer complementary job creation or innovation in more rural areas of America. Small towns only see a detrimental “brain drain,” rather than any rate of return on the education of their youth. Due to the amount of lower-skilled workers moving to these areas, they won’t suffer an immediate lack of potential employees. But the innovation and creation traditionally fostered by America’s bright young people will be solely concentrated in urban hubs, to the detriment of potential entrepreneurship in other areas.
The post-graduation path most commonly supported at the university level today is to pursue the highest-paying jobs, in the most stable and established companies. Washington, D.C., for instance, draws a lot of young professionals, due to the power and money that it can offer (to those who work hard and get an internship first). Young people are encouraged to become lawyers, doctors, engineers—not farmers, local dentists, or grocery store managers. But young people should be encouraged in ventures that feature local innovation and entrepreneurship, that laud the goods of small businesses and community investment.
However, this gravitation to the city also makes sense when you consider the burden of student loans that every college grad faces: they’re likely to seek a job in an area where wages are higher. And this presents another challenge for our society, as we seek to build a job climate in which graduates have options: we have to offer them something at the local level that can compete with urban-level opportunities. Or if we can’t compete wage-wise, we need to offer them other things—like housing, benefits, cultural offerings, etc.—that will make the move seem worthwhile. Otherwise, young people will continue migrating away from rural centers of commerce and civic life. Read More…
Handwriting is largely viewed as an outdated skill: typing offers more efficient ease to teachers and students alike. The new Common Core standards, adopted in most states, only includes teaching of legible writing in kindergarten and first grade.
But according to new studies by psychologists, this recent dismissal of handwriting could have unintended consequences: the underrated skill is actually a boon to brain development and memory retention. New York Times reporter Maria Konnikova explained these studies in a Monday article:
When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.
… Two psychologists, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, have reported that in both laboratory settings and real-world classrooms, students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. Contrary to earlier studies attributing the difference to the distracting effects of computers, the new research suggests that writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.
Current educational trends tend to emphasize vocational and pragmatic elements of education. Which subjects will help students get the most lucrative jobs? Which will make them the most competitive on a global stage? Which skills guarantee the greatest college-readiness?
Yet in the midst of our quantification, we’ve lost qualitative ground. In the age of numbers, we can’t teach handwriting because it is beautiful, fun, and a building block for deeper communication and understanding of language. Instead, we dispose of it—at least until the studies come out, in all their number-crunching glory, to tell us that handwriting is actually worth something. Then, in a rather ironic twist, we discover that these qualitative skills actually hold some quantitative value, after all.
This discovery reflects our larger discussion of the humanities and their role in the modern sphere: we wonder what such studies are worth, when the modern job market seems to demand experiential, pragmatic skill sets. We vest importance in what you can do, not how you can think.
Yet the new data on handwriting seems to have some people, formerly dismissive of handwriting’s importance, conceding ground. One Yale psychologist admitted that “Maybe it [writing by hand] helps you think better.”
Some people have always believed handwriting to be beautiful and important. They know writing by hand has helped them connect meaningfully with information, in addition to helping them communicate clearly with others. But perhaps there is a level of sentiment in such value-based affection. Thankfully, we now have the data to prove that, aside from its qualitative benefits, handwriting serves important quantitative purposes, as well. Hopefully some teachers (and students) will see these truths, and take note.
Disinvitation season has come and gone. In this year’s enactment of a now familiar exercise, Haverford, Rutgers, and Brandeis, among other other schools, were forced by opposition for students and faculty to alter plans for commencement speakers.
Parallel denunciations of creeping authoritarianism are part of the ritual. But the truth is that critics of the university on both the left and the right get what they really want out of these tiny fiascos: an opportunity to make vehement public statements when little of significance is at stake. Because commencement addresses are, with a few notable exceptions, emissions of immense quantities of hot air. Here are the deep thoughts with which Rice favored the graduates of Southern Methodist University in 2012.
Rather than lamenting the arrogance of administrators or immaturity of students, it’s worth considering how to reform the institution of commencement speeches altogether. After all, there’s no requirement that university import boldface names. Columbia, for example, allows only its president to speak. So here are some suggestions for preventing future commencements from becoming occasions for embarassing disinvitations.
First, give students a role in choosing speakers. This would help gauge potential controversy early in the selection process, as well as building a constituency for the choice. One reason it’s so easy for a relatively small group of critics to push out a speaker is that the rest of the student body has no stake in keeping him. Allowing them to exercise some influence over the initial decision could change that.
But maybe students would use their influence to pick popular culture figures rather than serious types that convince parents and taxpayers that their money is well-spent. That risk could be avoided if universities stopped paying large honoraria. If potential speakers have something important to say, they’ll be willing to do so in exchange for reasonable expenses. Don’t subsidize celebrities—or high-priced “thought leaders” flogging their books.
Next, separate the conferral of honorary degrees from speechgiving. The former implies collective endorsement of the speaker’s career. The latter does not. One of Rod’s readers claims that Haverford opponents of Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau objected to his honorary degree more they did to his speaking invitation. Whether that’s true in this case, there’s a morally and political relevant difference between hearing someone out and allowing an honor to be given in one’s own name.
Finally, revive the old practice of allowing a student elected by students to speak at commencement. This would allow students to express criticism or disapproval of other speakers in precisely the kind of dialogue that both lefties and conservatives claim to endorse.
Any or all of these suggestions would help prevent silly controversies without giving in to the heckler’s veto. But maybe the best solution would be to cancel the speeches altogether. Does anyone really want to be lectured in the inevitable commencement weather of blistering sun or pouring rain?
When Brown v. Board of Education, the 9-0 Warren Court ruling, came down 60 years ago, desegregating America’s public schools, this writer was a sophomore at Gonzaga in Washington, D.C. In the shadow of the Capitol, Gonzaga was deep inside the city. And hitchhiking to school every day, one could see the “for sale” signs marching block by block out to Montgomery County, Maryland. Democratic and liberal Washington was not resisting integration, just exercising its right to flee its blessings by getting out of town. The white flight to the Washington suburbs was on.
When this writer graduated in 1956, all-white high schools of 1954 like McKinley Tech, Roosevelt, Coolidge, and Anacostia had been desegregated, but were on their way to becoming all black. Across the South, there was “massive resistance” to Brown, marked by the “Dixie Manifesto” of 1956, Gov. Orval Faubus’ effort to keep black students out of Little Rock Central High in 1957, and the defiance of U.S. court orders to desegregate the universities of Mississippi and Alabama by Govs. Ross Barnett and George Wallace. While he has received little credit, it was Richard Nixon who desegregated Southern schools. When he took office, not one in 10 black children was going to school with whites in the Old Confederacy. When Nixon left, the figure was close to 70 percent.
For nearly half a century, no black child has been denied entry to his or her neighborhood school because of race. Ought we not then, with Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom in the Wall Street Journal, celebrate Brown “as a truly heartening American success story”?
Certainly, by striking down state laws segregating school children, Brown advanced the cause of freedom. But as for realizing the hopes of black parents, that their children’s educational progress would now proceed alongside that of their new white classmates, it is not so easy to celebrate. For despite half a century of desegregation, three in four black and Hispanic children are in schools that are largely black and Hispanic. And the old racial gap in test scores has never been closed.
A May story in the Washington Post reports that not only has there been no gain in U.S. high school test scores in reading and math—the USA has been steadily sinking in rank in international competition—the disparity between black and white students has deepened. The quadrennial test given in 2013 to 92,000 12th-graders by the National Assessment of Education Progress, the nation’s report card, found that the test scores of Latino students are today as far behind those of whites’ as in 1999. The gap between white and black high school seniors in reading and math has widened. Read More…
Students across the U.S. flock to elite institutions, hoping to find better jobs and to make more money—but a new Gallup survey conducted this spring shows that many of these universities don’t produce happier people post-college.
Leaving questions of money aside, the survey “was rooted in 30 years of Gallup research that shows that people who feel happy and engaged in their jobs are the most productive,” according to a Tuesday Wall Street Journal article. The results were both depressing and interesting:
The poll found that just 39% of college graduates feel engaged at work—meaning, for instance, that they enjoyed what they did on a daily basis and are emotionally and intellectually connected to their jobs. And only 11% reported they were “thriving” in five different aspects of their lives, among which are financial stability, a strong social network and a sense of purpose.
That relatively small handful of graduates—who tend to be more productive—went to a variety of colleges, though they were slightly more likely to go to larger schools and less likely to have attended for-profits.
It would appear that one of the primary tests for choosing an academic institution—focused principally on the ability to procure a good job and a good paycheck—isn’t actually helping students who’ve committed themselves to this process.
Yet unfortunately, students do put a large burden on money to fulfill their lives after college: David Brooks captured some of these realities in his Monday New York Times column, “The Streamlined Life“: he writes that in 1976, only 50 percent of freshman said they were going to college to make more money, and in 1966, only 42 percent believed affluence was essential or important in life. But by 2005, 75 percent of students said “being well-off financially was essential or very important.”
“Affluence,” writes Brooks, “Once a middling value, is now tied as students’ top life goal.”
The spring Gallup survey found that students who reported the most “wellbeing” had received strong emotional and relational support while at college—and those who had pursued “experiential and deep learning” were “twice as likely to be engaged at work as those who didn’t.” As Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, told the Journal: “It matters very little where you go; it’s how you do it.”
Yet Brooks finds that here, as well, values have changed:
In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important. University of Michigan studies suggest that today’s students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago.
… I’m not sure if students really are less empathetic, or less interested in having meaning in their lives, but it has become more socially acceptable to present yourself that way. In the shadow of this more Darwinian job market, it is more acceptable to present yourself as utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented.
Students who are seeking a career as an end in itself will experience disappointment once they enter the workforce. Some will not receive the position or paycheck they desired. Others will get a great job, but will find that money, unfortunately, can’t cure all ills.
The pursuit of meaning and knowledge—the desire for ”experiential and deep learning,” as the Gallup survey put it: these motivations used to be primary passions for college students. Students who pursued college were interested in exploring the world—its history, culture, and people—more fully. It was an adventure, not merely a pathway to prosperity.
As we consider ways to reform higher education in our country, it’s important that we look past job markets and financial gains, and consider the qualitative benefits that higher education can still offer to students. As we’ve seen—via the information provided above, and through other studies—colleges and universities don’t always live up to their promises. But the student who desires to learn, for its own sake, will always receive benefits from college—and, if the Gallup survey is correct, from the working world, as well.
Over at Atlantic Cities, Sarah Goodyear flags a video about the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood: a city of 51,000 that has never seen a school bus. Originally a streetcar community with a concentrated downtown, as Lakewood grew it eschewed the sprawl model of suburban life, which builds schools like it does Wal-Marts: in cheap, far-flung land surrounded by vast parking lots. Instead, Lakewood built each of its seven elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school in the growing neighborhood it would serve. Kids normally live within a mile or two of their school, and get to walk and bike through the neighborhood instead of being packed into sweaty vinyl seats as they wait for the bus to wind its way around to their house.
Lakewood is perhaps uniquely positioned to banish the bus from an entire city (at less than seven square miles, the city claims to be the densest community between New York and Chicago), but it holds rich lessons for cities and suburbs across the country. The video explains that most school districts build their schools on the cheap land they can get on the outskirts of town, then spend not-so-small fortunes on fleets of buses to transport the kids from their homes to the school parking lots. As many of us likely remember, this can append up to an extra hour of sitting and confinement to an already lengthy day spent behind desks. As the New York Times recently noted, these demands for disciplined stillness are particularly ill-suited to elementary school-aged boys, whose fidgety reactions to school structure leave them falling behind girls of comparable backgrounds almost from the very beginning. Building schools in walkable neighborhoods may not change what goes on inside the classroom by itself, but Lakewood says that it saves them a million dollars a year in busing costs.
Moreover, turning the bus ride into a walk or bike can help keep communities themselves alive and safe. Instead of funneling children from point A to point B, parents walking their kids to school pass through the entire neighborhood, get to see their neighbors, know what is going on in the area around them. This familiarity builds community, and safety, as more eyes will be more familiar with the neighborhood, and parents will be able to spot something amiss and organize if part of their children’s path to school starts to go downhill.
Walking to school is a seemingly small thing for a birds-eye urbanist to consider, but it can form the heart of organically strong neighborhoods.
Children with “highly involved fathers” are 98 percent more likely to complete their college education, according to panelists at a Wednesday AEI event. Though we often look at the importance of marriage through a spiritual, social, or economic lens, the speakers at “Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success” argued that marriage and fatherhood are important for children’s academic success, as well.
Panelists emphasized a “growing father divide” in America: according to a 2013 Pew poll, fathers have more than doubled the time they spend with their children—from 2.5 hours per week to 7 hours—but this increased interaction is pretty skewed toward higher-income families. In the lower income bracket, single-parent families are increasingly common, and a father’s presence is often less prevalent.
W. Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project and author of When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America, believes paternal involvement makes a difference because of the additional academic, financial, and emotional support it lends to children. Fathers still earn a good portion of household income in married families, and are thus able to contribute to a child’s education via investment in good school districts, educational activities, and college tuitions. Additionally, his studies have shown that fathers are more likely to introduce their children to a work environment, athletic activities, civil society, and politics. They’re also more likely to encourage their children to be independent and to take risks (not to say mothers can’t encourage such activity—he just meant fathers, statistically speaking, are likely to encourage such things).
Kay Hymowitz, Manhattan Institute scholar and author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, hearkened back to a time when the fathers was seen as a rather remote figure in the home, likely to seclude himself behind a newspaper or spend extra hours at the office. She applauded the fact that this stereotype is changing, and suggested that activities like Little League sports have helped foster paternal involvement. But she added that such involvement is not “trickling down,” so to speak.
How to solve this problem? The panelists agreed that, at root, parental absences are often tied to marital issues. Though we do want to provide support to single-parent homes, regardless of the marital situation at hand, it’s important to note that stable marriages often lead to stable parent/child relationships.
But Patrick Patterson, Senior Manager at ICF International, suggested that measures to include fathers in the academic and social lives of their children can have a marked difference, regardless of the marital situation at hand. Fathers should be given more tools and encouragement to be involved in students’ lives at school, in extracurriculars, and in athletics. He noted that the resources and support systems available to single mothers are much greater than those proffered to fathers, and that oftentimes fathers are called upon in negative situations (i.e., child called to the principal’s office) more often than in positive ones. He added that the earlier fathers are engaged in their children’s activities, the more likely they are to stay involved. Read More…
I once tutored a student who could write an A+ essay, and then get a D on her multiple-choice tests. In working with that student, I learned that these two different exercises required entirely different skills. I learned that not all students test well—an unfortunate trait in this age of testing frenzy. The SAT and ACT rule supreme over the futures of prospective college students across the U.S. Want to attend an Ivy League? The tests will determine your fate.
Thanks to a new experiment being conducted this year, liberal arts school Bard College is breaking this mold. While students can still submit a standard application, with the traditional list of SAT scores, GPA, extracurriculars, etc., the New York Times reports that students can also opt for a different (and in many ways, more difficult) project:
… Bard for the first time invited prospective freshmen to dispense with all the preamble, and just write four long essays chosen from a menu of 21 scholarly topics. Very scholarly topics, like Immanuel Kant’s response to Benjamin Constant, absurdist Russian literature and prion disorders. The questions, along with the relevant source materials, were all available on the Bard website. As for the four essays, totaling 10,000 words, they were read and graded by Bard professors. An overall score of B+ or better, and the student got in.
So you can send in your reading lists, club activity, academic references, and transcripts. Or you can write 2,500 words on the topic, “What is the Relationship Between Truth and Beauty?” Which exercise, do you think, is more beneficial to the student? Which measures their creativity—and which demonstrates their ability to jump through hoops?
Bard’s president, Leon Botstein, said the experiment is an act of “declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions.” The typical admissions process picks students based on their best set of quantifiable skills. But this essay method requires and reveals students’ resilience, creativity, and erudition.
Not surprisingly, it’s a rigorous exercise, and many students did not complete the process. The Times reports that only 50 people ended up submitting essays—applicants aged 14 through 23, hailing from seven countries and 17 states. Nine submissions were not complete. All three homeschooled applicants were accepted.
However, as awareness of the program grows, it seems likely they’ll receive more applicants—from students who delight in thinking and writing, or perhaps from students who struggled with tests and classes, and want a second chance. Of course, this process defies the quantifiable designations of a normal application process, and one must applaud Bard for defying the automatous ease of the modern era. This application process, if it grows, will mean more work for all parties.
But it also offers greater goods to those involved: it stretches the application process from a mere filling out of forms, into a learning process itself. As one student essayist told the Times, “I thought about other colleges, but when I started working on the essays, I became sort of obsessed.” Bard’s experiment takes learning out of the classroom, and challenges students at the very outset of their academic career.
While the traditional college application process isn’t wrong, it does leave important knowledge—and important people—out in the cold. Perhaps this experiment will encourage other institutions to look with greater depth at students’ ideas, not just their GPA.
Friday’s Bloomberg article confirmed a longtime suspicion about New York public schools: New York State has the most segregated schools in the United States. It seems counterintuitive, as New York is a Northern state never subjected to Jim Crow. But the deep-seated economic inequalities in New York have created a new form of segregation that exist outside the rule of law but nonetheless affect the opportunities of thousands of students, many of whom will be firmly stuck in the cycle of poverty before they even begin their first day of kindergarten. In a state as liberal as New York, a haven for unions, powerful Democratic politicians, and organizers, those who champion the underdog and preach equality for all are failing the very people they claim to help.
Part of what drives this segregation in New York State is the economic stratification of New York City. Simply put, students from low-income households attend failing public schools, while students from wealthier families have their choice of charter schools, specialized high schools, or private schools. Stuyvesant High School, the most famous and selective specialized high school in New York City, offers admission to whomever passes their rigorous examination, regardless of economic background or ethnicity, but only seven black students were admitted this year, down from nine last year. While there is no law prohibiting black or Latino students from attending to Stuyvesant, low-income families often do not have the resources to help their children prepare for such a rigorous entrance exam. Additionally, if the student is an English learner, he or she will have a steeper uphill battle to receive an even passable education.
One possible factor that could explain such segregation is housing discrimiation. Jamelle Bouie, in one of his last pieces for The Daily Beast, described in stark detail the consistent and systematic methods by which blacks, many of whom were migrants seeking opportunities in the North, were prevented from securing stable housing. The result was the creation of the ghettos that sprung up in Midwestern cities such as Cleveland, and East Coast ones like Baltimore. The schools in these areas often underperform, with high dropout rates and low test scores in reading and math.
In cities like New York, low-income neighborhoods have seen little improvement in their local public schools. In the 1960s, following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, black and Latino children were integrated into predominately white schools, but nothing was done to fix the dilapidated schools they were extracted from, which have limped into the 21st century leaving thousands of dropouts in their wake. In 2014, the battleground for achieving greater educational equality has been charter schools, publicly-funded but privately-run schools that often share space with decrepit public schools. One bone of contention in the controversy is the accusation that charter schools siphon resources from public schools.
It’s true that suffering schools are not directly linked to any particular liberal policy. But the fact cannot be ignored that New York public schools, despite gains made under the Bloomberg administration, are still woefully inadequate. Only 66 percent of New York City high school students graduate, of whom a paltry 47 percent were ready for college, according to data released in December 2013. The bureaucratic maze and insufficient funding make it impossible for students to have their basic needs met to acquire the academic skills to lift them out of poverty and put them on the path to success. New York has long been regarded a bastion of liberal efficiency and equality, an example to the rest of the country for its tolerance and diversity. But this gaping inequality can no longer be swept under the rug. Underpinning this segregation are racist housing policies and willful “scrubbing” of undesirable students from charter schools, which impede black upward mobility as much as the laws in the Jim Crow South. It’s time for New York politicians to understand that their methods for facilitating opportunity have failed, and be more open to new ideas, perhaps from the other side of the aisle.