Sunday, August 30, 2009

An Ivy League Education - commentary

After reading "The Chosen," by Jerome Karabel, I feel better about my education in nondescript universities like ASU. I now conclude it is academically as good as any Ivy League education.

"The Chosen" explores the history of admission policies of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton from the early 1900's to the present. The book contains several surprises such as the efforts by all three universities to limit Jewish students.

I only read the first 400 pages covering from 1900 through my college years in the 1960's. The startling part of this history to me was the playing down of the importance of academics. My idea that academic learning constitutes the primary purpose of college is apparently an illusion.

During these years, the schools saw as their primary goal the training of young men to be world political and business leaders and social elitists. Academic achievement was a secondary issue. In fact, students who spent too much time in the library or study centers were referred by the pejorative term "grind" by both the faculty and fellow students. The schools were careful not to recruit too many grinds. A gentleman's C was considered adequate for an Ivy Leaguer.

This brings to mind the Kerry – Bush campaign, both of them Yale graduates I believe. Kerry was supposedly the elite intellectual while we all knew Bush was a cowboy and merely a C student. Kerry, however, at first wouldn't release his transcripts. With enough pressure, he did. He too got by with a gentleman's C.

It turns out the most important thing in these prestigious schools was the dinning clubs where the students learned to be social sophisticates capable of travelling smoothly in the rarefied air of the wealthy and powerful of the world. At one point Karabel, discussing a particular study, says, “The twenty-six men studied were a veritable Who’s Who of the America elite: … These men had not compiled particularly distinguished academic records at Harvard; the majority of them had relatively poor grades.”

I hope some of the admissions practices have changed since the 60's, but what I read in the first 400 pages piqued my curiosity. If academic learning was of such little importance that serious students were pejoratively referred to as grinds, and a gentleman's C was acceptable, where did the graduates gain the knowledge to run the government and industry? A question of lesser importance is why did I, a grind, spend so much time in the library maintaining an A minus grade point average when a gentleman's C was good enough for those who were controlling my future? “C’s make degrees,” I was recently told. Why didn’t I hear this 40 years ago?

If academic learning held a position of lesser importance than getting in the right dinning club, where were these future world leaders obtaining their knowledge to lead the rest of us? When I was a young reporter, I would often ask professional people such as doctors or lawyers if their education had prepared them for the work they were doing. The answer usually started with a laugh followed by a “no.”

I received my Arkansas teacher’s certification through the non-traditional program. Those in the program had to attend a week of workshops just before school started in the fall and about seven daylong workshops during the school year. This went on for two years. I suppose this involved 24 workshops and as many presenters. With one minor exception, every presenter started the workshop with words to this effect: You people are very lucky. To get my certification I had to take X number of college credits in education and none of it was useful. It was a waste of time. The one exception was a woman with a doctorate, and she said essentially the same thing but allowed that a little bit of it might have been useful. Add to this a statement I have heard in workshops by two different educators, each holding a doctorate degree: There is no correlation between grade point averages and future success in life. For one of them, this had been the subject of his doctoral thesis.

If academic learning was not essential for Ivy leaguers, if it didn’t really prepare professionals for their jobs, if the required education courses for teachers were of little to no value in teaching, and if there is no correlation between grade point averages and future success in life, where do people acquire the knowledge to do their jobs? On the job maybe?

So, my next question is why do we make such a fuss over academics, requiring every student to reach proficiency in the core subjects while spending millions on testing for something that apparently has so little to do with our careers? In the 00-01 school year the Arkansas State Department of Education spent $4.8 million on student testing and in the 08-09 school year, that grew to $8.2 million. C’s really do make degrees and it’s the degree or the diploma that often opens doors to the job market. Maybe the weakness in our culture is that degrees and diplomas have become the primary way to open those doors. Maybe there should be other ways as well, more meaningful ways.

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