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May 29, 2008 - 5:32pm



How do we get American students out of the basement of the ivory tower?

You remember the recent Atlantic magazine article, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, whose author, an English professor at a university of last resort, argues that we've got to stop admitting to college people who simply cannot make it in that setting, who will not graduate, who will flunk and flunk again required courses like English composition.

UD commented on the article here.

The problem with deciding that such people -- people who've read very few books, who can't write a basic essay, who are probably functionally illiterate -- shouldn't waste their time, money, and dignity at a university, is that a college degree makes an enormous difference in terms of your employability, and in terms of the type of job and level of salary you can expect. We all seem to agree that, in most cases, you'll lead a much better work life if you've graduated from college.

One solution to this problem has been the establishment of bogus colleges and universities which, after four years of nothingness, hand you a diploma. One hears stories of professors dismissed from their positions at places like these because they tried to give low grades to students. Live the pretense.

This is an expensive ritual, and eventually the government, subsidizing a good deal of it, is going to get interested in testing to see whether students at these schools learn anything. When it becomes clear that many don't, funds may be withdrawn.

Accreditation won't be a problem -- accrediting agencies accredit everyone, far as UD can tell. But government funding may be.

More deeply, people dislike futility. Empty ceremony offends us -- it offends the students, who know what's up, it offends taxpayers, and it offends employers, who take on these graduates and then discover they can't do basic math or write a complete sentence.
By the time they get to college, in other words, it's too late for these sorts of students.

Some people, in particular the people at an outfit called KnowHow2Go (here's their home page), are trying to intervene earlier in the lives of these students -- when they're in high school.

Before I consider KnowHow2Go's approach to the problem I've outlined, I want to look in more detail at the problem itself.
Let's say the sort of student we're talking about comes from a pretty illiterate state - Alaska - and gets admitted to one of the University of Alaska campuses.

Admission requires only a high school diploma.

Here, as described in an article in Tuesday's Anchorage Daily News, is what, in many cases, happens.

[Rachael] Bellomy, a 2007 graduate of East High, is dropping out of UAA after her first year. Instead of becoming a psychologist as she once dreamed, she's going to try to find a job in a massage therapist's office and maybe train to be a masseuse, she said.

Bellomy is not alone. Twenty-eight percent of full-time freshmen at University of Alaska schools do not return for their second year, according to a study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at UAA.

UA schools have gotten better in the past several years at attracting more students and keeping costs down compared with Lower 48 universities. But too many of its entering students are not prepared for the rigors of college-level academics and too few are completing their degrees, according to the study.

... The University of Alaska, with three main campuses, in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, is the state's only public university and its largest, with about 32,000 students. It accepts anyone who has graduated from high school. Its mission is to offer an education to anyone who wants one.

With Bellomy, though, UAA failed. "I couldn't stay focused," she said, as she looked at cartoons on her laptop in the student union last week, taking advantage of the free Internet.

Bellomy took remedial math and English classes her first semester to catch up, but college-level English 111 in her second semester convinced her college wasn't for her. "It was hard." [A commenter on the story writes: "The girl in the article took english 111 her second semester and found it too hard? How did she graduate from high school? She obviously had no idea what she was getting into. You have to start preparing in high school for college and that means taking AP or honors courses while you are there."]

As many as two-thirds of incoming UA freshmen aren't prepared for college-level math and English, according to the study.

Students who manage to stay the course are less likely to graduate with a B.A. in six years than their Lower 48 counterparts. According to the study, only 28 percent of UA students graduate with bachelor's degrees within six years, compared with a national average of 56 percent.

... According to the ISER study, tuition at UA schools is 24 percent less than at the average U.S. public institution.

So - a rich, well-meaning state, an inexpensive and welcoming public university system... and large-scale failure.
UD thinks an important clue to the failure lies in this sentence:

"I couldn't stay focused," she said, as she looked at cartoons on her laptop in the student union last week, taking advantage of the free Internet.

One of the most cynical things universities are doing lately, in response to their awareness that their worst students are -- like Bellomy, who can't carry on an interview without watching cartoons -- internet-addicted, is introduce with all sorts of bullshit rhetoric the wonderful new world of online education. As if putting your courses online is this terrific pedagogical innovation rather than a desperate bit of scheming...

But that's another post.

The KnowHow2Go people recognize the problem of simple mental vacancy, the inability to focus your attention at all. Among their pieces of how-to-study advice for high school students there's this: "Find a quiet, organized space - maybe a study table at the library. And turn off anything that could possibly distract you."
Know how to go to college, know how to go from the basement to the tower of the ivory tower -- know how to get into a selective college, or how to go to a non-selective one -- and know how to succeed once you get there... Among the things you have to know in order to go to college and thrive is that college -- a real college -- will ask you to adopt, perhaps for the first time in your life, a posture of reasonably full attentiveness to one possibly non-entertaining thing for some duration. Fifty minutes of attention to a lecture. An hour of attention to a novel. Forty minutes of attention to the written description of a scientific experiment. These things don't skitter around trying to make you happy. They sit there. The character of intellectual life is that it's quiet, private, reflective, slow, patient in its analytical dispassion. You have to go out and meet it where it is, and calm down, and think hard.
The hard thinking is really what KnowHow2Go is after. In hilarious public service spots, and in films on YouTube, KnowHow2Go sells the idea of taking difficult, college-track courses in high school, so that students won't, like Bellomy, be stunned into failure when they get to college. KnowHow2Go's website points out to prospective college students that "high school course selections and grades represent the single most important consideration in most colleges' admissions decisions. High school course decisions are made sometimes as early as the middle school years."

The possible brilliance (who knows if it'll work?) of KnowHow2Go's approach is that their ads, which target a teenage audience, glamorize the difficulty of intellectual effort. Gladiatorial combatants go head to head with foreign languages and biology; math Amazonians invite you to give complex reasoning a try.

The point is to get high school students to take the harder, pre-college courses that their high schools offer.

KnowHow2Go makes the point elegantly and strongly - at least UD finds that it does. But UD isn't its target audience.
UD grew up in a house full of books. So did her husband, also a professor. There's no television in UD's house. Her daughter either watched tv at friends' houses (despite the fact that UD's neighborhood is Bethesda, Maryland, among the wealthiest and best-educated places in the country, few of her daughter's friends come from houses with many books in them) or she stayed home and read books.

For the typical Alaskan, this describes something on Mars.

By which I mean that while I'm extremely impressed with KnowHow2Go's approach - get 'em when they're younger; glamorize hard thinking - I also know that we're really talking about culture here. And you don't change something as deep as someone's culture without removing her in significant ways from the culture itself.

This of course has always been the fundamental model of university education -- It gathers young people from all over the country, all over the world, and removes them from their parochial, familiar setting. It doesn't keep feeding them what they're used to -- which is why online education and similar forms of pandering are a disaster -- but rather asks of them a heroic effort of self-transformation, a heroism which KnowHow2Go's PSAs, about the effort required to understand the world at a higher level than you were probably raised to understand it, aim to evoke.

Education ought to be inspiring, a matter of shaking yourself up, waking yourself up, challenging yourself at the loftiest levels. Maybe some American high school students can be made to perceive, through the sweaty workout sessions of KnowHow2Go, the swaggering essence of higher learning, the way your willingness to struggle with your own limitations can really pump you up.


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