Today we’ll destroy the universities and drive professors into the streets to starve, perhaps pulling themselves by their fingernails and feeding on remnants of discarded hamburgers. This will reform western civilization. (This is a full-service column. It doesn’t mess with the petty stuff.)
Universities are sorry institutions. First, they cost too damned much. Thirty thousand a year is a bit steep to launch the tad into a career of half-literate commercial brigandage and rapine.
Second, they’re pretty much worthless. How useful, for anything at all, are watered-down courses taught in pseudo-academic zoos dedicated to propaganda and the competitive collection of uneducable minorities? How useful are inflated grades, remedial arithmetic, college credit for independent breathing, and subjects like "Post-Modernist Perspectives On Lesbian, Bisexual, and Simply Puzzled Learning-Disabled Single Mothers from a Guatemalan Hamlet"?
Most of these wretched schools are no longer worthwhile — don’t do what they ought, do what they shouldn’t ought, and cost a devilish lot. They get away with it because they have a monopoly on the award of diplomas, which we think we need.
Now, what are universities for? What do we expect them to do, besides charge too much and provide a place to drink beer? First, to teach the student things; second, by awarding a degree to provide to others a reasonable assurance that the student has indeed soaked himself in the precious marinades of learning. They no longer reliably do either.
How can we accomplish these ends without the price tag and the baffled Guatemalan single mothers?
The trick is to separate education, and measures thereof, from the possession of a diploma. You ask: How? Curiously, I have the answer: By the equivalent of home-schooling at the college level.
First, I suggest the establishment of a more thunderous and definitive parallel of the Graduate Record exams. (We’ll come to "establishment by whom" in a moment.) These would measure competence in the material both of high school and collegiate education. For example, I’d have them give a score in arithmetic (can you divide fractions?), algebra (can you handle exponents?), as well as in mathematics at the college level. Remember, high schools have been enstupidated as much as the universities.
This would separate the possession of knowledge from the possession of a diploma. Now, could employers be persuaded to accept scores on this beast of an exam instead of the usual fraudulent credentials? (Despite the merits of schooling as an improver of our very own selves, most of us still have to get jobs.)
Employers are very much aware of the dismal output of the schools. A friend in the State Department tells of the disappearance of the ability to write clearly. Companies complain that high-school graduates often barely read and can’t do simple arithmetic, that graduates of universities frequently are little better.
If I were running a tool-and-die operation, and a kid aced a real test of arithmetic, algebra, and clear English (I might want to promote him) I wouldn’t care whether he had been in rifle range of any particular school. Similarly, if I were hiring an office manager or a teacher of Latin for a good private school, I’d prefer high GREs to a doctorate in Education. The former assure reasonable knowledge; the latter, hopeless incapacity.
The second step is to end the monopoly of professors on teaching. Like their schools, they are enormously overrated. Some can teach, and some can’t. They are no better at it than any number of other people easily found. A PhD is chiefly an award for wanton patience and lack of initiative and, in most fields, amounts to a union card, intended to prevent competition.
Example: There is where I live in Mexico a woman, literate and intelligent, who imparts Spanish to North Americans. She could teach Cervantes to a lawn chair. If she were a college professor, I’d rate her as one of the five best I’ve known. She couldn’t teach in an American university because she doesn’t have a PhD. She’s not in the union.
Ah, but she can teach in her living room. If academic achievement were measured by a standard test instead of by diplomas, students who wanted to learn Spanish could study with her, and demonstrate that they had learned Spanish. Where they had learned it would, and should, be irrelevant. If they didn’t want to learn Spanish, they could go away.
Any city has talented people who would teach if they could. Community colleges usually have a heavy sprinkling of good people. Absent the dictatorship of the degree, people could assemble any education they chose, good, bad, liberal arts, specialized, whatever — and demonstrate it — for a bunch less than thirty thousand green ones a year.
Current universities would of course remain, the Ivies for networking and other preemptive brown-nosing, and downscale schools for drinking yourself into a coma. But the test would still be, for those who chose to use it, the measure of accomplishment.
Note, incidentally, that the function of professors is not primarily to teach, but to select the material and to insist that students show up for class. Sure, sometimes the prof offers useful explanation or discussion. The study of spoken languages requires a teacher. Yet there are few subjects that a bright and determined student couldn’t learn with a textbook and a library. Other students shouldn’t be studying at all.
A crucial question: Who would write the universal test? There’s the rub. If the present professoriate got anywhere near it, they would intellectually disembowel it, translate it into Ebonics, and stuff it full of crypto-Marxist blather like a taxidermist given to excess. I would suggest a committee of people who had worked in their fields but could prove they had never taught.
Universities would of course fight the idea fang and claw, in hideous English. But they couldn’t do anything about it. The law does not require that anyone attend college. The academic union can decide who may award a degree, but it cannot stop people from taking a test, or from showing the result to whomever they chose. The government can prevent a superb teacher from describing himself as being accredited, but it cannot stop him from teaching.
One thing is sure: As long as the degree, however worthless, is the measure of merit, we will get more propaganda, lower standards, and less cultivation. Have you noticed that signs on bathrooms today no longer say "Men" and "Women," but have little pictures? I used to think they were for foreigners.
Fred Reed [send him mail] is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.