As a personal matter, I’ve always been good at school. After all, I have exactly the sort of intelligence – bookish, clever with words, analytical – that gratifies teachers and earns A’s. I can sit through the driest lecture, looking interested while unobtrusively reading a book tucked away beneath the edge of my desk. I can ask questions that seem boldly to challenge a professor – without actually doing so.
In a lifetime of school – on both sides of the podium – I’ve generally done rather well.
And I’ve spent a lot of time as a student. Since I earned my BA at UVA, I’ve accumulated over 200 semester hours, mostly at the graduate and professional level. Yet, the number of courses I’ve found stimulating or worthwhile has been vanishingly small. A handful in law school. Fewer in three years (and three summers ) of Ed School.
When I was 30, I took a bunch of graduate History courses at UR – nearly all excellent. At present, I’m taking some stimulating courses on Shakespeare at Mary Baldwin.
And there was Walter Coppedge’s brilliant Shakespeare class one winter term at VCU.
But really, the vast majority of courses I’ve sat through have left me little wiser – and a deal poorer – than I was before. I’ve learned more from reading good books, talking with intelligent friends and just doing things than I learned in 80 percent of the courses I’ve taken.
I expect a good many of my readers feel the same way.
Which is why I’ve often wondered when we, as a society, are going to get past the idea that spending trillions of dollars to compel people to sit in classrooms – or, latterly, stare at computer screens – has anything to do with producing good citizens or preparing people to earn a living.
Take college, for example. Undergraduate education is enormously expensive. Young people and their families bear enormous costs, but then, so do all of us. Our taxes pay for a free system of K-12 schools. At state colleges and universities, in-state students are heavily subsidized.
There are all sorts of Federal and state tuition assistance and forgiveness programs; subsidized loans, grants and other programs – not to mention the taxes we don’t collect from people who set aside money for their kids’ educations, or donate to various educational charities and foundations.
Yet, for all this, our enormous educational system doesn’t seem able to produce much. Listen to the current political campaigns. Do you hear any workable, philosophically-sound, solutions to our country’s challenges?
Do you even get the impression that these folks understand what those challenges are?
Political debates should resemble an episode of House, where intelligent, thoughtful people examine a set of symptoms in order to discover the underlying problem – and then prescribe for it.
Instead, we get a lot of blame-throwing about the symptoms – and prescriptions you’d expect from a faith-healer or witch-doctor.
To which I ask the obvious question: If we were an educated people, would our politicians dare to insult our intelligence in this manner?
Because Americans aren’t dumb. We just don’t seem to know much.
Why is that? As a country, we spend more on education than we ever have. Our people spend more time sitting in classrooms than any previous generation of Americans – or anyone else, for that matter.
Yet we don’t seem to have much to show for it.
I’m not sure how to solve the problem of our diminishing educational returns, but I think the beginning of a solution might lie in one, fundamental reform.
We should develop ways of testing what people know, and what they are competent to do. And, once that is accomplished, we should eliminate regulations, policies and laws which require knowledgeable, competent people to take courses, obtain certificates or earn degrees in order to qualify for jobs and professional licenses they can already do.
In other words, we should stop empowering schools, colleges and universities to keep people from getting work they know how to do – merely because they haven’t sat and listened to someone telling them what they already know.
Or could learn on their own.
Of course, such a system would devastate many institutions of higher learning. No longer would smart, capable young – and not-so-young – people, with no interest in the academic life feel compelled to spend four, five or six years in classrooms studying things of little interest to them, in order to get jobs entirely unrelated to academia.
They’d have to demonstrate knowledge and competence, of course. But they wouldn’t have to produce a transcript.
It’s radical idea, to be sure. But just think of the classes you, your friends or your children have taken – merely to qualify for a job or promotion you (or they) could have done perfectly without wasting the time and money for a piece of paper.
Think about it.