Critical Thinking as Purposeful Questions


Do Obama's proposed criteria reveal deep understanding of why we have colleges in the first place?

What is the role of market thinking in shaping Obama's proposal?

First, there is no Obama rating system.  But by December of 2014 there will allegedly be a completed proposal. What is proposed will then be used to rate colleges beginning in 2015.

Second, as I indicated in an earlier post, any proposed rating system says as much about the rater as about the colleges and universities. We can learn a great deal about Obama's understanding of what a college university is for by listening to his public remarks about why we need a governmental rating system.

Third, Obama wants a rating system that offers "more bang for the buck"; he wants the price to be cheaper. He wants the consumers to be better informed.  He wants colleges to provide a better return on investment.  If that language sounds identical to an expert on the housing market speaking about consumer needs in the real estate market, you have a well-tuned ear for market language. Market terminology often distorts our understanding.  But that way of thinking about what we need is so embedded in American thought that we are often misled by those who benefit from the application of market criteria.

Obama habitually speaks about going to college as if it is a stepping stone to what he variously calls "success" or "your destiny" or a good-paying job."   Loosely translated he is to his credit using precisely the monetary criteria that many freshmen and their parents would use in choosing a college.  This expectation that college can somehow be the engine of monetary accomplishment is remarkably naive.  It derives from a failure to look at the distribution of results from attending college and presumes that trend lines are a reliable predictor of future results.  Is it really the case that the higher incomes of those who attend colleges result from college attendance in any regard beyond serving as a screening device for employers to segregate those whose socioeconomic background, genetic wherewithal, and obedience to authority would make them more trainable than those who cannot graduate from college? Are there not much cheaper ways to provide that screening service to employers if that is the primary purpose of colleges?

Fourth, most remarkable to me is Obama's seeming failure to be concerned about what college students actually learn from their very expensive prelude to future earnings. He repeatedly lists as one of the rating criteria in his proposed system----salaries of graduates.  Why would he think that a modern college is or should be devoted to paying attention to that market metric?  Does he not understand that higher salaries are the fruit of many factors besides simply attending a college?   Is he familiar with the predictable attempts of institutional researchers to justify college attendance by loosely constructed "impact" studies? He seems to think that all is well on campus except that it is too expensive and not enough people are graduating. This failure to think carefully about the purpose of college creates justifiable concern among university administrators that the President thinks that colleges share objectives.  His apparent idea that Ball State University is in the same "business" as Stanford University is disappointing to say the least.  Fortunately, Secretary Duncan realizes that there must be different rating systems for different kinds of colleges.

Does President Obama not understand the superciliousness of his persistent claim that we need to figure out how to enable more people to graduate from college? If he really believes that a college degree has such salubrious effects, why does he not propose legislation that designates all citizens to ipso facto have a college degree? It could be granted in a public ceremony as soon as the candidate reaches a particular age. 

Does he not understand how easy it is for institutions to graduate a huge number of graduates? Some colleges already play this game. Pay your money, and we will grant you a degree. Does his bubble of privilege make it difficult for  him to realize that many students lack the preparation and perhaps the abilities to succeed in a college experience unless it is dumbed down considerably?

BUT now let's think with the President for a bit. 

First, colleges need to be evaluated, and he should expect to be opposed by those who are now managing higher education.  They wish to maintain the self-serving autonomy that they currently possess. No surprises there. They should be listened to only with extreme caution.

Second, the President is plugged into a central theme in the United States------colleges should  fundamentally be job training venues, a pathway to rising incomes for graduates. Take that assumption away and support for the academic component of higher education withers.

Those of us who see education as a trampoline for lifelong learning are living in a dream world. Have any of you seen any evidence that this trampoline is anything but a myth for the vast bulk of those who attend even the most elite of colleges? Do any of you know of any evidence for example that more than 20% of the electorate either understand or determine their votes by evaluating the arguments surrounding the major issues that are debated day after day by the wonks among us? Even for that 20%, I see no reason prima facie to think that college attendance is somehow related to the size of that truly dismal proportion. More than 90% of parents now say they want their children to attend college; almost 7 out of 10 high school graduates dutifully follow their parents' desires. This huge proportion of college degree aspirants has never indicated the motivation to live the examined life, but to an unfortunate extent college faculty  still often organize the college experience as if a good job, whatever that term may mean, is simply a secondary concern of college students.

Third, the President makes a telling point when he says that colleges should not be subsidized unless they are meeting the goals of those who subsidize them.  I find it very difficult to disagree.  What audaciousness higher education has had in telling the taxpayer---"Trust us.  We know what we are doing."  Yes, you certainly do; you did exactly what we would expect a lightly regulated group of professionals to do. Thomas Frank's indictment of academic capitalism is brilliant; I only wish those inside higher education would consider the wisdom of his critique.

Can the vocational objectives that higher education should acknowledge and assist in fulfilling be aligned with the core elements of liberal education so as to generate a coalition of new-found support for higher education?

Are all of us---parents, faculty, administrators, taxpayers, alumni, and learners---so divided in our objectives that the idea of establishing a workable consensus that would preserve what is best in our colleges simply a fool's errand?

AuthorM Neil Browne