No. 14 Bookworm Podcast — the sickness of American college education

The American college has lost its way. Saving it requires removing all taxpayer funds and refocusing the mission on high-level, job-based skills.

Macalester College High Education(If you prefer listening over reading, the companion podcast to this post is embedded below, or you can listen to it at Libsyn or at Apple podcasts. I’m trying to make a go of my podcasting so, if you like the podcasts, please share them with your friends and on social media. Giving my podcast good ratings helps too.)

Several people have emailed me the link to Victor Davis Hanson’s latest article at American Greatness, entitled From Icon to Just a Con. It’s about the downfall of America’s colleges and universities.

My friends have sent the link to me because, if they’ve followed my blog over the last 15 years, they know that it’s peppered with my disdain, disrespect, dislike, and sometimes downright hatred for education in America, from elementary school to post-graduate degrees.

When my kids were younger, after I transferred them from a Montessori school to public school, my attacks were aimed at a few specific issues. The first was that their teachers were, with almost no exceptions, young, pretty, good-natured . . . and totally moronic women, none of whom knew nothing outside of their teaching manuals.

This shouldn’t have surprised me given that, with a few notable exceptions, most of today’s teachers are drawn from the bottom third of any college class. My Dad, who was a teacher, rightly said that women’s liberation killed American education. Before women’s lib, those women who were academically inclined women and went to college graduated as nurses, teachers or, if they got lucky, wives. After women’s lib, academically-inclined women went into the professions (e.g., as I did). The end result was that a disproportionate number of post-women’s lib teachers are now nice girls who weren’t bookish, but liked kids and needed a career.

Here’s another example of the type of thing that got my hackles up, this one from more than a decade ago. My daughter’s 4th grade teacher marked my daughter wrong when my daughter wrote this sentence on a spelling test: “The room was lit only by a fluorescent bulb.” No, insisted the teacher. The correct spelling was florescent. The teacher refused to change the test result even when I sent her dictionary definitions showing that the bulbs that light the room are indeed fluorescent, and that only garden bulbs have florescent potential.

Sadly, in my kids’ affluent, highly-paid school district, this teacher was the norm. I really do want to respect teachers, and I know there are wonderful ones out there, people who are erudite, educated, and have a true calling to teach (people such as my father or my friend Mike McDaniel). In too many districts, though, these educators are outnumbered and overwhelmed by women like that 4th grade teacher.

The other thing that made me crazy about public school was something I call “how” versus “why” learning. At Montessori, the kids were always taught the “why” of something before they were taught the “how.” When they were already in pre-school, the teacher would subtly teach them advanced mathematical concepts by showing them, through the use of specially designed beads, that “ten squared” is a square and “ten cubed” is a cube. Look at the picture, below, and you’ll totally understand the physical reality of squaring and cubing whole numbers.

In public school, though, the teachers aren’t taught to explain the nature of squaring and cubing. They are simply trained to tell children how to arrive at squares and cubes: To square, you multiply a number by itself; to cube, you multiply the number by itself a second time. End of story. That “how” instruction does not provide meaning or context. While I agree that some things must be mastered through memorization, as is the case with the multiplication table, it’s much easier to do anything when you realize there’s an end and purpose to it. For most public school kids, learning is un-tethered to meaning or purpose.

Montessori carried that “why before how” teaching into everything. When the kids started studying geometry, the teacher would tell them about the Nile’s annual flooding, which wiped out land markings. This meant that, beginning thousands of years ago, people had to learn how to measure the land — do “geo” “metry” — in order to reclaim their property when the flood waters receded. Only then, having explained why geometry mattered would the Montessori teacher go on to the “how” of actually doing geometry.

This “how” over “why” mentality permeated everything at public school. My children were constantly being taught how to do things, without ever being told why doing the thing mattered. I experienced the same “how” teaching when I attended public school several decades ago, something that was really bad for me, given that I am a total “why” learner. I routinely tuned out anything that didn’t have meaning — and, when it came to my teachers and the hard sciences, nothing had meaning.

When my kids entered high school, in addition to the uninformed teachers and the boring “why” learning, the kids now had to contend with indoctrination. In 2013, I blogged about how my 10th grader spent classroom time watching the hard-Left movie Miss Representation. Also in 2013, I wrote to my child’s English teacher politely suggesting that, if he was going to hand out anti-gun propaganda following the Sandy Hook tragedy (material unrelated to his teaching responsibilities), he should balance it with pro-Second Amendment information. He ignored me. (I blogged about the powerful letter I wish I could have written if it wouldn’t have jeopardized my child’s standing in the school.) At least that English teacher, though, was literate; others weren’t. Then, a year later, I shared to my blog readers a list of suggested books for one of the kids’ government classes, almost all of which hewed Left. Spring 2015 left me posting about a generation of sheeple kids who don’t challenge academic authority, but meekly bow down before it.

Once my kids hit college, my complaints about American education went into overdrive. I’ve blogged several times in the past few years about inane, insane orientations; about students un-learning things to conform to politically correct norms; and about course catalogs that promote idiocy instead of knowledge. I’ve also done dozens of posts (all of which you can find here) bouncing off of stories about the insanity that is the norm at American colleges and universities.

In every case, my posts about higher education have focused on the fact that hardcore Leftism has substituted indoctrination for the traditional teaching of facts, logic, analysis, and the sort of deep knowledge about human nature that a humanist education once was intended to provide. Everything must now bow down before the victim hierarchy, a hierarchy that inverts the usual battle for status by having people fight to the death for the lowest, rather than the highest, spot on the ladder.

This is why we have the embarrassing, unedifying, and quite worrying spectacle of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays, lesbians, women, transgenders, multi-genders, no-genders, the physically handicapped, the mentally-handicapped, and Muslims in a constant state of warfare over who owns the right to be called “most oppressed.” The one thing that unites these disparate groups is their certain knowledge that the most evil thing in the world is a Western white male. They will always pause their internecine battles to wipe out the whites.

The most recent, insanely stupid effort emanating from the academic Left is the growing movement at colleges and other scientific institutions across America to remove pictures of accomplished scientists — you know, the ones who invented things that powered the world, saved countless lives, and sent people to the moon — because those pictures almost invariably show white males. Apparently just walking by one of those picture walls is enough to convince a transgender, lesbian, multi-racial, Muslim person that he/she/it can never succeed as a scientist.

And no, I’m not referring to a Babylon Bee article. This nonsense is real:

A few years ago, TV celebrity Rachel Maddow was at Rockefeller University to hand out a prize that’s given each year to a prominent female scientist. As Maddow entered the auditorium, someone overheard her say, “What is up with the dude wall?”

She was referring to a wall covered with portraits of scientists from the university who have won either a Nobel Prize or the Lasker Award, a major medical prize.

“One hundred percent of them are men. It’s probably 30 headshots of 30 men. So it’s imposing,” says Leslie Vosshall, a neurobiologist with the university and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“It just sends the message, every day when you walk by it, that science consists of old white men,” says Vosshall. “I think every institution needs to go out into the hallway and ask, ‘What kind of message are we sending with these oil portraits and dusty old photographs?'”

She’s now on a committee that’s redesigning that wall of portraits at Rockefeller University, to add more diversity. And this is hardly the only science or medical institution that’s reckoning with its dude wall.

At Yale School of Medicine, for example, one main building’s hallways feature 55 portraits: three women and 52 men. They’re all white.

No wonder, then, that friends sent me VDH’s article. I think you should read the whole thing, but here’s a quick rundown of the points he makes:

  1. When VDH attended college in the 1970s (just a few years before I did, for I started college in 1979), professors were going through their hippie phase and were mostly politically liberal, but they still hewed to the idea of a classic education, rich in Western canons. They almost never used the classroom for political proselytizing.
  2. In the 1970s, professors taught lots of classes, college administration was usually a shoestring affair, and dorms were spartan, all of which kept tuition low.
  3. In the 1970s, in campus free speech areas, Leftists dominated, but one of their demands was, in fact, free speech.
  4. In the years since the 1970s, things have been turned on their heads. The classical education is disdained as a tool of white male dominance, professors barely work, college administration has multiplied like hangers in a dank, dark closet, dorms are spas, and free speech is considered dangerous and evil. These under-employed professors, burgeoning administrative class, and luxurious living quarters have caused tuition to rise fast, dramatically outstripping inflation.
  5. The government has taken over student loans, making more money available. As anyone could have predicted, rather than resulting in more students getting affordable educations, the loans resulted in colleges charging ever higher tuition while welcoming in the same number of students as before. The real difference is that students now leave college with staggering debt loads at the end of their four, or five, or six, or seven, years.
  6. College went from being something useful and worthy to being a con, leaving behind embittered, unemployed, and unemployable young people, all burdened by debt and the debility of intellectual Leftism.

VDH has several prescriptions for reversing the problem, such as requiring more information about the nature of the debt students are taken on, making colleges fully or partially liable for unpaid student loans, eliminating tenure, and shrinking the size of college administration.

My core prescription is different, and is the necessary predicate to achieving VDH’s goals: End immediately and with finality every penny of federal money, including guaranteed student loans, that currently goes to any colleges and universities in America. The only exception would be grants for research narrowly restricted to national security matters. Turning off that spigot would instantly end the sinecure of a tenured professorship, strip administration to its bare bones, and make the college experience more about rigor than relaxation. In addition, I’d also do everything that VDH recommends.

More fundamentally than cutting off the cash flow, we need to rethink education entirely. In the very old days (i.e., medieval times), universities existed to train men to be philosophers or clergymen. Everything else was learned through apprenticeships if one was working class or private tutoring for those in the upper classes.

Eventually, though, the upper classes turned to the universities as a way to enlarge their horizons. Although many young men ran wild (drinking and womanizing), those who wanted to could and did delve into all of the wisest principles written about humankind, from the ancients to wisdom from a century or so before. Almost nothing modern was taught, because wisdom had to stand the test of time.

The principle behind this universal education could be summed up in Francis Bacon’s statement that “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” Or as my parents used to say, an education will make you “well-rounded.” Younger sons were prepared for gentlemanly professions (i.e., the clergy or law), while older sons were able to take on the expected task of governing their own lands and, if called upon to do so, the entire country.

With the passage of time, education expanded to certain professions, doing away with apprenticeships in subjects such as medicine, law, architecture, and what’s now labeled as “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Those studying in these fields, however, were still required to take what were called “breadth” classes back when I was in college, which consisted of learning the best and finest wisdom of the Western world. Significantly, this was color-blind wisdom. White men may have written what college students had to student, but the knowledge and skills were intended to explore universal truths about humankind.

Education’s real expansion happened after WWII, when the GI Bill meant that young people who wouldn’t previously have had a chance at a college education now had that chance. Instead of following their fathers into blue collar work, Americans who had proven themselves on the battlefield, could become better-paid, suburban-dwelling, white-collar professionals. But they still had to learn the canons of Western civilization.

It was this insistence on these canons that created a force that helped bind together Americans who came from all races, creeds, colors, countries of national origin, and different American regions. Everyone who graduated from college, no matter where the college was located or whether it was a white college or one of the superb historically black colleges, had a certain shared knowledge about the nature of humankind and how a world should be organized around human nature in order to function optimally. This broad education was the common denominator of America’s growing middle and upper middle classes.

Sadly, that common denominator is now dead — and the death blow came from the same colleges that once taught this humanist canon.

So what’s left? I would argue that colleges and universities are just overpriced trade schools that come complete with hard-Left political and social indoctrination; debauched bacchanals; rampant, demeaning sexual excess; and, never forget, luxurious sports facilities. Oh, and of course, college comes with debt loads that young people will never be able to escape. If it weren’t for the fact that there’s still a cachet to college (that iconic status VDH spoke about), no sane parent would send a child to college.

Looked at objectively, colleges do nothing for kids other than give them four years of extended adolescence at great expense so that they can show on their resume that they were able to get into and then get out of a college. My hope is that stripping colleges down by denying them federal funds will reveal that, like the Emperor, they are naked and butt ugly.

Bottom line: We need to stop pretending that a college education turns out out “educated gentle-people,” as was once the intended norm. Colleges and universities don’t produce educated people; they produce morons and bright kids who no longer know anything useful, who have no reasoning abilities, and who have raw nerves where a sturdy sense of self previously existed. Once we acknowledge that colleges do nothing good for our young people, maybe higher education can return to its medieval role as a trade school, only instead of training philosophers and clergymen, such schools will train competent architects, lawyers, doctors, and STEM majors.

My one shred of hope is that students might be catching on to the con — although I think they’re still too scared to act on this knowledge. Last week, I sent to my Little Bookworm, who attends a chi-chi Midwestern liberal arts college, an article I found on PowerLine: Macalester College: Liberal Arts or Monoculture? In that article, an alumnus who returned to Macalester poignantly describes what he calls “the Leftist monoculture” that has descended upon the open, free-thinking college from which he had graduated decades before:

The evidence I presented of a leftist monoculture was not challenged, but its insidious impact was eloquently articulated by one person in particular.

Jed graduated in May and studied economics / political science. He grew up on a farm, played sports at Macalester, and graduated with honors. He said many students are afraid to speak freely in class to express conservative views and the few who do have experienced “put downs” by the majority in class discussions. Some are afraid their grades will be affected by revealing such views. As a result, free and open debate is stifled. He also stated some acquaintances “defriended” him once they learned he voted Republican.

That’s depressing, but what lifted my spirits a bit was that my Little Bookworm, rather than reading the article and then snarking that her college is nothing like that, told me she loved the article. More than that: She said that she shared it with her friends — all of whom are Progressives — and each agreed that the classroom is a scary place within which to suggest any idea that doesn’t conform to a hard Left world view. They agreed, too, that the worst intellectual bullying came, not from their teachers, but from fellow students (although the teachers, by allowing these students to be bullies, essentially made them the teachers’ proxies). Regardless of who was doing the bullying, my daughter’s friends resented the continuous efforts to shame and intimidate them for being insufficiently woke.

Listening to my daughter describe the atmosphere in too many classrooms, I was reminded of the public mourning after Kim Jong-il died in 2011. Do you remember the videos of people crying hysterically in the streets?

There’s no doubt that some of those North Korean citizens, indoctrinated from birth to believe that Kim Jong-il was the communist equivalent of a God, were genuinely shattered that their God had died (although, Jesus- or phoenix-like, he would be resurrected in the person of his son, Kim Jong-un). With most people, though, I had a strong sense when watching those videos that each was trying to cry harder than the person standing next to him (or her). All of them knew that the secret police were scanning the crowd, and no one could afford to be seen to be less distraught than anyone else, for insufficient tears could result in imprisonment or even death. The tears, therefore, were driven by justifiable paranoia, rather than actual grief.

In the same way, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the best way to save yourself was to denounce someone else. The classroom my daughter and her friends describe is Mao-ist or North Korean in nature.

Because most college kids today are not 1960s-style rebels, but care only about getting a degree and a well-paying job, they sit silently in class, meekly accepting that Maoist abuse their classmates hurl and their teachers countenance. Their silence is aided by the fact that, unless they are out-and-out conservatives, all of these kids accept at some level the Leftist shibboleths thrown at them. After all, they been marinated in these ideas since their first days in public school (or, if they were toddlers watching PBS, since before they could speak).

What gives me hope is that these kids, while they’re not yet boiling with anger, are starting to simmer a little. They’re realizing that the revolution is scary, mean, and stupid. Maybe when they’ve left the fascist liberal arts college behind, along with their overwhelming fear that a bad grade will destroy their post-college lives, they’ll ignore letters begging for donations for endowments. And maybe they’ll tell other young people that their education wasn’t great. And maybe they’ll eventually start speaking out…. Just maybe.

I’ll end with something off topic, just because it interests me. It turns out that there’s a new movie coming out called JoJo Rabbit. Apparently it’s a comedy about Nazis and Adolf Hitler. Before going further, let me say that I think it’s important to ridicule — truly, deeply ridicule — evil enemies, as long as one doesn’t lose track of just how evil they are or were. Hollywood actually knew how to do that back in the 1940s, with things such as Disney’s Der Fuhrer’s Face or Spike Jones’ Schickelgruber. Sadly, from both erroneous principles and raw cowardice, Hollywood refuses to do that with the genocidal Islamic losers waging war against the West today.

In the 1960s, making fun of Nazis was a lot easier, of course, because we’d decisively won the war and they’d decisively lost. Still, because the audience then had still fought against, suffered from, or grown up watching Nazis evil, people got a visceral pleasure out of seeing Nazis ridiculed. That’s how we got Hogan’s Heroes which, while it failed to show just how evil the Germans were, was good at showing them as losers. The premier 1960s Nazi-ridicule show, of course, was The Producers, which featured a screamingly funny, savagely humorous attack on the Nazis. I still laugh every time I watch the Springtime for Hitler number:

But what about today, in 2019? Do Americans still grasp Hitler’s evil enough to make a humorous movie about the Nazis that warns against them even as it ridicules them? I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m doubtful when I consider that we have a generation, two generations, no! make that three generations of young people who think there is no difference between, on the one hand, Trump, who hasn’t violated a single law or Constitutional prohibition, nor has he started wars, imprisoned, enslaved, or killed people and, on the other hand, Hitler, a man who presided over the genocidal slaughter of 6 million Jews, dreamed of the enslavement of all of Europe, and embarked upon a mad war that left 70,000,000 to 85,000,000 people dead (and that’s probably a low guesstimate, given how many poor people, unknown, unnamed people, simply vanished — as, for example, the probable 250,000 Thai people whom the Japanese snatched as slave labor and who never came home). Humor about evil people doesn’t work when your audience is ignorant about the evil bit.

Which gets me back to this new movie: JoJo Rabbit. As best as I can tell from the preview, below, a little boy is being indoctrinated to be a Nazi youth, but struggling with the concept, helps himself along with an imaginary friend . . . who just happens to be Adolf Hitler. After all, he’s been raised believing that Hitler is every good German’s best friend. It’s all played for laughs until the boy discovers that his mom is sheltering a Jewish girl, after which . . . it’s still seemingly played for some laughs:

My prediction, knowing nothing more about the movie than that trailer is that either (a) it’s going to be one of the most brilliant exposes of evil ever done or (b) it’s going to be a mind-blowing disaster that, when played before audiences of historic ignoramuses, will exponentially expand American ignorance, making the Nazis appear like buffoons, while still allowing useful idiots to call Trump “Hitler.” And if I had to bet money, I’d put it all on choice (b).