The education gospel and its heretics

Education is as close as the U.S. gets to a secular religion, writes Steven Brint in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  “In a time when Americans have lost faith in their government and economic institutions, millions of us still believe in its saving grace,” writes Brint, a UC-Riverside sociology professor.

The American education gospel is built around four core beliefs. First, it teaches that access to higher levels of education should be available to everyone, regardless of their background or previous academic performance. Every educational sinner should have a path to redemption (most of these paths now run through the community colleges). Second, the gospel teaches that opportunity for a better life is the goal of everyone and that education is the primary — and perhaps the only — road to opportunity. Third, it teaches that the country can solve its social problems — drugs, crime, poverty, and the rest — by providing more education to the poor. Education instills the knowledge, discipline, and the habits of life that lead to personal renewal and social mobility. And, finally, it teaches that higher levels of education for all will reduce social inequalities, as they will put everyone on a more equal footing. No wonder President Obama and Bill Gates want the country to double its college graduation rate over the next 10 years.

Brint looks at books by education heretics: Education, edited by Feliciy Allen; What Is Education?, by Philip W. Jackson; Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality by John Marsh; and In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic by Professor X.

Brint calls the leading heresy  “the new restrictionism.” It argues that open access to higher education has flooded colleges and universities with unprepared, unmotivated students who spend all their energy texting, tweeting and “facebooking,” rather than studying.  Colleges must dumb down the curriculum and offer easy A’s to keep tuition flowing.

Professor X, who teaches writing at a community college and an unselective four-year college, sees students going into debt in pursuit of a degree of dubious utility that they probably won’t complete.

We don’t like to admit that one student may be smarter, sharper, harder working, better prepared, more energetic, more painstaking — simply, a better student — than another … Our quest to provide universally level playing fields has made us reluctant to keep score.

“Romantic” heretics argue that schooling crushes the spirit. The “fools’ gold” heretics challenge the idea that education leads to social progress. “True educators” don’t care about changing society. They want to transform individuals.

Like Brint, I think the education gospel’s strongest challenge will come from heretics who say college should be reserved for academically competent, motivated students. Even the gospel’s crusaders, led by President Obama, are talking about a year of “postsecondary education” —  job training — for all, not a bachelor’s degree for all, though they want to push more people to an associate or bachelor’s degree as well.

Failure rates are sky-high at open-admissions colleges and universities. In New York City, taxpayers shell out $17,700 (including federal and state financial aid) for every community college dropout, according to a new report. And only 28 percent of students complete a degree in six years. The community colleges with the highest student success rates are technical colleges, which specialize in job training, usually at the certificate level.  The two-year, for-profit career colleges also have strong completion rates, despite recruiting high-risk students. Everyone can benefit from college — if we define job training as “college.”

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  1. Education needs to be reflective of economic opportunities in addition to providing access to intellectual growth in order to be effective. That’s a tall order these days. As saving graces are concerned the pursuit of knowledge is a pretty good one! But the model becomes a fallacy when kids are left with crippling debt after collage.