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An epidemic of ignorance

It is painful for me to write about ignorance in America because it is rampant and disturbing. I was at my local watering hole one night talking to a professor at Carnegie Mellon University when, after several libations, I suddenly heard myself exclaiming when did everybody get stupid?  By stupid, I did not mean mentally slow or impaired. Rather, I meant ignorant or untrained to think. As with so many other things, I believe you can lay this at the feet of a culture dominated by corporations, aka. the "consumer" society.

I am not going to cite the usual statistics today—the U.S. ranks 27th among developed nations in the share of students getting engineering and science degrees—as I did in American Competitiveness? It's Not A Pretty Picture. Instead, let's look at what's happening on college campuses.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have written a book called Academically Adrift: Limited Learning On College Campuses. Here's an excerpt from the summary—

In spite of soaring tuition costs, more and more students go to college every year ... but almost no one asks the fundamental question posed by Academically Adrift: are undergraduates really learning anything once they get there?

For a large proportion of students, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s answer to that question is a definitive no. Their extensive research draws on survey responses, transcript data, and, for the first time, the state-of-the-art Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester and then again at the end of their second year.

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According to their analysis of more than 2,300 undergraduates at twenty-four institutions, 45 percent of these students demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills—including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing—during their first two years of college. [The number is 36% after four years.] As troubling as their findings are, Arum and Roksa argue that for many faculty and administrators they will come as no surprise—instead, they are the expected result of a student body distracted by socializing or working and an institutional culture that puts undergraduate learning close to the bottom of the priority list.

From a personal standpoint, people have no hope of reading and understanding what I say on DOTE without the ability to engage in critical thinking and complex reasoning. In fact, I have noticed on many occasions that people have simply not understood what I have said in a post.

Incomprehension may be due to poor communication on my part, but I seriously doubt that's the problem most of the time. Either these people have not been able to understand what I wrote, or they have read into it whatever they want to, i.e. what they are already inclined to believe as opposed to what I actually said. Sometimes I am confronted with the wrongness of things I did not say. So the problem of ignorance, or a lack of reading skills, or an inability to follow a complex argument, is compounded by psychological confusion. Fortunately, these problems are relatively rare on DOTE, but take a look at the comment sections on really popular blogs like The Big Picture or Global Economic Analysis.

Looking at education generally, the situation is grim, as we might expect in a dying Empire. Here's a quote from USA Today

Instructors tend to be more focused on their own faculty research than teaching younger students, who in turn are more tuned in to their social lives ... Students also spent 50% less time studying compared with students a few decades ago, the research shows.

"These are really kind of shocking, disturbing numbers," says New York University professor Richard Arum, lead author of the book, published by the University of Chicago Press.

He noted that students in the study, on average, earned a 3.2 grade-point average. "Students are able to navigate through the system quite well with little effort," Arum said.

It is natural for young people to focus on their social lives, but it defeats the purpose of a college education if their instructors don't give a damn whether the students learn anything or not. And here we must come to grips with the fact that colleges and full-fledged universities are run just like private corporations. Corporations try to make money for their shareholders. Academics try to accrue grants that benefit themselves and the university. The "business models" are different but the goal is the same: make or attract money. Education of the young is no longer the primary goal of so-called educational institutions.

If education no longer the main mission of colleges and universities, what is it? The answer is: entertainment. And that choice has been forced upon them. Consider this quote from Stephen Dubner's The True Cause of College-Tuition Inflation

it’s probably also important to consider how much money colleges have been putting into student amenities as well. When I visited my undergrad alma mater a few years ago, the chancellor pointed out that three buildings had gone up in the past decade or so that were each larger than any existing building on campus. There was a library, a convocation center (a multipurpose arena), and a huge student gym.

The gym, he said, was a top priority because parents and prospective students increasingly think of themselves as customers, shopping for the most amenities for the best price, and the colleges that didn’t come to grips with this would soon see their customers going elsewhere.

Prospective students are not would-be learners. No, they are customers, potential "consumers" of the college experience. Lest you think this story is anecdotal, consider this report from CNNMoney called Is college still worth the price?

After recalling his days as a low-paid community organizer, Obama urged the graduates to consider careers in public service. "I ask you to seek these opportunities when you leave here," Obama declared. "The future of this country - your future - depends on it." His message was received with enthusiastic applause.

Calls to "give back" always seem to resonate at elite schools like Wesleyan, a picture postcard of academic abundance on its 360-acre wooded campus, complete with state-of-the-art film center, 7,500-square-foot fitness facility, skating rink, 11-building arts complex and a new $47 million student center offering everything from Mongolian grill entrées to organically grown coffee...

If colleges were spending most of their money on initiatives that improve the quality of education for students, you might regard price hikes running at two to four times the rate of inflation as a necessary evil. But spending on palatial dorms, state-of-the-art fitness centers and a panoply of gourmet dining options? Maybe not.

Yet that's precisely what many schools are doing to attract students - engaging in a luxury arms race, fueled by the wealth of such elite institutions as Harvard and Yale.

Sure, they're also putting funds into cutting class sizes and hiring top professors. But they're spending even more on building Hogwarts-style dorms with mahogany casement windows of leaded glass (Princeton's newest $136 million student residence); installing 35-foot climbing walls and hot tubs big enough for 15 people (Boston University); providing multiple eateries with varied cuisines and massive fitness and recreation centers (too many schools to name).

"There's a lot of competition from other colleges," says Steven Knapp, president of George Washington University. "In today's consumer culture, parents and students expect a certain level of comfort - and they compare the amenities."

The goal of all this collegiate bling is to entice more people to apply...

[My note: Sorry, I felt compelled to whip out the red font. I will cover the exorbitant cost of going to college in another post.]

Affluent prospective students are shopping around, looking for the best college experience money can buy. Think about it. College-age people today were born in the late 1980s or the early 1990s. They were socialized as "consumers" of everything—smart phones, burgers, fancy t-shirts and college degrees. Once at college, they will spend 51% of their time socializing and recreating. The colleges need to provide those "amenities" (fitness centers, gourmet dining) that attract young people who have been bombarded with little other than advertising for 18 years.

These same young people, especially if they come from well-off families, think nothing of giving out their personal information to Facebook or anyone else that wants to sell that information to people who want to sell them stuff. In fact, they want to be targeted by advertisers. That makes consumption all that much easier.

So-called "consumers" (as opposed to people, or citizens) are regressed. They live in a child-like, or even infantile, psychological state. They will never become fully-fledged adults. Corporations encourage this. Advertisers can't sell pointless junk to educated, sophisticated people who know how to discriminate. They want sheeple who are easily led on. Colleges are catering to "consumers," not learners. Consumption is easy. Learning is hard. Eating at the Mongolian Grill is easy. Learning calculus is hard. Watching TV is easy. Reading is hard. Nobody reads anymore, and if they do, they read the insipid crap put out by a "consumer-aware" publishing industry which must value money over quality if they want sell any books.

We are living amongst an epidemic of ignorance. We are left to conclude that over one-third of graduates learn diddly-squat while they are in college. Richard Arum calls that "shocking and disturbing," but it's just fine with the elites who own this country. Do you remember what George Carlin said?

But there's a reason ... education sucks. It's the same reason it will never, ever, ever, ever be fixed. It's never going to get any better, don't look for it, be happy with what you've got. Because the owners of this country don't want that...

I'll tell you what they don't want. They don't want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking, they don't want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They're not interested in that, that doesn't help them. It's against their interests. They don't want people smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they're getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago...

In my time, before the full evolution of the "consumer" society, do you know what we would have called the college experience today? Babysitting.

Bonus Video from Tech Ticker.

Editorial Notes: And as we know, corporations are everywhere, or if they aren't, they soon will be. -KS

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