Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

What I Want

with 5 comments

So, Robert asked how I’m supposed to convince people to study the things I  want them to study.  I thought about that, and a few things occurred to me.

First, I don’t want to force anybody (past the high school level) to study anything.  I’ve been the teacher in the room full of students forced to study literature and angrily resentful of it.  I don’t think the experience did them, or me, any good. 

On the college level, for me, the best solution would be to go back to the system of university degrees in classic liberal arts disciplines (the humanities AND the social sciences AND the hard sciences), and to make everything else (business, nursing, teaching) certificate programs instead.

Most “college” students these days are not getting “college” degrees.  They’re getting vocational training to which the lattes BA or BS are attached.

If this change in designation had come with a reworking of the traditional curricula of these programs to make them actually degree programs, I wouldn’t care.  But what has happened in extending the “degree” designation to myriad vocational rograms is that the “degree” part has been either completely ignored, or so truncated as to be worse than useless.

Look at it this way:  exactly what do you think is accomplished by forcing some girl who wants to be a registered nurse to take a semester of “literature and composition”?  How about a semester of philosophy? 

If she’s the one misfit in a class full of people who know what they’re doing there, you might actually get through to her.  If she’s one of twenty-six students who all think the only reason they’re being required to take this course is so that the university can make money, you not only don’t get through to her, you confirm her conviction that there’s nothing to the study of literature or philosophy.  It’s all just a lot of bullshit and nobody can tell her what she ought to like.

Forcing this young woman to get a “degree” is a vestige of another time, a time when the value of education (as opposed to training) was almost universally  valued in the culture at large.  I don’t mean that there were no Snopeses in the Thirties, or even the Fifties, but that for a long time even the “mass media” paid lip service to higher (and non-monetary) standards of excellence in every area of study. 

And they had a point, too.  The liberal arts are those things we study because we want knowledge for its own sake, but I think education does more than that for the people able and willing to take it in.  It changes our conceptions of the world and of ourselves.  It forces us to acknowledge both the possibility of human greatness and the danger of human depravity.  It calls us to work towards the one and guard against the other, in ourselves if not in the rest of the world.  Lionel Trilling gave the idea in the title to a famous essay, “The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent.”

In a world where the status of “high culture” (both artistic and scientific) was largely unquestioned, even if largely not understood, you could require our nursing student to learn something about  Shakespeare and she would not balk.   She’d have the idea that there was something “stupid” and “ignorant” about not knowing, so that the time she spent in a classroom doing uncongenial work would be like the foul-tasting medicine she had to take to cure her last case of rickets.  No matter how unpleasant the process might be, it was for her own good.

In a climate like this one, however, where high culture (in the artistic sense) is labeled as nothing but snobbishness and elitism, and high culture in the scientific sense is often feared as arrogant and anti-religion, it’s hard to see the point of putting her through this kind of thing.  She doesn’t need it to be a nurse, after all, and for generations nurses, even registered nurses, didn’t have bachelor’s degrees. 

Most of them still don’t have bachelor’s degrees, of course.  They’ve got something called a bachelor’s degree, but without the extensive work in the liberal arts an actual degree would have cost them.  Instead, they’ve been forced to spend a semester here and there being bored by professors who are even more bored themselves.  Their “degree” therefore costs them an extra $20,000 and an extra year than they would have had to spend under the old system, and I don’t see that it’s done them any good at all.

Never mind what I haven’t touched on here, which is intellectual ability.  Real college-level work in real liberal arts is difficult to do.  The usual estimates are that less than 15% of all graduating high school seniors actually meet the standard of sheer raw intelligence to get it done, and far fewer than that have what used to be called a “college track” high school education–that is, the preparation necessary to do real work in the real liberal arts.

Move this to another field and see how silly it sounds:  decide that every single person who wants to be anything at all that pays better than minimum wage has to pass a course in, say, track and field.  And we’re going to hold them to the highest standards!  Our track and field course is going to be just as good and just as rigorous as the one held for the US Olympic team.  After all, anybody can learn to run the four minute mile if we just teach them with the right methods!

What we do, of course, in the real world, is very subtly destroy standards completely, and then pretend we haven’t done it.  Since this is actually very hard to do in math and science–for the early level stuff, there are obvious right and wrong answers, so we can’t really fudge them without getting caught doing what we’re doing–we push the least prepared and least talented students into “college” on the vocational tracks and then make them pay up for “courses” that are largely exercises in wasting time.

Mind you, I’m not talking here about radical professors or pushing politics in the classroom.  I’m talking about courses that don’t teach anything at all.  Most of the profressors I know who teach at the bottom of the academic system do not bother even trying to teach literature.  They rely on the old high school standby–read the work, then tell me whether you like it or not, or think it’s interesting.

Only some of these teachers even bother to correct any but the most egregious misreadings.   What would be the point, really?  Tell students that the point of Othello is not anti-racism, and they’ll hunker down and refuse to budge.  Who are YOU to say what Othello is about?  It’s just your opinon!

So the first thing I want is to get these people out of college classrooms.  They don’t belong there and they don’t want to be there.   There’s nothing wrong with wanting to study nursing, or business, or elementary education.  We need nurses and businessmen and elementary school teachers.  For that matter, we need automechanics and hotel industry workers, two jobs for which it is possible to get a “degree” in some of the “colleges” around where I live.

But none of these jobs requires a grouding in the liberal arts, and most of the students who want to train for them aren’t interested in getting such a grounding.  Let’s return vocational training to vocational schools and leave the colleges to students who actually want a college education.

The second thing I want is a way out of a culture that insists that the only standard that matters is money.

But that’s for tomorrow.

Written by janeh

November 3rd, 2008 at 6:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'What I Want'

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  1. I’ve always thought that the official reason for increasing the length and changing the type of education nurses receive is to give them the training and education needed for them to perform more complicated medical duties – to make them more of a profession (closer to doctors) and less of a service industry. Since Florence Nightingale made nursing respectable, the profession has moved slowly (but with increasing speed) away from hands-on care towards management duties (which, actually FN was also very good at) and working independently rather than always under direction.

    So now even hospitals tend to have relatively few nurses – much of the hands-on care is carried out by personal care attendants or licensed practical nurses, while the RNs do medications, more complicated procedures, administration, and (if they get tired of the shiftwork) move into research or teaching.

    So there’s more to the shift from hospital-based training to university-based training than simply giving them, what, the prestige of a BN? The change is at least partly an attempt to shift nursing a bit more away from being a skilled trade and into a profession.

    Of course, you could argue that universities shouldn’t be training professionals such as doctors and lawyers at all, but since they do, it’s quite understandable that people in the aspiring professional category – nurses, teachers, social workers – would see the path to more money and more respect for people in their jobs as leading straight through the university.

    It’s actually a kind of tribute to the value of education – if a teacher’s college or hospital nursing school or vocational college can produce pretty good teachers, nurses and day care workers (AKA early childhood educators, at least around here), more education at an even bigger and better institution can produce better teachers etc with better qualifications (or at least higher-sounding ones) and who can get better pay.

    I sometimes think most employers use educational level as a filter. You don’t really NEED whatever it says in the job ad to actually do the work (high school diploma, college certificate or diploma, university degree), but if you require it, you have to sift through fewer applications than you would have to otherwise.


    3 Nov 08 at 8:14 am

  2. “First, I don’t want to force anybody (past the high school level) to study anything. I’ve been the teacher in the room full of students forced to study literature and angrily resentful of it. I don’t think the experience did them, or me, any good. ”

    Australian universities do not have distribution requirements. The BA or BS degrees take 3 years.

    There may be good reasons for requiring all students to take a composition course as long as its not used to shove Paradise Lost or Shakespeare down their throats.

    I have mixed feelings about nursing being a university course. The technology is changing so fast that they need to “learn how to learn”. But is university the best way to do that?

    On a personal note, I’ve started “Gone with the WInd” and am having trouble getting started. My tolerance for the angst of 16 year old love struck girls is limited.


    3 Nov 08 at 7:49 pm

  3. I have mixed feelings about the training of nurses, too, but I think the problem there is not so much that either method of training, ie college level or practical OJT with supporting theory education carried out by hospitals, is better than the other. I think it is that this type of what I would call “vocational” work is becoming less attractive to people in this modern world.

    In Australia, nursing, teaching, journalism, and other such quasi-professions were once – until about the late 1960s – among the relatively few ways that ordinary people could break out of the working class. Thus, they those occupations tended to attract many of the brightest and the best of ambitious working class kids. There were either scholarships or cadetships, or other traineeships which enabled poorer people to earn while they learnt, with guaranteed employment, usually bonded, at graduation.

    However, these days, there are numerous other avenues available for such bright working class kids to break out (although, unfortunately, the actual tendency seems to follow the Dalrymple observations, where the working class has lost its incentive to better itself and to become a self-perpetuating social disaster area). Nevertheless, government programmes here mean that a bright kid no longer needs to transition through those “service-type” occupations to get ahead.

    Looking at the global warming/climate change “debate” as an example of the current parlous state of affairs, it’s obvious that what is lacking is a sense of proportion that, in my view, can really only be gained by an appreciation of history. We are where we are today because…? We can’t understand how to get where we would like to be unless we know where we are today, and we can’t know where we are today unless we know how we got here.

    In the last few years of my working life, I was astounded at the ignorance of some of the degree-qualified young officers that were arriving on the scene. On one occasion, in the days before desk-top computers, I found some recently arrived co-workers destroying whole cabinets full of historical archival material. It’s old and irrelevant, they said. They couldn’t understand that they had just destroyed the corporate memory on a whole range of important policy issues, ie they had burnt the road map.

    In many organisations, and most particularly in government, at some stage people will need to be able to think and analyse problems at a level well above that required by the needs of their day-to-day practical work. Scientists need to understand that the perfect scientific solution to their particular perceived catastrophe du jour may be impracticable in whole or in part for a host of good reasons not immediately apparent to them because of the limitations of their specialist education, and the fact that the focus of their research activities may have blinded them to what are to them, even when they are aware of them, mere peripheral issues, eg the social and economic consequences of their scientifically perfect solution.

    I gibber. But essentially I’m saying that it’s not necessarily a bad thing to force students to take humanities courses to teach them about their humanity.


    3 Nov 08 at 8:36 pm

  4. I’m in pretty well complete agreement with Jane. Two points:

    First, the main opposition to changing the present system will come from the colleges of universities. Sixty “non-majors” being taught by whoever can be best spared is a pretty sweet deal for the average History department, which otherwise might have to convince potential students that the subject was worth study.

    Second, that 85% who can’t handle a rigorous university-level liberal arts program would be still better citizens with a better grasp of history. Many would have richer, fuller lives–and perhaps be gulled less often–were they exposed to a wide range of literature, and taught to read with more analytical and critical skills. Most of them are capable of that, and our present system serves them very poorly. Nothing in a three-year vocational program excuses our high schools from their duties. Neither should it keep our colleges and universities from from offering suitable courses for the non-specialist. “Amateur” used to be a term of some respect.


    3 Nov 08 at 10:39 pm

  5. Robert:

    You’d run into even more problems than exist now with funding the universities if you cut out the “non-majors” (or at least that proportion of them who are in basically vocational tracks and have no interest in the traditional liberal arts). Putting money into a bunch of academics studying irrelevant stuff like history? Can you imagine the response of certain politicians – and certain members of the general public?

    Oh, I agree with you that the study of history may well produce better citizens, and I find some areas of history absolutely fascinating. But I know a lot of people consider it a total waste of time because all that stuff is over and done with, isn’t it?

    I hate to admit it, but there are people who consider the Vietnam War ancient history and know and care nothing about it, and I was alive and listening to the news during the Vietnam War! Heaven help anyone who argues for the value of academic study of the Hundred Year’s War!


    4 Nov 08 at 7:33 am

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