Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Skills and Thrills

with 7 comments

First, to answer Cheryl’s question–a propriety school is a school that’s run for profit, like a business.

Most private colleges and universities in the  United States are non-profit corporations.  They aren’t expected to make money for anybody.  They don’t pay dividends.  And they’re not fly by nights.  Many of them–the big names like Harvard, Yale, Amherst,  Vassar, but also smaller places like  St.  Olaf’s and Kenyon–have been around for over a hundred years.  They have endowments that help them keep running, but they do not ever need to show that they’ve made money, nor do they usually do that.

Proprietary schools, on hte other hand, are businesses just like GM and Microsoft.  They exist to make a profit, and they do that by running their offerings on a business model.  Even a small college like Kenyon supports a number of faculty members whose entire focus is research, because the disinterested pursuit of knowledge is what it is they’re supposed to be doing.  A proprietary school supports no such faculty members, because for them it would be pointless.  They’re in business to deliver a service and make money from it.

And as businessnes, they lack some of the constraints of their non-profit competitors.  For instance, Harvard and Yale must deal with rules on the hiring and tenure of faculty laid down by the AAUP.  Phoenix can hire pretty much everybody piecemeal and part time and avoid all that. 

But what I really want to get to is Robert’s contention that:

>>>There seems to be an implicit assumption that schools hire high schol or college graduates because they have certain skills, that the students need or want to aquire these skills, and that the schools are threatened when they don’t educate the students. This is true–over in the schools of Chemistry, Engineering, Medicine and a number of others. But they’re doing fine.
The crisis seems to be among students looking for a job which requires “any four-year degree” the employers who hire such, and the faculty of the “fuzzy science” end of the Humanities. >>>

Let me try to untangle this for a couple of minutes.

First, I think that students and their parents think that students are in schools to acquire skills that employers want them to have.  This is not the purpose of a college education, h owever, and it never was.  There is a fundamental mismatch here between the institutions and what they’re being used for.

The English department in a research-level university or high-end liberal arts college does not exist to teach its students how to write.   In fact, it’s a fair guess that there will be nobody on the faculty of such a department who would know how to go about doing that.  Professors of English are trained in the intellectual history of prose in English, and that’s what they teach.

The assumption that colleges and universities will teach composition is fairly new.  It arose in the last twenty or thirty years, at the point at which we could no longer asume that the students coming into higher education had already learned that in elementary and high school. 

I’m with Robert.  The persuasive essay and the reesearch paper are subjects for eighth grade English, whose teachers are supposed to be trained to teach just that.  But outside of honors courses or gifted programs, we no longer teach that then, or in high school, for the simple reason that if we insisted on such a standard too many people would fail.

That said, as far as I can tell, Mary F, who actually has to hire liberal arts graduates, is having a good time with them.   They have the communications skills she needs.  But I do think they have those things not because they were taught them in college courses, but because the fact that they’d managed to make it through four years of a good university meant that they were more likely than people who didn’t have that background to have acquired those skills along the way.

It’s useless to rail at the “fuzzy scienes” and the Humanities for not teaching students how to read and write, for the same reason it’s useless to rail at the Chemistry department for not teaching people how to draw and play the flute–those things are not what the Chemistry department is meant to teach.

But the fact is that the people who have the most problems with reading and writing are very unlikely to be majoring in the fuzzy sciences or the Humanities–they’re going to be majoring in various kinds of business (marketing, management, human resources), or in majors that have been concocted from whole cloth over the last decade or so, like “criminal justice,” “equine management” and “pre-law.” 

These are the kids in the bottom half of the achievement/ability distribution, not the kids who go on to  Vassar and Northwestern.  They were unlikely to be in honors or AP classes in high school, or they went to the kind of high schools where such classes, although a significant improvement over the standard offerings, were so watered down vis a vis the AP offered in good schools that they made very little difference.

Robert asks how people can gain sufficient context to read well if they don’t read for pleasure, and the answer is–quite easily, if the schools they go to are providing it.  Lots of people who read very well indeed never read for pleasure, and a fair number of people who read for pleasure seem to have very little context.   That’s who buys all those Chicken Soup for the Soul books.

Schools used to provide their students with context through continual reinforcement–history class was careful to cover the Boston tea party, the Civil  War and the bombing of Pearl Harbor; English class read Longfellow, Thoreau and Faulkner and visited those same events as a side issue.  Etc.

This is the premis behind E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy project, which has been adopted (with significant success, by the way) by charter and private schools all over the country.  Kindergarten children do little plays about the First Thanksgiving.   Middle school children read the story of Miles Standish. Junior high school students read Washington Irving.  High school students read The Scarlet Letter and The Red Badge of Courage.   Everything works together.  The general knowledge I’m talking about becomes literally part of the landscape, things students know without remembering where they first heard them and without being aware of consciously studying them.  

Does doing things this way insure that every student will acquire the necessary context?


It never did.  We most certainly insisted on the persuasive essay and the research paper in eighth grade–but we did it in while we allowed far more students to flunk out and leave school.

The problem, I think, is that we’ve defined “everybody should have a high school education” as “everybody should have a high school diploma.”   The two things are not the same.

If we insisted on adhering to the same standards that defined a high school education  in 1945, we would almost certainly see a lot fewer people graduate from high school.

If we insisted on adhering to the same standards that defined a college education in 1945, we’d have to close the huge network of lower-level state schools that have arisen essentially in an attempt to provide high-school-level skills to the kids who know have the diplomas without the skills because we’ve dumbed down the high school program to allow them to graduate.

And while we’ve been doing that, we’ve been dumbing down the skills levels even for a lot of the kids who would have graduated under the old system, because keeping up appearances–pretending not to be doing what we are in fact doing–has meant making sure it isn’t too obvious that “honors” mean “a whole different universe.”

What I would do, if it was up to me, would be to set the standards back to where they were at the end of the Second World War, and then allow any student who wanted to to give them a shot.  I wouldn’t allow schools to sort students beforehand–oh, you’re not college material, you take shop.   That decision should be up to the student.

But it should also be the case that if the kid fails, he fails.  The standard should be what it is.  The kid should get to try it as often as he wants.  But if he can’t do it, then it makes sense to acknowledge that he can’t do it.

What we’ve got now is a kind of hat trick.  We declare thatwe’ve made so much progreess–so many more people graduate from high school than used to in the bad old days.

But they don’t, really.  They’re no m ore able to do high school level work than their grandparents were, they’ve just be given a nice, but mostly meaningless ceremony in a cap and gown.

Written by janeh

May 20th, 2009 at 9:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Skills and Thrills'

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  1. Actually, I do think that the people that I’ve hired with degrees have writing skills because they wanted to learn writing skills, not because college automatically confers them. That is, it’s more about Eric and Ben than it is about the fact that they graduated.

    I also know that there’s friction between what the parents and students are looking for – a degree that will get them hired – and the traditional learning for learning’s sake approach in at least some colleges. I’m taking a Master’s program in business at night, and had this discussion with one of the professors and from what Martha said, there’s been quite a dialogue about the purpose of the university.

    In the end, though, I suspect that what will win is what’s being sought by the people paying tuition, which means that odds are the colleges and universities will wander farther away from their original purpose.


    20 May 09 at 10:11 am

  2. So ‘proprietary’ would be what we call ‘private’ here, the private non-profit type being extremely thin on the ground, especially at the post-secondary level.

    I can’t say I’ve been terribly impressed by the achievements of the local version – that is, the ones that are still in business. They generally offer similar stuff to the public version, except for costing more money to the students and provide them with fewer resources. They do tend to have openings when public schools don’t. Some years ago, the owner of one chain that went through a rather spectacular financial collapse was later reported to be in Florida writing a book on how to make money from private schools!

    Providing teachers with poorer pay and working conditions doesn’t sound good to me either.

    No change is going to happen in the schools unless people somehow begin to value reading, and expect higher skills at the end of high school – which, as you point out, is going to mean more people don’t graduate.

    What about a modified version of tracking? That is, at about grades 10-12, offer a range of sequences of courses. Weaker students take English Language 13, middle-of-the road ones take E.L. 12 and the best ones E.L. 11, and a glance at the transcript can tell the potential employer or admissions officer whether the high school graduate spent three years practicing spelling or writing research papers. Between-school variation can be reduced by end-of-course common exams across a reasonably large area, including all schools, reported either separately or averaged with the internal grade.


    20 May 09 at 2:09 pm

  3. Cheryl, how does it happen that public schools don’t have have openings? My understanding is that in the US, if a kid’s in the area for the school district, the district has to provide a place for him or her in school.


    20 May 09 at 2:11 pm

  4. K-12, yes, public schools are obliged to take anyone between 5 & 18 (IIRC) who lives in their district, and may take other students if space permits. One small rural school had a bit of a good deal going taking in ‘Level IV’ students – that is, adults who hadn’t finished high school. It put their numbers up a bit, giving them more resources. Some of those Level IVs hadn’t seen a high school in years! Actually, it worked reasonably well since there wasn’t an ABE (Adult Basic Education) program in the area, so the adults got more education and the school got more resources.

    But I was talking about post-secondary schools, specifically the community college sort-of equivalent aka ‘college’. We’ve got a big public college formed by amalgamating a bunch of regional community colleges. It’s one of those not-quite-government things – they have their own management and charge tuition but get government support too. And they don’t have to take everyone, although I seem to remember a period in the recesses of history when they did. You can be on a waiting list for a while to get into one of their high-demand programs. The much smaller private colleges will offer courses where there’s a demand at a higher price in worse facilities and little waiting. They don’t tend to offer the ones that require a lot of expensive equipment (eg petroleum techonology) at all. There it’s the public college or nothing. Or moving out to Alberta to a college with a similar program.


    20 May 09 at 2:48 pm

  5. Ah. Yes, post-secondary schools of pretty much any description usually have admission requirements of some sort, though I’ve heard of state colleges (Morehead State in Kentucky) where the requirement is “graduate from a Kentucky high school”.


    20 May 09 at 2:51 pm

  6. Overall, I agree with the program as described: set and maintain standards. If the failure rate is unsatisfactory, look at changing teaching methods rather than lowering the standards.

    On “purpose” I’m still not sure you or I get to choose for institutions. I AM sure that if you take someone’s money for a four-year degree in equine management, either your graduates can manage equines, or you’re a fraud. If colleges don’t want to be trade schools, they shouldn’t offer such majors. In fact, the land grant colleges were set up for precisely that–to provide advanced training in trades where seondary education wasn’t enough, and there was no apprenticeship program. The urge to become a bargain basement Ivy League sometimes gets the better of them.

    But don’t let the fuzzy sciences off the hook: political science, sociology and–in some cases–anthropology courses–not to mention psychology–often have equally discouraging students and faculty.

    As for the suitability of a research university English faculty to carry on the Great Conversation–well, maybe. During an earlier phase of the discussion, I looked up the History course offerings one of our oldest and most prestigious universities, and the qualifications of the faculty. I don’t know what the place was a century ago, but today, I’d advise anyone really interested in history to stay home and make use of a good municipal library system.

    There are thing wrong in universities for which no one outside the university is to blame.


    20 May 09 at 5:49 pm

  7. just a comment. I was in a freshman in 1954. We had a composition course – required of almost all student. A 1000 word essay every week does teach writing even if it also produces life long hatred of Milton and Hardy.

    Of course, the instructors wered all grad students.


    20 May 09 at 9:55 pm

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