Wednesday, July 11, 2007

New woes and lows in American education

Paying students to perform?

Fannie Flono reports, in an article in the Charlotte Observer, that public schools in New York City are planning to begin paying students as much as $500 a year for high performances on city tests. She says that schools in other areas are planning to follow suit and are inclined to try anything -- except more of what's proven to work. ("Paying students will close academic gap?," Charlotte Observer, June 22, 2007). Since when is education valuable only as a means harnessed to arbitrary external ends? This is totally stupid. If it motivates any students at all, it would do so for reasons purely extrinsic to the inherent value of education. While some education is useful as a means to extrinsic ends (like the technical know-how acquired in buisiness math classes, or auto mechanics, or computer science), the basic substance and heart of education (the liberal arts) can only be regarded as perfectly valueless if regarded in this way. You can't do anything really useful with knowledge of literature, history, social studies, etc. You can teach these subjects; but teaching only pushes back the question another step: Why are these subjects worth studying? The answer doesn't lie in anything external to the knowledge acquired. To assess them in that way is to completely miss the point of studying (or teaching) these subjects. They're valuable because such knowledge is worth having for its own sake. It gives you knowledge. In doing so, it makes you more of a human being, giving you more depth and substance, instead of leaving you a "sexy little zero" like Paris Hilton, trapped in the shallow puddle of her own immediate experience. The trouble these days is that so many students would rather be like Paris Hilton than know anything worthwhile. In contrast to Socrates, who said "The unexamined life is not worth living," they assume that the examined life is not worth living.

Cheating now 'epidemic' at Duke?

Evidence of that is provided by Jane Stancill and Eric Ferreri in an article reporting that even at some of the nationes most prestigious, top-ranked graduate schools, cheating is now called "epidemic." For example, at prestigious Duke University's highly regarded Fuqua School of Business, "34 students convicted of cheating could lose their shot at an MBA diploma worth gold" ("More cheat, schools say," The News & Observer, May 10, 2007). This is at schools where students borrow up to $120,000 for a two-year program of study. It's not just Duke. Indiana University's dental school recently announced that it had expelled nine students and suspended 16 for sharing computer passwords to gain access to an exam before they took it; and 21 others were reprimanded for knowing about the scheme but not reporting it. Further, 15 students were recently expelled and three resigned from the U.S. Air Force Academy after sharing test answers through social-networking Web sites. Cynicism is so rampant that some people will rationalizing anything. "I had to make an 'A' or I couldn't graduate." "I had to pass the course, or I couldn't keep my football scholarship." I've seen students with crib notes written all over their palms in tiny letters. Students will write answers out in advance on the inside of a stretched-out rubber band, so that the writing disappears when the band is allowed to contract to its normal size. The lengths of trouble to which students will go to cheat and the ingenuity they will expend on strategies for cheating are mind boggling. If a fraction of this effort were spent on cracking open and reading a book, they would be doing swimmingly well. Yet I've had students come up to me and brazenly ask whether they could borrow a copy of my text for a course half-way through the semester, because they hadn't yet purchased a copy for themselves. For the first time in my two decades of teaching, three years ago I had a class of 35 freshmen in which 17 failed the course. The jig is up, folks. As a general culture, we're on the greased skids to knuckle-dragging mouth-breathing idiocy.

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