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Romanticists v. Determinists in Education

President Obama's proclamation that "by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world" reignites the long-simmering debate about the issue. To achieve this objective, an additional 375,000 students a year would have to graduate with at least an associate's or bachelor's degree. This number represents a 42 percent increase over today's output. At present, the U.S. ranks ninth in the proportion of young adults age 25-34 with college degrees among the countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

At first reading, Obama's goal makes sense. The benefits of a sheepskin have been repeated so often by now that they have become a mantra.. Therefore, let's assume for the sake of argument that they are largely true. (I hasten to add that I'm skeptical.) Can teachers prepare the required number of students per year needed to make the U.S. No. 1 once again?

This is where the debate invariably pits romanticists against determinists. The leading spokesperson for the latter is Charles Murray. In Real Education (Crown Forum, 2008), he argues that only a small minority of high school graduates possesses the intelligence to succeed in college. Murray makes a crucial distinction between merely surviving and doing well in college. When large numbers of students are unable or unwilling to do the hard work required, professors can either give them the grade they deserve or vitiate their standards to avoid a rebellion. It's not surprising that they've opted for the latter.

Three new books pick up on this point, albeit from different angles: Higher Education? (Times Books, 2010), The Five-Year Party (BenBella, 2010), and No Sucker Left Behind (Common Courage Press, 2010). What they all ask is why college isn't what it used to be? They agree one of the reasons is that too many students are attending college who simply don't belong there. Even if professors were interested more in teaching than in research, it wouldn't mean that students would necessarily learn more. That's because ten percent of the 4,431 liberal arts colleges are party schools, according to Craig Brandon, author of The Five-Year Party. By extension, the same percentage probably applies to universities, but he doesn't specifically say so.

The leading spokesperson for the romanticists is Education Secretary Arne Duncan. He believes that far more students should go to college. He bases his view on the examples of teachers whose dedication has enabled their students to overcome their past history of underachievement and shine academically. There is no question that inspired teachers can work wonders. Jaime Escalante still serves as the most convincing evidence. Prior to the publicity given to his accomplishments with students who had been written off as "non-academic," most people believed that the potential to learn was overwhelmingly determined at an early age. He demonstrated otherwise.

Which side in the debate is right? The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Success in college is not solely the result of intelligence or aptitude. Perseverance and dedication play a powerful role that is not fully appreciated. The dean of any college or university can document the number of students who were granted admission based on their sterling academic qualifications and yet never graduated. (I'm not talking about those who dropped out because of financial reasons.) They lacked the necessary seriousness or resiliency. Of course, IQ ("g") is indispensable, but it alone is no guarantee.

Ultimately, the issue always comes down to a personal level. If students don't like to read and prefer working with their hands, for example, why counsel them to apply to a four-year liberal arts college? At best, they might pass through. Wouldn't they be better off going to a community college to learn a trade in line with their interests? Or what about apprenticeships in the field of their choosing? Why is this blue collar work considered less worthy of respect?

In the past, when the cost of college was a fraction of what it is today, the answer would likely be that at least those students would be exposed to new ideas which could conceivably open their minds. But since 1990, the price of tuition, fees, room and board at private and public four-year colleges has risen between three and four times the increase in average family income, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Yet this disconnect has not deterred the nation's 23.7 million undergraduate students.

Let's hope that the record percentage of female and male high school graduates now enrolled in college get their money's worth. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but let's not forget either that debt is a terrible thing to carry.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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