October 26, 2007

The Value Of Education

Even though I spend much of my work life engaged in scientific research, I also teach and regard myself as an educator as much as anything else. Thus, education is a topic I hold dear. Not surprisingly, threats to education are a frequent source of outrage. I believe that our children deserve a quality, secular education and that this is essential to ensuring that the U.S. remains competitive in the global markets of the present and future and that we retain an informed citizenry, capable of participating in the American democracy.

I am saddened by the declining educational standards I observe, and I continue to believe that our children and our nation deserve better. Rather than appropriately funding public education, we have lowered educational standards. At the university level, "recruitment" and "retention" are the buzzwords of the day. Improving the quality of the education these students receive is rarely discussed. More and more individuals enter college, not because more are academically qualified but because we have gradually made it easier to finish high school and gain college entrance.

Our democratic ideals tell us that every child deserves a college education. It is a noble sentiment, but it ignores multiple realities. Not everyone is equivalent in terms of intelligence, academic ability, motivation, and a number of other relevant variables. Not every child is capable of earning a college degree. And if such a degree really means anything, not every child should be capable of earning one. The degree is supposed to be a reflection of real achievement, not a participation award. If we are serious about every child deserving the opportunity to succeed in college, then we need to get serious about making sure they are adequately prepared. Because this entails increases in funding, it has yet to happen.

What we have done instead is lower our standards. We have made it easier to succeed in college by reducing the rigor. Standards have been lowered, in large part, to improve student retention. The longer an institution keeps students, the more tuition dollars it takes in. When states refuse to adequately fund higher education, these institutions have few other options. We cannot very well flunk out a large majority of the unqualified students who enter, so faculty are pressured to lower their standards.

The problems go deeper than inadequate funding. At the center of the problem is the value which we as a society place on education. We celebrate athletic accomplishments and reward athletic talent far more than academic talent. We idolize the jocks and ridicule the nerds. Not even the vast contributions to our society by Bill Gates and others known for their intelligence have altered this pattern. Too many parents raise children who grow up believing that a diploma is little more than a commodity. The educational experience itself is considered nearly worthless, as it is all about the diploma as a ticket to a job. Learning for learning sake is considered wasteful; one learns to get a piece of paper to get a job to get money to get a big TV and so on.

And consider the example set by President Bush for a moment. The man is a national disgrace and an international embarrassment. That we somehow found this folksy moron endearing enough to elect speaks volumes on the degree to which our nation devalues intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, and education. Statements like the one quoted in the link should have made headlines in every major newspaper and lead every newscast. That they did not tells me that we have a tremendous amount of work to do if we are to get back on the right track.

Not only does Bush not appear to be particularly embarrassed by such frequent gaffes, but his administration regularly expresses disdain for science. What sort of model does this provide for our children? The neo-conservatives don't even think government should be involved in educating the citizenry! They'd rather have the Christian churches do it.

Expect to hear more from me on this topic because it is too important to ignore. If we value reason, we must recognize that reason is learned. A strong secular education fosters reason and critical thinking skills. If these are the skills we want our citizenry to apply, then strengthening public education must be a priority.