A Book President Obama Should Read

If you listen to the glowing rhetoric about higher education, you hear about how it does so much to enhance students’ skills, how it will raise their earnings, how it makes them better citizens for our democracy, and so on. All that being true, how could anyone be against expanding “access” to college so that as many young Americans as possible attend?

Readers of this column know that I have been arguing against that idea for years. It’s not that nobody benefits from college education, but we have already expanded college to include many people who have scant academic interest and ability. Trying to become Number One in the World in college graduates, as President Obama declared America should be, would fill classrooms with still weaker students.

If I could sneak into the White House and place a book on the president’s chair, I’d leave a copy of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower by “Professor X.” The author, an adjunct professor of English, writes about his struggles to get students to write acceptably. He isn’t aiming at polished prose, but simply at writing that wouldn’t embarrass a competent middle-schooler. Seldom does he succeed.

Here is the book’s big point: Lots of American kids leave high school with such pathetic educations that putting them through college does almost no good—at high expense.

The author feels very sorry for his students and works hard to get them to improve their ability to write even a single clear sentence. But the truth, he writes, “is that the work submitted by my students is often so garbled that it is impossible to understand what they are thinking.”

Bear in mind that X is not teaching remedial courses. He’s teaching students who for the most part have already been through remedial courses. That goes far toward confirming my suspicion that remedial English usually does not—cannot—bring poor students “up to speed” for real college-level work. Students get passed through remedial courses (although perhaps on the second or third try) because colleges hate to lose any paying customers.

A theme that recurs throughout the book is that most of X’s students aren’t in college by choice. They aren’t in his class because they want to learn about literature or even because they realize that they are weak in reading and writing. Instead, they’re in college because they have to get the credential!

Drawing an analogy to the housing bubble (as we at the Pope Center have on several occasions), Professor X writes, “In much the same way the country spent the first decade of the 2000s redefining what it meant to be a homeowner (to disastrous effect), so too have we reclassified which jobs require a college degree of some sort. Industry, including the civil service, wants its workers to be as credentialed as possible.” Therefore we find college degree “requirements” for jobs like managing a video store.

One result is that poor kids (and sometimes middle-aged adults) who want to escape from the drudgery of their current jobs and have a chance at even such mundane work as managing a video store have to get college degrees. Their coursework will enhance their ability to do that job scarcely one smidgen, but it’s the credential that matters. They have to spend or borrow money to take X’s evening course (and many others) just to get out of the “no college” trap.

Professor X regards that system as extremely foolish, writing, “Let’s start devising human resource qualifications that actually reflect an ability to do the job, and not an applicant’s skill at coming up with a certificate of dubious relevance.”

Precisely! I have been making the same argument for years, along with Charles Murray, Richard Vedder, and others. Will anyone with influence in the business community pay attention?

Some of the students already do have decent jobs, though. They are working toward college credentials because they will mean automatic raises. Professor X is glad they’re enrolled because he needs the meager additional income from his adjunct classes, but nevertheless doubts that the extra education his students get justifies paying them more. Will a police officer be less apt to engage in racial profiling because he was assigned The Invisible Man? X is skeptical that people who take classes just because the credential means money really learn much.

The book is chock full of revealing insights about “higher education” these days.

Consider, for example, Professor X’s experience in teaching a course called Business Communications. He didn’t have any experience in that field, but the school needed someone to handle the course and X didn’t want to turn down the extra income, so he taught it.

Here’s his description of the class:

I couldn’t possibly have answered any questions posed by the students, but fortunately my teaching was so uninspired that none were raised. My methodology consisted of going through the textbook with the class, summarizing (as best I could) and restating the main points of each little section….When things got particularly desperate, I screened movies that had some remote connection to the business world….I gave everybody an A and wrote the whole experience off as a mistake.

But that’s not the end of the story. He was asked to teach the course again and when he declined, the chair of the department replied, “It’s really a shame. You did a great job in there.”

That episode powerfully underscores the point I made in the piece I wrote about the Pope Center’s “Right/Left Convergence” event. The strongest area of agreement was that teaching quality is a matter of little concern to most college officials. Think about what X said—he was asked to teach a course in which he had no knowledge, stumbled through it giving the students nothing they couldn’t have easily learned on their own, gave every student an A regardless of achievement, and was told that he had done “a great job.”

He had done a lousy job in a course for which he had no expertise—but that didn’t matter! The students and administrators were perfectly happy.

Professor X also registers a strong dissent from the frequently heard notion that colleges must do more to “graduate their students.” (Duke Cheston and I bulldozed that idea here.) In response to an editorial contending that colleges should do more to turn entering students into graduates, X writes, “If the pressure mounts on colleges…to get all their students through the program, grades will inflate tremendously and degrees and certificates will be worthless.”

Again, precisely.

If we keep expanding higher education, the result won’t be more sharp kids mastering tough scholarly disciplines. Our sharp kids are already there.  Instead, we will wind up with more academically weak kids struggling to get through basic material they should have learned in grade school. Read Professor X and you’ll see how much waste, folly, and even misery is caused by our college credential mania.