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15.7.12

Program symptomatic of LA higher education deterioration

It’s not really the content of what’s termed a “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender” minor to which Louisiana taxpayers ought to object. Rather, it’s just the symptom of a larger disease in the state’s higher education delivery system, a malady that must be treated if the system is to evolve into an efficient and effective producer of economic development and in its capacity to assist in advancing knowledge of the human condition.

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette seems to have instituted this kind of minor, which is a selection of coursework often about 18 hours of study that are in addition to a student’s major area of study. Often, courses in these can serve double duty in fulfilling university requirements past the roughly one-third of hours required for all baccalaureate students in Louisiana. Noted on completer’s transcripts, this one is said to cull courses from sociology, cultural anthropology, child and family studies and human sexuality. As is typical of most minors, it does not require any additional startup costs, as existing courses and resources are used to deliver it.

Naturally, it has little practical use out in the real world. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because while one purpose of a college degree is to impart a useful skill set, which has particular import in the hard sciences and related areas such as in business, the other is, to put it maybe tritely, to broaden horizons. This is accomplished by exposing students to a spectrum of the human condition, as expressed through a number of different activities and end-products of them, with the end goal being to get students to understand the basics and then use those as a jumping off point to encourage them to be able to think successfully critically about them, to form their own meritorious ideas, and to explicate them in a way others can understand.

This is why the real and proper university should continue to insist that all students learn something in areas that, as far as specific employment and careers go, has little practicality. Taking from my own discipline, from the introductory course American Government and just one of dozens of areas within it, students may grumble about things like why they have to know what powers the states have as opposed to the federal government, how federalism works, what our civil liberties and rights are and they are determined, which may government affect and which level of it and how, etc. But in a society where government is granted fantastic powers, knowing these basics are essential not only to understanding how government can affect lives, but in how to use government to maximize an individual’s life prospects. If nothing else, people are best off when they know how to defend themselves against a system of government that creates many opportunities for those who maximize the worst qualities of mankind, and are quite willing to exploit others in the process, yet designed in the hope that it can control these impulses to allow for maximization of liberty of all while pursuing genuine common goods.

These life lessons are just the basics. Getting deeper into this area of behavioral science, for example, if you were to take a class such as my Political Behavior, one much more specific area of knowledge covered would be voting behavior and very specifically the study of why people vote the way they do. Several different explanations for this exist, with obviously no one of them convincingly more demonstrably valid than others (otherwise, all of them would not be conjectured). For someone with interest in the question, understanding them should bring some benefit. But if interest is only passing, there’s still real value in knowing of them because if you do, then you can argue intelligently about them, and even act accordingly to what you conclude. This exercise, repeated in dozens of different ways, is what builds critical thinking ability – and a more challenging way even than in the hard sciences, where at least the prior assumptions behind problem solving are known and agreed to, because in this instance those are missing and must also be analyzed and argued.

Which is the problem with the incipient “LGBT” (as it’s called in academia) minor, or, more broadly, in any of the presumed fields of study based upon the notion of “identity politics” – such as women’s studies, African-American/black studies, Hispanic/Chicano studies, etc. Even as what might be considered hard and fast rules such as in the sciences do not exist in a behavioral or social science such as political science, at least to an incomplete degree data and right reason allow for general agreement on basics that allow for diversity in theorizing to proceed from that. For example, one can argue (very persuasively, given the data extant and logic) that American government largely is responsive and accountable to the public’s wishes, or (with a far smaller availability of ammunition both factually and intellectually) argue it is beholden to some kind of ruling elite of high economic standing fused into the political system.

But with these areas of identity politics, they dispense with diversity in views, moving straight to ideologically-based assumptions – unproven by fact and logic, if not entirely falsifiable by use of fact and logic. (For a recent controversy illustrating the intellectual perils of this approach, see this.) That even their basic assumptions have so little analytical basis for rational acceptance beyond the visceral and emotive creates a “garbage in, garbage out” situation – even if you can use this knowledge base, such as it is, as a jumping-off point for inculcating critical thinking ability, it produces a set of conclusions and end product wholly divorced from the reality of the human condition, rendering it useless except as a cautionary tale.

As a result, these kinds of courses and programs by their very nature are less demanding, and fit very neatly into the now almost half-century arc where academia in general has been complicit in devaluing a university education. By assigning these vessels academic import and allowing them to displace studies more relevant and serious intellectually, this cheapens the actual worth of a university degree. And the rise of this kind of coursework is not even the main source of the decline, for in more traditional fields of study, reducing the demands intellectually and in content of their courses has served the same purpose, magnified.

This push downwards in standards came because, for so long, higher education in America was a seller’s market. While this trend started as a result of changes in social attitudes from the 1960s with a desire to get a college deferment to avoid the draft as the vanguard, the main impetus came from the almost simultaneous happenstances of a college degree mutating into a proof of ability and cheap money to pursue them.

By the early 1970s, broad-based intelligence testing had been declared unconstitutional and employers began to substitute possessing a higher education degree as some kind of proof of intelligence to do a job. Only a few years before, widespread student lending for college began through the federal government, and, about the time this court decision arrived, that was supplemented through the Pell Grant program. In other words, demand quickly increased sharply for degreed people, and plenty of government subsidizing was available. This touched off a boom in college growth: in the 1970s enrollment increased nearly 50 percent over the decade and by the end of the century was 250 percent higher than in 1965. States responded by also increasing taxpayer dollars going into public institutions of higher learning.

With students streaming in the doors, not a whole lot of accountability was required from colleges. Whatever they threw out there would get taken because students needed degrees – but not because the vast majority had a thirst for knowledge; rather, because they needed the credentialing. This idea of a university education not as an improving and transformative experience but as a hoop to jump through began to predominate among the student body and, sadly, in the minds of many in the faculty, who increasingly saw their role as facilitating achievement of this on behalf of the student as more a priority than in presenting a challenging path to develop their capacities for learning and retention of useful facts and for critical thinking skills.

Especially susceptible to this new attitude were in the areas with the least direct connection to market forces – the social sciences, liberal arts, and humanities. This vacuum allowed the ideas that there should be offered areas of study related to the identity politics cluster. And it appealed to many faculty members because, frankly, the less demanding they are of students, the less work it is for them to do for the same paycheck, and/or to allow them more free time to pursue other things such as research.

However, in this century the tide has reversed. Fueled by cheap money with few forces of accountability on them, colleges now find they threaten to price themselves out of a global marketplace. At the same time, budgetary pressures caused governments to roll back support and/or increasingly tie it to some measures of accountability. These trends were exacerbated in Louisiana by the overbuilt condition of its baccalaureate-and-above institutions that had until recently featured in most instances almost non-existent admissions standards.

So, this has amplified downward pressure on educational rigor in areas largely insulated from the market even as state policy-makers have tried to improve matters through recent imposition of recent accountability measures. In Louisiana, budgetary pressures have had the salutary effect of reducing the subsidization for education, which means those majors and minors whose graduates face the most uncertain future employment prospects disproportionately would lose students. At the same time, accountability measures are weighed to producing graduates, meaning the path to least resistance comes in reducing standards; the easier you make it to gain credentialing, the more consumers you will attract and graduate to reap, if not preserve, financial rewards.

But this is not educating, merely credentialing. And in a shrinking marketplace with uncertain rewards, the incentive becomes to rush to the bottom in order to preserve institutional power, particularly that derived from higher personnel numbers. So in this environment it is entirely predictable that this kind of minor would come to fruition. It encourages enrollments in courses of weak merit, which should produce higher grades helpful for credentialing, thereby student retention and eventual graduation, and thus ultimately in capturing taxpayer subsidies.

The presence of the LGBT minor by itself is not an isolated example of this new attitude at one place at one time. In my own more than two decades teaching in Louisiana higher education, I have been told by an administrator (blessedly put out to pasture years back) that I needed to dumb down my courses to “serve” the student population assigned to a university with its particular admission standards, and informed by another that minimizing student complaints over course demands and low grades was more important than quality considerations. At the state’s flagship campus, one faculty member was disciplined because she was considered too demanding.

Yes, the content of this LGBT minor may be next to useless as a vehicle for real education. However, of more importance, its acceptance signals a willingness to adopt the credentialing paradigm rather than to return to or to maintain the educating one. If Louisiana higher education is to be an optimal instrument both for economic development purposes and to help individuals improve themselves, it must commit to challenging students to strive for better, not in enabling them to settle for a piece of paper. Even if it means downsizing faculty numbers, eliminating programs, and merging or closing campuses.

1 comment:

Mr. Harris Plutocrat said...

Regardless whether an LGBT minor is a worthy path for any particular student, or even whether it is worthy of inclusion at a university at all, I find it interesting that such a thing honoring LGBT is attacked most viciously in the same part of the country that has historically had the worst problems accepting other innocent minorities. Maybe the south could use a heavy dose of tolerance and respect for its minorities, rather than always scapegoating them. You wonder why so many people down here carry around antiquated prejudices, and yet they are still heaping hatred at minorities any chance they get.