This morning's Wall Street Journal features a provocative editorial by Peter Berkowitz, a professor at George Mason University's School of Law. Berkowitz, a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution, is an astute observer of trends in American education.
The editorial piece, entitled "Our Compassless Colleges" asks a simple but important question: is it unreasonable to expect U.S. colleges to define curricula intended to produce "educated human beings?" Mr. Berkowitz specifically analyzes what we know as "liberal" education, as in the general education requirements college students must work their way through before focusing on their major. He delves into this pretty profoundly, but he sums up his point like this:
"A university that fails to teach students sound mental habits and to acquaint them with enduring ideas handicaps its graduates for public and private life".
Here, here. Speaking as the father of a very bright sophomore at one of the nation's "Top Ten Party Schools" (my beloved alma mater, the University of Florida), I can attest to the validity of Mr. Berkowitz's point: Alex and I spend infinitely more time discussing his fraternity, his ponderous consideration of changing majors, etc. than we do in discussing these very cornerstones of education, "sound mental habits" and "enduring ideas".
I submit that the problem is not so much with an educational system gone soft but, rather, with a society gone soft. Visit any major university with high admission standards and you will find a student parking lot crammed with new BMWs, tangible realization of the "Do well in school and we'll pay for everything" mentality prevalent in the middle America value system. The kid's got a four point bazillion GPA, what's another car payment, we rationalize.
In doing so, we have inadvertently spawned a nation of Art History majors (and the like) with the economic appetite of a multi-platinum rapper, aspirations of Bill-Gates-ness, and the inability to fix a simple Windows error.
In the Philippines, where I had an office for a few years, churning out medical graduates for "export" is part of the economy; money arriving from abroad is a pivotal economic force for the nation. In India, hundreds of colleges churn out thousands of IT graduates who have spent years laboriously toiling over the very programming codes Mr. Gates toiled over when this whole computing thing was just getting rolling.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch we have...Art History majors.
The U.S. remains the most powerful economy on the planet, but it isn't thanks to the workforce our educational system is producing. The government can tax employers who need foreign hires and make the money available to U.S. students willing to study these "high demand" professions, but the government can't instill the culture of compassion and respect for the elderly fostered by Filipino society upon a young American who has systematically been taught that the elderly are to be quietly tucked out of site and forgotten. Similarly, school counselors can hammer away to demonstrate to students that the future for them lies not in some vague pursuit of a nebulous dream -- be honest, how many of us really know what we want out of our lives in our teens and early twenties? -- but in an earnest attempt to develop skills which will both fulfill their interests and establish them as a marketable resource in a changing economy.
We are the privileged and we are the blessed, but until American society replaces the myth of economic entitlement with the instilled understanding that globalism means meritocracy, PERIOD, our youth will falter and our need for skilled offshore labor will continue to expand.