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A Hard Look at US Education: A Shipwreck in Progress?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2017-10-25 11:51:44
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       Yale University Tower                      Stamford University Tower                Harvard College Tower

As recently as 30 years ago America was considered first in education, as per Paris-based Organization for Cooperation and Development, a 30 nation organization which develops the yearly rankings and criteria by which nations can evaluate their educational systems.

That judgment is no longer valid today. If anything, the U.S. is losing ground on every educational front, while other developed and industrialized nations zip by with bigger gains in both students achievement and school graduations.

Here is some sample data from the same above mentioned organization: among adults age 25 to 34, the U.S. is ninth among industrialized nations in the share of its population that has at least a high school degree. In the same age group, the United States ranks seventh, with Belgium, in the share of people who hold a college degree.

The report bases its conclusions about achievement mainly on international test scores released last December. On a list of 20 top countries Finland ranked first and the US ranked 17th. Here is the list: Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, UK, Netherlands, New Zeeland, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, Australia, Poland, Germany, Belgium, US, Hungary, Slovakia, Russia.

The results show that compared with their peers in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, 15-year-olds in the United States are below average in applying math skills to real-life tasks. Top performers included Finland, Korea, the Netherlands, Japan, Canada and Belgium. Given what the United States spends on education,(in all levels of education, the United States spends $11,152 per student. That's the second highest amount, behind the $11,334 spent by Switzerland), and considering its relatively low student achievement through high school, one has to conclude that it is, to say the least, inefficient.

Those are sobering statistics which ought to give some pause to those in the USA who still go around beating their chest and declaring that the US has the best educational system in the world, not to speak of other areas such as health-care, and economic distributive justice. Perhaps a bit of humility and willingness to learn from others may prove beneficial.

Having a sitting president who is proud of having attended some of the best schools in the country, as he is constantly claiming and reminding us of, but barely remains on speaking terms with the English language and syntax, does not in any way validate any cavalier claim of US educational supremacy.


A poor example of the well-educated American

To be sure there are still great schools in the US (some Ivy League, others not) which offer their students a superb education. One thinks of Harvard, Stamford, Yale, Princeton, but those are extraordinary schools and are not the majority; by and large the trend, so far, is downward, sliding toward mediocrity and a declining of standards.

There is however one area of education where the US remains on top: the so called “knowledge economy,” that is to say, the use of information to produce economic benefits. But even here the nexus is weakening; education seems to be contributing less and less to the economy. This bright spot may contain the seeds of its own destruction.

I’d like to suggest, in fact, that it is a purely pragmatic utilitarian approach to education that may ultimately produce the real educational crisis, and that such an approach needs to be seriously analyzed at some depth. While here I can merely scratch the surface of the issue, the first question that needs to be asked is this: could it be that the taken for granted assumption that education is at the service of the economy, is ultimately a self-defeating approach, in the sense that it undermines the very foundations of a genuine education? Let me explain a bit.

There was time, and not too long ago, when the liberal arts, the humanities, and the classics, were integral part of the curriculum of any well-educated person. The founding fathers of the the US were all classically educated: they knew Latin and Greek, foreign  languages, history, philosophy, drama, the arts, besides the sciences. They considered them complementary to each other. That is no longer so. Today the liberal arts and the humanities tend to be considered frosting on the cake, at best, if not wholly to be dispensed with. It is possible nowadays to graduate from a technical college, or university, so called, and have no appreciation for the liberal arts.

The ominous trend was first noticed in England by the poet Matthew Arnold who was curriculum inspector for all the schools of the realm. He lamented the trend and wrote many books on the dichotomy science/liberal arts. Alas, to no avail. The trend has persisted and gotten worse. In the 20th century it came to a head with logical positivism in philosophy and science and the writing by C.P. Snow The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1950).


     Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)          1950                   C.P. Snow (1905-1980)

Let us now focus briefly on predicament of the adjunct faculty in American higher education. An adjunct professor is a professional who teaches on a limited-term contract, one semester at a time, or even on a full-time basis but is ineligible for tenure, usually with no benefits, no matter how long he/she may have served the institution he teaches for. Most have MAs in the field they teach in and many have doctorates with an excellent educational background.

I once heard a university president describe the work of the adjunct professors as an avocation of sorts. The implication was that they freely chose to be adjuncts, since their primary vocation was not teaching per se. They did some teaching on the side because they like teaching and contact with students. Where did he get that assumption is anybody’s guess, but it is belied, once again, by the data: we are at a point when roughly 75% of all college faculty are non-tenure-non track and are considered adjunct, earning much less than tenure-professors (median pay per course is $2,700 and average yearly pay is between $20,000 and $25,000. Some 25% of adjuncts receive public assistance. The question arises: how could they have freely chosen to become adjuncts? Are they masochists?

As of 2007 the "contingent faculty" made up more than half of all faculty positions in the United States. Some college English departments are now staffed by a majority of adjunct educators, instead of tenure-track professors. A 2014 Congressional review found that although only "an estimated 18.5 percent of college professors worked as part-time faculty members" in 1969, as of 2011 contingent faculty made up "75.5 percent of the college teaching workforce, or more than 1.3 million people. In 2014, a national news story described the situation of adjuncts as "Juggling multiple part-time jobs, earning little-to-no benefits, depending on public assistance: This is the financial reality for many adjunct professors across the nation."

The significant increase in the employment of non-tenure-track faculty began in the mid-seventies. In 1975 the adjunct faculty represented some 24% of all instructional faculty at degree granting institutions. By 2011 the percentage was 40%. By 2015 it had jumped to 75% or three quarters of the faculty. What caused this dramatic shift?

Various explanations have been proffered. One is that the practice began with a bias against women since most institutions of higher learning didn’t allow women as full professors and adjunct positions came to be associated with female instructors. In fact the majority of non-tenure track professors are still women.

But there is a more tenable explanation: the increase in adjunct faculty is largely due to financial considerations, to the administrators’ desire for more flexibility in hiring, firing and chancing course offerings as they see fit and advantageous for the institutions.

That explanation identifies the reduction of education to the level of a business like any other where transactions and profits is the major consideration. The rationale of course is that “we need to prepare students for jobs.”

An even more scandalous explanation, related the others above, is the need for “cheap labor” to offset administrative bloat and the growth of community colleges and regional public universities focusing on teaching the so called “basics” for securing a job. This is reasonable when one considers that college surged by 94% at public institutions and 74% at private institutions, and that student debt has climbed to over $1.2 trillion, to the detriment of the students and the benefit of burgeoning legion of academic bureaucrats.

One college I am familiar with (my elder daughter obtained a Master degree there) is Florida Atlantic University. It has instituted a hiring freeze while continuing to pay substantial bonuses to presidents and administrators. There have been studies which have substantially concluded that both student-debt and low-wage faculty labor rises the fastest at colleges and universities whose presidents are paid the most. Moreover, at those institutions with the highest-paid presidents, permanent faculty declined dramatically as a percentage of all faculty. In other words, as colleges hire more administrators, they hire fewer educators while the funding for instruction is kept flat. Administrators’ position have increased by 60% between 1993 and 2009, that’s at 10 times the rate at which they added tenured positions, never mind that paying instructors less than others for the same teaching duties may even be illegal.

We still need to contend with the issue of avocation: of people who come from other fields outside academia to help institution of higher learning expand their offerings and help with other practical aspects of education. There is a grain of truth in that aspect of adjunct labor, but the fact remains that colleges and universities have been utilizing adjunct labor (part-time or full-time but adjunct in the sense of non-permanent or non-tenured) simply to save money, the way a corporation would do it. In corporations it is normal for a CEO to be earning a 600 times bigger salary than the average worker in that corporation.

In other words, the main criteria is not the improvement of education but the saving of money. The adjuncts’ salaries (three quarters of the total faculty) are significantly lower than those of the one quarter regular faculty. This allows administrators to significantly reduce the hiring of tenure-track (full-time career) professors in favor of more adjuncts as part-time, contract/temporary workers, or cheap labor, and then using the methods of industrial production and consumption stuff classes for those adjuncts with 30 or more students. I remember that at the beginning of my professional career at the University of Puerto Rico, the institution would open classes with six or seven students if those classes were on the schools catalogue. The commitment was to education and its purposes, not what today goes by the name of “bottom-line.”

What are the obvious results of this turn to economic expediency at the expense of the genuine goals of education? For one, there is a decline in the quality of instruction, given that adjuncts are not funded to uphold their expertise. In the second place there is a decline in student-faculty interaction (adjunct are not usually on campus before or after they teach their classes; at best they provide half hour of office hour per class taught. In the third place, there is a decline in university identity (the loyalty by the adjunct professors to the institutions that that employs them cannot be relied upon. In the fourth place, there is a general reduction in the amount of research produced overall; department duties are spread over an ever-decreasing number of full-time faculty; less resources for faculty participation in campus governance; and most importantly, a reduction in academic freedom due to the precariousness of the adjuncts’ job security, not to speak of the raising of the competition among PhDs, especially in the humanities, to find tenure-track assistant professorships.

My parting thought is this, and let those who have ears, let them hear: since we may be all on a in a shipwreck on a sinking ship, it does not much matter to compete for a place on the ship, one with tenure or without tenure, as an adjunct or as a full professor emeritus. What we educators ought to be doing is to fix the ship and perhaps change its itinerary. We ought to recall the injunction of Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and an education that does not humanize us and make us appreciate what Arnold called “sweetness and light” is an education that is not worth having, one that may end up doing more harm than good.  


Check Dr Emanuel Paparella's NEW BOOK
"The Caligula Presidency: A Satirical Debunking Critique"
is online now and you can download it for FREE HERE!



Check also Dr Emanuel Paparella's other EBOOKS
Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers
& Europe Beyond the Euro
You can download them all for FREE HERE!

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