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A recent article by syndicated columnist, and three times Pulitzer Prize nominee, Thomas D. Elias paints a grim picture of education at the 23-campus California State University system. The problem they face is only 19 percent of entering freshmen manage to graduate within four years. Apparently the reason for this appallingly poor performance is more than a third of all newly enrolling students need remedial work – non credit classes – before they can enter for-credit courses. As a device to improve the graduation rate, university officials are contemplating assigning credit for the remedial classes so they count toward graduation, thereby speeding up the process. This proposal is not without its detractors, who fear it may reduce the academic quality and, accordingly, the repute of Cal State awards.

Whether or not remedial classes will become for-credit courses is uncertain.  Mike Uhlenkamp, senior spokesman for Cal State, insists the school will only institute this program “if we can do it without dumbing down the degree. The most important thing we do is make sure students get a high-quality education so employers know just what they’re getting when they take our people on.” Of course, assurances of this sort will be hard to reconcile with reality. How can classes be structured to combine standard freshman coursework with remedial lessons, and thereby satisfy the stated goal of the new for-credit policy? Without a doubt, something, somewhere, must be compromised.

At this point we might examine the education of the entering freshmen, debating whether the high schools are adequately preparing these students for the rigors of the university. However, there is something far more basic to be considered. It relates to a subject rarely if ever considered, let alone openly discussed in polite society. The question, bluntly put, is: Do many of the entering freshmen have any justifiable reason to be in a university? I’ll address this question with a brief historical review. At a time in the distant past – the late 19th century – schooling for most persons ended with the eighth grade. This was known as primary schooling and constituted a complete course of formal education. Surprising as it may seem, the learning acquired during those eight years proved to be remarkably complete, with kindergarten unheard of at the time. Proficiency in the three Rs, reading, writing and arithmetic, was aggressively pumped into the students. Upon completion, most graduates competently handled the jobs available to them.

By the early 20th century, secondary schooling came into favor, particularly in the urban areas. Thus, the high school, with its 9th through 12th grades added four more years to the learning process, and many parents felt it advisable to see their offspring participate in this fashion. However, it’s questionable whether the grasp of information in the head of a high school graduate of 1940 proved to be in any way superior to the store of knowledge possessed by the primary school product of 1890. And of even more concern, exactly how did those four additional years enhance the instructional benefits offered? For those of you desiring some insight into how the educational establishment revised its techniques on reading methods during this period, you’ll find the 1955 book by Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read, a fascinating exposé on how added instruction on a subject can be counterproductive. Though long out of print, copies can be found on Amazon. Another example of the adverse effect of simply adding years to the teaching of a subject is observed with those students known as “English learners.” It’s not unusual for certain non-English speaking foreigners to be assigned to special classes where they reside for years, fundamentally incapable of conversing in our language – almost as if by design.

Perhaps it’s inevitable; as high school graduates become more numerous, the emphasis in schooling shifts once again to a higher level. The impetus of this trend seems to have been the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945. Thanks to the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, U.S. legislation passed in 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, returning servicemen became eligible for, among other things, low cost college instruction – and millions of ex-military took advantage of the opportunity. Within a decade or so the bachelor’s degree ceased to be unique, and by the late 1960s a secondary school education no longer found the favor it once did. Perhaps the most hilarious lampooning of high school was a line repeatedly used on Rowan & Martin's television show, Laugh-in (1967-1973), by that incomparable comedienne Lily Tomlin. Her utterance: “I’m not just anybody’s fool; I am a high school graduate.”

We’ll now stray from this simple historical review of the progression of our educational efforts and focus in on a somewhat related aspect. Consider, if you will, in 1900, a little over a century ago, enrollment in the nation’s colleges numbered 237,600. With the total U.S. population then at 76,212,000, slightly more than 3 persons per thousand sought higher education. By 1930, a mere 30 years later, you’ll observe the effects of a rapid decline in agriculture coupled with increased urbanization. The nation’s population of 123,203,000 now included 1,100,000 college enrollees, or a tripling to nearly 9 per thousand. However, during the 87 years since then, with our total population of 326,474,000, the number of bodies regularly attending a university lecture hall is 20,400,000.  As you see, the participants now number over 62 per thousand. But of ever greater significance, 32% of Americans 25 and over possess a bachelor’s degree or above. We must consider this as to its effect on the quality of a university education.

We’ll now enter the world of blatant discrimination by asking the question: Who is entitled to attend a university? The U.S. Navy answered this question nearly a century ago when it decreed the Secretary of the Navy possesses the authority to appoint as many as 175 active duty enlisted men to the U.S. Naval Academy each year, but each appointee must qualify with a General Classification Test (GCT) grade of no less than 60 – equivalent to an IQ of 120 – placing its holder within a group of the top 10% in intelligence. I know of no year the Secretary actually managed to find 175 qualified applicants.

Let’s consider what higher education now means. A review of the course offerings at various universities include the following: Gender and Popular Culture, Ethnic Voices in Literature, Green Living, Human Development in the Social Environment, Music Appreciation, Introduction to Jazz Dancing, Helping Relationships, and Creative Arts in Early Childhood. I contend none of these for-credit courses require more than a fourth grade mentality, yet all lead to a degree in something or another.

I’ll sum this up as best I can, though to do so I must refer to scholastic aptitude, a subject off limits to the educational community and which no educator dare mention for fear of being drummed out of academia. Return to this article’s title; dumbing down a college degree is unavoidable. When every citizen can obtain a Bachelor of Arts diploma, regardless of mental capability, the sheepskin awarded becomes little more than a token offering for having attended. And it must be this way. If not, how do you induce a student with an IQ of 85 to perform academic exercises requiring an IQ of 125?




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