The Decline of Education 1.

Abstract: Thirty years of teaching in several universities inspires reflection on the past and the and future of education. It's not a pretty picture. This talk includes examples from the real world and also utopian observations from the ivory tower.

[This paper was delivered in March 1994 at the AAPT regional meeting at Princeton University, and again as part of a longer invited talk at the Indiana University (of PA) Physics Alliance meeting (for high school teachers) on May 27, 1994. The title of this last presentation was "Over the years we learn a thing or two!".]

Note, Dec 24, 1996. At long last I've recreated three of the important graphs in ASCII character format.

Related documents: The Decline of Education, Part 2 (1995), What Is The Meaning Of 'Academic'?, and Designing a math curriculum for today's students.

Modern Education.

The Educational Dilemma

At meetings of physics teachers we hear many uplifting anecdotal stories of new teaching methods and clever strategies for sneaking education into unwilling minds. Seldom do we hear about things that don't work in education. I often say that every coin has a flip side, and you'd better turn it over and examine it before placing your bet. Today I want to look at the flip side of education, or its dark underbelly. In short, I want to show how our best efforts and highest educational goals are doomed to failure, whatever we do.

When I began teaching college physics nearly 30 years ago, we could count on perhaps 5 to 10 percent of the students in freshman physics being well-prepared, bright, intellectually curious, and hard working—capable of earning an honest A grade. About as many more were not so bright, but still hardworking, and earned Bs. Teachers wrote off the rest as hopeless. They would never really learn physics. They'd probably 'get the picture' soon and change to a major that didn't require physics, so no great harm would be done. One could confidently bet that they weren't doing well in their mathematics and chemistry courses either.

Now, in the school where I teach, it's not uncommon to have a class in which there's not one student meeting this outmoded criterion for an A or B student. One is faced with an entire class of the calibre of those we used to 'write off' and ignore. There may be no one, save perhaps an occasional foreign exchange student, to set a standard of high achievement, demonstrating to the others that mastery of such difficult material is possible by mere mortals.

I think the world is run by C students. — Al McGuire.

Today we are searching, like Diogenes, for anyone capable of earning an honest A.

Try as we might to maintain grading standards in the sciences, we are under great pressure to adapt to the grade inflation that has caused some departments on campus to give nothing but A and B grades, even to students who never 'crack a book.' In some 'disciplines' the only way to get a C or below is to annoy the instructor, or fail to attend class! It does seem that the disciplines that have shown the greatest grade inflation are those where the course 'content' is mostly 'hot air.'

Simanek's gas law of education: Courses with the most inflated grades are those containing the most hot air.

I've even had students ask, with some indignation, "Why must we work so hard in a physics course to get a measly C when we can get A's in non-science courses without ever studying?" I respond, "Why should there be any course on campus you can get an A in without studying?"

I once taught a course where one student scored nearly 100% on every one of my exams, while no one else could score above 50%. Several students got up courage to confront me and complain that I was making the course "too hard for anyone." I pointed out that it was obviously not too hard for the student doing nearly perfect work. They responded, "That's not fair—he studies all the time!" They were not at all happy when I suggested they try copying his method for success.

You can't teach anyone anything. You can only help them find it within themselves. — Galileo Galilei

More and more we find students doing poorly in physics, yet getting fairly good grades in mathematics, say B's. Yet they can't seem to do any mathematics when the occasion arises. If given a formula, and data, they can plug it into their calculators and get a correct answer at least half the time. Students did better than that back when they used only slide rules or log tables, for then they had to think while computing, so they'd get the decimal point in the right place. Today's 'students' seem totally unable to construct a mathematical proof of any kind, certainly not of a proposition they've never seen proven before (and they apparently haven't seen many).

These same students often get good grades in chemistry. But ask them to do any problem requiring intelligent use of, say, the mole concept, and they display total intellectual impotence. One tries in vain to find anything they understand about chemistry beyond mere recipes and computation.

And don't try asking students anything requiring philosophical insight. For example, ask them to discuss whether the mole concept is fundamental and essential to chemistry, or merely a convenience concept. The bottom line question is "Could we do chemistry without the mole concept?" One could ask students the same question about the energy concept in physics, with equally dismal results.

Quality of Teachers

Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. — Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

I'm going to say some things today that may ensure that I'll never be allowed to speak at one of these affairs ever again. I'm going to say some of the things that are only spoken of in the hallways or over the lunch table, but seldom in one of the regular paper sessions.

You folk, physics teachers, who attend these meetings are a select group of teachers, those who care enough to continue to learn more about teaching and about the subject you teach. We can assume you are among the best of the profession.

But teachers as a group, compared to other academics, fare poorly in many measures of academic competence, and there's widespread concern that we are not attracting the best people into elementary and secondary teaching. This fact is not new. Way back in the 50s, those dark ages when I was in high school and college, a recurrent concern among educators was "Can the schools produce enough talented and educated persons for the country's future manpower needs." Leaf through journals of the 50s and early 60s and you will see many papers addressing this problem.

Typical of the studies done in that era was the report of the Commission on Human Resources and Advanced Training, by Dael Wolfle. [1] This study looked at the academic quality of those who chose certain majors in college. Here's some revealing comparisons from that study.

                            AGCT Scores
90       100        110        120        130        140        150
|         |          |          |          |          |          |
|         |      --------********|*******--------   All college graduates
|         |          |          |          |          |          |
|         |          |          |          |          |          |
|         |          |          |          |          |          |
|         |          |--------**********|******------------ Physical sci.
|         |          |--------********|*******--------|     Chemistry
|         |          |-------********|********--------|     Engineering
|         |          |  ---**********|****-------     |     Law   
|         |         --------*******|*********-------  |     English
|         |         --------*******|*******--------   |     Foreign lang.
|         |       -------**********|*******--------   |     Psychology
|         |         ------********|*******---------   |     Economics
|         |         -----********|*******-------      |     Earth sciences
|         |      -------*********|******---------     |     Biological sci
|         |      -------*********|*****----------     |     Fine arts
|         |       ------********|********-----------  |     Nursing
|         |    --------*********|******--------       |     History
|         |         -----******|******-------         |     Agriculture
|         |       -----********|********-----         |     Business..
|         |   ----------******|**********------       |     Humanities
|         |  ---------*******|*********------         |     Education
|         |   --------*******|*********-------        |     Social sci.
|   ------------********|*******------     |          |     Home economics
|  -------------*******|********---------  |          |     Physical ed.
|         |          |          |          |          |          |
|         |          |          |          |          |          |
                Legend:   |-----|*****|*****|-----|
                          10    25    50    75    90
                              Percentile scores
Figure VII.2. Intelligence test score distributions of students graduating with bachelor's degrees, by field of specialization.

                            AGCT Scores
90       100        110        120        130        140        150
|         |          |          |          |          |          |
|         |         --------********|*******----------|All graduate and
|         |          |          |          |          |professional
|         |          |          |          |          |students
|         |          |          |          |          |          |
|         |          |      ----------********|******------ Psychology        
|         |          |     ----------*******|********-----  Physical sci.
|         |          | ----------**********|*******-------  Humanities
|         |          |  ---------*********|********-------  Chemistry
|         |          |    -------*********|******--------   English
|         |          |     -------******|******------ |     Agriculture
|         |          |  --------********|******-------|     Medicine
|         |          ---------*********|**********--------  Foreign lang.
|         |          |   -----*********|*********-----|     Engineering
|         |          | -------*********|********------|     Biological sci
|         |         --------**********|*********------|     Economics
|         |         --------*********|*********-------|     Earth sciences
|         |         --------*********|********--------|     History
|         |         --------*********|*******----------     Social sci
|         |       -------*********|*******-----       |     Education
|         |      -------*********|********---------   |     Dentistry
|         |      --------********|*******--------     |     Business..
|         |    --------*****|******---     |          |     Home economics
|             -------******|*****----      |          |     Physical ed.
|         |          |          |          |          |          |
|         |          |          |          |          |          |
                Legend:   |-----|*****|*****|-----|
                          10    25    50    75    90
                              Percentile scores
Figure VII.3. Intelligence test score distributions of graduate and professional students specializing in different fields.

P  50 -| .                 :  Physical Sciences and Psychology (:)
E      |                        
R  45 -|  .               :    
C      |                        
E  40 -|   .             :      
N      |                        
T  35 -|    .           :       
I  30 -|     .         :        
N      |                         
   25 -|*             :        
E      |      *.     : _ _    Social Science (-)      
A  20 -|-----------*:--   
C      |        .  :    *        
H  15 -|         .:           Education (*)
       |        : .               
G  10 -|      :    .            
R      |   :        .           
O   5 -|  :            .      Physical Education and Home Economics (.)
U      |                        
P    0---------------------- 
       |   |   |   |   |   |  
           20  40  60  80  90   Percentile scores  
Fig. 5. Relation between fields of specialization and intelligence levels of professionally employed college graduates. (Averaged data from Wolfle--"America's Resources of Specialized Talent.")

All of the above graphs are redrawn from Wolfle [1] in ASCII character format. Connect the dots.

As you might expect, those choosing math and physics had the highest average academic ability. Those choosing chemistry and other sciences were close seconds. Those choosing physical education and home economics were at the bottom. No surprises here. But look at those choosing teaching. Just barely above physical education!

The graph labeled "Figure 5" is particularly interesting. Of all the fields identified in this study, the physical sciences (including mathematics, because the math group was too small to treat separately) show extreme bias toward higher academic ability. These fields seem to attract (or select) those of higher academic ability. But home economics and physical education are at the other extreme. They seem biased toward those of lowest academic ability. This shouldn't be surprising for the physical sciences need people of high academic ability, and physical education doesn't.

But look at the field of education. It is also biased to favor those of lower academic ability, though not as dramatically so as physical education. It was this that caused many to sound the alarm that we were not attracting the best and the brightest into the field of education.

Fortunately averages don't tell the whole story. The distributions of ability overlap considerably. Those of you attending this meeting are, I hope, in the top portion of the curve for teachers.

Those teachers choosing physics and mathematics have higher average academic ability than teachers in other fields. Those at the top of the distribution are quite capable in their discipline. Some of your colleagues back home, however, are probably a bit lower down, about at the average for jocks. And those at the very bottom of the curve have probably already become administrators. Many of those were once jocks. Those are the folk who tell you how you should teach and manage your classrooms!

I hear some of you mumbling that these graphs are old. Does anyone here honestly think the situation is better today? Others may object that measures of academic ability, especially those measures used in this study, don't tell the whole story, and aren't a total measure of 'intelligence' or of teacher effectiveness. I grant this readily, though our field, physics, is one where these measures (of language and analytic ability) are more relevant to performance than in some other fields, and, I contend, measure essential prerequisites to competent teaching.

I think the situation is actually worse than these graphs show, for the graphs show the academic ability of those choosing a major in college—measured before entering college. They show that those choosing teaching are, on the average, one of the academically weakest groups. Those choosing non-teaching physics and math are one of the academically strongest groups. By the time of graduation things have changed—for the worse. Those on the lower tail of the distribution of the math/physics non-teaching curve have dropped out due to the intense competition. Some of these people then choose teaching as a backup option! Some of the more capable who initially chose teaching will find the teacher-preparation curriculum to be boring and intellectually empty, and shift to curricula that are academically more challenging and rewarding. So, after the self-selection process comes this weeding-out process, which magnifies the academic ability differences between those in elementary and secondary teaching and those in other fields.

In 1962, the year I got my Masters degree, Wallace Brode, writing in American Scientist, said:

While we are concerned with the small per cent of good students who may drop out we are more concerned with improving the quality of teaching in order to attract the bright student and stimulate him to utilize his highest capabilities. Our losses in numbers of scientists and engineers are more qualitative than quantitative due to inadequate preparatory work in mathematics, languages and elementary sciences. Bright students, held down to the level of those who do not have an interest and ability to advance in the scientific and technical areas, are often unprepared on entering college to proceed into a technical program. [2]
It hasn't gotten better in the intervening thirty years. As I browse through my yellowed files of clippings and articles on education I find an item from 1978.

The Dallas (Texas) Independent School District introduced an innovative test for teachers. They were tested on "the power to think, the power to seize and express ideas, the power that is given to those who have learned how to use 'our two principal symbol systems, words and numbers.'" "Skill in words and numbers...does not alone make a good teacher, but the lack of it will almost surely make a bad one," says John Santillo, in charge of teacher hiring.
Brave words. But when the tests were implemented, tests such as the Wessman Personnel Classification Test of verbal analogy and elementary arithmetical computations, the teachers scored, on average, only slightly better than clerical workers. A rather low score was enough to pass. Yet half the teachers failed.

Then for a while we heard a lot about Piaget's studies of stages of intellectual development. Once educators realized how low teachers scored on such tests, the name 'Piaget' seemed to drop right out of the jargon of the ed-biz.

And then my files are stuffed with a dreary morass of newspaper clippings about college credit being offered for courses in frisbee, mountain biking, gourmet cooking, spiritualism, new-age philosophy, etc. etc. ad nauseum. And then came the clamor, still going on, to give equal time to so-called 'scientific creationism' if evolution is taught. Then there's pressure to ban books from the library that aren't 'politically correct.' Many schools have capitulated to such political and religious pressures, and to the clamor for a smorgasbord menu of courses. Have the schools lost all sense of their mission? Have educators no shame?

You folks teaching in high schools have the toughest job. If you teach in a large metropolitan school, you probably have many students with an aggressive indifference to anything academic, and hostile reluctance to doing any hard academic work. Some students are better armed than you are. Many have inadequate parental support. Most are more influenced by peer pressures than by academic pressures. You, as teachers, are expected to deal with all of society's problems, drug abuse, teenage sex practices, broken homes, etc. Society's social problems are dumped on the schools. There's precious little time left for academic concerns. You must accomplish the impossible, while dealing with administrators who are often your intellectual inferiors, and school boards worse still.

When I was in high school in the early 50s, our small-town rural school provided only academic instruction. It offered no sex education, no drug education, no aids education, no driver education. The only concession to non-academic areas was shop (for the boys), home economics (for the girls) and sports (for the entertainment of parents and community). But these non- academic intrusions were but a small fraction of the total. Our entire school (K through 12) was managed by just one person (the superintendent) who didn't even have a secretary and who also taught one course each term. And in every classroom, from kindergarten to the senior level, all the desks were bolted to the floor! Today some educators think you can't have true education unless the seats are mobile and can be pulled into a circle. Golly, our education must have really been inferior, with seats bolted down. How things have changed in fewer than 40 years!

If you teach at a suburban or rural school today, social problems may be less noticeable, but you still must deal with administrators and school boards who don't understand, nor care about, academic excellence in the same sense that we understand it. And in all school systems, large or small, you must cope with local political pressures.

H. L. Mencken, writing in the 1930s put it this way:

Consider [the pedagogue] in his highest incarnation: the university professor. What is his function? Simply to pass on to fresh generations of numbskulls a body of so-called knowledge that is fragmentary, unimportant, and, in large part, untrue. His whole professional activity is circumscribed by the prejudices, vanities and avarices of his university trustees, i.e., a committee of soap-boilers, nail manufacturers, bank-directors and politicians. The moment he offends these vermin he is undone. He cannot so much as think aloud without running a risk of having them fan his pantaloons.

Some of you must teach from textbooks chosen by a selection committee that includes people who are physics and math illiterate. High school science textbooks are written by hacks who don't understand science very well themselves. It is such physics books that provide Mario Iona with more than enough raw material for his monthly column of textbook errors in The Physics Teacher, Would You Believe?

In education, nothing works if the students don't.

You must put up with educational fads, which pop out of the woodwork at regular intervals. Each one is imposed on you by peer pressure and administrative pressures. Each one is hailed as the panacea that will finally make education work. Look at the past record: every such fad has failed. So what are the chances that the currently fashionable ones will succeed? Yet each one demands your emotional and intellectual commitment for a while, each one forces you to spend time attending seminars and workshops to learn the new methods and get 'your intellectual juices' flowing again. Each one raises your hopes, then reality dashes them.

Some educators think that learning can't occur if the desks are bolted to the floor.

Why do teachers put up with it? For the money? That's a laugh. Ten or 15 years ago some of the best teachers left the profession for jobs in industry, easily doubling their salaries when they made the switch. Economic opportunities in alternate occupations are not so prevalent now, but we are still losing some of our best teachers because they are unwilling to put up with the B. S. they must endure in our schools.

Teachers today must also put up with a monumental lack of respect. Lack of respect from students goes with the territory. Now, more than ever, parents and other taxpayers harbor the notion that teachers have 'cushy' jobs, with light loads, and summer vacations, that they are virtually guaranteed employment (through tenure) and are getting rich on their pay, medical coverage, fringe benefits and lavish retirement plans.

Lack of respect for teachers is nothing new. H. L. Mencken again:

...When the American pedagogue became a professional, and began to acquire a huge armamentarium of technic, the trade of teaching declined, for only inferior men were willing to undergo a long training in obvious balderdash.

    Minority Report, H. L. Mencken's Notebooks, Knopf, 1956.

The truth is that the average schoolmaster, on all the lower levels, is and always must door to an idiot, for how can one imagine an intelligent man engaging in so puerile an avocation?

    New York Evening Mail, 23 Jan. 1918.

A high school physics teacher in rural Pennsylvania told me this story: A lackluster student mentioned to him that he was going to a nearby university to major in engineering. The teacher said things along these lines: "How do you expect to do that? Your grades are really poor in math and science, you've shown complete indifference in my physics course, and you haven't taken any of the other 'college prep' courses. Engineering is a demanding field. You'll be competing with others much better prepared. You really ought to talk this over with our guidance counselor who could steer you toward a career more suited to your ability and preparation."

The student went to the guidance counselor, who considered the matter, and the student's record, and said pretty much the same thing. The student's parents threatened to sue the guidance counselor, for 'discouraging the student.' You can guess the rest. The school principal reprimanded the guidance counselor, and the threat of a suit was dropped. The student applied to that college, in engineering, and in spite of his dismal academic record, was accepted. That college may be the one where I teach.

In 1994 (Feb 27, 1994) ABC news reported on schools in Kansas City, Missouri. There an ailing and underfunded school system was given a jump start with a huge infusion of money for new and lavish school buildings with lots of computers, athletic facilities, drama facilities, higher pay for teachers, a limit of 24 on class size, and a magnet school concept to encourage better integration. Students loved these new schools, which are neat, clean and graffiti-free. Where's the story? The math and English scores of students in these marvelous schools have shown no improvement. Many students still sleep through classes, and do little or no homework.

I've said it before, and it needs to be engraved in needlepoint and hung over the desks of every teacher and administrator:


Perhaps you expect me to close with words of encouragement, offering some hope that things will improve, or give suggestions how you can help bring about educational utopia. Sorry, I have no hope for improvement, and not the slightest idea how, in the foreseeable future, we'll ever dig ourselves out of the educational mess we're in. I will, instead, close with a quote from physicist Galileo Galilei, which at least identifies the problem and indicates where the solution lies:

You cannot teach anyone anything. You can only help them find it within themselves.

    —Galileo Galilei

And another, from an historian:

The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.

    —Edward Gibbons

In plain language this says: "Good students don't need formal education, the rest don't benefit much from it."

Ross Perot was asked what can be done to improve education. He responded "Torch the teachers' colleges." That's one of the few things he's said with which I can agree. Don't hire teachers who wasted their college years in fluff education courses purporting to teach them how to teach. Hire teachers who concentrated on learning and understanding what they teach.[3]

Some have facetiously suggested that the best thing we could do for education would be to close all the schools. Maybe. Civilization (at least our poor approximation of it) would still survive. But please don't close, restrict, or censor the libraries. That's where a real education can still be had.

Part Two.

[While rummaging through my files of education clippings I came across a paper I'd written in the mid-seventies. Somehow I'd neglected to throw it out. It was typed with my old Smith-Corona on the backs of paper (already yellowed) salvaged from extra dittoed class handouts. I offer it here, cleaned up a bit, as a fitting sequel to the more recently composed part 1.]

Recently, I made some disparaging comments about education to a colleague. He responded by saying "Sometime I'd like to hear your views about what education should be." This got me to thinking, so I put down a few thoughts on the matter. I'm still not sure anyone wants to hear my thoughts on improvement of education, for those who have the power to shape the course of education seem to have other goals in mind.

I'll admit that my views on education are hopelessly old-fashioned, and some may say they are elitist. That's obvious as soon as I identify what I feel to be the central purpose of education. There is only one purpose, the development of powers of the mind. All other functions of education should serve that one purpose.

How trite it sounds—like praising motherhood and apple pie. Yet when we look at what goes under the name of education today, very little of it has anything to do with developing the mind, and much of it runs counter to that goal. Most of the effort of the schools is diffused into activities that serve other goals entirely.

I consider the development of the mind to be important enough to justify expenditure of public money for schools dedicated to that purpose. This should be the only purpose of public-supported education.

Schools have no business spending tax money on courses in how to drive a car, brush one's teeth, kick a football, or how to become socially well-adjusted. Can't tooth-brushing be taught in the home? Does one really need a college graduate to teach one how to kick a football? Does participation in marching band improve one's powers of thought. Do any of these have anything to do with development of the mind?

Footnote, April, 1995. I am aware of studies showing that participation in physical activities shows some positive effect on performance in academic courses. Just this month we hear of more recent studies showing that participation in music activities improves academic performance in other areas, and in particular that those who study music do better in math. I also recall some earlier studies on the benefits of listening to Mozart. This link between music and academics seems even stronger than the athletic one. I don't find these results at all unexpected, for diversity of activities very likely develops the mind in more ways. Simply taking a mental break from time to time, to do something completely different, requiring little mental effort, can refresh the mind for serious work later. Having been very much into music in school I can understand how the mental discipline of mastering Bach on the piano might transfer to the discipline required for mathematics. However, none of this justifies the amount of time spent on non-academic subjects in schools, nor does it convince me that these activities must be carried out in the school setting, at taxpayer expense.
Schools have become the dumping-ground for those diverse activities that someone decided everyone 'needs.' Driving a car is a necessary skill, so the job of teaching it was thrust on schools. The community wants entertainment, so the schools establish sports teams and build expensive gymnasiums and football fields to fill that 'need.' We should ask whether these things are of such overwhelming importance to society that they must be supported by tax money.

Someone may come to the defense of, say, driver education. Surely that is important. It is good that every person allowed to drive should have the knowledge and skills to drive safely. But these skills need not be obtained in public schools. Private driving schools could do the job as well for a reasonable fee. In fact, studies in the early sixties showed that those who had public school driver-education were not measurably better drivers than those who had no training whatever. Even the American Auto Workers (in the early 60s) condemned these courses on their weekly radio program as "Just a way to sell more cars."

The best students don't need formal education, the rest don't 'get' it.

Is the situation any better at the college and university level? In one sense it is, for at the better institutions a serious student can benefit from the university environment and can receive a very good education. In most public elementary and high schools the good student must survive in spite of the school environment.

Even in the best of universities, some students get through with good academic records and still are not well-educated. They coasted through college without letting anything touch their minds. They didn't let academics interfere with their social life. We should not allow this to happen. It is a good thing for such students that most jobs that require a college degree do not require a college education. It's also a good thing that high intellectual ability isn't required for success and status, as anyone who has a boss knows.

We must prune the university of those things that have nothing to do with the development of the mind, and of anything that distracts one's energies from mental development. Sports and physical education would be kicked out on both criteria. I am realistic enough to know that there will always be distractions from the educational process, but universities should not condone or support such distractions, and certainly should not make them a part of the university or a required part of any curricula.

Next to go should be the entire school of 'professional' education, which purports to 'teach one how to teach.' This is the field that, in its vain attempt to gain respect, clothed itself in meaningless jargon and become indistinguishable from a pseudo-science. It has miserably failed to achieve its own objectives. Its product (certified teachers) should be evidence of its failure. Education courses have long had the reputation of being 'cake' courses without content.

It is not this failure that alone justifies purging professional education. All academic fields are failures to some degree. Professional education deserves the boot because nothing in its curriculum contributes directly to the development of the mind.

Teaching is an honorable activity. Some argue that courses in 'education' make one a better teacher. Better than what? Better than your auto mechanic? I take that back; I am sure that some auto mechanics could make better teachers than some now in the schools. At least mechanics know how to do something and how to accompish desired results.

Most teachers have learned 'methods and skills' of teaching, but don't have a solid understanding of the subject they teach. So they end up 'teaching' trivia, misinformation, and intellectual garbage, but doing it with 'professional' polish. Most do not display love of learning, nor the ability to do intense intellectual activity of any kind. Lacking these qualities they cannot possibly inspire and nourish these qualities in their students.

To improve teaching we must attract people of higher intellectual ability. If this is done the mechanics of teaching will not be a concern. To attract such teachers we must pay them more, give them more academic freedom and better working conditions.

I can sympathize with public-school teachers, for they must continually operate in an environment filled with people who are their intellectual inferiors. Students, being younger, are operating on a lower intellectual level. Administrators are also. This surely has a stultifying effect on a teacher's intellectual growth over the long term. We need to provide teachers with frequent sabbaticals so they can escape this limiting environment for a time to seek greater intellectual stimulation.

Colleges and Universities should only grant degrees to those who have demonstrated intellectual ability of a high order. We could then safely let any college graduate teach at any level, without further certification. We should not insult their intelligence by requiring them to take courses in 'education.'

Why do I insist that teachers should have high intellectual ability, even though they will teach courses of low academic level? Three reasons: (1) they will know their subjects thoroughly, (2) they will have acquired the ability to reason and critically examine information and arguments, and (3) they will be worthy academic role models for students. Having these qualitites they will be far less likely to "teach" untruths, lies, myths, pseusoscience, pesudo-intellectual nonsense, and superficial fads. They should even be capable of spotting and correcting errors and misinformation in textbooks.

I do not worry that some of these teachers will be unable to acquire teaching skills. Most of these skills are common-sense anyway. I am wary of anyone trying to set up 'criteria' or rating scales for teachers. Some of the most inspiring and effective teachers I have had violated many of the accepted rules for the mechanics of teaching. But they knew their chosen field thoroughly, loved it, and their enthusiasm inspired their students. Genius will usually transcend mechanics. In the field of education we have had too many mechanicians and too few geniuses.

By now the reader has discerned that my ideal university is a vastly different place from what we have now. If it graduates only those who achieve genuine intellectual ability, there will be far fewer graduates, perhaps only 10% as many as are now granted degrees. We'll need far fewer universities, and fewer faculty members. But if we apply the same standards to faculty, the faculty size reduction should match the student body size reduction.

But I hear an objection. What will the rest of the people do, those who can't earn a degree? The same things they do now with one. Most jobs that now require a college degree don't require a college education. The requirements of such jobs are easily met by trade schools or a year or two of community-college courses. For many employers a degree merely certifies that the person had four years to 'mature,' during which time he or she had to meet arbitrary standards, do unappealing and boring work, submit to authority without complaint, and not give up. That molds the sort of worker that business and industry like.

My utopian university obviously will cost a lot less. I propose that some of this saving be plowed back into the system to effect improvements for the public good. We could easily provide higher education free to all who could meet stringent admissions standards. We could pay teachers enough to attract the very best available. We would save the money now spent on useless 'educational research.' We could apply that money toward genuine research in academic fields.

I'm realistic enough to know that education will never achieve this ideal. Once a structure or institution is established it resists radical change. Too many vested interests exert pressure to retain their slice of the pie.

But there are a few modest steps we could take to improve education somewhat. Schools have become so cluttered with non-academic components that they have forgotten what ought to be their purpose.

The purpose of education is not merely to accumulate facts and information or job skills. Those are auxiliary functions. Facts and information and skills are necessary: they are the fodder for thinking. The purpose of developing the mind is to enable us to better acquire, evaluate and interpret information. But mere information, without thinking skills to evaluate and implement it, should not be worthy of academic credit. This suggestion is really quite radical. Even in the best universities, in the most 'academic' fields, evaluation systems give credit for memorized information.

I ask my academic colleagues this hard question. "In your exams, what percent of the points could be earned by a student who was merely a good memorizer of facts and procedures but understood nothing?" Few can honestly claim any less than 50%. I consider this to be the real scandal of education.

So I propose that we structure our evaluation instruments to reward only demonstrated thinking ability. For this we would give 'academic' credit. For ability to memorize, we would give 'knowledge' credit. For skills and procedures we would give 'skill' credit.

You may wonder why I don't add 'creative' credits for art and music courses. Simple; those fields won't be in my ideal university, nor will sports. Does one really need an academic college degree to be a successful artist or musician or football player? Specialized schools would arise to serve those who felt the need for training in such fields. Schools today fail to distinguish 'training' from academic education.

    [Overhead of cartoon: Fellow shows a trained octopus that can count to three. The spectator says that's not so great. The trainer responds "I said he was trained, not smart."]

If my radical plan were seriously considered, we might discover that very little of what we now do in schools is worthy of academic credit. This could inspire us to rethink our goals and evaluation methods, and even our course and curriculum content.


1. Wolfle, Dael, America's Resources of Specialized Talent (Report of the Commission on Human Resources and Advanced Training), Harper and Brothers, 1954.

2. Brode, Wallace R. "The Growth of Science and a National Science Program." American Scientist, Spring (March 1962), p. 1-28.

3. I am aware of the implications of this view, and will state it forthrightly: "Those who need courses in education shouldn't be allowed to be teachers."

Additional Notes.

My paper files bulge with clippings and Xeroxes from the 1970s, when many observers were sounding the alarm about impending problems in education. Here's a sampling.

1. Mitchell, Richard. "Testing the Teachers, The Dallas Experiment" (about 1979, perhaps in The American Scholar or Intellectual Digest.)

2. Samuelson, Robert J. "The Schools We Deserve". Newsweek October 5, 1987, p. 79.

3. AP News item, 1987. "Connecticut test stumps half [of] state's prospective teachers." A new test was given to college students preparing to be elementary and secondary school teachers. Only 53 percent passed. The intention was that as of May 1, 1987, a passing grade would be required for certification. The test could, however, be repeated any number of times until a passing grade was achieved. I haven't followed up on this, but I suspect that they (1) abandoned the idea, or (2) found a way to make the exam easier.

4. Commission on College Physics. "Preparing High School Physics Teachers. "Report of the Panel on the Preparation of Physics Teachers of the Commission on College Physics. University of Maryland, 1968.

5. Skinner, B. F. "Teaching Science in High School — What is Wrong?" Science, Vol. 159. p. 704-710. 16 Feb, 1968.

6. Cahn, Steven M. Opinion piece in The New York Times, Sunday, December 19, 1974. "American higher education stands on the brink of chaos. Never have so many spent so long learning so little."

7. Renner, John W. and William C. Paske. "Quantitative Competencies of College Students." Journal of College Science Teaching, May 1977, p. 283-292.

8. Roberts, Edwin A. "Our Warped Collegiate Egalitarianism." The National Observer, 7-19-71.

9. Barzun, Jacques. "Where the Educational Nonsense Comes From." An address delivered in Chicago at the Third Annual Meeting of the Open Court Editorial Advisory Board in June, 1971. Reprinted in Intellectual Digest, October 1971.

10. UP News Item: "Study Digs Up 'Good Teacher' Traits. A study published in The National Elementary Principal, a publication of the NEA, suggests that successful teachers do not have the traits of high intelligence, knowledge of subject matter, good cultural background. [One wonders about their measure of 'successful'.]

11. Day, martin S. "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To A College Education." The Humanist, July/August, 1977, p. 22-26.

12. "Help! Teacher Can't Teach!" Time, June 16, 1980 (cover story), p. 54-60.

13. Hodenfield, G. K. "Classroom Revolution: Look What (and How) They're Teaching These Days." The Cedar Rapids Gazette: Sun, Aug 30, 1964. "One educator observed recently that if the average well-educated American parent can help his child with homework, there's probably something wrong with the teacher."

Recent additions

14. Sacks, Peter. Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America. Open Court (Carus Publishing), 1996.

15. Handlin, Oscar. "A Career at Harvard." American Scholar, Winter 1996. 16. Trout, Paul. "What Students Want: A Meditation on Course Evaluations." Montana Professor, Fall 1996.

17. Schommer, John. "A Fable of Reform." American Mathematical Monthly, February 1996.

18. Bauer, Henry. "The New Generations: Students Who Don't Study," Journal of AOAC International.


  • Cartoon by Bunny Hoest and John Reiner (Laugh Parade): Teacher to principal. "I socialized them, I affirmed them, and I validated their self-esteem... I didn't have time to teach them anything."

  • Cartoon by Tom Toles (Buffalo News)
    1. Which gets more status? a. learning, b. sports (sports is circled)
    2. Which gets more hours? a. reading, b. TV (TV is circled)
    3. Which gets more attention? a. a new idea, b. a new car (car is circled)
    4. Which gets more promotion? a. studying, b. shopping (shopping is circled)
    5 Essay Question: Why do you think there's an education problem in this country?

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