Our Growing Higher Ed Crisis: Making Myths In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

April 28, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 22 10 min read

While living in Germany three years ago, I talked my way into a job teaching high school students how to write fiction – in English.  The administrator who hired me, normally a stickler about credentials like any self-respecting German bureaucrat, was willing to ignore the fact that I had never taught anything to anyone.  In her eyes, I offered something far more valuable than a teaching certificate or classroom experience.  I was a published American novelist.  And so… Willkommen!

The dozen sophomores and juniors who’d signed up for the after-school class were fluent in English and able to write solid sentences, but they were initially a bit leery of me.  When I tried to get them to create characters from whole cloth, to imagine problems for them, to dream up action that would dramatize how they grappled with those problems, the students balked.  For nearly a dozen years they’d been conditioned by a system that rewarded them for doing things the right way.  This school was a gymnasium (with a hard g), the highest level of high school, and these students would soon be taking the brutal Abitur, the week-long written and oral exam that makes the American SAT look like a pop quiz and which would determine which of them was worthy of the Holy Grail: a free university education.  Understandably, it took these students a while to grasp what I was telling them: when writing fiction there are no right or wrong answers, only good choices and bad ones.  This Amerikaner is standing up there telling us we get to make stuff up!  Cool! Once they got it, they took to fiction writing the way birds take to the blue.

coverThat experience was very much on my mind as I read In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, the chilling new book about the travails of an adjunct professor of college English who goes by the pseudonym Professor X.  His students, at an unnamed private college and an unnamed community college somewhere in America, could not have been more unlike my German charges.  While my high schoolers were gamely writing fiction in a second (and in some cases third) language, Professor X’s college students could barely put together grammatical sentences in their native tongue.  The reason was that his students and the people who “prepared” them for college had bought into one of the most common and debilitating American myths – namely, that everyone has an inalienable right to a college education, regardless of their level of academic achievement.

“As my students drift into the classroom each evening,” Professor X writes, “I find myself feeling sorry for them.  Many are in over their heads…  They lack rudimentary skills; in some cases, they are not even functionally literate…  Some are not ready for high school, much less college.”

So what are these people doing in college?  Trying to get ahead, of course, trying to position themselves to get their slice of that big gooey pie known as the American Dream.  And in one of those snake-eating-its-tail scenarios, as more and more Americans, both qualified and unqualified, enroll in colleges, more and more employers are able to demand that job seekers have some college education, even for jobs that patently do not require it.  Professor X calls this “credential inflation” and he explains its existence this way: “There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and our medical billing techs, our county tax clerks, our child welfare agents, our court officers and sheriffs and federal marshals.”

And so colleges keep growing, enrollments keep expanding, and lowly adjuncts like Professor X toil away in the basement of the ivory tower – with little prestige, no benefits and no hope of tenure.  But there is a price attached to this relentless expansionism.  “This push for universal college enrollment, which at first glance seems emblematic of American opportunity and class mobility, is in fact hurting those whom it is meant to help,” Professor X writes.  “Students are leaving two- and four-year colleges with enormous amounts of debt.”

About a trillion dollars worth, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid and Fastweb, which track student debt.  The average debt of college students who took out loans and graduated was $24,000 last year, when student debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time.  In 1993, fewer than half of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with debt; by 2008 the figure had risen to more than two-thirds.  “In the coming years,” Kantrowitz says, “a lot of people will still be paying off their college loans when it’s time for their kids to go to college.”

This “debt-for-diploma” system would shock a German because in Germany college tuition is free – that is, it’s paid for with taxes.  It’s also available only to those students who have proved, over the course of 12 rigorous years, that they deserve to attend.  How utterly un-American.  As Professor X writes: “In no other age but our own – idealistic, inclusive, unwilling to limit anyone’s possibilities for self-determination – would some of my students be considered ready for college.  They have been abducted into college, sold a bill of goods…  Without heaping too much solemnity upon it, college is something that one must ascend to.”

With these simple sentences – and especially with the loaded words inclusive and ascend – Professor X finally lets the cat out of the bag.  To suggest that someone should be excluded from college because he or she is not equipped to ascend is to open yourself to the predictable charges of elitism, classism (love that word!) and, quite possibly, sexism and racism.  These charges take me back to my teaching experience in Germany.  I did not teach at some pricey private prep school; it was an ordinary public high school in a small town outside Cologne, yet the students were no strangers to the concepts of exclusion and ascending – or, if you will, elitism.  After fourth grade, all German students are put on one of four tracks on the basis of teacher evaluations: main school, which can lead to a trade school at age 16; intermediate school, which can lead to such mid-level careers as secretary or draftsman; and college-prep comprehensive school or gymnasium, where performance on the Abitur will determine not only who can go on to university but what they’ll be allowed to study once they get there.  The system is rigid but not unyielding.  It’s possible for high-performing students to rise from one level to the next.  But if they don’t perform, they don’t advance.  Period.

Professor X does a nice job of explaining exactly why this is so un-American: “First of all, twenty-first-century American culture makes it more difficult to fail people.  Our society, for all its blathering about embracing diversity and difference, really has no stomach for diversity and difference when it constitutes disparity.  We don’t like to admit that one student may be smarter, sharper, harder working, better prepared, more energetic, more painstaking – simply a better student – than another.  So we level the playing field…(but) our quest to provide universally level playing fields has made us reluctant to keep score.”

And he knows first-hand that if you refuse to keep score, if you don’t set standards, if you promote students simply for trying, you will produce mediocrity, or worse.  Don’t take Professor X’s word for it.  Emily Colette Wilkinson, my fellow staff writer here at The Millions, also spent some time in the basement of the ivory tower trying to teach English to unqualified students.  In an e-mail she describes the experience:

Yes, I taught two classes at a community college in Southern California right after I finished my Ph.D.  It was a temporary adjunct position for two classes, Advanced Writing and Advanced English Grammar (advanced, in this case, meaning 12th-grade level).  They hired me about two days before the semester started and gave me no syllabus or text book or course description for either class.  When the “department head” did get in touch with me two weeks after classes had started, he told me not to get my hopes up, that most of them would fail.  It didn’t turn out to be most, but it was close, maybe 40 to 45 percent failed.  And this was after I’d lowered the bar on the course expectations – in a big way.

The rage and sadness that resulted from this experience – an experience in which I failed as much as most of my student did – was not directed at them.  It was directed at the college. The college had failed us all.  The other enraging thing was that my students really needed English.  I did have three students who were learning, whom I connected with.  But if I’d known how deeply demoralizing the whole experience would be, I don’t think I’d have done it, even for them.  I was scandalized and enraged by this shitshow masquerading as a school – failing everyone except the incompetent administrators who kept collecting their money from the state of California – the bankrupt state of California, no less – even though the enterprise they were supporting was worse than a joke.  I think Professor X is right on the money.  Of course there is the other side too: I know people who’ve had community colleges change their lives – set them on the path to become nurses and professors, helped them up the class ladder.  But that isn’t what I saw.

coverA book that can profitably be read in tandem with In the Basement of the Ivory Tower is Matthew B. Crawford’s best-seller from 2009, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. This passionately argued and deftly written little book – part polemic, part manifesto, part philosophical inquiry – questions the values Americans attach to different kinds of work.  Crawford, equal parts motorcycle mechanic and philosopher, argues persuasively that there has been a fundamental and disastrous disconnect in American life over the past century: thinking has been divorced from doing.  He traces the source of this split to the industrialists of the early 20th century, most notably Henry Ford, whose automobile assembly line helped create the notions of white collar and blue collar – that is, it pitted mental work against manual work.

“These seem to be the categories that inform the educational landscape even now, and this entails two big errors,” Crawford writes.  “First, it assumes that all blue-collar work is as mindless as assembly line work, and second, that white-collar work is still recognizably mental in character.”  If you still think most white-collar work is mental in character, you have almost surely never seen an episode of The Office or worked in a beige cubicle, as Crawford and I have.

He points out that the American tendency to elevate the status of mental work while devaluing manual work has become institutionalized: “Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor.  The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into ‘college prep’ and ‘vocational ed’ is overlaid by another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined.  In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future.  Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement.”

Again I was transported back to that gymnasium in Germany.  Germans demand results while Americans demand opportunity, or, more precisely, the illusion of opportunity.  Germans are willing to make determinations that lead to achievement, while Americans insist on freedoms that supposedly will lead to the realization of the individual’s potential.  Small wonder that trade schools flourish alongside universities in Germany, or that German tradesmen are respected and well paid while German doctors and CEOs earn a fraction of what their American counterparts earn.  In a country that has neither artificially inflated the value of mental work nor artificially debased the value of manual work, the distance between top and bottom is not so great, and the middle class is secure and well cared for.  In Crawford’s formulation, Germans have embraced the value of craftsmanship – “the desire to do something well, for its own sake” – because all work done well is valuable.

Another way of saying this is that Germans tend to be serious in ways Americans are not.  I don’t mean serious in the sense of humorless, solemn, staid, grim or dour; I mean it in the sense my dictionary defines it, “concerned with important rather than trivial matters,” that is, clear-eyed, willing to set standards and make judgments based on performance, and not inclined to buy into hollow myths.

Serious people would never buy into the most enduring American myths – that everyone deserves a college education; that everyone deserves to own a home, and real estate will always rise in value; that everyone can become president; that your slice of the pie is there for the taking, provided you’re willing to work for it.  Those serious Germans, on the other hand, may not believe in pie in the sky yet they enjoy universal health care, excellent mass transit, free college educations for qualified students, six weeks of paid vacation every year, high wages and low unemployment, and many other goodies of a vast social network.  And unlike their neighbors in Greece and Portugal – unlike Americans – they tend to live within their means.

People who are not serious, on the other hand, buy houses they can’t afford and run up credit card debt.  They let the oil industry write the deep-sea drilling regulations that led to the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  They don’t insist that their government inspect their commercial airplanes, their levees, their bridges or their food.  They rail against taxes and then devote more than half of every tax dollar to military spending.  They argue that universal health care and strict environmental laws are evil government intrusions, and that “creationism” should be taught alongside evolution in public schools.  They regard Sarah Palin and Donald Trump as valid presidential contenders.  All this because the basement of the ivory tower is teeming with illiterates?  Well, yes.  A society unwilling to demand excellence of its students is unlikely to demand – or get – competence from its government.

It’s no surprise that people so lacking in seriousness would eagerly embrace another myth: that a college education will lead naturally to better-paying, white-collar work, and that that work will be more satisfying and secure than working with your hands.  This myth is built on the belief that the rise of technology will require ever-higher levels of education.  In fact, new software is reducing the demand for highly educated workers in a growing number of fields, including legal research, medical diagnosis and, yes, even computer chip design.

If your computer seizes up you will probably wind up on the telephone with someone in a cubicle in Bangalore who will sleep-walk you through a trouble-shooting checklist.  But if, as Crawford points out, your toilet won’t stop overflowing or you experience severe chest pains, you will have to call on a plumber or a doctor.  Some jobs, especially manual ones, can’t be outsourced.  That’s why a plumber’s license has started looking very attractive to a lot of people during this recession, including a lot of under- and unemployed college graduates.  Conversely, once-coveted advanced degrees have started looking less enticing.  According to the Law School Admission Council, law school applications dropped 11.5 percent this year, to the lowest level since 2001.  Why?  Because young people don’t want to pile up thousands of dollars of debt so they can become unemployed lawyers.

The truth is that most employers who demand a college education of job applicants aren’t terribly interested in what those applicants studied or how well they performed.  The corporate recruiter is looking for “pliable generalists unfettered by any single set of skills,” as Crawford puts it before taking us inside the mind of an applicant during a job interview: “He senses that what is demanded of him is not knowledge but rather that he project a certain kind of personality, an affable complaisance…  There seems to be a mismatch between form and content, and a growing sense that the official story we’ve been telling ourselves about work is somehow false.”

Or, as Professor X says of college, that it’s all a bill of goods.

None of us – neither Professor X (M.F.A. in creative writing), Matthew B. Crawford (Ph.D. in political philosophy), Emily Colette Wilkinson (Ph.D. in English), nor I (B.A. in English) – are opposed to college education.  I dropped out of college after two years, worked a string of brain-killing jobs, then went back and got my degree because I realized, way back in the 1970s, that “credential inflation” meant I would need a degree if I hoped to get even the lowly job I aspired to – as a cub reporter at a small-town daily newspaper.  While it gave me nothing that was useful in my job, my liberal arts education did feed and foster my curiosity about the wider world, certainly a valuable asset for a newspaper reporter and absolutely essential for anyone hoping to become a novelist.

So while I don’t regret going to college, I do find myself agreeing with Professor X’s and Wilkinson’s claim that allowing unqualified students into college is a disservice to everyone, especially the students.  And as college students struggle to write grammatical sentences while their debt piles up, I join Matthew B. Crawford in asking, “What the hell is going on?  Is this our society as a whole, buying more education only to scale new heights of stupidity?”

(Image: graduation caps from whatcouldgowrong’s photostream)

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.


  1. What a fabulous article. It is about time that we actually cared about providing real education rather than “self-esteem” in our schools. I graduated from teachers college summa cum laude, yet decided not to teach, completely disheartened by the lack of standards and the catering to the lowest level possible. Prizes for all indeed!
    However, this article has shown me I still have a desire to make a difference; maybe I will try again.

  2. While a agree with Bill Morris I would like to add a few facts about the German school system. Yes, College education and Universities are basically free. But students can apply for the so called “Bafoeg” which is a student loan to help students with their living expenses. As soon as one earns money one has to pay back said Bafoeg, at least partially. So, there is student debt in Germany. Books in schools also used to be free but now students have to buy their own books. Also, in Germany the number of jobs where one needs Abitur has increased dramatically in the last several years. And it is not true that the government can tell you what you can study. It is rather that the so called Numerus Clausus exists. That means that for the most desirable educations one needs the best Abitur degrees to avoid an overabundance in certain fields which could lead to widespread unemployment.

  3. What a well-argued article! The attitude towards higher education is similar in India. Some of the students who went to college with me were clearly not there for the education. It was simply a way to get a degree, not really earn it. The admission standards for so many courses were low enough that one student, I remember, couldn’t even compose a coherent sentence in English, and she qualified for the Eng Lit. course. Since then, I’ve been very cynical about institutional education.

  4. Great essay, Bill. I agree that something must be done to fix the current American mentality that college should be the natural, unthinking next step for the majority of high school kids. Unfortunately, the solution is neither obvious nor easy to implement.

    While the German system sounds appealing, it is also a reflection of the unique cultural history of that country and, as Bill noted, an economic system which ensures that “the distance between top and bottom is not so great.” While I personally love the idea of American policies that would reduce the wealth gap, the fact remains that extreme wealth and extreme poverty is the American way. We aim for greatness whether or not we have any realistic chance of reaching it and we’ll fight like hell to protect our right to do so.

    Also, it’s worth pointing out that this country has not always held the belief that everyone has the “inalienable right to a college education.” If you haven’t yet read Mike Rose’s “The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker,” I recommend adding it to your to-read list. This book is often championed by the “college for all” skeptics who believe that career and technical education should be more strongly emphasized in the American educational system. But Rose doesn’t necessarily agree. He says that he is sympathetic to the college for all reforms and notes that “when you become familiar with the history of discrimination surrounding curricular tracking and with the systematic restriction of educational opportunity for entire groups of Americans to the lowest-level training . . . well, there’s little doubt about the democratic redress underlying these initiatives.”

    Is America ready to move back to an educational system that involves some form of curricular tracking? As Bill noted, this is a country made up of people who regard Sarah Palin and Donald Trump as valid presidential contenders. It is a country made up of people who question whether our President was born in America despite empirical evidence that he was. Confederate flags are still proudly displayed throughout the South. The fact of the matter is that there are rich [insert any ethnicity] kids, middle-class [insert any ethnicity] kids, and poor [insert any ethnicity] kids who are not well-served by following the college track. How do we devise a system to ensure that it’s not just the poor and minorities who are ushered to the non-college, career education track?

  5. So many missed opportunities!

    When are the ad reps going to get around to purchasing the space on the tops of mortar boards? They could work it like “card games” in the stands of football stadiums. Spell out “Just Do It”, “Coke Adds Life”, or “I just spent $100,000 of my parents’ money and all I got was this lousy diploma.”

  6. Great essay. But I wondered who would be more likely to agree with it, Trump or Obama. I can’t imagine a leader just now who could lead us out of this wilderness.

  7. The Germans also have a sort of credential inflation going on, as well. To serve in the higher echelons of government, an advanced degree–usually a PhD–is required. This has lead to some notable recent scandals where government ministers have had to resign because of questions of plagiarism and authorship of their dissertations. One minister reportedly didn’t even know the contents of his own Dissertation.

  8. I’m fairly tired of the support by otherwise intelligent-seeming people of Professor X’s retro-conservative view of education, the ” classism (love that word!) and, quite possibly, sexism and racism” of which should not, in my opinion, be dispensed with so glibly. Yes, the higher education system in this country is fraught with problems, and yes, student lending is immensely problematic, but does that mean we should throw up our hands? When we talk about limiting educational opportunities to students who are “smarter, sharper, harder working, better prepared, more energetic, more painstaking – simply better student[s],” what we are mostly talking about is limiting possibilities for students who have already been thoroughly disenfranchised. To let poor governmental regulation of industry (student loans) and our own frustration (Professor X) win out over efforts toward substantive reform of college finance and secondary education is, frankly, a depressing prospect.

    The elevation of the German school system as ideal in this piece is also deeply troubling, as the classist and racist aspects of the German educational tracking system are widely acknowledged even by Germany’s own politicians (for example: http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,1648108,00.html and http://sed.sagepub.com/content/42/1/47.abstract).

    And why is it that the biggest romanticizers of blue-collar work (become a plumber!) are always people currently in white-collar professions? My mother is a nurse. She doesn’t call me, despite the shortage of workers in her field and her high salary, and say, “Become a nurse; it’s great.” She says her feet hurt from her 10-hour shift.

  9. Every person, be they administrative, adjunct, tenured, etc. who works at any level school in the US needs to read this book! Professor X hits the nail on the head whether people want to admit it or not, whether they agree that college is not for everyone or not, whether they want to make it a class issue, a racial one, or a political one! Basically what we have done in this country is lower the bar – big time! Everyone deserves this, everyone deserves that! This is the general idea in America and I have to say that I agree with one minor change – everyone deserves to EARN this, everyone deserves to EARN that! We will never better our education system if we are constantly lowering the bar so that everyone magically has the same opportunities! What we need to do is create and fund programs that uplift people to help them successfully achieve a high level of education instead of bringing the education down! This is what we have done here and it is becoming painfully and embarrassingly obvious that we have essentially, in the process, dumbed ourselves down as a country. Standards of education and performance need to be high, constantly pushed and raised, and students need to meet those standards, period!! It doesn’t work both ways and it never will! Right now we are doing the exact opposite and we are dooming ourselves in the process! Standards need to be high and reached for students to proceed to college and if there are disenfranchised groups of people in this country that will be left out with that method then there need to be private organizations COMPLETELY SEPERATE from schools that help them succeed to those standards. Currently we have a huge conflict of interest where schools want and need their students to succeed so they simply lower the bar, so much so that the overall quality of education in the country has plumeted. This needs to stop – there need to be high, inflexible, national standards for college acceptance regardless of background! That, and teachers need to take the classroom back from parents who don’t have high expectations for their kids, allow them to achieve little and still expect them to be pushed and coddled through school, even demand it!!!

    And I feel obliged to mention to people that constantly point out the relative success of socialist European countries and their policies and think that the US can succeed in this way as well that the majority of most European countries do not consist of the same type of population that the US does – in pop numbers, economic standing, demographics, numbers willing to leach long-term benefits of social programs, etc. Take that to mean what you will but it is THE reason that socialist ideas WILL NEVER work in the US. Everyone always seems to ignore and/or simply not even think about these differences and they are huge!

  10. Pseudonymous at 4:15pm April 28th illustrates the problem.

    Any serious effort to judge on merit, or do “tracking,” will be met with cries of racism. This is because objective academic standards lead to disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics failing. This is “disparate impact.” And according to the US Government, “disparate impact” is against the law.

    So, there’s no way to have an honest or realistic discussion about meritocracy, because if you try to, you get called “RAAAAACIST” and your career is over. See Nobel Prize-winner James Watson.

  11. @JasonM–“Objective academic standards” are a fiction in a country afflicted with serious systemic racial and class barriers to education that many people (including yourself, apparently) refuse to acknowledge. No one (especially not me) is arguing against a hypothetical meritocracy where all students are given the same privilege, preparation, and resources. Since that is emphatically not the case in the US, yes, many people will cry “racism!” when a writer such as Prof X proposes the sudden imposition of “objective” criteria to limit opportunity even further.

    Or, as a friend of mine put it: the answer to the problem of unprepared students is not to deny them education. Blaming students (or condescendingly assuming to know what’s “best” for them, as Prof X does) is not the answer. What is? I don’t really know, either, but the conversation isn’t advanced by refusal to acknowledge the existence of oppression.

  12. Well written, important and interesting. Unprepared students are an epidemic. We can only open the door, they must walk through, etc…
    Greg Gutierrez
    Zen and the Art of Surfing.

  13. I agree with the essay. I think a lot of Americans have forgotten the importance of hard work. I think a generation that grows up in a down economy gains a higher appreciation for education and hard work….Kids that grew up during the Great Depression were forced to learn how to work hard and placed a higher importance on education where as a generation of kids that grows up not having to work hard and do much to get into college and get a diploma inevitably struggles later on in life. Hopefully this generation that grows up seeing a slow economy and difficulty getting jobs will place a high importance on hard work and education to their children.

  14. I’ve rarely read an essay that mixes so much smart thinking with so many bad assumptions. The glib dismissal of “classism (love that word!)” gets at the heart of the problem. We do not live in a country in which “everyone” succeeds, a country that has been weakened by a preschool style embrace of self-esteem over achievement. We live instead in a country riven by a fierce and bloody meritocracy, in which only an increasingly shrinking sliver of the highest-achieving students can launch themselves into the upper class, which (thanks to income disparity) grows wealthier and wealthier as the middle class weakens and sinks closer to poverty.

    The trick is, though, that ascension in this “meritocracy” was never a fair fight – with rare exceptions, you end up there if your parents pay for the right (private) high schools, the right SAT tutors, the right expensive and elite university. The idea that “everyone” can go to college masks the fact that we’ve robbed public schools of their funding, robbed poor kids of their free lunches and their health care and their after-school programs; robbed them of the basics that they need to succeed and then robbing them of any financial security that might have possessed by suggesting that their sole chance to rise in this broken system is to pay thousands of dollars for a college education they cannot afford.

    You might prefer a German system in which your life path is set for you from middle school. I prefer – and believe in – the promise of a meritocracy; I believe that most, if not all, students can benefit from the same kind of higher education that you and I received. I might be wrong – it might be that most students do not have the capacity to benefit from a liberal arts education – but you cannot look at the current system for evidence of that, because the majority of those students were never given a fighting chance.

  15. I agree will Bill Morris, that we are just promoting mediocrity by passing students along. The enormous cost of student debt is troubling. As a “senior citizen” I wince at the lack of basic English language skills when dealing with the general citizenry. Beyond my B.S., I succeeded in pursuing 2 separate associate degrees, each for a particular job field, those being what I consider the “manual” aspect of education.

  16. I would like to thank all of you for reading The Millions and for taking the time to compose such thoughtful – and thought-provoking – reactions to my essay. A few of your comments inspire me to comment:

    To Chris: You make an excellent point when you note that the German educational system is a reflection of that country’s unique cultural history. Germany is an ethnically homogeneous country with a population of about 90 million that includes only one large immigrant group – 3.5 million people of Turkish origin. I realize it would be impossible to import the German school system to a polyglot ethnic mash-up like the U.S. My point, rather, was that the German willingness to make determinations at a very young age is something Americans are averse to do, and we suffer from it. Your closing question cuts to the essence: How do we devise a system to ensure that it’s not just the poor and minorities who are ushered to the non-college, career-education track? That is, indeed, the big question.

    To Pseudonymous: While I agree with you that this country is afflicted with systemic racial and class barriers to education (and many other things), it does not follow that objective academic standards have to be a fiction in the face of such barriers. I think we would agree that removing those barriers should be a top priority. Once they’re gone, we should follow the example of Germany and set the bar high – for everyone.

    To Kristen: I think you nailed it when you wrote that the problem is that “we’ve robbed public schools of their funding” – while the rich and their private schools keep getting richer. How’s this for a modest proposal: Let’s INCREASE taxes on the rich and on un- or under-taxed corporations, and use that money to hire more high-quality public school teachers and pay them the high salaries they deserve. Then everyone, rich and poor, black and white and yellow and brown, would have the same educational opportunities and we could hold them all to the same high standards.
    Bill Morris

  17. Bill wrote: “I do find myself agreeing with Professor X’s and Wilkinson’s claim that allowing unqualified students into college is a disservice to everyone, especially the students.”

    The same or similar could be said of students in grades K-12. What about students who do not have a basic command of the English language? What about students that move from school to school as their parents move from job to job? What about students who are unable to stay awake in class, or unable to stay seated at their desks? What about students who have a felt need to intimidate or threaten other students or the teacher, or just to make explicit their place in the pecking order?

    We can blame the parents for not bringing up their kids right, or caring enough to fight for better teachers and schools. We can blame the teachers for not being able to handle the wide variety of skill sets and personalities they experience in a typical class. We can blame the administrators for not providing the facilities and programs necessary to support parents, teachers, and children. We can blame the kids themselves for not behaving properly or being sufficiently motivated. We can blame the education racket for coming up with nonsense like “open court” teaching.

    And we do. But nothing is done, because nothing really can be done. If you expel unruly students where do you expel them to? The streets? What used to be called “reform school’? The Youth Authority? If you can’t expel them, then can you punish them in any meaningful way without it being considered assault and battery? If you can’t expel or punish or encourage them, then the best you can do is try to mollify them so that you can focus on teaching the rest of the class.

    Also facilities at poor schools may be bad, but they needn’t be as bad as they are. Toilets don’t break themselves. Walls don’t come with grafitti on them. Certainly more money is spent on schools in richer districts, but unruly and angry students can cause a lot of destruction in a relatively short amount of time.

    The best schools at any age range are most likely those where students who don’t want to learn can be successfully excluded. Rich districts can send students home knowing they will be reasonably safe lolling in their divorced mommy’s hot tub, or sent to a military school or rehab center to chill. The students that remain can be cajoled, shamed, scared, and emotionally bludgeoned into remaining on the hamster wheel that may eventually result in a paid gig on Wall Street.

    Meanwhile those in poorer schools can learn the real lessons of life: the squeaky wheel often gets the grease, and humans can tolerate a heckuva lotta crap for an amazingly long time.

  18. I wish I didn’t know exactly what he’s talking about. I’m about to graduate from city college and to say the least we get a mixed bag. Some of my peers are downright brilliant and just trying not to spend too much on their degree. Then there are others who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. I’ve peer edited papers that quite simply did not contain coherent sentences.

    One of my professors told me that she’s counting the days til she retires just because it’s so disheartening to have so many students come in who don’t have a grasp on the basics and have no desire to learn anything. An so often because they’re so unprepared these students constantly fail classes or transfer and they take longer to graduate and amount even more debt so they can apply for positions they aren’t suited for.

    Germany’s looking pretty good from where I’m sitting

  19. Just randomly stumbled onto this post via Google and I know it’s over a year old, but I’d still like to add my two cents. I’m German and I attended Gymnasium, and I also spend half a year at an American high school in 11th grade.

    The point is just: The selection in the German system does NOT go by merits or intelligence. I attended a Gymnasium. I am not particularly bright and neither were most of my classmates. Of course, there was the occasional genius, but most of us just had the good fortune of being born into upper- or educated middle class families, where it’s the norm to attend a Gymnasium. And if you’re too stupid for it and flunk out, your parents will ship you off to some private Gymnasium for dumb rich kids where teachers will go out of their way to prepare you for your Abitur. (Yes, there are schools that have this reputation.) Because God forbid the son of a doctor or a lawyer should go to a main or intermediate school!

    The city where I attended school had a lot of Turkish and Arabic immigrants, according to Wikipedia, 20%. How many of them went to my Gymnasium of about 800 students? Less than ten. They can’t all be unfit for university education now, can they? The high school I went to in the US had a lot of special classes for Mexican immigrant children to make them learn English as quickly as possible. There are still not enough programmes like this for German immigrant children, who often stay below their potential because their German isn’t too good.

    You say that US community college students barely know how to write in their language. If you would have taught at a Hauptschule instead of a Gymnasium, you would have seen that there’s a lot of German kids who have this problem as well. But they probably don’t send foreign writers to a type of school which basically prepares kids for a life of at worst unemployment and at best menial labor (all those respected tradesman of craftsman jobs usually go to kids who attended at least a Realschule).

    So I actually benefited from the system, but that doesn’t mean it’s not unfair. And a lot of my classmates were too short-sighted to realize it: They were incredibly arrogant and condescending towards people who went to different types of school and thought they were smarter and better than them, even though every study and statistic presented on the subject shows that the decision whether a child attends a Gymnasium or not has little to do with intelligence and everything to do with social background. At Gymnasium and at university, a lot of my classmates have talked about people who don’t have an Abitur the way they would talk about particularly unpleasant vermin. Or they would just completely ignore them. This is what I’ve always hated about the social environment at my German university: people would never notice that there is another life out there, with people who don’t come from the educated middle and upper class but still deserve our respect and attention.

    This leads to a class society in Germany which is a lot stronger than what I have experienced it in the US. Just recently I had a conversation with my boss over lunch.

    She: What, so you are saying that you REALLY have friends who don’t have a Abitur? Are you serious?
    Me: Yeah. I have friends who hold doctorates, but I also have friends who are garbagemen or bus drivers. I like having friends from different backgrounds, they can offer you other perspectives. It really broadens your horizon.
    She: I never sad this was a bad thing! It’s just so.. uncommon.

    While it is true that tradesmen and craftsmen can make a good living in Germany, that doesn’t mean that a class society exists. It hardly ever happens that a master bricklayer, even if he has his own business and is successful, is friends with a university professor.

    I’m sure that stuff like this exists in the US, but my impression was that it’s not to the same extent. When I meet people in Germany, I can place them in a socio-economic class withing five minutes of meeting them by the way they talk, dress and act. I haven’t experienced this with Americans, at least not to that extent (but then again, I maybe haven’t spent enough time there to pick up on subtle social cues.)

    I also loved the art education at my American high school. You actually got free music instrument and singing lessons, how cool! In Germany, you have to take those privately and they cost quite a lot of money. Again, something that is impossible for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    I do have to admit that the Gymnasium’s academic level was higher than the one at the American high school, in some subjects, even significantly so. But don’t forget that it’s the US that has the best universities in the world. German universities are decent, they have a solid international reputation, but even the best ones are still a far cry from Harvard, Stanford or MIT. And even if you have extremely bad Abitur grades, as long as you pass, you can basically get into any subject at any German university if you wait long enough. Sometimes you have to wait for ten years, but you still have a chance. This would be unheard of in the US. Someone with bad SAT scores could wait for fifty years and they still wouldn’t get into Harvard. Therefore, on a higher education level, some parts of the US educational system is actually MORE competitive than the German one.

    I would really like to hear what you think about those issues from an American point of view. Maybe I am wrong on some points about the US? I’d appreciate a reply. (And I’m sorry that this post got so incredibly long, I tend to always write too much.)


  20. “While it is true that tradesmen and craftsmen can make a good living in Germany, that doesn’t mean that a class society exists.”

    Whoops, made a mistake there. This was supposed to read “… that doesn’t mean that a class society doesn’t exist.”

  21. I found this a fascinating and well-argued look at education today. Here in Australia, to enter university we have to pass a set of tests to show that we are literate, numerate and can argue a point to a certain standard. But we do have to pay for the privilege of attending, paying usually after we finish.

    My husband came to Australia as a refugee, and both of us worked while he attended part-time. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science and has had full employment ever since, not always using his B.Sc.

    Fast forward twenty years and our daughter is doing the same area of study. When I got out of high school, conversely, I attended a “trade school”, learning short hand, typing and clerical skills. I have also been in full-time work all of my adult life.

    So I agree that education is valuable. Learning a trade or doing an apprenticeship is just as helpful in the eventual goal of finding employment. But we must not be careful not to level the playing field so much that those who are truly outstanding have to run uphill.

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