Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 18, November 2001/b: "Beer and circus in American education – Pars construens"


Since I just attacked undergraduate education at big-time sports universities in the United States, a fair question is: what could be done to solve the problem? My answers are an elaboration on those suggested by Murray Sperber in his Beer and Circus and those outlined in a highly influential report on what works and doesn’t work in American colleges, known as the Boyer Commission report.

Modest proposal 1: Big-time U’s should slim down by thousands of undergraduates until the student body is of a size that can be handled by the faculty. The only other alternative is to increase the size of the faculty by an order of magnitude, which is much more inconceivable.

Modest proposal 2: Universities should separate undergraduate teaching from the graduate training and research activities. Here I part company with Sperber in that I do not propose having a few universities devoted exclusively to research and many more to undergraduate education, though that is certainly a viable model. But it is time to stop hiring faculty on the pretense that they be good teachers when everyone knows that they are tenured and promoted because of their research and in spite of their teaching. Let’s hire good teachers to do the teaching and good researchers to do the research. If a few individuals can do both, so much the better.

Modest proposal 3: Hire at least some faculty whose research is in pedagogy. It is astounding that a lot is known about how the brain learns, and on what works and doesn’t work in teaching but that most faculty and teaching assistants are wholly ignorant of this field of work. Having at least a few colleagues who know what they are doing might actually help.

Modest proposal 4: Abolish passive teaching methods that turn undergraduates into zombies: no more lectures (with or without PowerPoint) and increased emphasis on inquiry-based learning, small class discussions, open-ended research projects and the like.

Modest proposal 5: Raise the standards of acceptance into four-year colleges: require a minimum (high) score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test or equivalent exam. Despite the fact that standardized tests have their limitations, scores on college entrance exams actually correlate much better than grades with students’ abilities at critical thinking because of rampant grade inflation. We need to acknowledge that while equal opportunity to go college is a right, acceptance into university must be based on readiness. Community colleges exist to bridge the gap for those whose performance indicates that they would not be best served by the university experience.

Modest proposal 6: End athletic scholarships. They encourage the exploitation of athletes, cause resentment among other undergraduates who had to work harder to get where they are, and in general defeat the whole point of a “scholar”-ship. It is not by chance that the Ivy League universities do not award athletic scholarships and prohibit their teams from playing bowl games.

Modest proposal 7: Shut down the NCAA. We don’t need an organization whose only purpose is to exploit youths through the encouragement of a beer and circus atmosphere (March “madness” comes to mind as an example) and that does absolutely nothing to further the only legitimate goal of a university: providing the best education possible. Playing sports is a great thing and should be pursued at colleges, but intramurally as a recreational activity and extramurally only as a relaxed pastime to which no high stakes are attached. Let the professional teams pay to raise their future stars, as in every other civilized country in the world (did you realize that in 2000 the NCAA was looking at allowing athletes to seek loans based on future professional earnings? Do these people have no shame?).

Modest proposal 8: Treat coaches as regular faculty, with tenure track and salaries comparable to those of any other faculty in any other discipline. And tell them they are lucky to get that much, given that their job is far less important than the one done by the rest of the faculty.

Modest proposal 9: Educate university administrators that the university is not a for-profit business, it is a community service. Ergo, it makes no sense at all to call in business marketers to improve the school’s image or to devise strategies to increase the “customer” base, while the true needs of students (and, by extension, their future employers) go unmet. Schools that provide a good education don’t need to present a spin-doctored façade.

Modest proposal 10: Vote only for legislators who pledge to provide acceptable levels of State funding of education at all levels, including college. Education, together with health care, is among the most important rights that Americans still have to fight for, which are taken for granted in other industrialized countries.

Is all of this going to happen? Probably not, unless the current demographics and economics change significantly, or a grass-roots movement takes hold to really take our schools back. I give it a chance in a thousand, which is not much worse than the likelihood of getting a good education at a big-time U anyway. Think about it.


Next Month: "The Great Unicorn Debate"

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2001