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The Decline of Higher Learning

A more revealing explanation comes from Robert Stake, a psychologist at the University of Illinois. Before the 1960s, students were much more dutiful, willing to accept the assignments given them by the adult world. If they got higher scores then, it was because they approached the tests with a more acquiescent attitude. Today’s young people, Stake suggests, resist the demand for a single “correct” answer:

Students do not believe as much in “right answers,” so they do not memorize or seek them as they used to. An increasing number think the whole “right-wrong” business is a put-on.5

They have been raised in more permissive households, where they are allowed, even urged, to express ideas of their own. Schools now encourage discussion, which often ends inconclusively. However, the test makers are still asking the same questions, in the same way as a generation ago. Most of us are familiar with the format, in which you are told to pick the right response from four or five possible answers. Thus in the SAT’s reading comprehension section, you are presented with a paragraph on an unfamiliar subject, say, the feeding habits of various birds. After taking a minute to read it, you must decide which of several statements “best describes” the contents of the passage. The only problem, Stake says, is that today’s young people have a different cast of mind from that expected by the tests. As a result, they spend too much time arguing with the questions, often concluding with Owen that the actual answer is “none of the above.”

Nor is there evidence that the tests pinpoint which people will do well at college or afterward. A twenty-year follow-up of Yale graduates, sponsored—but not publicized—by the College Board, reported “no significant relation could be found between original scores and…honors and standing within their occupations.” David McClelland reached a similar conclusion: “No consistent relationships exist between Scholastic Aptitude scores in college students, and their actual accomplishment in social leadership, the arts, sciences, music, writing, and speech and drama.”6 Test taking is a very special kind of skill, having little in common with the uses of talent in the larger world. More than that, Owen makes a convincing case that it cannot reliably predict undergraduate performance. He shows how reliance on the SAT can skew admissions decisions. For example, students who do well in the mathematics part tend to score well in the verbal section, not necessarily because they have strong verbal aptitudes but because they take easily to the kind of format in which the verbal questions are set. Students with a literary bent have no equivalent advantage. Bowdoin College stopped requiring the test after discovering that many of its best students turned out to have had below-average scores. (Johns Hopkins Medical School and the Harvard Business School recently came to the same conclusion.)

Do the tests discriminate? Quite obviously they do, against people who don’t have the knack for solving puzzles at the rate of one a minute. Moreover, teenagers drawn to the arts are less likely to do well. At the same time, students from better-off families are more apt to attend schools that prepare them for the multiple-choice method. Hence, as Table B on the opposite page shows, there is a not-surprising association between economic status and SAT scores.


Indeed, this accounts for much of the variation among ethnic groups, as can be seen from the correlation of their incomes and scores. However, there are exceptions to this rule. The final column in the table includes only those candidates from families that have incomes in the $40,000 to $50,000 range, quite comfortably middle class. In this bracket, Puerto Ricans and Asian-Americans have improved notably, compared with the general distribution. Scores for blacks, however, have fallen even further behind the next-ranked group.

The tests are evidently biased. Whether that bias has a racial component is, of course, a much-argued question. Thus a recent College Board report concluded that “black students are exposed to less-challenging educational program offerings which are less likely to enhance the development of higher order cognitive skills and abilities than are white students.”7 But is that also true for black students with incomes of over $40,000 a year? Multiple-choice tests discriminate in favor of those who can adapt to the rendering of knowledge the tests represent. What is interesting is that Asians have adapted to this mode with alacrity and skill. What is depressing is the degree to which even upper-middle-class blacks still stand apart from that culture. This is not to commend a world that relies so heavily on machine-scored ratings, but simply to state that those who hope to succeed in that world must submit to its tests.

Multiple-choice tests are being used by states to judge the competence of school-teachers, just as they are the first hurdle for police officers and firefighters. Statewide tests have also been proposed for colleges, to ascertain how much undergraduates are learning. David Owen’s None of the Above goes beyond the charges it levels at the Educational Testing Service. It asks what can be the conception of education colleges that rely so heavily on the scores, or in a society that places so much store in picking predetermined answers.


The three reports on higher education are most severe on college faculties. All three rate the general run of teachers as mediocre or indolent, with most professors indifferent to larger educational aims. Rudolph found college catalogs crammed with “exquisite examples of specialized learning” more suited for graduate students already dedicated to a discipline. “Does it makes sense,” he asks, “for a college to offer a thousand courses to a student who will only take 36?” His point is not to deny opportunities to undergraduates who wish to learn more about a field, but that if choices proliferate, hardly anyone is concerned to formulate a basic liberal arts curriculum. At all events, with so many electives available, he writes, “students bound from course to course,” acquiring the requisite credits but not an education. “Too many faculty members,” Bennett says, “want to teach their dissertation or their next article.”8 Only rarely are senior scholars willing to give comprehensive courses. “Historians who used to be responsible for teaching the entire sweep of Western civilization or the Survey of American History now insist on teaching only that portion of it that corresponds to their specialties.”

The customary reply is that knowledge has become so vast and specialized that a single scholar cannot in conscience try to teach the old kind of survey course. Indeed, faculty members who ask for such assignments may find their professional reputations in jeopardy. As often as not, introductory classes are assigned to parttime instructors or graduate assistants, who may not feel competent either but have no choice in the matter. However, there is more at issue here than growing specialization. Earlier generations of liberal arts teachers, Bennett writes, felt they had “the intellectual authority to say to students what the outcome of a college education ought to be.” Supported by what Rudolph terms “the authority of tradition,” they felt sufficiently secure to expound on the economy of the Roman Empire, Renaissance architecture, and the Treaty of Ghent. Neither Rudolph nor Bennett explores the sources of this authority, perhaps because they suspect it cannot be restored. Certainly, the confidence of professors in the past owed much to their membership in an established middle class, a commitment to European learning, and a Christian conception of character and culture. Moreover, their corpus of knowledge was more readily understood, since the research of most scholars was presented in a common language. As new formulations arose, like Newton’s “thermodynamics” and Kant’s “antimonies,” they became part of educated discourse.

Liberal arts departments still bear their traditional titles. However, as Zelda Gamson notes in Liberating Education, the way they conceive of their subjects has changed considerably. Asking “whatever happened to liberal education?” she suggests the shift took place more recently than Bennett or Rudolph, stating that during the 1960s, “graduate school preoccupations…took hold in many schools.” Undergraduate courses now reflect the way disciplines are conceived at the doctoral level. This has been the real academic revolution; and, Gamson suggests, it has done more than anything else to undercut the liberal arts. Faculty members, to be true to their callings, feel they must spend much of their time discussing the work of their fellow professors. This is most apparent in the social sciences, where courses often give more attention to the models of their disciplines than to society itself. This tendency is less pronounced in the humanities; even so, one occasionally comes across sophomores trying to make sense of assignments on semiotics and hermeneutics. Such knowledge may be important and illuminating; unfortunately, not enough teachers have found ways to bring it to life in their classrooms.

My own experience persuades me that students want a serious education, and are grateful when they get it. They do not ask that their subjects be popularized, nor do they insist they be made “relevant.” Indeed, they soon become aware of the adulteration and dilution alluded to by Bennett. At the same time, undergraduates should not be expected to take readily to material more appropriate to the graduate level. Similar problems arise with science. We can all agree that an understanding of science should be part of a liberal education. Still, most colleges settle for “distribution requirements,” which can usually be satisfied by a single science class. Generally, it will be a course like introductory chemistry, where the instructor feels he has done his duty if he deals with the rudiments of the subject. Unfortunately, few professors are willing or able to provide a broader perspective that might give their students a feeling for the scientific approach to knowledge.

Two recent books provide useful information on college faculties. American Professors, by Howard Bowen and Jack Schuster, is based on interviews with 352 professors at thirty-eight campuses, ranging from Ann Arbor and Swarthmore to Joliet Junior College. Martin Finkelstein relies on already existing studies for his The American Academic Profession, which he calls “a synthesis of social scientific inquiry.” From Bowen and Schuster we learn that the typical humanities professor has an IQ of 128, whereas chemists average 136, and physicists 143. (Social scientists, I fear, score 124.) Sixty-four percent of all faculty members consider themselves “deeply” or “moderately” religious, and 48 percent attend services once a month or more. The professors claimed an average work week of 45.8 hours, of which 8.6 hours were devoted to “public service,” and 3.7 to “professional enrichment.” In addition, Bowen and Schuster note the aging of college teachers. In 1962, professors were relatively youthful, with 44 percent in their twenties or thirties. By 1981, fewer than a quarter were under forty. They estimate that by the year 2000, more than half of all tenured teachers will be almost or over sixty.

  1. 5

    Quoted in Lawrence Lipsitz, ed., The Test Score Decline (Educational Technology Publications, 1977), p. 74.

  2. 6

    Educational Testing Service, Annual Report: 1966–67, p. 98; David C. McClelland, “Testing for Competence rather than for ‘Intelligence,’ ” American Psychologist (January 1973), p. 3.

  3. 7

    Equality abd Excellence: The Educational status of Black Americans (College Board, 1985), p. vii.

  4. 8

    Chronicle of Higher Education (February 20, 1985), p. 19.

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