By Robert Oliphant
Count on the Brits to crucify their American cousins in a recent ECONOMIST article (July 9th) that slams our universities for raising their fees five times as fast as inflation during the last 30 years — a feat of ivory tower trickery that clearly invites explanation as much as dismay. Let's start by noting that fees, scads of them, come from students and that there are, especially in American education, two kinds of students: bodily students who fill up classrooms and pay tuition, and mental-activity students who spend hours and hours reading books, memorizing terms, and preparing to take tests, some of them gruesome public spectacles.
Starting in the mid 1970s, it became clear to university boffins that students would gladly spend more hours in the classroom if professors would make fewer demands upon their time outside of the classroom. As indicated by university catalogs after 1975, professors responded by joyfully designing hundreds of new student-friendly courses and courted student enrollment by offering them higher letter grades. Students as well responded joyfully by spending more time on outside jobs, along with taking more courses and paying higher fees (nearly all subsidized by parents or the government).
The only bureaucratic price for this best of all possible frauds was a little statistical guilt linked to those students working 20 hours each week on campus jobs while simultaneously carrying 15 semester units and earning B-grades across the board: theoretically a killing 80-hour workweek according to traditional Carnegie unit standards.
Intellectually the damage done from 1980 by this academic Ode to Joy has been immense. Informally considered, this damage is most audible in the superior articulation and clarity of those who learn Spoken Worldwide American Dictionary English offshore, especially in China, India, and the Philippines.
But the overall deterioration in American vocabulary fluency is also cause for alarm, e.g., the number of college students and graduates who today finish the New York Times daily crossword puzzle in less than 15 minutes — a traditional measure of respectable literacy.
As should be obvious, the only way for American universities to regain their traditional effectiveness and respect is for them to keep their students, all of them, but get rid of their bodies. Simply put, this entails taking fewer course-units on campus and spending more mental-activity time off campus preparing to take challenging examinations, many of them university requirements.
As far as fiscal accountability goes, this shift simply entails returning to the average student workweek of forty-five hours, measurably so. As far as mental-activity goes, academic books and book-based testing tools are far more available than in 1980, cf. www.dictionary.com and AlzHope: nonpartisaneducation.org.
To put it optimistically, wherever there's a bankruptcy, moral or fiscal, there's always a way, especially for the hungry and energetic. So here's to sunny days for our young problem solvers, along with apologies for the messy fraud my generation created for them to clean up.