Monday, November 15, 2010

Immodest Proposal

First, read this article about academic fraud and how America's education system perpetuates it. It's not only highly enjoyable, but it's also thought provoking. Alas, one of the thoughts it provokes in me is: "How can I get into that racket!" Lord, have mercy...

I don't think anything can be done to fix this problem, short of totally changing the way education is done in America. It's easy to say we should aim for something modeled on the "European system" or whatever, when one has zero experience in that system. But there is one alternative I do have experience in, based on a very few classes I took in high school and college, coupled with a dollop of imagination and a rumor of how things are done Across the Pond. And here it is:

1. Abolish semesters, midterms, final exams, and term papers. Instead, for lower-level courses you go to a lecture-hall and listen to profs hold forth on the subjects you want to learn (which they do ad nauseam, world without end), and you read the required and recommended books.

2. Whenever you feel ready to test out of that subject (be it in 6 weeks or 16 or 66), you go and sit in a proctored exam where your assignment is to fill a blue book with your answer to a randomly drawn essay question on that subject. Your work is graded by three instructors, your grade is the average of their opinion of your work on a three-point scale where 1=fabulous, 2=quite good, and 3=just squeaked by. If your work doesn't even rise to a 3, you get nothing on your transcript. To improve your grade, you have to sit the exam again.

3. If you can't write an intelligent blue-book essay after several attempts, you may be advised to review your grammar and basic literacy skills.

4. Once you pass out of the lower level of a given subject, you are allowed to sign up for a tutor in that subject. His role is to meet with you no more than reasonably often to discuss the progress of your independent study. To wrap up each subject that you read at this level, you sit another blue-book exam.

5. Eventually, you may rise to a level of study where a major dissertation needs to be planned, written, and published. Your reader shouldn't let you write anything, not so much as a chapter, before you have presented a thesis, or an outline, or an abstract of your argument and defended it orally. Your degree is then based not on a written dissertation, which anybody could have written, but on your oral defense.

6. The written publication of the substance of what you argued is therefore a formality, documenting the sources for your opinion. And so it really hardly matters whether you wrote it with or without assistance, or whether you personally wrote it at all... though you won't have reached this level of study without having the ability to write it.

OK, it has flaws. One is that there will be a lot fewer advanced scholars (boo-hoo!) and a larger proportion of them will be "eternal students." Oh, well! At least having gotten a "1" on your blue-book exam, or your oral defense, will really mean something. What it will mean is that our industries, agencies, and enterprises will be in the hands of people who can think clearly and articulately.

3 comments:

Brenda said...

I'd say what I thought of the linked article, but you probably don't want that kind of language on your blog. Said article should have a surgeon-general-type warning at the top, though; reading this may be hazardous to your blood pressure....

As far as fixing this, your ideas have merit... but they would require students to be self-motivated and actually give a damn about learning, not common qualities in modern Americans. Another solution (equally implausible, admittedly) would be for parents to raise kids to have even a tiny amount of decency and self-respect.

This country is doomed. So, so doomed.

And it deserves it.

Ugh. This is ruining my night. No more articles like this. More Star Trek, please. I don't want to think about the real future.

Robbie F. said...

While kids' basic lack of literacy skills is a separate problem outside the scope of my "immodest proposal," I think there might be something acutely motivating about the knowledge that you won't get anywhere in college unless you can write a coherent blue-book essay...

"Doomed" might be a bit premature. Some people are still getting a real education. I just don't think the majority of kids are getting one & the politics of education throws up a big smokescreen to hide the fact that low standards of education work to the advantage of the ruling class, who depend on the votes of the people their policies have kept dependent on the government....

Brenda said...

Education isn't the problem. You don't even really need an education; work experience is all employers actually care about. That, and some kind of basic integrity. That's what I meant about us being "doomed"--people simply have no sense of shame anymore. The kids who lie, cheat and steal in school are going to graduate and go off to lie, cheat and steal on the job. And get away with it. It's normal, and anyone who doesn't go along with it is regarded as a schmuck. And the schools, from kindergarten through grad school, can't or won't do anything about it.