Thursday, August 28, 2003

How to get a college education, and where 

The NAS Forum has greatly increased the frequency of their essays, and the focus this week is on college rankings and student performance on SATs. (Their archives are still Bloggered, so scroll down from today's entry.) In re: the rankings, Wiliam Casement asks why the weights on the rankings are as they are. The rankings are higher for schools that retain more freshmen; it's not clear why that's a desirable thing when we're admitting students of lower quality. Of course, they'll say, they're not -- they're admitting students of high quality because their acceptance rate is lower. But "what is important is the composition of the class that has been assembled, not what has been discarded in the process," says Casement. And most worrisome is the use of "peer evaluation" -- the best schools are the best schools because the people who run the best schools say so. 25% of the US News rankings come from these evaluations. Of course, criticism of the rankings is not new, and USNWR has changed weightings over the years in response to criticisms. As Frank at Financial Aid Office notes, the question is almost always not which is the best research university, or even the one the admissions officials like most, but which fits the particular needs of your son or daughter. My own view, heavily influenced by Jeffrey Hart's "How to Get a College Education" and Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe, is to be sure the school gives you a way to steer around the ridiculously bastardized general education curricula that most universities have. You can do that at a broad variety of schools, as I discovered in researching with my son where he would go.

In a second article, Thomas Reeves bemoans the disparity of white and minority SAT scores, even while we trumpet an overall increase. He lays blame squarely on modern culture:

Walk into a classroom, as I have many times, and begin lecturing to students dressed as clowns and prostitutes, proud of their tattoos and nose clips, eager only to clap on the headphones at the end of the hour and be surrounded by screaming Rock and rap stars. They want no part of what you have to say, and see themselves as prisoners and victims. Where in their entire lives do they see people who are thoughtful, educated, and enthralled with the highest cultural expressions of our civilization?
Hart suggests that you find these people teaching courses in "American Colonial History" or "Seventeenth Century English Poetry" (and maybe not even there) but practically never in a course in a department with the word "studies" in their title. ISI has an online book A Student's Guide to the Core Curriculum that is also of immense help.) Speaking out against this popular culture is all well and fine, but, to paraphrase, the no-thinkers will always be among us. What we need to provide is an opportunity for those who have taken John Galt's Cartesian formulation -- "I am, therefore I'll think" -- to steer towards in Hart's words "intellect operating at its maximum power, establishing a standard of excellence to which the university aspire[s] in every area of its activity." Something that will gain no points in the next USNWR rankings, because they know not what to measure.