As is usually the case in these matters, I agree with everything Ryan wrote the other day about President Obama’s farcical plan to “win the future” by devising a federal rating system for colleges and universities. No doubt the President and his mandarins will be able to create a totally ungameable system that will not encourage waste, fraud, and abuse, the holy trinity of government cliches. University administrators will definitely see it as an opportunity to invest in high quality undergraduate education, right? What could possibly go wrong?
Obama’s doubling down on the kind of systematic education policies of the Bush administration is right up there on his list of follies with his failure to close Guantanamo and his fulsome embrace of the surveillance state. And, like Ryan, I say this as someone who voted for the guy twice, and who thinks he’s done some helpful things in the face of unprecedented opposition. But good grief, whenever he opens his mouth and talks about higher education, I cringe. Like Jonathan Chait, Obama appears to think universities should be like factories where “skills” are fastened onto students like lasers onto toy robots. I doubt his own college career at Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard bore much resemblance to the melange of MOOCs, huge classes taught by adjuncts, and standardized tests his new gold-plated system will inspire. We’re well on our way there already.
I know we’ve said it a thousand times, you guys, but if the politicians and pundits who profess to care about college and college students so much actually did, they would sit back and think about what made their own college experiences so helpful: difficult, small courses taught by secure faculty members; a focus on cultivating critical thinking skills by making students read and write about hard texts, some even written a long time ago; universities that actually thought of themselves as universities, not mini-hedge funds; and an administrative class that didn’t wag the dog, or at least that was staffed by people who cared about undergraduates.
The President should work on fixing our broken economy so that people who don’t actually have any interest in going to college don’t feel like they have to take out huge loans to enroll in online classes that are basically just cut and pasted from Wikipedia and a few out of date textbooks. If our choices in life are college or McDonald’s, we’re no superpower. Or he could start pressuring states to fix our criminally mismanaged K-12 systems. Or (here comes the pipe dream), he could start talking about the virtues of higher education being difficult and not for everyone. He could use the bully pulpit to make Plato, trigonometry, James Baldwin, coding, and Spanish, seem like things worth working hard to understand because they will help you lead a more interesting life and figure out a way to make decent money because you’re a well-rounded, savvy, likable person. He could talk about these things. But he won’t.