17 January 2012

School and Learning

But there is another fear pervasive in academe that runs counter to a central principle of modern democracy. It is the fear of speaking freely. Reason 75 saw the 2,000th comment posted on 100 Reasons, and all but a tiny fraction of those comments were posted anonymously. There is probably no American newspaper today that publishes more articles by writers using pseudonyms than the Chronicle of Higher of Education. Even Professor William Pannapacker, the patron saint of graduate-school realists (and a Harvard PhD), wrote his first columns warning people about graduate school using the pen name Thomas H. Benton. The author of a recent book about his experiences as a college instructor is known only as Professor X.

Schools—even universities—are simply not concerned about teaching students anything.  The ability to discuss controversial things is simply non-existent.  This is because students are expected to conform to professors’ (often leftist) beliefs.  After all, the only way to confirm that students have learned something is to ensure that they can answer questions correctly.

Conformity is very much the watchword at colleges and universities, for these institutions exist only to ensure that students conform to very specific standards (for fun, do a Google search for college accreditation boards).  The idea is that colleges produce a product—students—for potential employers, and all these products need to be similar in order to ensure that employers have a consistent product choice.  As such, students are not generally encouraged to think for themselves, nor are students generally graded well when their answers diverge from the professors’.

Thus, it is clear that schooling and learning are two very different things, and often diametrically opposed to each other.  And the only thing that schooling is good for is receiving a piece of paper that tells prospective employers that you’ll be a good cog in their machine.


  1. Alright, I'll bite. Coming from a mathematics department...

    "Schools—even universities—are simply not concerned about teaching students anything"

    Well, yes, at least for universities. Professors are there to do research. I'm there to do research. When I have to teach, I give it my very best, but make no mistake: if it weren't for the research, I'd immediately leave...

    "The ability to discuss controversial things is simply non-existent."

    Can't say much on this, as there isn't a lot of controversy in math. Looking at some of the social sciences, it seems like they pride themselves on discussing the controversies of yesterday and pretending they're the controversies of today.

    "This is because students are expected to conform to professors’ (often leftist) beliefs"

    Here you diverge from all my prior experience. I've known numerous professors who are quite outspoken about rightwing beliefs. However all the leftist professors carefully keep their mouths shut. It is SAFE for the right-wingers to speak, because they're going AGAINST the stereotype. For a left-winger, speaking out in any kind of public setting is just suicide.

  2. @Glowing Face Man- just to make sure we don't talk past each other, understand that I was intentionally being hyperbolic with my claims (though I do stand behind the general sentiment).

    Regarding the laissez-faire attitude of many professors towards students' outcomes, I have to say that I actually found this somewhat refreshing. But that doesn't change the fact that they don't care.

    Regarding the freedom to discuss controversial issues, let me simply say that, in my experience, any suggestion of any type of inequality (at least in the sense of anything that could be construed as pro-male or pro-white, or some combination of the two) was simply dismissed. The biggest "controversial" discussion I remember having was in my ethics class, and it was a structured discussion of abortion, which is an issue that's pretty much been beat to death. So yeah, you can rehash any old argument, but if you dare challenge any of the modern dogmas, you will be shut down quickly. Also, like you surmised, this applies more to social sciences and softer subjects.

    Regarding conformity, let me simply note that conformity does cut both ways (i.e. for conservative profs and liberal profs), although there tends to be more liberals than conservatives in postsecondary education, and so my parenthetical aside was more of a probabilistic observation. My broader point, which was probably not as clear, was that conforming to a professor's beliefs will do wonders for your grade. I flunked an Econ class because I criticized the Samuelsonian methodology and Keynesian heuristics used by the professor and the textbook. Telling a professor his teaching is nonsense, as is the book he uses, does not do much for your grade, especially when this carries over into one's homework. Anyhow, I've learned the real lesson, which is: when I retake the class, I will simply rehash the nonsense in the book and pick up an easy A.