“Liberal arts students have been sold a bill of goods by universities…”

Typical Wente: what is at best one aspect of a situation – a partial truth – is offered as an explanation for it. In this case, what she is writing about is more an effect than a cause.

The truth is that, starting sometime after WWII, North American high school graduates have sought “higher education” in increasingly great numbers.

Every family in the United States loves telling others, “My kid’s in college,” and it is the same in Canada, only parents are more likely to say, “My kid’s in university,” the word “college” never having achieved quite the same meaning.

There are several genuine reasons for this.

After WW II, with developments like veterans’ benefits for education and the crash expansion of many state and provincial universities, new waves of post-high school students were created.

We had a second boom in post-high school education when the post-war baby boom swelled demand for higher education in the 1960s.

In truth, many of the expansions may have been excessive, but an institution once built will want to be filled.

Family and personal pride played, and still play, a great role with many families proud of their first member ever to graduate beyond high school.

There is also a decades-long trend in grade inflation in our elementary schools and high schools. An “A” average today may not in many cases equal the strength of a “C” average of 60 years ago, but it will get you across the threshold of some academic institution.

Entering here too is a new sense of democratization in North American society. What was once an institution for people only of superior intelligence has become something serving the average and sometimes even the below-average. Indeed, we saw an extreme example of the forces at work here in the recent case of a mother insisting she should attend classes with her retarded child to assist.

The opening of new state or provincial institutions or branches of existing ones – always expanding the number of places – now typically responds to many regional political pressures. We also have the phenomenon of former polytechnical schools aspiring to becoming universities.

And we have waves of earlier graduates hoping to land university teaching posts.

College or university has also become a place to spend some time with job markets having no resemblance to those of 60 years ago.

Then, any reasonably bright high school grad could get a job with prospects quickly and quickly find another if the first proved unsatisfactory. Neither is the case today. A good job advertised is as scarce as a gold nugget and will attract hundreds of resumes.

Indeed, today people submit resumes for jobs like janitors or store clerks, unheard of 60 years ago when such jobs were quickly filled by sight..

The resume has something of the effect of a bidding war on a house for sale: the ones with more pluses get the only chance at success.

Institutions and companies and organizations have increasingly demanded academic study beyond high school.

In some cases, this reflects genuinely increased needs for expertise with new technology and systems and concepts, but in many cases it is just an extension of the grade-inflation process and a process of pseudo-professionalization of what are really vocations, not professions.

Companies today know that half the high school graduates are indeed not at all good prospects ( the same half that 60 years ago dropped out and landed a good job in a steel mill or auto plant or a police force) and instead of wasting great resources sorting through them, they allow the higher education system to pre-sort them.

Thus, by inertia, we’ve allowed costly higher institutions to sort out to some extent what we might have done more economically at the high school level.

This process is effectively never-ending, with master’s degrees replacing bachelor’s and doctorates replacing master’s degrees on top of bachelor’s degrees replacing high school graduation.

A perfect example of this is found in elementary school teaching. Once, not too many decades ago, a high school graduate spent eight months getting a certificate and could then teach. Today the prospect must have a general bachelor’s degree and a certificate.

No one, other than those with sinecures in the public education establishment, believes that the average elementary teacher is any better in skills or knowledge, and indeed there is an argument for their being worse since today there is virtually zero evaluation or assessment of teachers in their classrooms.

Now McGuinty talks of two-year certificates: a case of pure grade inflation and pseudo-professionalization.

And we have pseudo-professionalization in many fields from nursing to police. You can get a degree in the United States at least in playground supervision or circus or television.

The idea of a good liberal education making a flexible person ready for a now ever-changing job market remains a true generalization, but like all generalizations, the devil is in the detail. A student of mediocre abilities remains a graduate of mediocre abilities, regardless of any degree. And a second-rate university luring students with easy entry requirements and soft grading is not doing a great deal to equip them for the tough demands of a globalized world.

The universities want to fill seats since education has become commoditized and government support per student is less than it once was in real terms. The fact that so many still want to go, despite their private knowledge of their academic limits, is what is driving the system. Sadly many will earn only debts and not prospects. Again, education provides a good example with Ontario graduating about 12,000 certificate students a year for what is said to be 7,000 places. Those with experience in public education will doubt even that number.

In some sense, we’ve created the worst of all possible worlds of education. It has tended to copy that of the United States now for many years, the American system being the world standard of a system without almost any standards, only elite schools still holding to old ways and not even them in many instances.


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