Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Education Crisis

Note: This blog is usually about foot health and barefooting, but since I am the Barefoot PROFESSOR, I am devoting this post to the crisis of education in America.

I recently came across an 8th grade graduation test from 1912. I will discuss the test more in a moment, but first I want to point out that in 1912 most people were expected to finish the 8th grade, but only a few of them would continue their studies through high school, and fewer still would dream of college. I mention this because education in America is in a crisis – both higher education and secondary education, but for different reasons.

First, higher education.

Higher education in America is in a crisis largely because of cronyism. Cronyism is when government beds with industry in a way that undermines free-market capitalism. The result of cronyism is always the same: higher prices and lower product quality. In the case of higher education, our federal government really busied itself with universities for the first time during World War II (with the development of the atom bomb) and federal research funding quickly transformed the meaning and business of colleges.  Previously a high-risk venture that often failed, colleges became much more secure with a constant influx of federal research dollars. Then, in the 1970’s, the federal government began subsidizing student loans and since that time college tuition rates have skyrocketed – far outpacing inflation – and the education has arguably degenerated. The problem created by government interference is now so bad that government will soon feel compelled to “step in” and take over higher education completely. This is evident by several observations, the most recent being a move by president Obama to rate colleges to “make sure that federal student aid money is well-spent.”[1]

One of the best football coaches in history, Vince Lombardi, was famous for starting each season by going back to the basics, holding out a football to his professional players and stating flatly: “This is a football.” Perhaps it’s time we went back to the basics with respect to higher education:

“This is a college.”

What is the purpose of college? Today, roughly 30% of the population in the United States holds a bachelor’s degree.[2] If that number seems low to you, consider that in 1912 only one in four hundred Americans went to college and even by 1940 only 5% of the population held a bachelor’s degree. Prior to the 20th century, college was a calling. Of course, you had to be academically gifted to succeed, but only a fraction of the intellectually smart-enough actually went to college. Most professions didn’t demand a degree and the earnings one lost to spend four years on campus was enough to dissuade most people from going. Those who did go to college were obtaining the highest education possible and were expected to contribute highly, as well. The 19th century and early 20th century was a gilded age for higher education and the world was being conquered by the Bohrs, Mendeleevs, Paulings and Einsteins that occupied the ivory towers. Notably, college was not then and never was only for the rich. Funds were available for those with the intellectual prowess and the calling to obtain higher education. It was also during those years – perhaps in part because of the success of great academicians (Einstein was the world’s first celebrity-scientist) – that college admission began to boom. No doubt this was also fueled by the industrial revolution. Regardless, more and more people wanted to be a part of the higher education scene and universities were being viewed in a different light by the public at large. Over the next one hundred years, more and more jobs would require a college degree and, remember, by the 1940’s Uncle Sam was getting involved. Now, in 2014, going to college is expected of most Americans and we have a president who wants “college for all.”

But perhaps college was never meant to be for all. Perhaps college for many is nothing more than a diversion robbing them of their most creative and energetic years. There doesn’t seem to be a correlation between the percentage of folks with a college degree and the economic success of a nation. [3] Bill Gates provides a great example of a young man who started college simply because it was expected of him, but found his true calling outside the classroom and never graduated. Mark Zuckerberg is another. Most people, however, spend five years drudging through classes only to leave with a $100,000 piece of paper and the expectation of a job. A job which may or may not actually exist.

College was never meant to prepare one for a job. Trade schools prepare one for a job. And yet that is now the expected role of college from our students, our government, and even most of our college administrators. The university is no longer a place to prepare the few for a life of science, or literature, or the clergy, or to be the bearers of knowledge and wisdom for the counsel of kings and governments. It’s to prepare the masses for a job.

Perhaps “college for all” is a very bad idea. Perhaps even one-third of the population having a college degree is too high, unless college in 2014 is not what college was in 1914. And there is the crux of the matter. I submit that it is not. College today is the high school of yesteryear.

Which brings me to the crisis in secondary education. Virtually no one denies that secondary education in America is in serious trouble. We spend roughly 3x more money per pupil on secondary education than the next highest nation, and yet our ranking in the world continues to drop. Our students currently rank 30th in math test scores. [4] There are TWENTY-NINE other nations that outcompete our students in math! Again, I blame government intrusion that undermines a free marketplace and, perhaps even more culpable, the teachers union. Regardless, we are slipping on the world stage, and we are slipping compared to our own grandparents.

Which brings me back to the 8th grade graduation test from 1912. That test is HARD. Very few adults today with a bachelor’s degree could answer those questions. I certainly stumbled over several of them, especially the American history questions which surprised me because I LOVE American history! Even more interesting than the test itself is how the website prepares the modern reader for his imminent feeling of stupidity. “Remember to smile a little while reading this exam” we are forewarned. “Smile. We are all learning from this test.” Indeed, we are learning how much dumber we are now than an 8th grader in 1912.

Looking over the educational landscape of the past 100 years, it appears that in America college is the new high school. And as secondary education continues to get watered down while college education focuses on job preparation, neither of them are teaching students to think as well as 8th graders in 1912. Indeed, they are not even teaching the facts of our own history and culture so desperately needed by a nation that governs itself.

But every kid knows how to use a condom.


2. Surprisingly, the exact number seems hard to pin down as every source I checked gave significantly different numbers, from as low as 17% to as high as 33%. Most gave 25-30%.

The 8th grade test:


  1. I started working while I was getting my Associate's degree. After graduation, I didn't find work anywhere else, so I continued doing what I already was doing. A few years later I started working on my Bachelor's through a popular online school. I ended up teaching my fellow classmates more than the professor, but still had to pay full tuition. After a few months of trying to get better classes, I gave up. Now with nearly 14 years experience, I know more in my career than I ever got a hint of in college.

  2. Here in Russia many bemoan the decline of higher education since the fall of the Soviet Union. As a former university teacher (I quit in 1997) and still having friends among the faculty, I can confirm this sad tendency. I can also testify that my generation (I graduated in 1992) was less knowledgeable and academically motivated than our predecessors.

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Welcome to The Barefoot Professor blog, intelligent talk about running, walking and living barefoot. I encourage your comments, even if you disagree with me. In this spirit I don't even moderate the comments. However, PLEASE use critical thinking skills when leaving comments, and avoid inflammatory words. Please keep your comments short and to-the-point. THANKS.