Education: Substantive or delusional?

  • Article by: FRED ZIMMERMAN
  • Updated: June 22, 2014 - 2:00 PM

It’s time for those of us in education to re-examine the value proposition we offer our customers.

About the author Fred Zimmerman is a retired professor who has taught at four universities in the U.S. and two overseas. His e-mail is zimco@visi.com.

Education has been in the news lately. The New York Post reports that only 17 percent of this year’s college graduates had jobs lined up before graduation. A Federal Reserve study indicates a large and increasing fraction of college graduates are unemployed or under-employed and that these rates are rising. Tuition is rising at three times the rate of inflation. Student debt is running at astronomical levels. The president is attempting to reduce discomfort by permitting students to pay off student loans later or at reduced rates.

Yet, education remains popular. State and national officials and policy advocates continually list education as the essential determinant of economic progress. This supposition is, in a way, true. But doesn’t it matter whether the education is thorough, of high quality and applicable to the problems we have before us?

And, from the standpoint of students, society and parents, do investments in education always produce a positive return?

Proper education has long been an essential catalyst to technological accomplishment, community prosperity and world order. But with today’s tepid employment opportunities for emerging college graduates along with mushrooming student debt, it may be time for those of us in education to examine the value proposition we are offering to our customers.

There are two kinds of education; substantive and delusional. Substantive education is meaningful, thorough and provides useful knowledge and skills which are usable in later life. The essential quality of substantive education is rigor and enough actual practice to attain proficiency. Substantive education is difficult. It can occur in technical fields, but also in the humanities and social sciences.

Delusional education provides illusory credibility, an easy degree in something following the superficial completion of a shallower and less insightful educational experience. Rigor is replaced by simplicity. Proficiency gives way to simple awareness. Hence delusional education arms students with the mistaken impression that mere possession of a degree is, by itself, a ticket to success and prosperity — which is not only delusional but will not be what employers are seeking.

A few weeks ago, I attended the display of 25 senior class engineering projects at the University of St. Thomas engineering school. The projects were all sponsored by companies or institutions; 3M, Mayo Clinic, Banner Engineering, Stratasys, Starkey, Emerson, Par Systems, and many others. Every senior participates in yearlong projects involving serious engineering efforts aimed at new products and solving real-world problems. The projects displayed involved measurement, material selection, cost-effectiveness, heat transfer, robotics and manufacturing. Almost all students had jobs before graduation. Such education is substantive.

There are many other substantive educational programs and there are many dedicated and competent educators. Some of these are at the K-12 level. Some are at the university level. Many in Minnesota are in the technical colleges. But most of the dedicated educators I know admit that it is time for us to productively critique our own product. We are delivering an educational product that is supposed to last a lifetime. It is important for our customers to get what they are paying for. Is there any possibility that too much delusional education is simply delaying entry into maturity and responsibility?

There are many questions those of us in education could ask. Are we encouraging our students to embrace rigorous education? Are we admitting people who are less serious? Do we have faculty members who do not do enough work? Do we put up with them? Do we have too much time off? Have we allowed high-cost sports and other activities to crowd out needed educational programs?

The average teaching load of college faculty is around 200 to 500 classroom hours per year. Many faculty members do much more by advising and counseling students, providing extra instruction, doing meaningful research and getting students jobs. But, do all faculty members do this?

And what about administrators? We have many. They have offices, fringe benefits and parking spaces. True, there is much nonacademic work to keep a university running. But are we balanced? There are roughly 2 million fewer Americans in the 10 to 14 age group than in the 20 to 24 group. What does that mean — especially if tuition keeps rising?

Maybe we should start using some of the productivity methods we cover in our classes.

There are many fine people and many exemplary programs in education and the activity is important enough for us to apply all of our creativity and energy to preserve it.

Isn’t it in the long-term best interest of everyone — people, policymakers, students and educators — to begin asking some questions?

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