Every College Kid Left Behind

In the op-ed section of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, readers could find “Hands Off Higher Ed,” a spirited rebuke to recent governmental attempts “to extend the testing and standards requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act to colleges.” The author of said piece, Larry P. Arnn, is the president of conservative Hillsdale College–an institution whose appeal, to be frank, we have never quite understood. After all, conservatives are rightly appalled by the lack of intellectual diversity on the typical college campus; why, then, would they blithely shuttle their children off to a school with a similar lack of intellectual diversity?

Anyway, President Arnn believes that “an attempt to establish federal control over all colleges and universities” will be a disaster. And we can surely see his point. Such oversight would be engineered by so-called experts in education, and, to our minds, no traditional academic specialization is as dubious as education. Further, due to the erosion of the liberal arts canon at colleges nationwide, it would probably prove impossible to test American undergraduates on any common body of knowledge–save, we suppose, grammar and basic math.

Still, we’re not quite sure that President Arnn’s shunning of academic standards in American universities is entirely–or even mostly–correct. Just take a gander at this argument from the piece:

National standards are unnecessary in higher education. There are already plenty of accountability tools available to students and their parents–starting with the ability to pick up and go elsewhere. There are more than 2,000 accredited four-year colleges in the country. At Hillsdale we have long survived by attracting private capital and good students to our campus, so we are well aware that universities compete for students, donations and top-notch professors every year. We also know that those institutions that allow their standards to slip will soon find their best students and faculty members migrating elsewhere.

What President Arnn–and so few other commentators on higher education–never seems to mention is the ridiculous amount of attention placed on the prestige of a given university, as opposed to the degree to which this prestige is merited on the basis of actual educational quality.

Take Harvard, for example. With some rather large classes and its comparatively high percentage of graduate student instructors, it seems reasonable to assume that Harvard could produce some meagerly educated graduates.

Yet it’s still Harvard, for crying out loud, and extremely few people would leave it to head to, say, Hillsdale College, regardless of how bad the educational opportunities at Fair Harvard may be. This is true across the board: The notions of “good,” “mediocre,” and “bad” colleges in America often have very little to do with the sort of education particular schools offer their pupils.

Thus lots of universities happily hire cheap, overworked, and sometimes under-qualified adjunct professors to teach a larger and larger percentage of their courses. The quality of the teaching matters so little that these schools would prefer to spend their funds on lavish rock-climbing walls, fancy eateries, and other niggling ephemeralities.

This does not, of course, mean that federal testing at the college level would be a good idea. But, when discussing these matters, we ought to start by being honest about the nature of higher education in the United States.

(Note: The crack young staff normally “weblog” over at “The Hatemonger’s Quarterly,” where they are currently envisioning a bill aimed at uniform federal testing for English majors called No Abstruse and Useless French Theory Left Behind.)

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