In a recent blog published on the internet, Dale J. Stephens insisted that college was hurting Americans because it did not teach independence. “Our creative, innovation and curiosity are schooled out of us,” he wrote.
Actually, all Stephens showed was that he lacked an education.
From the time that the first European university opened in Bologna, Italy in the 1100s to the 1970s, universities existed for the sole purpose of educating its students. It was not designed to train students for careers, but rather to broaden minds so that when they left the campus, they were ready to take on any job, which is exactly what Stephens wants.
That education approach changed in 1970. A national survey conducted in the spring showed that 70 percent of students went to college to get an education. However, an identical survey conducted in the fall found that 70 percent of students had enrolled to get a job.
In between were the Kent State shootings, which refocused attitudes about government, education and personal futures.
The shootings followed a weekend series of events, including a mild disturbance downtown when bars were closed, the burning of an ROTC building by outsiders and a brief march downtown turned aside by police.
Monday, May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen then shot and killed four Kent State students during what can be best described as a peaceful protest against first the Vietnam War and then the arrival of Guardsmen on campus. Only one of the students, Jeffrey Miller, could be called a protester. They also wounded nine others in the brief fusillade, including one student paralyzed for life.
Horrified students across the nation shut down schools. The national government, led by President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew, attacked the protesters. Opinions were sharply divided across the nation. As a Kent State student and eyewitness to the shooting, I was also editor of the daily student newspaper in the fall. On one radio call-in show, I was accused of being a Communist and funded by Cuba. After being stunned by such an absurd claim, I replied I wished that were true: I could use the money since I was paying my own way through college.
The nation responded by changing priorities. Students began to focus on future careers. Politicians began to take potshots at education. They had one point: failing male students faced loss of deferment, induction into the Army and a tour of Vietnam. As a result, professors initiated what became known as grade inflation, giving passing grades to otherwise failing students and subsequently boosting the grades of better students.
Education became diluted, leading to political angst that America was falling behind the world. That eventually begat No Child Left behind, the worst educational program ever devised. In order to prepare all students for college – whether they belong there or not – the country effectively ended the trade schools and other forms of education that provided the “learning by doing” that Stephens calls for.
Actually, he’s simply asking for the type of approach to education fostered in the Middle Ages. Those with an educational bent were in colleges. Those blessed with physical talents became apprentices and studied with masters until they achieved that level.
Stephens’ showed an inkling of historical awareness by suggesting: “Imagine if we went back to learning as practiced in French salons, gathering to discuss, challenge and support each other in improving the human condition.”
However, his essay ignored one important factor necessary for success. Universities were designed to broaden the mind, not create graduates focused on one field. That’s what has been happening on the single-minded drive to “educate” today’s students. In response, today’s institutions of higher learning are increasingly recognizing that need by adding liberal arts courses to science-oriented majors.
We need broad-mined graduates, people able to understand the scope and impact of their activities and not narrowly focused on their single field. Otherwise, conversations in Stephens’ French salons would be very limited.
Stephens has started a program called UnCollege to promote his idea and even won a $100,000 scholarship to underwrite it. He could have just as easily picked up the course offerings of a major university from before 1970 and copied that.
Of course, he would have needed an education to know that.
Bill Lazarus began teaching when, at age 4, he taught his 2-year-old brother to read. He is an instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a published historian. He can be reached by www.williamplazarus.com.