Now They're Dumbing Down the Colleges

There is no question that American public schools have been dumbed down.  The government's own report in 1983, "A Nation At Risk," said the schools are so bad that they might well be a clever subversive trick by an unfriendly foreign power.

We can go back to the early 1950s, to a book written by a prominent professor of history, Arthur Bestor.  His title says it all: "Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Learning in our Public Schools."  (This was one of many books with a similar message.  Note that Why Johnny Can't Read came along in 1955.)

It's a fact that our secondary schools have been dumbed down for a long time.  Let's give credit where it's due.  Our Education Establishment has done a bang-up job of undermining traditional education and imposing so-called progressive education on our schools.  (I say "so-called" because progressive usually devolves to regressive and/or repressive.)

In practice, dumbing down means that today's high school graduates possess less information and fewer skills than was the case 25 or 50 years ago.  They have lower scores on their SATs.  They can't write as well, think as well, or study as well.  They can't perform academically as well as kids did decades ago.

One immediate result should be no surprise: a great percentage of incoming college students need remedial training, more than half of them at community colleges.

Note that we're paying to educate students in secondary school, then we pay to educate the same students in the same subjects a second time.  Wouldn't it be more cost-effective (and certainly more logical) if the K-12 schools were run properly?  Of course.

But the bad news is just starting.  There are other damages that may be even more costly.  Millions of unprepared students will exert downward pressure on every aspect of college life.  This is already happening.

Colleges will have a dire choice. Maintain their traditional standards, in which case they would have to flunk out a great percentage of the students and lose all that government funding.  Or steadily degrade their standards to accommodate the low quality of incoming freshmen.

One's first hope is that the colleges – "higher education," as they once proudly called it – would resolve to hold the high ground.  There is a long tradition of academic excellence in American colleges and universities.  They know exactly what was taught in all courses over the years, what students were able to do in various classes and exams.  We can look at essays and grades and know what standards were normal. 

It's terrifying to imagine that colleges would let these "higher" standards go.

The problem is that the Education Establishment in control of K-12 will try, relentlessly and shamelessly, to subvert the colleges, for two separate reasons.  

First, the typical student they're graduating is not very good.  They can try to improve those graduates, or, the likely option, they can try to silence anyone who might complain.  By lowering standards, you guarantee fewer complaints.

Second, people in charge of K-12 want their progressive methods to be validated and made respectable.  This factor is especially huge and sinister.  K-12 is now overrun by counterproductive sophistries: cooperative learning, project-based learning, constructivism, self-esteem, alternative assessment, and many more.  By forcing these methods into the colleges, the methods become securely locked in at the K-12 level.  The Education Establishment can then say to the parents and community: We want to do what's done at the college level; you know it's good!

A professor at a Midwestern college sent me this grim letter:

I am here to tell you, language teaching has not escaped the madness of education 'reform.' Now I am a relic struggling to teach a few more years.

The people running my department now are appalled that I spend too much time teaching to the whole class instead of having them work in groups – where we are to expect that students sharing their ignorance will end by learning a language.

We must be careful not to correct mistakes too much or in a way that makes anyone feel uncomfortable – and everything makes them feel uncomfortable.

Grading must be largely based on 'participation' and 'oral evaluations,' which ideally are done through group projects.

I used to take pride in the achievements of my students, but it just doesn't happen as much anymore.

Even though I'm cynical about our Education Establishment, I didn't imagine that the decay would spread so quickly.

Fundamentally, traditionalists view education as the development of an individual's intellectual skills.  Progressives see education as a tool for social and cultural change.  Let me reduce this to the bleak reality.  If a lot of students have politically correct opinions about global warming and transsexuals, progressives consider this outcome successful, even if students learn little else.

Predictably, liberal educators will want to extend social engineering into every aspect of college life, just as they have managed to do in kindergarten through high school.  Social engineering, it seems, is the polite term for academic stupefying.

One Ivy League university already boasts about its dedication to "inclusion."  The problem is that everything that is  "included" as official campus doctrine requires the exclusion of anything in the way of that step.  "Inclusion" ends up meaning exclusion.  But nobody will be able to think or speak critically about this trade-off because such discussion will not be allowed.  Colleges will have more taboos, censorship, speech codes, and safe spaces.  Finally, demanding higher standards and better education will be considered unreasonable, if not outright racist and elitist.  You may not be legally permitted to ask for higher standards.

I remember thinking a few years ago that colleges were safe.  I assumed they would fiercely protect their traditions and standards.  Why wouldn't they do that?  That's like Cadillac trying to remain Cadillac.

Now I'm not so sure.  They don't seem to be doing the things they would instinctively do to protect themselves.  For example, colleges and universities should help K-12 to improve or at least maintain the status quo.  Instead, we see an indifferent or standoffish attitude.  At this point, that perspective is naïve and probably suicidal.

We need Princeton, Harvard, and Yale to step forward on behalf of high academic standards for all students at all levels.  The intellectual haves, as a matter of self-defense, need to defend intellectual have-nots. 

Celebrate learning for first-graders, and it will be safer for college freshmen.  And vice versa.

Question is, are Princeton, Harvard, and Yale awake to the danger?  Are they doing everything they can to stop the deluge?

This country's Education Establishment soldiers have created 40 million functional illiterates.  I think they're proud of it.  I think they'd be happy to spread the blight. 

Here is a safe prediction: colleges will spread enlightenment down to K-12, or K-12 will spread decay and decline upward into the Ivory Tower.  The country's academic life will rise or fall as one.  At the moment, it's falling.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains theories and methods on his education sites  (For info on his four new novels, see his literary site

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