Unsung villains can be just as important as unsung heroes. During the 30s it was an obscure bureaucrat named Beardsley Ruml who as an American Dracula devised the withholding tax which still sinks its teeth into our paychecks. During the 50s it was the same Beardsley Ruml who as an American Moses led money-hungry college presidents into the green pastures of General Education, where cash-cow programs still nourish throngs of ever hungry bureaucrats.
A jolly fellow who smilingly called his W-2 system "pay as you go," Ruml's impact stays on and on with us, just like a recurrent national headache.
Smilingly logical in his "Memo to a College Trustee" (Liberal Education, 1955), Ruml pointed out that America 's colleges could keep their professors of Greek and Latin only by giving them useful employment as teachers of freshman and sophomore courses. As originally envisioned, these courses would meet the generous-spirited goals of liberal education, as opposed to the narrow professional goals of specific academic majors encountered on the junior-senior level.
Variously called General Education, Humanities, Western Civilization etc., these courses could be taught, it turned out, very cost effectively in large lecture halls or by underpaid graduate students in small classroom, thereby producing a surplus for use in supporting worthy projects of various kinds.
Colleges and universities are a never-ending source of worthy projects. So it was inevitable that the notion of General Education would be inflated to encompass almost any kind of cash-cow course into which helpless freshmen and sophomores could be dragooned. If Rembrandt, why not Andy Warhol? If Mozart, why not Charlie Parker? If Dostoyevsky, why not Doonsbury ?
Well intentioned or not, Ruml put into motion a feeding frenzy of curricular expansion, nearly all of it fueled by an enrollment-friendly policy of A's and B's for levels of study time far below the national accreditation standard of two hours of outside study for every hour in the classroom.
COMMODITY EDUCATION AND ITS COMPETITORS. . . . What Ruml did in effect , just like the Wizard of Oz awarding the Scarecrow a degree, was to transform American education into a marketable commodity, primarily in the form of diplomas and certificates of achievement. With students as consumers of educational services, the teacher is now seen as the producer of these services via classroom interaction, not via the traditional assignment and evaluation of time-consuming outside study tasks.
This Ruml -inspired huckstering shows up very clearly in college records as grade inflation and as study-time erosion, e.g., students working 20 hours a week at a campus job while simultaneously carrying 18 units (a 74-hour work week in Carnegie unit terms).
Any cash cow invites competition from other farmers. As far as General Education goes, 4-year colleges now face vigorous competition from low-cost 2-year colleges via students who transfer, as indicated by the fact that the University of California system as a whole now awards BA degrees to three times its number of entering freshmen, as indicated by data in Barron's Profiles of American Colleges (many 4-year colleges now keep their number of awarded BAs secret, sad to say).
On the professional and pre-professional level, high stakes educational testing is another competitor, especially when linked to professionally valuable certificates of achievement: bar exams, GREs, etc.
TO CONCLUDE. . . . Right now 4-year colleges and universities still hold a commanding position in our national consciousness. So getting one's child accepted as a freshman by a high-priced school is still celebrated as a highly proper social and family goal. Also, by way of reassurance, we should recognize here that most students will survive their cash-cow treatment. In a market economy, after all, personal-best learning is still the primary route to personal advancement and self confidence.
Far more troubling, at least in my view, is the damage that's been done in the last few decades to commodity educators themselves. Some years back, for example, Miguel de Unamuno , in his preface to "Abel Sanchez," characterized the principal vice of the French as greed, that of the Spanish as envy, and that of the English and English-speaking as hypocrisy.
Of these, hypocrisy, though admittedly useful in educational huckstering, certainly produces long term intellectual damage - as indicated by the Reality Orientation programs currently in use with pre-senile dementia and Alzheimer's patients. Whatever "commodity education dementia" is, it shows up very clearly in publicly observable behavior via the "three blanks and you're out of it" test (based upon measures developed by Arthur Cherkin at the VA hospital in Sepulveda , CA ).
The most visible result of the test is going blank on proper names (relatively benign), followed by going blank on ordinary words (quite irritating). Final, and most frightening, is the act of going blank on topic-connectedness ("What were we just talking about?" etc.).
I know, frankly, of no current research regarding the incidence of pre-Alzheimer's among commodity educators. So I encourage concerned Americans to conduct their own informal tests, especially those which center upon commodity educators in their late forties.
Hypocrisy, " mauvais foi ," self deception, "double-think, " insincerity (the enemy of clear prose, according to Orwell) - these are not deadly sins. But for the sake of our own personal sanity, we all need to sniff them out and call them by their right names. Perhaps we need a new Beardsley Ruml to speak up and sloganeer us with something on the order of. "Commodity educators, wake up, you have nothing to lose but your own fantasies!"
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