Articles by George C. Leef

Metro Magazine
November 2011

Does a College Degree Ensure a College Education?

Let’s say that you have a son or daughter in high school who plans on going to college. The kid has academic abilities that are well above average and has always done top-quality work in school. Furthermore, you have saved enough money so that the four (or more) years of expenses can be covered.
Congratulations! There is almost no doubt that your child will get a college degree. Unfortunately, that is not the same thing as getting a college education. 
The depressing truth is that many young Americans, even very bright ones who attend prestigious institutions, today coast through college and enjoy a generally pleasant experience without learning much. They pass their courses and accumulate enough credits to earn their degrees. But whatever they might learn in the process hardly amounts to what we think of as a college education, meaning a broad — and in places — deep knowledge of key aspects of life.
Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that students can’t get an excellent education. Some do. What I am saying is that if students (and their parents) want one, they’ll have to work to find it. Few colleges and universities today care enough about education to ensure that their students receive more than a piece of paper at the commencement ceremony.
In his recent article in the Oxford American, “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?” University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson stressed the disconnect between matriculation and education. 
If you want to get a real education in America, you’re going to have to fight — and I don’t mean just fight against the drugs and the violence and against the slime-based culture that is still going to surround you. I mean something a little more disturbing. To get an education, you’re probably going to have to fight against the institution that you find yourself in — no matter how prestigious it may be. …You can get a terrific education in America now — there are astonishing opportunities at almost every college — but the education will not be presented to you wrap­ped and bowed.
What?! Why say that students have to fight for an education? Don’t colleges have faculties full of dedicated educators who are eager to teach students? Don’t they have solid curricula? Don’t they have demanding academic standards?
Often, no.
The dirty secret about much of our higher education system is that those who make the decisions don’t really care about the education of undergraduates. Maxi­mizing their revenues, their amenities and their fame are all more important. They have allowed teaching to slide, the curriculum to erode and academic standards to tank because relatively few of their “customers” (that is, students) are intent on education. They are mostly happy with enjoying the college experience and getting their credentials. Education is beside the point.
How about teaching? Students who really want rigorous and challenging courses may be able to find some of them at their schools, but professors (and adjuncts and lecturers and grad students who do much of the teaching) often devote the bare minimum of effort. They know that classroom excellence is hardly ever rewarded and slovenliness is hardly ever punished by administrators. Since they have other things to do, such as publishing academic research, they short-change their students.
One professor with the guts to point that out is Murray Sperber, formerly of the English Department at Indiana University. In his book Beer and Circus, Sperber spilled the beans about what he calls “the faculty/student non-aggression pact.” That is, professors implicitly agree with students as follows: the course won’t be too demanding and the grading will be easy, but the professors won’t put much effort into teaching, critiquing papers and meeting with students.
Sometimes you come across stories about professors who got into trouble precisely because they didn’t lower their standards to keep the students happy. For example, biology professor Steven Aird of Norfolk State University was terminated in 2008 because he gave his students the grades they had actually earned, which meant many D’s and F’s. And last year, Louisiana State suspended professor Dominique Homberger from teaching biology because she held her students to high standards. Naturally, they complained about that.
The curriculum at most schools is also badly eroded. Students can usually graduate without taking any of the courses that were once regarded as the pillars of a solid, well-rounded college education.
To see how weak the general education requirements (aka core curriculum) are, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) ( has for several years been working on its “What Will They Learn?” project. ACTA looks at colleges to see if they require students to take basic courses in these disciplines: English composition, literature, foreign language, American history, economics, mathematics and laboratory science. Very few schools get an A, which means that they require courses in at least six of the seven; D and F grades (requiring courses in two or fewer of the seven areas) are much more common.
While some students seek out those key courses if they aren’t required, many don’t. They graduate having taken a hodge-podge of courses, many of them very narrow, trendy and politically slanted. 
Commenting on just one of the weaknesses highlighted by ACTA’s work, former Harvard Dean Harry Lewis writes, “Many studies have shown that our college graduates are ignorant of the basic principles on which our government runs. For starters, most cannot identify the purpose of the First Amendment, what Recon­struction was, or the historical context of the Voting Rights Act. If you peruse this website, you will see why: the vast majority of our colleges have made a course on the broad themes of US history optional.”
Of course, just because a college re­quires American history or other basics does not guarantee that the classes will be taught with enthusiasm or even competence. The problem of easy grading and low expectations has reached epidemic stage.
That explains the finding by sociology professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. In their recent book Academically Adrift the authors demonstrate that a large percentage of American students learn little or nothing during their college years. Their quantitative analysis confirms what many current and former professors have been saying for decades. Lots of students merely coast through college.
Higher education has been transformed into an industry that prospers by processing through great numbers of young people who have scant interest in or aptitude for advanced learning. Thus, while some students get both a college degree and a college education, many others are happy just to have the degree — until they start looking for a job. 
George Leef is director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Edu­ca­tion Policy in Raleigh.

When Reading Skips School: The Battle To Illuminate Young Minds
By Nan Miller

Laughter can burble up at odd moments in a college classroom. In my composition classes as a member of the Meredith College English Department, known for setting high standards and for striking just the right balance between tradition and innovation, students always laughed the first day of class when I asked for a list of books they read during the summer. 

They laughed because they knew that being “too busy to read” — or even unabashedly averse to reading — is commonplace among the so-called Echo Boomers. What they did not know was that a reading list would provide my first clue as to who might shine in freshman composition. The link between reading well and doing well in any class — high school or college — is self-evident.  
What can parents do to make sure their sons and daughters start early acquiring the insight, vocabulary and attention span that reading will engender? Smart parents will encourage reading for pleasure and make good books available for young people from preschool through high school. Smart parents will limit the time teens spend sending tweets and text messages, and admonish those who declare assigned reading boring or irrelevant. And smart parents will stare down any churl who suggests that a teen’s preference for great works will prove ill-advised in the long run.
But unless they home-school children or have the means to send children to private schools, parents have little say in what students learn in the classroom. Wise parents do not, however, let public school enrollees become “Free-Range Kids” — children whose parents simply drop them off and hope for the best. Rather, they are parents who know that literacy will prove invaluable in any enterprise and, whenever possible, steer students toward classes that stress reading and writing. 

Legacy Of Tough Love
Such classes are led by teachers who revere great works and who can make a Shakespeare, Fitzgerald or Austen matter to students whose interests most likely lie elsewhere. Such teachers have students write and revise essays and learn the mechanics of English, all the while knowing that the National Council of Teachers of English has decreed that grammar drills are a “deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing.” In short, Miss Grundy may have disappeared from the classroom decades ago, but in every first-rate class, her tough-love legacy lives on.
Students who’ve been blessed with such teachers stand out in college because they come prepared to read complex material and to write thoughtful, well-phrased essays that are not riddled with errors. For example, they know not to say, “One out of every six children are gifted,” or, “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover.” Nor will they say, “Summer passed too quickly for Jim and I” or “My roommate lays around all weekend!” On the other hand, students who’ve not yet been held to high standards for reading and writing will struggle, sometimes in a remedial section of English 101. 
But the advantages that come with a liberal arts background extend way beyond English 101. Students who thrive in upper-level classes have acquired an ear for the “dress of thought” found only in great models of written English. In lit surveys they are the students who spot similarities in Chaucer’s clergy and modern-day clerics, and who liken Shakespeare’s monarchs to today’s politicians. They can see that overcoming pride and prejudice at any age is no mean task, and that a “modest” proposal is anything but. And they are touched by a great writer’s insights into human nature and by the diction, cadence and syntax an author uses to explore it. Nothing could be more practical than to have students study the indelible words great writers choose to give us a sober warning, a rush of pleasure or a reminder that we are not alone in this scary business of living.

The Theorists Invade
For anyone who shares my passion for reading, the foregoing simply reviews what every book lover knows. But it’s rare that I meet someone who knows why reading has declined among students who grew up enjoying great works. Few outside academe are aware that a new breed of scholars — who call themselves “theorists” — has revolutionized the way literature is sometimes taught in the university. And few know what can become of literature in the hands of scholars who think that an edgy appraisal of a masterwork means more and matters more than the work itself.
Take, for example, what a Marxist theorist can make of Hamlet. Under the lens of one theorist, Shakespeare’s masterpiece becomes more about “irreconcilable social differences” and “distributive justice” than it is about a psyche in torment and perfectly wrought soliloquies. Under the lens of a Freudian theorist, even Jane Austen’s novels will yield “some representational metonymy of the genital,” and The Great Gatsby becomes all about “Nick Carraway’s homoerotic obsession with the theatrical Gatsby.” No wonder the headline of a recent newspaper editorial decries, “Our outrageously altered liberal arts,” and no wonder there’s been a declining interest in reading the classics.
   But happy endings can still be found in some classrooms and some headlines. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial titled “What John Keats Can Teach a CEO” affirms the connection between reading and writing. Studying poetry can indeed “teach you how to write simply and clearly, which is a must for most businesses.” That observation comes closest to the promise I made to students on the first day of class every semester for 26 years. Reading great works will illuminate dark corners of the mind and sharpen it for other uses.

Nan Miller is Professor Emerita, Meredith College.

Smart Children With Issues Featured In Film
The film Certain Proof: A Question of Worth, that focuses on the battle of three mothers who fight with unrelenting passion for their children's rights to a public school education and the teachers and administrators hamstrung by the bureaucracy of the education system, made its North Carolina premiere at the William and Ida Friday Center in Chapel Hill Nov. 2.
Written, directed and produced in its entirety in Wake County by filmmakers Ray and Susan Ellis, the film debuted in April during Colorado's Vail Film Festival and is scheduled to screen at four other film festivals. Susan was the guest of William Friday on his program "North Carolina People."
Certain Proof, released by Footpath Pictures, introduces audiences to a world of children who have good academic potential — some gifted — but are hampered by their communications and mobility challenges. New Voices, a Triangle-based outreach foundation that serves children and parents like the three featured in the film, evaluates the extent of their issues, prepares a transition plan, trains teachers and follows the families with support. 
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Does a College Degree Ensure a College Education?