Best-Educated vs. Most-Educated

Ashley Thorne

Two articles in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education refer erroneously to President Obama’s keynote higher education goal. The articles misrepresent it as being the goal that by 2020, America will be the best-educated nation in the world. That’s not the goal.

The actual goal, in the President’s own words, is this: “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

Most-educated is worlds away from meaning the same thing as best-educated. NAS, led by President Peter Wood, has demonstrated this in the following articles:

Duncan Donuts 03/18/10

Expanding Enrollments, Declining Standards: American Higher Ed Prepares to Take the Plunge 03/10/10

To Infinity and Beyond! Kevin Carey’s Race to Over-the-Top 03/08/10

The State of the University 01/28/10

A Safer Way to Squander 07/16/09

Old Ills, New Remedies: A Conversation with Diane Auer Jones 06/29/09

Is America Losing Its Innovative Edge? 06/13/09

American Character, the Remix: How College is Shaping Us Now 04/28/09

Why Doubling the Size of American Higher Education is a Bad Idea 12/23/08

Asking a Lot 12/22/08

Cold Brine: The College Board Loses Its Senses 12/15/08

In his Chronicle article, Stan Katz, professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University, considers degree acquisition a poor measure of how educated students are:

But few serious teachers actually believe that such a metric guarantees that our students are “educated.”  If we aspire to provide a four-year college education that transcends the acquisition of specific job skills, we need to be able to specify what the content of such an education would be, and what would constitute the measure of its assessment.

His solution is to measure what students are learning:

If, for instance, we actually believe that college students should receive a “liberal” education, what do we have to do to ensure that they are receiving it? And how does acquiring a liberal education relate to acquisition of a bachelor’s degree? It would be interesting to know what President Obama thinks is required of college performance in a truly educated country.

Attempting to quantify learning is a slippery slope, and it can lead to “outcomes assessment,” which (in addition to being an administrative headache) encourages professors to aim low so that they can easily say they met their “student learning objectives” at the end of the semester. But that’s not to say it is impossible to know whether students are getting a good education. Standardized testing remains a good measure. And it’s possible to tell from looking at a syllabus or the students’ grades to see whether a professor sticks to high academic standards.

We too would be interested to know what President Obama thinks truly educated people should know, and how colleges should teach them. One thing is certain; sending more students to college won’t make the United States the best-educated nation. It may not even make us more competitive globally. As Peter Wood wrote:

It could, however, accelerate the decline of many ordinary colleges and universities. That’s because the flood of new students would mean drastically lowered academic standards, a further erosion of the quality of campus life, and an over-abundance of people holding college degrees.

Why sacrifice quality for quantity? Higher education should be marked by rigor, thoughtfulness, hard work, an earnest search for true knowledge, and a certain gravity. Pumping up the size of enrollments to meet the 2020 goal will spread these qualities thin like too little butter on a giant slice of toast.

The Chronicle authors’ use of the term best-educated is telling. Most-educated sounds rightly shallow. Their twisting of Obama’s goal shows that they believe good rather than more education should be our ambition. Being the best-educated nation would be an excellent goal, one President Obama should consider.

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