How Not to Lower the Net

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There is not really a delicate way to get at one of the root problems with modern higher ed without confronting the emotional engine which drives those problems. And when we confront that engine we discover that the problem is caused by the atomosphere we all live in, and not by this or that nefarious educrat. The kind of colleges we have are plants that grow in the kind of soil that we as a people provide.

We have those who have given themselves over to this vice completely, believing it to be a virtue. Criticize it and the long knives come out. Then we have those who label the vice as a vice, but who believe it is discretely segregated from most of our lives. They do not recognize how much it affects them. And then you have those, like me I hope, who see it as one of the central and pervasive evils of our age, but who are more affected by it than they know, and who consistently hesitate before bringing it up. Because there is no good way to bring it up, especially when you are talking about people’s kids.

The evil can be described as a clustered bundle of problems that I will call by the general name of egalitarianism. The cluster is made up of envy, ressentiment, democracy, sentimentalism, and what Charles Murray calls educational romanticism. One obvious consequence of the problem is the notion, now prevalent in our nation, that every kid should go to college. But the reality is that far too many are going to college as it is, and if we had really good guidance counselors working in our high schools, we could cut the number in half.

But in order to make this point I have to distance myself from Aristotle first. He taught that the purpose of what we would call a liberal education was to equip a free man to be a free citizen, and what we would call vocational education was education for slaves — mere training. But his point, some of which we must recover, had far too low a view of the honorable nature of vocational labors in the sight of God. In another post, I will develop what the Protestant Reformers recovered in their vision of the dignity of all lawful work in the sight of God. God has made certain men for certain ends, and it is their job to find out what those ends are, and to labor joyfully in what God has equipped them to do. In short, with regard to the Puritan work ethic, we have no untouchables. All laborers, from the dairy farmer to the backhoe operator, from the backhoe operator to the librarian, from the librarian to the fish and game specialist, from the fish and game specialist to the software code guy, from the software code guy to the long haul truck driver, all of it is honorable before God. In every lawful vocation, we have the privilege of being Christ to others, and in our dependence on the vocations of others, we receive the gifts of Christ to us with gratitude. More on this later.

I say this because I am about to say that some people are more able than others. Even though God created us with aptitudes that are equally honorable, He did not create with aptitudes that are equally capable. Some people are brighter than others, as in “more intelligent,” and this stone cold reality should be reflected in the education we seek to provide to them. It means, bottom line, that most people should not go to college. “College for all” is an idolatrous pipe dream, one that wants to ignore certain creational realities.

Almost thirty percent of American 25-year-olds and higher currently have a B.A. If true educational reform in higher ed takes root, over the course of a generation, we should be able to cut that number in half. If we don’t cut that number in half, we will continue to “cut in half” our educational expectations. For example, if we said that our goal was to send every eighteen-year-old to basketball camp, and in the grip of a bizarre ideological frenzy, we insisted that we were going to reach the achievable goal of “every American learning how to dunk the ball,” then there are only two possible outcomes. The first will be that reality will eventually set in, and we give up that fantasy, admitting that it was a fantasy. The second is what we are currently doing, especially in the humanities, and that is the achievable goal of lowering the net.

When we send kids to college who are not capable of doing the work, then two irreconcilable forces are pressing against one another, and one of them must give way. Either the historic liberal arts curriculum will give way, or the practice of herding warm bodies into college will give way. Over the last generation or so, it has been the curriculum that has given way — through grade inflation, through cheating, through abandonment of core curriculum, and so on. When that happens, something invaluable is lost. When it doesn’t happen, the unfortunate student who ought to be somewhere else learning how to do something else well is continuously exasperated by the challenge of something he cannot really do.

This means that colleges that are engaged in education reform (as NSA most certainly is) have to be prepared to turn away customers who (in the grip of our broader culture’s propaganda on this) are insisting on applying, and they have ready money in their hands. But while the Church takes all comers, the choir doesn’t, if you follow my meaning.

This is an enormously practical question, and in order to address it, we have to answer the question in ways that show that we are being accountable to external realities. “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Cor. 10:12).

There are tests available that are valuable predictors of future performance. The fact that some people use these tests ignorantly, or superstitiously, does not alter the fact that a great deal of our turmoil in higher ed is fully preventable, if we were only willing to talk people out of going to college on the basis of what we already know. If someone gathered up (at random) a group of 100 average American high school students, all of whom were intent on applying to NSA, so that I could speak to them, I would regard it as my duty to try to talk half to three quarters of them out of it. But notice that I said “random.” If they were a group of 100 A-students from a first rate classical Christian school, it would be more likely that I would only try to talk a quarter of them out of it — a certain amount of self-selection has already occurred. But if they are anything like their fellow countrymen, their applications have predictive value.

Take the SAT scores, for example . . .

“You should be aware of a problem with percentile points: A percentile point gets wider as it moves toward the extremes. For example, if you raise your SAT scores from 500 to 600, a hundred point gain, you have gone from the 50th to the 84th percentile — your score has risen 34 percentile points. If you raise it from 700 to 800, you again have raised your score by a hundred points, but by only a little more than 2 percentile points, from the 97.7th to the 99.9th percentiles” (Charles Murray, Real Education, p. 52).

In simple terms, the SAT scores are not a footrace, where every distance between the runners is the same all the way around the track. A 100 point drop from 1200 to 1100 does not have the same significance that a 100 point drop from 1000 to 900 does. Now Murray argues (and I agree with him) that a relaxed standard of college readiness would be a combined verbal/math score on the SAT of 1180. “The most selective schools had a student SAT mean above 1250” (Murray, p. 69). And for those who are curious, the current SAT average for applicants to NSA this next year is around 1220.

Much more needs to be said on all this, but preparation for life is not a one-size-fits-all sort of thing. There are many things that a liberal arts education at NSA cannot do, and there are many people for whom we cannot do what we can do for others. A liberal arts education at the higher level is not for everyone. More than that, it is not for most.

If someone rejects what we offer because they have bought into the technocratic prepare-you-for-a-job paradigm, we want to subvert that paradigm, and we want to recruit as many capable students as we can. But if someone does not apply to NSA because it is clear that God has equipped them and made them for something else, then God bless them all. If the majority of Christian parents are not passing by what we have to offer, then we are not doing our job.

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