Thursday, July 24, 2008

One More U.S. Advantage is Eroding

America has always prided itself on having the finest universities in the world. Of course, that reputation is built almost completely on their research, not the quality of education provided, especially to undergraduates. Indeed, as I've documented in previous posts and articles, the quality of teaching is, on average, abominable, and the feeble student growth is evidence of that.

I recently bought two audio courses offered by The Teaching Company, which claims to comb America's most prestigious universities to find its very finest instructors. Both courses were horrible. The first was on Beethoven sonatas. The course leeched the life out of every note. Each bar was intellectually analyzed until all pleasure had been excised. In the course on argumentation, the instructor attempted to reduce argumentation to an elaborate model of principles, which I am certain will not improve my argumentation skills, nor could I imagine they'd improve anyone else's, certainly not enough to justify the 12 hours of listening time.

At the same time as American universities continue their atavistic, abstruse ways, Chinese, Indian, and other Asian universities are improving, balancing their traditional emphasis on students mastering copious material and acquiring high-level skills with a new focus on enhancing students' creativity and problem solving ability. Those improved Asian universities will both better educate their already capable, hard-working people, and encourage their best and brightest to not come to the U.S but to stay in their homeland. Meanwhile a new study reported in USA Today finds the number of American students taking classes abroad has tripled in the last decade.

The U.S. desperately needs to convert most of its universities from arcana research factories to undergraduate-centered colleges in which immersive simulations and not lectures are the norm, in which courses' primary goal is to improve students' reasoning, writing, speaking, and mathematical reasoning skills, and in which faculty is hired and promoted based on how well they can educate and inspire, not how many useless, self-indulgent, often outre research articles they can crank out.


Anonymous said...

Am I the only one that thinks that the longer an institution lasts, the further away that institution gets from reality and what the public wants and needs?

It doesn't matter how prestigious a company or institution is. If it fails to keep up with what its consumers need and demand, it will not be in business for as long as it thinks.

Businesses are successful because they fill and continue to fill the needs of the consumer. If the business becomes so full of itself that it begins to ignore the consumer, how long can that business keep going?

Erwin said...


1. The problem is that more than half of the students entering our colleges and universities are still struggling with the mathematics of 4th, 5th, and 6th grade. I'm willing to bet that their reading and writing skills are not much better. The percent of college freshmen ready to do college level work is small --- very small.

2. A college faculty that attempts to fix the above problem will quickly incur the wrath of its students, their parents, their high school guidance teachers and ultimately will find that their feeder high schools have stopped sending them students.

3. The standing of a Research University is determined (worldwide) by the quality (not quantity) of the research produced by its faculty. Contrary to popular belief the major scientific advances of the past half-century have occurred in our Research Universities --- as opposed to Government or Corporate Labs. Where did most of the Nobel prize winners do the work for which they were awarded the prize?


Marty Nemko said...

In response to Erwin,

Yes,important research comes from research universities but those research professors do a lot of undergraduate teaching, especially, ironically, with our best and brightest. The people most qualified to do research are usually not the people most qualified to teach undergraduates. Nor are researchers, on average, particularly motivated to spend the time it takes to create superlative undergraduate lessons--e.g., the aforementioned immersive simulations.

Okie said...

Amen, Brother Marty!

Dave said...


In response to your first point: If we didn't send so many kids to college and university, we wouldn't have this problem. That is a major issue Dr. Nemko has addressed on his website, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and in other media outlets.

Erwin said...


"Too many going to college" is the cheap answer. I'm sorry but I won't buy it. How about: students must demonstrate a mastery of grade-school skills (in reading, writing, and arithmetic) in order to move on to middle school? I'm talking basic skills here --- no fancy stuff. If we did something like this in grade school, middle school, and high school we wouldn't have ridiculously unprepared and unmotivated students attending our colleges. (I'm willing to bet that some of the school teachers themselves would be unable to pass such exams.)

No one wants colleges to give the bad news to their entering freshmen --- not the parents, not the students and certainly not their former high school and middle school teachers. In addition, if a college were to dare to set real college-level standards for their freshman courses the resulting attrition would kill their USNews rankings and that would translate into even less-prepared and less-motivated students showing up at their front door next September.

The system's broken. But not because lots of college teachers amuse themselves by engaging in esoteric research. Except for the poor trees (who must suffer), the research is at worse a harmless vice.

Marty Nemko said...

Erwin, their research is far from a harmless vice. Universities hiring people to teach undergraduates based on how skilled they are at their esoteric research field devastates the quality of undergraduate education, especially to underprepared students.

And, indeed, colleges should not admit seriously underprepared students any more than physicians should prescribe a years-long, phenomenally expensive treatment when there's a more appropriate, less expensive one available.

Erwin said...

Marty, I'm convinced that the vast majority of colleges do no more than pretend to pay attention the "research" done by their faculty. With the exception of the country's research universities and perhaps the top 10% of colleges, I believe no administrator with half-a-brain takes "faculty research" all that seriously. But perhaps I'm wrong.

But look at our high schools. Here the faculty doesn't even pretend to do research. How's the quality of the teaching. Judging by the output, it's abysmal. Do we even have any assurances that there is mastery of the material being taught on the part of those doing the teaching?

Marty Nemko said...

I gotta disagree, Erwin. Ever larger percentages of colleges and universities are demanding research productivity. Just look at the ads for professors in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

And re high school teachers lacking content knowledge, I'm more concerned about the elimination of different paths: Nearly all students are forced to take a college prep curriculum, which is irrelevant and hard (a terrible combination) for all students but especially those who would, post-high school, be wiser to pursue a trade than a four-year college.

Erwin said...

Marty, let me address your second point first. I believe that the reason high school students are having difficulty with a college prep curriculum is because they do not poses basic 6th grade reading, writing and arithmetic skills. What I'm saying is that way too many of them should never have been allowed out of grade school --- let alone middle school. Should many of these high school students be in programs training them to work in construction or plumbing? Maybe. But you've got to first give them basic 4th - 6th grade skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. And then we'll find out. I maintain that if we provided them with these basic skills, their performance in high school prep courses might well surprise us. But suppose I'm wrong. What have you lost? You'll have a country filled with many more citizens who are not only working on construction projects but can also read the New York Post. You'll have a country filled with many more citizens who can estimate if the eighth of tank of gasoline that they have left in their car is sufficient to get them to that discount gas station that's 35 miles away. Perhaps they'll even be able to calculate that their savings from Jack's Discount Gas will be totally off-set by what it cost them to drive the extra 70-mile round trip.

Now to your first point. If college presidents across the country really wanted a faculty filled with excellent researchers (in their respective disciplines) then I'd have a wonderful business that the two of us could start: College Headhunters. Today, if you're an ER Doc you'll get calls from headhunters trying to move you to a competing hospital across town. Have you ever heard of a headhunter calling an expert in four dimensional topology and whispering: "I can get you an extra $ 25K if you're willing to relocate to the college across town." When that starts happening I'll believe that college presidents are serious about filling their faculties with excellent researchers. I treat the want ads in the Chronicle of Higher Ed the way I treat the personals: If it says "voluptuous," I read "fat --- very, very fat." If the add says "research wanted" I read "pretense wanted." Yes, many of the top colleges might well be semi-serious about faculty research, but I think the vast majority barely even pretend to be.

Bottom line: fix the 4th - 6th grade basic skills problem and then it won't matter if college professors prefer spending their time at the local pub or presenting the world with yet one more interpretation of Das Pfitzer'sche Faustbuch.

Marty Nemko said...

Erwin: There's no need for academic headhunters: there's a huge supply of highly trained academics clamoring for jobs.

Re 4th-6th grade, the schools spend maximum effort to teach reading, writing. No Child Left Behind increased it even further. Fact is, some kids are just not academically oriented, just as I can't draw more than stick figures nor do dazzling basketball moves ending with a dunk. The problem with insisting that all students get so much academics is the opportunity cost: what those non-academically-oriented kids would be doing with their time if they didn't have to interpret Shakespeare, the Pelopponessian Wars, quadratic equations, and the halide series of chemical elements.

Erwin said...

Marty, top-notch researchers are a scarce commodity (as are top-notch almost anything). My point is that this is a commodity that college presidents aren't exactly dying to posses.

I'm not advocating the teaching of the interpretation of Shakespeare, the Pelopponessian Wars, quadratic equations, and the halide series of chemical elements. I'm saying don't let kids out of grade school unless they've mastered the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic of grades 4 - 6. I'm not even insisting that they master any science or history in order to advance to middle school.

"No child left behind" is exactly the problem. I'm advocating "Every child left behind" --- until mastery is achieved. You get to move from grade school to middle school only after you've actually mastered the basics of grade school. If you did it my way, you'd quickly expose the fact that our educational system is doing about as well as FEMA did in responding to Katrina, or the FBI-CIA-NSA did in preventing 9-11.

My basic assumption in all of this is that almost all kids are capable of learning the basics of grades 4 to 6. However, I may be wrong. I have no evidence to support my belief that this is the case. If I'm wrong in this, it would make me very sad.

Stephen said...

[blockquote]The first was on Beethoven sonatas. The course leeched the life out of every note. Each bar was intellectually analyzed until all pleasure had been excised[/blockquote]

With musical education, it is very important to not lose sight of what the larger picture is. With the Beethoven piano sonatas, the big picture is the original intent of the composer. To create music that serves a specific and practical purpose. Would Beethoven's musical language have developed the way that it had, if instead he had received his formation from the highly structured and stiff academics of today?

The piano sonatas also represent the end result of a very different kind of education: one in which self-actualization is encouraged and rules are made to be bent and broken.

Matthew from San Francisco said...

Hi Marty,

wrt lectures on the Beethoven piano sonatas don't miss the free Andras Schiff lectures at,,1943867,00.html

Schiff has a wonderfully wry sense of humor and provides a lot of insight.

However, I happen to love Robert Greenberg's lectures, the Teaching Company's classical music lecturer. His sense of humor removes the stuffiness that is often associated with classical music. He's not just a comedian and obviously knows his stuff.

Balancing technical details with the painting of a human portrait of Beethoven and his times is difficult. Stray too far into the technical side of things and you lose most people. Never touch the technical side of things and you lose the interest of the avid listener who's perhaps read up quite a bit on these sonatas already. To contrast Schiff and Greenberg (others might do better and I'd love to hear about them), Schiff provides what are essentially extensive CD notes. Greenberg delves deeper and expects you to listen to some of the lectures several times with perhaps score in hand.

I'd recommend listening to some other lectures by Greenberg. I enjoyed the Bach and the High Baroque, Life of Mozart, and am now listening to the Chamber Works of Mozart. As you can tell I'm interested in classical.

I'm always interested in learning about new resources so if there are any other courses, books, or similar stuff on this topic please do share :)

Matthew from San Francisco said...

btw, Another great, free source of classical music lectures are the archives on the BBC Radio 3 Discovering Music website

Marty Nemko said...

It is the Greenberg Lectures I am ridiculing. Bits of humor and "knowing his stuff" don't take away from the fact that his hyperintellctualizing, hyperanalyzing the Beethoven Sonatas (which I do know and love well--indeed specialized in playing late Beethoven sonatas for a while--56, 109, 111,) truly eviscerate the pleasure that one can get from the sonatas. Typical of what academics do.