The Magazine

The Learning Curve

What are the aims of education—and reform?

Mar 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 24 • By JONATHAN MARKS
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Cortney Munna must be one of America’s most famous young debtors. A religious and women’s studies graduate of New York University, she was working as a photography assistant when the New York Times discovered her. Munna was 26 and still $97,000 in debt for her bachelor of arts degree. She became a symbol for those who blame colleges and universities for luring students into deep debt for educations that do not prepare them to pay the loans back, much less succeed.

Memorial Church in Harvard Yard

Memorial Church in Harvard Yard

dewitt / sipa / newscom

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, who teaches law at the University of Tennessee and blogs as Instapundit, refers to Munna in The New School. He thinks that people are now paying close attention to stories like hers and are on the lookout for alternatives to traditional education. And while those who make a living providing that kind of education “will do their best to marginalize and neutralize” new competition, change “is coming, and it is unlikely to be modest or gradual.” Reynolds does more than take a swing at the education establishment, however: His arresting theme is the irrationality that pervades our thinking, especially as parents, about education—and not only at universities but also K through 12.

Reynolds asks us to practice the “critical thinking” that is sometimes said to be the aim of education. His daughter, for example, “did most of her high school online.” Her flexible schedule allowed her to gain valuable work experience on the side. Why don’t more parents encourage their children to do what she did, or to attend a community college before transferring to a more expensive school, or to learn a trade? 

While there are good answers to such questions, one bad answer that probably plays a role in many cases is that the people in one’s circle, or the next circle up, don’t do such things. Indeed, Cortney Munna’s mother regretfully told the Times that she let her daughter get into so much debt because “all I could see was college, and a good college and how proud I was of her.” Reynolds quotes The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson on how college “entangles our deepest yearnings, our vanities, our social ambitions and class insecurities, and most profoundly our love and hopes for our children.” Such motives explain why, from the moment we purchase our first Baby Einstein video to when we make our campus visits, we are suckers for people and products that promise to improve our children.

Reynolds looks to channel the good intentions of parents, and other concerned citizens, into scrutiny of an educational system too many of us cannot imagine being any other way. We should ask why the highest-paid state official in most states is a college coach, or why a university system in the midst of a budget crisis would add to its roster of six-figure diversity administrators, or whether students should “leave school for the real world sooner,” since “isolation from the adult world” promotes irresponsibility and because much of the knowledge schools now convey is already obsolete. Perhaps we should initiate a “broad based popular movement for higher education reform” and for the reform of education altogether. 

The “new school” sought by such a movement would use new technology to make education more flexible, with online courses that can be completed on a student’s own schedule. It would be more customized, with the help of adaptive learning technology, and would make education cheaper, because we can expect “information technology to drive costs and prices down” in some areas. It would also promote equality by separating good K-12 education from exclusive neighborhoods.

But to ensure that the movement is armed with questions rather than pitchforks, Reynolds should rein in his polemics. First, it would be difficult to come up with a less representative example than Cortney Munna. In 2012, the median debt among borrowers—a third or so don’t borrow at all—was $12,800. Philosophy and religious studies degrees constitute about .007 percent of degrees awarded. Degrees in the combined areas of ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies are about half of 1 percent of the total. A religion and women’s studies major with $97,000 in debt was, for the Times, a lucky find. If we want to do the kind of clear thinking Reynolds wishes to encourage, we should retire Cortney Munna.

Second, Reynolds contrasts “traditional education,” peopled by faculty and administrators who live “high on the hog,” with nontraditional upstarts, creating a future that is “brighter for consumers.” But American education is diverse, and not many of our students attend wealthy institutions. Community colleges alone account for over 40 percent of enrollments. As for the upstarts, some of them are at the heart of the debt problem. Private for-profit colleges, among the most eager embracers of online education, educate 10 percent of our students but account for 47 percent of loan defaults. According to the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, University of Phoenix online students are considerably more likely to default on their loans than they are to graduate within six years.

Nonetheless, Reynolds does an important service. During his discussion of higher education reform, he reminds us to think “about what a college degree is really for.” One might say, and I believe Reynolds would say, that the same goes for educational reform in general. 

A hint of an answer is provided by Reynolds’s daughter, who had “the discipline to sit down at a computer every day and do schoolwork with no one looking over her shoulder.” The new school will aim to “give people self-teaching skills.” Discipline is one virtue people capable of teaching themselves need. What other qualities of character and intellect do they need, and how can they be taught? While the possibilities afforded by new technology will shape the new school, the future will be shaped more decisively by our success or failure at answering those old-school questions.

Jonathan Marks is professor of politics at Ursinus College.