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A 'D' for Margaret Wente

Why she is wrong that too many kids go to college.

By Stan Persky 23 Jun 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at recently-designated Capilano University in North Vancouver, B.C. His latest book is Topic Sentence: A Writer's Education (New Star, 2007).

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Globe pundit Wente: Right answers?

My favourite right-wing columnist, the Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente, confidently informs me that university is not for everyone because "a lot of kids just aren't smart enough" ("Who needs university anyway?", May 23, 2008).

Wente recounts the heart-rending tale of "Jake," a "nice young man," but "a mediocre student who never really caught on to the art of the paragraph."

Though Jake barely scraped through high school, he "had no trouble gaining admittance to a second-rank university." Well, you guessed it. Poor Jake dropped out after a semester, "his family was crushed, and he felt like a failure. Today he has a low-level job in retail and he's thinking about community college -- preferably in some line of study that doesn't require mastery of the paragraph."

So who's to blame for Jake's plight? Wente lines up the usual suspects. Is it "the public school system, which fails to prepare students well enough for higher education?" Or how about the possibly misleading but "relentless message we send these kids -- that anyone without a postsecondary degree will be left behind in the great race of life"?

Wente suggests that "maybe the real problem is something else entirely. Maybe it's not that too few kids go to university, but too many." Maybe "a lot of kids just aren't smart enough." What's more, "this blazingly obvious explanation has been all but banished from public discourse," no doubt by the tyrannical guardians who impose politically correct views about equality on the rest of us.

"We're supposed to pretend everyone is equal," laments Wente, "and that with the right stimulants (reading books to children, all-day kindergarten, etc., etc.) we can redraw the Bell curve. We like to think we live in a... world where all the children are above average." Wente's here to set us straight: "But in the real world, they aren't. In the real world, some people really do have more intellectual ability than others, even if it seems impermissible to say so."

Back in the good ol' days, "just a generation ago, a university education was still a relative rarity, and you had to be fairly smart to get in." How come so many wannabe students get into universities today, given that they don't have the ability to make it there? That's easy to explain. "There is only one way to get bums in seats and accommodate the average student: lower your standards... Once the bums are in the seats, there's a certain incentive to keep them there. And that leads to an inevitable deal: we'll give you a degree, even if you don't deserve it." Gee, I guess Jake wasn't even smart enough to get the "inevitable deal."

Marks off for misreading the stats

In the end, the fault isn't Jake's, Wente sympathetically informs us. Rather, "it's ours. It's our fault for not offering them a decent vocational alternative, one that suits their talents and abilities... Instead, we pretend that all kids can be university material, and that if they fail, they're doomed. As Jake would say, that sucks."

But maybe it's Wente that sucks. Or rather, maybe it's her farrago of distortions, her ideological biases and her shallow idea of what education is all about. Maybe even her facile idea of paragraphs sucks.

Before arguing about who or what does and doesn't suck, I should declare my stake in this particular debate. I'm a professor who teaches in a university (maybe even a "second tier" one, or worse), and I've taught a few thousand students in the last quarter-century, but I haven't noticed very many of them who weren't smart enough to be there or who couldn't "master" a paragraph. However, I'm known around my school as a rather cheerful teacher, maybe even overly cheerful, so maybe I've failed to notice their failing IQs. I've noticed the students' ignorance, their up-until-now bad educations, their distraction by an imbecilic and shallow culture. They know everything about Britney Spears' rehab regress, but couldn't find Afghanistan on a map even with a GPS device. I've noticed all that, but I haven't noticed that they're not smart enough.

Let's start with the facts. Although Wente reports, in slightly shocked tones, that "almost half of Canadians between 25 and 64 have completed either college or university," she's misreading the stats from Statistics Canada's latest survey (they're also available in various Canadian Council on Learning reports). In fact, only 22 per cent of working-age Canadians have completed a university program; another 22 per cent have completed college and vocational trades programs. So, less than a quarter of working-age Canadians have a bachelor's and/or graduate degree.

Furthermore, according to the Government of Canada's Human Resources department's latest numbers, only 24 per cent of Canadian 18-24-year-olds (the age group most likely to be in post-secondary education) are in university or college. And this is hailed as a big improvement, up from a 16 per cent "participation" rate in 1991. For those obsessed with the facts, a little googling reveals that back in the good old days of 1976, the post-secondary participation rate in British Columbia was about 6 per cent. Presumably, that's where Wente would like to keep it.

So, yes, we've made "progress" in the last quarter-century-plus. Today, one out of four Canadian 18-24-year-olds is participating in university education. Now, I know that statistics are notoriously squishy things and, no doubt, people trapped in dead-end jobs go back to school later in life -- but not really a lot of them (according to the stats, and naturally, there are stats on all this, too). What's more, according to University Affairs (June 2004), Canada's post-secondary participation rate, growing as it may be, is still behind that of Korea, Holland, Greece, Britain, New Zealand, France, Australia, Finland, the U.S., Belgium and probably Norway and Denmark, but we're doing way better than Malaysia and Brazil.

The point is: three out of four young Canadians are not going to universities and colleges, even the "second-tier" ones trying to squeeze bums into seats by, oh no!, "lowering their standards." For those of us who are numeracy-challenged, that's 75 per cent who never get within sight of the ivory tower. So, let's drop the barbarians at the gates alarm, ok?

Marks off for asking the wrong question

Since only one out of four young Canadians is in university, that kind of undercuts Wente's mish-mash of half-truths about ability, smarts, Bell curves, and the rest. Given that three out of four are not in class, there's no reason to suppose that the ones who are there aren't smart enough, and no reason to chastise ourselves for giving in to the politically correct liberal delusion that all children are above average, if such a delusion exists. It's possible that the ones in class are the best available in terms of intelligence, and it's even possible that they're good enough to do the work.

While I agree with Wente that there certainly seem to be real differences in intelligence (at least of the book-larnin' variety), and that politically correct denials of that in the name of equality are deplorable, I'll skip the morass of debate about what we mean about what kinds of intelligence there are, and how we go about determining who has how much of it. Suffice to say, we employ elaborate screening devices and lots of hoops to jump through over a period of years, and this has something to do with who gets admitted to post-secondary education. The admission system may be flawed (perhaps even deeply flawed), but it doesn't help to pretend there are no standards at all except the universities' competitive greed.

What percentage of young people ought to be in universities and colleges is a more complicated question, one that requires us to ask a bunch of other questions, starting with, What is post-secondary education for? It's a question Margaret Wente doesn't ask.

If post-secondary education is just for job-training, as Wente seems to imply, then maybe there are indeed too many young people in university.

If post-secondary education is for educating informed citizens, inspiring critical thinkers, and developing cultivated people, then maybe there aren't enough young people in colleges and universities. The only question then would be, as Wente puts it, are the people who aren't currently in university smart enough to be there?

When we have this discussion in my classrooms, I immediately assure the students that I'm not a Communist and am not calling for 100 per cent of all young people to be in university. However, since we're living in a democracy, and the quality of democracies is dependent on informed citizens, critical thinkers, and cultivated people, I'm in favour of more young people going to university, provided, that is, that the university really enhances their citizenly, critical, and cultivated abilities. (More about that in a minute.) Since only one in four of their age aggregate is in university -- actually, the percentage that get to classes where we have these kinds of discussions is far less than that -- I restrain myself, and moderately call for only a slight increase, say 30-35 per cent, or on my more utopian days, 40 per cent. I reassure them the majority of their age-mates will continue to be relegated to darkness and to lifetime earnings far less than the earnings they will obtain with their university degrees. I think they even pick up on my tone of sarcasm when I say that.

Marks off for flawed logic

Wente is right to ask why so many students are so ill-prepared when they arrive at university. But instead of pursuing an answer, she rides off on her IQ hobbyhorse to arrive at the odd notion that they "just aren't smart enough." I think the answer lies elsewhere. I think it's a mistake to blame the public school system, where the teachers work hard in difficult circumstances, or to blame any other handy local target: the family, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Guides, or the neighbourhood daycare program. The answer is larger, much larger. The problem, to put it as neutrally as possible, is the culture in which kids grow up.

The cultural context for most young people is intellectually barren, filled with distracting bells and whistles, and inculcated by an incessant drumbeat of saturation advertising designed to persuade the young that possession of the latest video game/download/fashion/you-name-it-"lifestyle"-ornament is an absolute necessity in the quest to be cool. Of course, the actual purpose of the advertising is to... wait, don't get me started on the evils of capitalism.

Let's just say that after 18 years of school vs. iPods, cellphones, YouTube, FaceBook, GrandTheftAuto and the rest, the latter have pretty much won. It's little wonder that the students arrive at the civilizing sanctuary knowing little of literature, history, science, philosophy or anything else useful in the curriculum. As I see it, it's our job to remedy the barbarism by teaching the various subjects we teachers know something about. True, some teachers are irritated and bored by the prospect of having to do so much "remedial" work with their badly-educated students. I'm not.

Wente is also right to complain about the universities, but misguided in seeing their main fault as caving in to the pressures of the market by lowering standards in a bid to retain students at any costs, and thus creating a false "inflation" of university-educated people (to say nothing of "grade inflation"). What's gone wrong with the universities is that they've bought in (or have been forced to buy in by the marketplace) to the idea that they're job training centres, rather than places to educate citizens, acculturate people, and stimulate the ability to think for one's self. What's more, the misdirection of post-secondary schooling is exacerbated by market pressures to adopt industrial methods of instruction.

The result is vastly overcrowded lecture halls (frequently 500 students or more crammed into introductory classes in psychology, biology, electronic basketweaving or what have you) and the diminishment of the now almost lost art of teaching. In place of conversation and discussion, there's an emphasis on lecturing (a form of teaching, to be sure, but perhaps an inferior one), aided by PowerPoint presentations, mindless note-taking, and "online" supplements.

Marks off for missing 'class'

So, there's plenty to argue about (and plenty that needs reform), but the least of our problems is that the students "just aren't smart enough." While the especially bright students are a joy to teach, most of the students I encounter are, unsurprisingly, average, and average may be good enough for them to become competent citizens, critical thinkers, cultured adults. To answer Wente's headline question, "Who needs university anyway?", I would say, as many citizens, critical thinkers, and cultured people as we're capable of educating.

As for Wente's tired suggestion of "offering them a decent vocational alternative," it's my view that bus drivers, plumbers, construction workers, nurses and the rest of the vocational workforce also ought to be informed citizens and cultured people and that, yes, classroom education and directed book reading promote those qualities. Even the "decent vocational alternative" should include a substantial amount of "general" education, which all too often is not the case in the curricula of today's trade and professional schools.

When people like Wente say that university is not for everyone, I want to ask them what else they think is not for everyone. Democracy? Voting? Freedom of speech? Culture itself? Newspaper column writing? (Present company excepted, of course.) Perhaps even mastering "the art of the paragraph" is within reach of more people than we currently imagine.

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