Larry Sechrest
Larry Sechrest

Trafficking with the Brain-Dead

What follows is a depressing tale written by an angry man. If you are not in the mood, then read no further.

First of all, I must tell you a little about myself. I promise to be brief. I am a tenured Associate-Professor of Economics at a small public "university" in the western part of Texas. In the name of common decency, it shall remain anonymous. I have been here for eight years, and previously I taught for five years at the University of Texas at Arlington, a much larger public university in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (it had 22,000 students when I was there). I have had one book on free banking published as well as more than twenty scholarly articles in various journals around the world. I am associated as a research scholar with two different private institutes and on the editorial board of a professional economics journal. Moreover, I have given about a dozen invited lectures or presentations around the United States as well as in England. Finally, I have received several commendations for my classroom teaching, including being included twice in Who's Who Among America's Teachers.

I tell you all that, not to "dazzle you with my brilliance," but to add poignancy to the fact that, despite the modest successes I have had, I am so disgusted with academia that I am thinking of leaving this professorial life altogether. Based on conversations with a number of my fellow professors around the United States, I am certain that quite a few academics endure conditions of the same kind as I shall speak of; although some are fortunate enough to face problems of a smaller magnitude. Therefore, please do not think of this essay as merely one man's lament about his grievously disappointed expectations.

Think of it, rather, as an insight into some of the ways in which colleges have failed to be true educational institutions, and, thus, why 1) many people with college degrees are no more than quasi-literate, and 2) some scholars who are also gifted teachers are looking for employment elsewhere.

What is the single biggest problem I have encountered?

The students.

Not faculty members, administrators, bureaucrats, or politicians, but the students. The majority are stupid, ignorant, lazy, apathetic, and ill-mannered. Many skip classes on a regular basis, refuse to read the assigned materials, and fail to take notes in class. And even when they do read the textbook, their ability to comprehend even quite simple concepts is appallingly poor. There are a few who are bright and eager to learn — bless their hearts, I treasure them — but most of them are worthless clods. I say that largely because so many actively resent being made to learn. The hostility and boredom they are experiencing internally is quite evident externally. It plainly shows on their faces. Most telling of all is the fact that they are already bored and hostile when they arrive in the classroom. They have been told that they must get a college degree, but they soon realise, however vaguely, that they possess neither the skills nor the inclination.

I have become convinced that, taking the nation as a whole, probably no more than one out of every three high school graduates has any business being in college at all (probably one out of ten where I am at present). The rest should be out in the workplace, earning a living. They possess no significant intellectual skills whatsoever and have no interest in erudition. Hell, they cannot even spell or define "erudition," much less achieve it! Their presence in college classrooms only serves to diminish the quality of the education that can be offered to the others. You see, contrary to all currently fashionable dogma, it is not the student of little ability who most deserves our attention, but the student of high ability. Why? Because it is only the latter who can actually benefit from a university education.

For students of little ability, college is a prodigious waste of money. And it is usually the taxpayers' money that is being wasted. Education, properly understood, is very different from vocational training. The person who truly wants an education exhibits an energetic curiosity about all facets of knowledge and a commitment to a life "of the mind." This educable person need not have equal command of all subjects (who does?), but he values knowledge because he knows that human beings survive and prosper to the extent that they make effective use of their minds. Simply put, he enjoys thinking, and conscious reflection is very much a part of his daily life. Philosophy, math, chemistry, history, literature, psychology, it matters not: all are of interest to him, regardless of what his "major" may be. Such a person never turns down an opportunity to add to his store of knowledge, because it represents wealth of a kind whose value is ever increasing.

Those who are ineducable can still benefit from vocational training, and that is precisely what most current college students actually want, even though they have been taught to call it "education." Thus, their concerns are narrow and sectarian. If their major field is business, or education, or social work, for some examples, all that most of them want to know is how to function in a job in that area. Learning per se is of no interest to them. And since they only want to be "practitioners" rather than thinkers, they tend to ridicule all theory and to ask endlessly to be told no more than the barest mechanics of how to arrive at a desired result. Their mentality reminds me of the stereotypical bureaucrat who cannot function unless he can "find it in the manual." If you ask them to think inversely, or in terms of analogies, parallels, or contrasts, they are hopelessly lost. Creative thinking is utterly unknown to them.

Let me make something clear before going any further. I am not suggesting that one should view vocational training as demeaning. Quite the opposite, in fact, is my claim. It is the high priests and priestesses of modern education who have convinced the last few generations that learning a trade — as it used to be called — is to be avoided unless it is disguised as a "university education." I firmly believe that more, many more, young people should be actively encouraged to seek vocational training and discouraged from attending college. There is nothing dishonourable about being an auto mechanic, or insurance salesman, or nurse. But there is also no reason why people in such occupations should feel compelled to go to college.

Furthermore, do not think that I am one of those snivelling, left-wing dilettantes who moans about the "crassness" of having to work for a living. Productive, honest, intelligent work is always to be applauded, regardless of the occupation. We are creatures of both mind and body. We desperately need both music and food, both philosophy and remunerative employment.

Does encouraging many young people to seek vocational training instead of a college education make me an elitist? Yes, and I am proud to say so. But, of course, I do not advocate an elitism enforced in any way by statute. It is, instead, a natural elitism based on one's demonstrable intellectual ability.

Earlier I made some broad generalisations about today's typical college students. Let me move now from the abstract to the concrete. That is, let me give you a (mercifully) few examples of their outrageous ineptitude. I guarantee you that every one of the following has actually occurred.

Every time I teach macroeconomics, I must deal with the notorious Keynesian equation for national income (or Gross Domestic Product). At some point in the algebraic presentation we will arrive at an expression like .40 Y = $1320. The task is to find Y. I of course tell the class to divide both sides of the equation by the coefficient of Y (.40), and thus Y = $3300. It should only be necessary for me to say "solve for Y," but I tell them the steps to follow anyway. And yet, every bloody semester at this point several hands shoot into the air, followed by anguished cries of, "Dr. Sechrest, how on earth did you get $3300?" This is a level of mathematical manipulation they all should have been entirely familiar with five or six years before they ever set foot on a college campus.

In addition, I constantly encounter large numbers of students who claim that they know nothing about such basic concepts as logarithms, reciprocals, or the slope of a line. And believe me, their answers on test certainly provide support for such a claim. Indeed, I have discovered that many students do not grasp things as painfully elementary as the fact that 75%, .75, and the fraction 3/4 all represent the same relationship!

So much for math skills. How about reading, writing, and reasoning? They read without comprehension (when they actually bother to read the assignments at all); they frequently write self-contradictory, nonsensical "sentences" that are actually just phrases or sentence fragments and that are filled with grammatical, spelling, capitalisation, and punctuation errors; and their ability to reason from premise to conclusion is nearly non-existent. For example, in my course on money and banking I often ask students to explain the various methods by which the Federal Reserve can change the money supply in the United States. The correct answer should discuss open market operations, the discount rate, and the required reserve ratio. One student's entire answer to this question, which constituted 15% of the points on the test since we had devoted several class periods to this issue, was: "The Federal Reserve has no control over the money supply. It's the Board of Governors who do that." He had apparently both failed to read the textbook and dozed off during class many times, because the Board of Governors is, in fact, the group of seven people which constitutes the administrative head of the Federal Reserve. Moreover, he had retained nothing from the hours of class discussion about the Fed's methods of monetary control.

Or how about this? Once I discovered a typographical error on a test that I had handed out to the class just moments earlier. Since it involved a multiple choice question, I simply told the class the correct answer. In fact, I told them twice, just to be sure. Out of fifteen people in the class, two people still answered that question incorrectly. There must be a vast, empty space between such people's ears!

And then there are the answers that make no sense whatsoever. In a class on the history of economic thought, I once granted the students' request to have a "take home" test. That is, they were both allowed to use their textbooks and given several days to complete the exam. Despite such extremely liberal conditions, I got the following as part of one student's response to a question about the Marxist analysis of social classes: "It is not only with the ideologies of the 'selfish misconceptions' of the ruling class, which keep the existing social relations are of concern, but that if each class preceives (sic) the situation ideologically as a clash of foundamental (sic) principles and ideas, then there would be a revolution to the end." Believe it or not, the woman who wrote that is a graduate education major and an experienced teacher in the public schools of Texas.

Let me tell you something about public school teachers. Over the years I have had scores of them as students in my classes. They are, with rare exceptions, horrific students.

It is often said that, along the spectrum of the usual university disciplines, one will find the bright students in philosophy, maths, the physical sciences, engineering, and economics; while the dullards are in education, sociology, social work, and physical education. Thirteen years of university teaching tell me that is right on target.

What aspects of society have led to the deplorable state of higher education? From an institutional standpoint, the first thing to go must be the public schools. Don't worry about "reforming" them via some voucher plan. They are beyond redemption. Sell the buildings and equipment to whatever private concerns may have use for them, return that money to the taxpayers, and burn to the ground whatever physical structures may remain. Along with this, all departments of "education" in universities should be abolished, because they have merely served as apologists for the teachers' unions and as promoters of a multitude of false doctrines.

Two of the worst of such doctrines are the now-familiar propositions that universities must embrace "diversity" and "multiculturalism." This is akin to telling Cleopatra that she will live longer if she lets the asp bite her repeatedly. These are monstrous ideas rooted in racism, ethical relativism, and anti-intellectualism, but since many recent writers have successfully exposed them for what they are, I will add only two things. First of all, the push for multiculturalism has not only encouraged many unqualified persons from ethnic minorities to attend college, but it has also, thereby, provided a sympathetic audience for those faculty members who are radical feminists, eco-terrorists, animal rights saboteurs, and/or Marxists. Recognising that fact, one should not be surprised to find "political correctness" virtually everywhere one turns.

Secondly, here where I am presently employed, a student can major in Mexican-American Studies or Women's Studies, but he or she cannot major in philosophy, physics, engineering, or foreign languages for the simple reason that majors in those traditional fields are not offered! When I asked administrators why it was considered more important to introduce a major in Mexican-American Studies than, say, a major in philosophy, I was told, "Many of our students are Hispanic, and they are not interested in philosophy."

That brings me to another pernicious doctrine that is less widely known. Many American universities, both public and private, are trying to be more "student-centred." In general terms, this is variously described as being sensitive to students' needs, treating students as consumers of educational services, and so forth. In practice, it means "giving the inmates the keys to the asylum." It has led to curricula that are driven by student fads, tenure and promotion decisions that can be influenced by mere popularity, the expectation that professors be counsellors and therapists as much as scholars, and a pervasive diminution of course content (at least at the undergraduate level). The "dumbing-down" of education in America is not a rumour. It is a fact to which I can testify.

What else would you expect to happen when ever-increasing numbers of ineducable young people are cajoled into attending college? If faculty are not supposed to provide "negative feedback" that might "harm the student's self-image," then there exists an inexorable pressure to lower academic standards. The net result? Today the typical person with a baccalaureate degree possesses skills and knowledge no better than those exhibited by a high school graduate fifty years ago.

Moreover, this doctrine of "student-centeredness" reinforces the ethical and intellectual relativism of our time in a particularly obnoxious way. It is very common today, at least in the United States, to find both college students, and, regrettably, even many of their professors, who think that students' opinions should always be given credence. (Students should be encouraged to express themselves, and their statements should be dealt with in a civil fashion; but that does not mean that the content of their statements necessarily has any worth.) I have personally witnessed this in various forms: Students who spout off in class about, say, minimum wage rate laws or import tariffs, without knowing anything at all about them, because — by their own admission — they have not read the textbook; introductory level courses that are conducted as seminars; English composition classes in which students' essays are graded by other students in the same class; even, incredibly, a psychology course where the students assign grades to themselves!

If you have concluded by now that I am a living — and unrepentant — anachronism, then you're right. I actually believe that college should only be for the educable, and they are only a small fraction of the total population. Indeed, I would go further. There is one sacred thing on this earth: the mind of the sovereign individual. Universities, therefore, should be holy places of a kind, places where people can exercise, explore, expand, and above all, honour the human mind. That is why I condemn — without hesitation, without remorse — all those who have contributed to the corruption of "higher education." They truly have defiled a holy place. There is no Hell, that is true. But if there were, those loathsome infidels would deserve to reside forever in its foulest regions.

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