Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 17, November 2001/a: "Beer and circus in American education – Pars destruens"

Francis Bacon wrote in 1620 that any fair criticism has to have two parts: a pars destruens, where one attacks, and a pars construens, where one advances constructive suggestions. This month, Rationally Speaking readers will therefore receive a two-part column in the spirit of Bacon. What I wish to tear down is the myth that large universities can impart a decent undergraduate education. The charge against the sham that is undergraduate education in the United States today has perhaps never been as effective as in a book entitled Beer and Circus: How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education, by Murray Sperber. Sperber is a professor of English who has studied the phenomenon of college athletics for years, and who received death threats and was unable to teach or receive students in his office at Indiana University because he dared speak out against the degrading behavior of then basketball coach Bobby Knight (who, among other things, threw chairs at and choked some of his athletes).

Sperber started with the common observation that there is a very strong inverse relationship between excellence in undergraduate education and performance in athletics among American schools. More specifically, and almost without exception, schools that belong to the NCAA Division I football or basketball programs are among the worst in the nation in undergraduate education, while Division III schools tend to be the best.

The correlation is attributable to a vicious triangle involving athletics, the party scene, and the excessive emphasis on graduate training and research at most of these schools. At what Sperber calls “big time U’s,” one of the major attractions for students is provided by the party scene, not the possibility of academic achievement. A significant percentage of undergraduates spend more time partying (typically from Thursday afternoon until the end of the weekend) than holding part-time jobs or studying. If drinking is not allowed on campus, a vibrant bar scene exists just outside of it, and the fraternities of the “Greek” system are at the very center of it all. Schools are ranked nationally for their opportunities to party, and what is the best excuse for revelry for most of our undergraduates? But the football or basketball game, of course! And schools themselves, together with the NCAA, encourage and directly profit from this situation by allowing beer ads to run during broadcast time when their team is playing.

The morale of the faculty is not helped by seeing semi-literate coaches getting huge salaries and bonuses, and barely academically proficient athletes being glorified to the point of naming campus streets after them. A few years ago a chemistry professor working at the University of Colorado won the Nobel Prize, which was big news for the school, since it was their first faculty to achieve that honor. At the press conference, a journalist asked the professor what he would like to ask of the President of the university, who was sitting smiling nearby. The professor said he would like to have the same salary as the football coach, at which the President smile faded and an embarrassed “Now, c’mon, let’s be serious” comment was heard over the microphone.

Big time U’s are also scams because, while claiming to aim for academic excellence, they in fact admit almost every applicant in a never-ending quest for more students, and therefore for more funds, even though many students seriously need remedial courses and are crammed into huge classrooms where they need a pair of binoculars to see the instructor. Interestingly, since the 1980s, higher education officials have been referring to students as “customers,” an image that brings to mind car salesmen and giant malls, rather than an environment conducive to education.

To add insult to injury, big time U’s trumpet their honors programs as examples of the excellent care that students get, with state-of-the-art computer labs, one-on-one research experiences with faculty, and small classes based on inquiry and discussion, rather than passive lecture formats. Yes, the honors program students do get exactly what every undergraduate student should demand of their school, but of course they are the exception—not a model, but only a smokescreen to maintain a façade of high quality. And how could tens of thousands of students get a decent education when the student/faculty ratio is so abysmal, when State legislatures keep cutting the alleged “fat,” and when school administrators put their effort into building newer sports facilities and recruiting better athletes with a reckless disregard for academic standards?

The so-called “student” athletes themselves, of course, are not much better off. They work almost full time like professional athletes for essentially no pay (all the money goes to the coaches and the athletic departments), and in the process cannot get an education worth a dime. And so few of them make it to professional teams that their chances are not much better than winning the lottery (not to mention, of course, the always-present possibility of injuries).

Another component of the fraud is the myth of the ‘good researcher = good teacher‘ mantra that big time U’s keep propagating. While there are indeed some faculty who excel at both activities, there isn’t a single study that supports the naïve assumption that if one is adept at running a research lab (and at getting the large sums of extramural funding that administrations are really after) he or she is also capable of teaching. Furthermore, most of our faculty justly recoil in horror from the idea of “teaching” large introductory classes where it is next to impossible to motivate students, let alone establish a meaningful relationship with them. The result is that such crucially formative classes are farmed out to temporary instructors or graduate students, most of whom are inexperienced, paid very little, and are abysmally unskilled at teaching.

Large public universities are becoming big businesses whose mission is to make enough money to survive, keep losing their best faculty because of the conditions under which they are forced to work, turn to professional business consultants instead of educators to decide what to do next, and rely on the beer and circus atmosphere to prop up the pathetic state of their undergraduate education. Enough said for the pars destruens. Now, what are we to do about all this? The solution, as we shall see, is astonishingly simple.

Also this Month: "Beer and circus in American education - Pars construens"

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2001