In this week's New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about U.S. higher education and review's In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, by Prof X (when will X reveal himself?).
Menand tries to make sense of mass-higher education which comes close to sounding like an oxymoron. Before I read the essay, what did I "know"? Many high schools graduate students who are terribly underprepared. Many of these people go on to college because they can. They are affluent enough to postpone entry into the workforce. And there is plenty of room for them and often some financial aid (affluence). In a better world, all of our students would be better motivated and better prepared.
But Menand goes deeper. "If there is a decline in motivation, it may mean an exceptional phase in the history of American higher education is coming to an end. That phase began after the Second World War and lasted fifty years. Large new populations kept entering the system. First there were the veterans who attended on the G.I. Bill ... Then came the great expansion of the nineteen-sixties, when the baby boomers entered and enrollments doubled. Then came co-education ... Finally, in the nineteen-eighties, there was a period of remarkable racial and ethnic diversification. These students did not regard college as a finishing school or a ticket punch ... College was a gate through which once only the favored could pass. Suddenly the door was wide open: to vets, to children of Depression-era parents ... to women ... to nonwhites ... to people who came to the U.S. precisely so that their children could go to college. For these groups, college was central to the experience of making it. ... They were finally getting a bite at the apple ..."
Menand then harks back to a question a student asked in class: "Why did we have to buy this book?" In light of his discussion, he concludes that it's a great question and he hopes we keep getting students who ask it. I may be wrong about the oxymoron.