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Ohanian Comment: I'd think a college president would avoid such a stale cliche as " set the bar of achievement higher," and I admit the tone here set my teeth on edge, even though I agree with much of his argument. But the main reason I'm posting it is for this comment. I'd like Arne Duncan--or any other corporate politico spouting hot air about college for all-- to answer this.

Reader Comment:
We are taught from a very young age that if you work hard, you will be successful and you can achieve nearly whatever you apply yourself to. What happens when this no longer holds true???
Speaking from personal experience, I always had a "not me" attitude toward the general economic malaise that began to materialize midway through my college career. I thought that somehow my accomplishments would make me a standout job candidate and a shoo-in. Hundreds of unanswered job applications later, with only one interview for a position that offered a salary $22,000 (which I didn't get, I might add), I learned that this wasn't the case.

I must admit, my faith, like that of thousands of other college graduates, has been wavering. I resent the dreams that were planted in my head at a young age by parents and teachers that only resulted in massive debt.

I just worry about the social implications of having a generation of idle, educated young people. In my day-to-day dealings with former classmates, many tell me how depressed they are that they can't find work -- students that were hell-bent on maintaining college grade-point averages upwards of 3.0. They blame themselves. They see their inability to find work as some sort of personal failing.

Many of us have settled for unpaid internships, or paid internships that donât offer any kind of insurance. Many of these internships used to be full-time positions, held by men and women with families and bills to pay.

I worry that this is the begging of whatâs to be decades of settling -- settling of idle, somewhat-educated young people. What incentive do we have to seek jobs when there are none? What incentive do we have to seek education when it produces nothing but debt? It seems a new lost generation has been born.

by Leon Botstein

Why is anyone surprised to find that standards and expectations in our colleges are too low? High school graduates â a rapidly dwindling elite -- come to college entirely unaccustomed to close reading, habits of disciplined analysis, skills in writing reasoned arguments and a basic grasp of the conduct, methods and purposes of science.

Colleges have responded pusillanimously to the trend to rank institutions not by academic criteria, but by graduation rates.

All many of them know is rote learning, and fear of mediocre standardized tests and grades. No vital connection between learning and life has been forged in our schools, much less any affection for voluntarily using oneâs mind in the rigorous, sustained and frequently counterintuitive way that leads to innovation and the advancement of knowledge.

But our colleges and universities do pitifully little about combating student passivity and absence of curiosity. Some institutions are too proud to develop serious programs of remediation. The prestige of undergraduate teaching is at an all-time low. First- and second-year students are subjected to bland introductory courses taught primarily by graduate students. Or they choose electives from a random array of courses designed by faculty for their own convenience that mirror their own concerns, not a considered diagnosis of the needs and interests of students.

Research and graduate education dominate American higher education, placing undergraduate education at the margins. Since the specialized and competing interests of faculty from disparate fields seem hard to reconcile, all but a handful of institutions fail to have significant programs in undergraduate general education designed to equip students with serious skills, inspire them to raise their sights and help them discover what they might be interested in. Even colleges dedicated just to undergraduates routinely imitate the balkanized curricular structure of the graduate university.

America may still have the world's finest university system. But it is in danger. It is unreasonable to expect high standards and educational idealism to thrive on a shaky and crumbling foundation of elementary and secondary schooling. Yet it is wrong just to blame students and high schools. Higher education must set the standards for schooling below college.

Colleges and universities have walked away from that responsibility. They have responded pusillanimously to the trend to rank institutions not by criteria of academic rigor but by graduation rates, encouraging institutions to hold on to students at all cost lest there be the specter of attrition. The irony is that by making it easier to graduate, the rates of completion still continue to fall both at four- and two-year colleges. The low level of political discourse in the country today, in an era when more Americans than ever before have finished high school and college, should be enough of a reminder that just giving out diplomas, the way the Wizard of Oz did to the Scarecrow, is not good enough.

But before we enter another cycle of that convenient game of blaming teachers and educators let us remember that the culture in which colleges operate hardly inspires love and respect for the life of the mind. Quick fame and easy wealth trump the disciplined and sustained pursuit of knowledge. But that reality should define the task and not let colleges and universities off the hook. Colleges and universities should help raise standards in high schools, concentrate on fashioning distinct, rigorous and engaging undergraduate programs of study, and reward teaching.

We must set the bar of achievement higher without fear of criticism. Despite some appearances to the contrary students who now go to college and incur the expense of time and money do want to excel. We just need to pay serious attention to them and deepen their motivation and resolve.

Leon Botstein, music director and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, is the president of Bard College.

— Leon Botstein
New York Times





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