Modernize the Undergraduate Curriculum

Long considered a guarantor of economic prosperity, American higher education in the 21st-century has attracted more scrutiny and ridicule for its continued surfeit of underqualified graduates that become sinking costs upon hire. The remainder will largely fight succumbing to the growing imbalance between workforce-ready graduates and a workforce that cannot readily use them.

Charles W. Eliot confronted a similar dilemma saddled between Industrial Revolutions over a century prior, when labor demanded discipline and therefore effective management, leadership, insight. But mostly management; efficiency mattered above all else. This inspired Eliot to develop a distributive framework of courses that mimicked Frederick Winslow Taylor’s taxonomy of distributive labor (whose economic benefits proved largely illusory, leading several industries to discard “Taylorism” as fraudulent.)

But a distributive curriculum that had at one time satisfied a post-mercantile, pre-industrial economy has become untenable in today’s post-industrial, mixed market specializing in knowledge and services unfathomable even to the most discerning minds several generations’ prior. As bold as Mr. Eliot’s approach to higher education proved to be, the creative destruction that had revolutionized his era would neither diminish in speed nor scope in those thereafter, soon antiquating Eliot’s “most […] useful piece of work” that widely persists today. And at prohibitive costs.

But adaptability has rarely been the raison d’etre of an unreactive higher education system, whose cumbersome and costly cafeteria-style approach to undergraduate education slips further real-life economics, spurring some to shun college for more immediate living-wage careers. Others have bypassed the traditional curriculum in favor of online platforms such as Coursera to enhance their marketability in a fraction of the time and cost. High schools have even begun streamlining entry-level pathways that permit teenagers to possibly circumvent the post-secondary market altogether, avoiding exorbitant costs in return for lackluster employment. And a mound of research and anecdotal testimonies exposes the current undergraduate curriculum as little more than an unwieldy gauntlet of hodgepodge courses—some required, many not—for students to endure for a four-year minimum sentence before graduating into uncertainty and debt.

Higher education’s continued clumsiness is a result of numerous factors, including inescapable cost-disease, but not least of all its continued refusal to tailor student enrollments to job market forecasts, its fetish with niche courses that are questionably relevant and certainly overpriced, and its ironclad mismanagement of two distinctive systems:  the four-year’s siloed system trafficking in more theory than utility while overseeing the bachelor’s degree continued decline in value; and the two year’s helter-skelter approach increased remediation, lower retention rates, and declining enrollments.

And one needn’t be a seasoned educator to understand as much. Peter Berkowitz, from the now-defunct The Weekly Standard, appropriately criticizes the disjointedness of the traditional undergraduate curriculum that bewilders students with a “mishmash of unconnected courses” devoid of a core philosophy. Forbes’ George Leef insists that the “lip service” administrators pay defending this system mocks the cohesion and consistency essential to its efficacy. But the most incisive criticism comes directly from students, both current and former, many of whom consider their post-secondary experiences as an onerous mastery of “The Art of College Management”—a punchline that has lost much its former glibness.

Yet an expansive curricular overhaul is required, already having begun with various post-secondary institutions adopting a more efficient and effective pathways approaches to career success. But operating costs of even these reforms will eventually require private business and industry investments and governance, determining both the content and the delivery methods best suited to economic success. What Georgetown and other notable universities and colleges have implemented provides the philosophical basis; more critical, however, is the establishment of an integrative curriculum that will bring to fruition a nobler, more career-oriented vision that most academic institutions squandered in the wake of the 2007-08 economic crisis, when their leaders could have realigned their curricula more purely to industry trends and standards. Instead, most sat on their hands while the federal government cornered the student loan market, resulting in a 40 percent debt increase among borrowers and whose daily high-water marks inch closer to $2 trillion. Meanwhile, influential industries as technology, health services, and finance continue to starve for suitable talent.

Higher education governances need to acknowledge that their institutions serve wholly for career preparation—the development and mastery of skill-sets imperative to any industry’s success and to any individual’s self-fulfillment. The value of an education ought to reflect its economic utility; the “well-rounded” rationale of students requiring multiple semesters of largely unproductive elective courses has lost its allure, and the continued falsehood that career preparation is somehow incompatible with a liberal education—and therefore inferior to it—deserves censure in any serious conversation.

Any career, trades included, can outfit its academic programs with general education courses tailored to the industry or sector into which graduates enter. Such integration will save students and professionals substantial amounts of time and resources while organically streamlining the learning process to forge a stronger correlation between efficiency and efficacy—hallmarks of a sustainable enterprise. And such integration reframes the well-rounded angle: students can still address peripheral issues germane to their field but that go beyond the physical workplace. Beyond naysayers’ myopia, too. Workers’ rights, technological impacts on human labor, corporate accountability, professional development, and engineering ethics represent just a handful of universal applications, not to mention those applicable to specific industries. Action-based learning would flourish on account that instruction would come directly from industry, not an academic intermediary with no stake in and little knowledge of business, economics, and innovation.

This more integrative curriculum would be consummately transactional:  as a successful business employs the ideas of its workers, so too could this new approach patent the ideas of its future professionals now prone to participate in an education centered more on relevancy than loyalty.

While numerous academic institutions have partnered with certain brokers to outfit students with relevant skills in more expedient fashion, American higher education should not have to piecemeal what should be naturally housed entirely under its purview. Doing so makes more economical sense, certainly far more than the existing conditions have proven otherwise. Third-party firms responsible for educative functions count as part of the resulting bloat of administrative functions outsourced beyond its location but somehow not counting in the bottom line.

If educators continue as gatekeepers to industries and businesses about which so many know so little, and yet decry so much; and if administrations continue to defend an undergraduate system proven largely to be defunct, then higher education will continue hemorrhaging credibility. And by folding higher education into American industry, the onerous Department of Education can finally dissolve into oblivion, with the retentive Higher Learning Commission in tow. Industries can then slip into being the accrediting bodies that common-sense commands.

Administrations and educators must concede to the economic realities from which too many have apparently worked to insulate themselves, and hand industry the reigns to steer a lost system on to a more dignified path. Doing so would not signal defeat; it would ensure sustainability that is critical to higher education and to the market justifying its existence.

The Cost Disease of College

Baumol’s cost-disease captures the economic certainty of productivity costs that innovation cannot modify, reduce, or outright eliminate will rise over time. Human labor proves the most incurable. As it is always necessary, it is eternally inflationary. Its indispensability makes it resistant to algorithms and silicon. Human labor, once the hallmark of economic progress and individual prosperity, has turned into a toxic expenditure for industries requiring more of it.

American higher education currently operates as an unsustainable expanse human labor stationed in 2- to 4-year academies, many of which exhibit congenital defects including inequitable enrollment practices, insufficient advisers and counselors, inadequate financial aid support, or curricular irrelevancy. All have garnered more national exposure, yet their endemic cost-disease and the cumulative effects warrant greater coverage.

Most attention over the past decade has gravitated toward affordability issues for students, and understandably so, but rarely considered are the productivity costs incurred by the institutions being blamed for those issues. This neither exonerates nor diminishes institutional liability. Nor does this perspective at all dilute the take that cost-disease has been overestimated when explaining excessive tuition rates. Its impact on the two-year college, however, does prove concerning.

Two-year colleges often accommodate deficits of their underserved populations beyond the academic: some sites have opted to provide daycare services to accommodate parents, other locations make food pantries available for malnourished students, while other campuses offer onsite health care services for uninsured students, including a rise in mental health services. And these populations—the parents, the low-income, the first-generation, the racially diverse, the non-English speaking, the functionally illiterate, the undecided, the uninterested, the all the above—will comprise a larger share of declining enrollments and demand more assistance programs, greater comprehensive counseling, and more expansive academic supports, all human-driven. Students who have had sparse access to learning technologies and few opportunities to practice self-sufficiency, pushing many to become more fully dependent on human-based services. This shift will subsequently require from educators a more expansive, perhaps more explicit, hidden curriculum—in loco parentis—for students whose upbringing had survived without one, but whose immediate future demands it.

These trends and roles make teaching and learning—that which we call education—a supremely human act, a dynamic that artificial intelligence can neither replicate nor replace. Although software can cultivate students’ online navigation and recall abilities, a digital environment cannot outclass what flesh and blood has long refined. Genuine interaction will remain human:  nuanced, contradictory, and temperamental—qualities that software can at best mimic.

But this human triumph pays an unavoidable cost:  provided appropriately to scale as it ought to be, higher education’s operating costs would prove prohibitive, requiring an impossibly expansive labor-force that would never be able to meet demand. Capacity drops. Quality declines. Downtrends continue. Rinse. Repeat.

Even if artificial intelligence prevails in higher education within another generation, a sustainable market for it might not. State funding will never rebound; unsustainable health care and pension costs will make sure of that. Referendums will eventually run dry of support from a disillusioned public, whose purchasing loyalties have begun prioritizing relevancy over an obscure allegiance to a brand name. Productivity costs will continue their rise, thus limiting the scale of commodification required to meet demand. Online learning serves as a reliable proxy, as its revolutionary role after 30 years has settled more naturally into a learning platform, storage unit, and conduit for faster, more novel communication. Online education’s expedition not only to improve human learning but also to replace human educators likely capsized during the high-seas reign of fraudulent for-profits.

Artificial intelligence has not failed on account of too few attempts, a lack of ingenuity, or diminished capability. Online delivery has become a curricular staple, required of many faculty programs, but it was no more a threat yesterday as current AI software will be tomorrow. The tried and true Socratic method persists, as it always should.

The most pertinent question is at what continuing costs?

“It is a Motherhood Penalty”

Look no further for more cut-rate journalism promulgating the same misleading narrative of pay gap inequality between the sexes than to Vox’s episode on the issue in the Netflix series, Explained.

“Explained” is a rather generous term. Vox has no truck couching its liberal views in the parlance of objectivity as it does in this episode, which bestows viewers with the verbal hand-wringings of a selective group of females pandering to Vox’s biased position. Whatever that may be, anyhow.

And therein is the problem with an 18-minute segment on a rather critical issue that, unfortunately, is not addressed critically. We are graced with a lengthy history of sex discrimination in the 20-century American workplace whose origins, we come to find out later, begin in the home, specifically marked by the dynamic between the male and female relationship. The juxtaposition of archived footage from the early half-century’s monochrome advertisements with the latter half-century’s pay-gap protests present a crumbling dichotomy between tradition and modernity in the global economy.

But there is no identifiable thesis. No semblance of focus, unity, or coherence. An orgy of animated statistics weaves between clips and interviews but clarifies little, other than the pay gap between a single woman and single man in comparable working roles is only six cents to the man’s advantage, not the worn-over double-digit figure so often peddled.

But that figure might as well be in the mythical 80s-range. Or in the 70s-range. Or in any range simply because a disparity of any proportion is grounds for developing a short documentary that amplifies specious reasoning and poor logic.

Let me explain:

Within the first minute, Vox issues an oversimplistic deduction: Women, assuming all else equal, are paid less than men for doing the same job, meaning women are paid less for being female, and that is discrimination, which cannot occur. From this quickly emerges a portrait of females as victims of systemic economic oppression run amok by men. It is peculiar that such an emphasis is made on a woman’s value in respect to her economic utility. And Vox is no different, insisting that the value of a woman, particularly a mother, is predominantly measured within a Marxian framework of labor and economics—what she can contribute to an industry. Papa Karl would be proud, I am sure. An irony abounds, however, when reducing a person’s value, especially members from an oppressed group, to their economic utility:  it is political exploitation. And coming from the left, no less.

Notwithstanding rape, having a child is a choice. Raising a child expends, above all else, enormous amounts of time that cut into anything unrelated to raising that child, including the mother’s own personal or professional desires. This is not “a motherhood penalty,” as Hillary Clinton stupidly insists. It is a consequence of a voluntary decision. Time is a zero-sum game. If mothers were paid the same as men in comparable roles, but they put in fewer hours and accomplish less because of family obligations, that would be rewarding women for being mothers, and that is discriminatory (and far more cogent than what Vox sputters out). This runs afoul to Greta Van Susteren’s belief that women demand equal opportunity, not equal pay, “which are very different things,” she admits. But Vox fails wonderfully at distinguishing differences in points of view on this subject, giving the false impression that this collective ideology is indeed unified and sensible.

The narrator then transitions into the disparity between men and women in respect to household work, the majority predictably going to women. “This is the heart of the pay gap,” the narrator insists. Delegating responsibilities is a couple’s own prerogative, not a company’s or agency’s political fodder. (And in cases in which the male unilaterally dictates all roles, the woman’s continued participation in the unhealthy relationship is also a choice.)

Similarly, the constant overemphasis on equal pay reduces women to a value spectrum that is inextricably tied to their career commitments, whereas many women find greater value in the family they help create and raise by choice. These women believe in a traditional hierarchy that Vox’s brand of feminism deplores. This hierarchy works best for these mothers and their children’s fathers based on mutual understanding. Again, this is not the business of any business.

Furthermore, opportunistically deploying “choice” as it suits one argument while minimizing its applicability in more salient circumstances contrary to that argument, such as when a woman chooses to endure the obstacles resulting from her choices, is conspicuous and discreditable. Vox’s unprincipled reasoning is as subtle as Alex Jones is coy. In addition, Vox interchangeably uses “mother” and “woman” when the differences between the two are crucial in accurately understanding this issue.

Contrary to the lone female that Vox decided was sufficient enough to make the following point, not all industries in which women work permit those women to control their time autonomously. Countless regulations and the predictably unpredictable circumstances constrain many women—men, too—to prefixed times or durations in industries defined either by divisions of labor or by necessary protocols, including careers such as academia, law, and medicine. Honing the ability to do more with less time and more effectively is the elusive purple unicorn so often sought after by tech industries: it is quite rare.

Insisting that females are being economically penalized for being female is dishonest and adds to an already bloated saddle of nuanced oppression, much of it magnified to a molecular level simply to find a kernel of relatability or relevance. This group-think misleads so many into believing that a person is an individual insofar as it augments that person’s collective identity (or identities, as the concept of intersectionality dutifully helps clarify). Moreover,  cherry-picking which biologically immutable classifications, such as sex, are acceptable and when they are acceptable seem to shift with the mood-winds of Vox’s brand of feminism.

And insisting that Rwanda’s grand transformation to a more gender-equal society is something to emulate while obscuring the genocidal circumstances that directly led to the existence of that equality is repulsive. There warrants no further elaboration on a such a despicable ploy to persuade.

Vox further appears to attribute a woman’s choice in not pursuing equal pay to the societal perversions that economically shackle women in the first place. They seem to bemoan this choice or ignore it entirely. This further complicates whatever flavors of feminism lurk within its caricatures.

From the opening seconds to the final words rain down a salvo of information with no central objective other than to suffocate viewers with smokescreens of victimhood and demands for preferential treatment.

This is propaganda, poorly executed.

Viewers would do better watching instead the episode on marijuana. The smoke is higher quality.