IT'S QUITE A PUZZLE

Heather Wilson bemoans the failings of the pool of Rhodes Scholar applicants in Sunday's Washington Post:

Unlike many graduate fellowships, the Rhodes seeks leaders who will "fight the world’s fight." They must be more than mere bookworms. We are looking for students who wonder, students who are reading widely, students of passion who are driven to make a difference in the lives of those around them and in the broader world through enlightened and effective leadership. The undergraduate education they are receiving seems less and less suited to that purpose.

An outstanding biochemistry major wants to be a doctor and supports the president’s health-care bill but doesn’t really know why. A student who started a chapter of Global Zero at his university hasn’t really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral. A young service academy cadet who is likely to be serving in a war zone within the year believes there are things worth dying for but doesn’t seem to have thought much about what is worth killing for. A student who wants to study comparative government doesn’t seem to know much about the important features and limitations of America’s Constitution.

I think Cecil Rhodes himself would be impressed with the extent to which the foundation that bears his name appears to be stuck in the Cold War. I was not previously aware that today's young people were big on nuclear disarmament and the dilemma of "nuclear deterrence."

The real core of Heather's lament – it only gets dumber beyond this excerpt – is a simple question in every sense of the term: Why aren't any of the smart kids wingnuts? Can't we get more kids with outstanding grades who think Bill Kristol is right about everything? Why don't today's high achieving students conform to our bizarre, quasi-anachronistic conception of "leadership", a nebulous concept traditionally relied upon to favor the boarding-schools-and-Ivy-league crowd with their trained and perfected manners over the intelligent ruffians of the public school set?

It's quite a mystery, H-Dawg. Quite a mystery. I wonder if every Rhodes scholar applicant is a straw man of what the Ivory Tower Libruls are doing to today's kids – Buzzwords! Touchy-feely cultural studies! Can you believe Latin is no longer required in most colleges!?! – or if the ones she used as examples in this column just happened to fit that profile.

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18 Responses to “IT'S QUITE A PUZZLE”

  1. Ben Says:

    The writing in the article is execrable, and the examples she gives don't really support her arguments, but there are two arguments in there that seem like they are both legitimate and, in fact, something that a gin and tacos reader should care about.

    "Undergraduate education is becoming too pre-professional" and "Undergraduate education is becoming too specialized, so that what academic study there is doesn't encourage cross-discipline analysis". That H-Dawg prattles on about leadership and uses wingnut examples should be pointed out, but it should also be pointed out that these two trends are real and detrimental.

    A pre-professional education doesn't train one to think like a librul arts education does, and a too-specialized education socializes the student into the doctrinaire theories and methods of the discipline at the time of the education, so that it becomes unlikely that the student will ever learn to look beyond what he was taught.

    Even though probably accidental and buried under piles of shit, the wingnut is sometimes able to get things right. We should recognize when that happens even as we point out the nuttiness.

  2. ieJasonW Says:

    I agree with your criticism of the article — those examples are terrible. Does she actually know such Rhodes Scholars? Because they don't sound like any of the ones I've met or read of…

  3. HoosierPoli Says:

    Though we're all guily from time to time, is there anything more tiresome than an un-self-conscious "these kids today" rant?

  4. Jeff C. Says:

    "We are blessed to live in a country that values education."

    Sigh, I miss France, too.

  5. A Says:

    I ofr once, clicked to read the original article before the G&T post & while I don't care for her examples, I have to agree with this point:

    "Undergraduate education is becoming too specialized, so that what academic study there is doesn't encourage cross-discipline analysis".

    I also think that that is the point. So much so that when I "went to college to get a job & studied Education – because teaching is a noble profession" we spent a good deal of time developing lesson plans that were in essence cross-discipline.

    Meanwhile, I am not a teacher. (I would have been better prepared for the American Public School classroom in a "nice/good" area in Baltimore County, Maryland if I had studied corrections.) & there is the disconnect between theories taught at University & the practice that takes place in the classroom, when teachers are not being disciplinarians.

  6. Hawes Says:

    I think the lament about specialization misses a critical point. Yes, I find even my high school students beginning to specialize in their junior and senior years. And undergraduate curricula no doubt reinforce and augment this trend.

    But I think we have to realize that "young people today" are faced with a world of information overload. It was possible for Jefferson to study the Greek and Latin texts, because there are only a few of them, frankly. My students will learn about Russian, Chinese and freaking Nigerian political systems this winter. A wannabe Doctor 50 years ago had to learn a fraction of what today's doctors have to learn before they even get to medical school.

    The exponential expansion of human knowledge is necessarily leading to a narrowing of focus by individuals – especially the bright ones. To do otherwise would lead to an information overload.

  7. mass Says:

    My senator, "Diaper" Dave Vitter, the dumbest SOB on this planet, was a Rhodes Scholar. And the wingnuts whine, the WaPo transcribes.

  8. Emily Says:

    "An outstanding biochemistry major wants to be a doctor and supports the president’s health-care bill but doesn’t really know why.

    Did she ask this person why s/he supported the health care bill? Did the answer come back: "Gee, I don't really know why."?

  9. ladiesbane Says:

    Though I'm not the biggest fan of Ms. Wilson, I think I understand what she is getting at, and it's not specific to Rhodies. Did anyone see Rachel Maddow in Washington, interviewing Tea Party activists on the street? Despite firmly being against a particular politician, no one could give examples of his positions or actions that were disagreeable. They just followed their pundit overlords down the path to their positions. Kids do it with parents, and students do it with teachers. Most folks learn a lot of stuff without thinking about it critically, or integrating it into a world view that is internally consistent.

    Any number of things might be to blame (short attention spans, lack of parental guidance during the early/formative years, too much info with too little guidance, lack of any sincerely felt principles / ethics / values, a lack of any discernment whatsoever) but it's all those things and more. Even people who believe the right things (whatever you may consider those things to be) are shallow if they don't understand why they hold those positions. If that lack of well-considered point of view, fully integrated with a person's values and supported by reason and fact, is what Ms. Wilson is talking about, then I agree with her.

  10. Hazy Davy Says:

    I admit I'm easily confused, but I agree with Heather's last statement:

    "our universities fail [students] and the nation if they continue to graduate students with expertise in biochemistry, mathematics or history without teaching them to think about what problems are important and why"

    Well, except that I don't think a university's job is to serve the nation. But I do think universities should help educate students to not only solve problems, but to evaluate what matters. And have some righteous parties.

    Still, I'm skeptical that anyone bright enough to succeed as an "outstanding biochemistry major" is so focused and incurious, that they don't pick this up just by living a non-solitary life.

    And now, I'm finally catching up with you, Ed. The problem Heather has isn't that student's fail to consider implications of their decisions…it's that they don't agree with her, in increasing numbers. But I bet they'd find common ground at one of the aforementioned parties.

  11. Xynzee Says:

    Ladies, summed up most of what I was thinking rather concisely. thank you.

    But Hazy's:
    "Still, I'm skeptical that anyone bright enough to succeed as an "outstanding biochemistry major" is so focused and incurious, that they don't pick this up just by living a non-solitary life."

    Made me wonder if that's part of her point. Many of these people spend so much time in the lab or with the books that they no longer connect to the world. So because these wonks spend so much time with the books, they wouldn't be at one of these righteous parties you mention, and therefore cannot achieve common ground.

    This part really caught my attention:
    "When asked what are the important things for a leader to be able to do, one young applicant described some techniques and personal characteristics to manage a group and get a job done. Nowhere in her answer did she give any hint of understanding that leaders decide what job should be done. Leaders set agendas."

    Perhaps a better word than agenda is vision. Not just a vision, but an idea of how to make it reality. That's what leaders do is that they help us to see a future brighter than the one we see, and how we can achieve it.

    Personally, I can handle someone who is ideologically opposed to me under one proviso. That I can tell that they've sat down and worked their way through something, and connected the dots themselves. I've met many a young minister who's said the same thing (the local theological college is called the "factory" for a reason). Only a few do I have the time for. They're the ones who have wrestled with the material and have made a conclusion. Not the one I would come to, but it was something they synthesised themselves. To which I pay respect.

  12. LucyTooners Says:

    I have another spin on what is taking place in education. Jobs are being squeezed out of the organizational charts of todays employers. Education is costing the price of a modest house by the time you are finished and then looking at a modest income starting out. The cost does not justify the end result in the undergraduate world of yesterday. I always felt that there was too much fluff in the curriculum for an undergraduate degree. Granted when I was in college the goal was to get the Masters to be more competitive. Now that additional cost for another degree is not rewarded in most disiplines. To me the undergraduate curriculim needs to be more disiplined so that a new graduate can hit the ground running for a job that will pay well enough to start paying back those exhorbidant student loans. I come by this from experience. I graduated in 1984 with a undergraduate degree in Business Management. To me I hit paydirt. Throughout my working career as a middle management supervisor, financial analyst and now a business manager I have only reached a high of $45k per year in salary. While I do not regret going to school and getting a degree I certainly have not had the financial success that I thought I would. Some of it was by choice and other by circumstances. I also believe that young people should be counseled about what disipline that they are wanting to pursue. Is it really advisable in this environment. My nephew's wife whom is 23 is graduating from college with a degree in Art. She will have $60k in student loan debt when she graduates. What kind of job is she going to be able to get with a degree in Art that will pay back $60k in debt? The educating of our young people has to change in order to make us competitve again with the global economy and it can be done without turning them into right wing drones.

  13. John Says:

    Sorry for the off-topic post here, but Ed, can you FJM this please? – http://dailycaller.com/2011/01/24/thomas-sowell-speaks-to-thedc-about-the-financial-crisis-health-care-and-his-ideological-transformation-from-marxism-to-conservatism/

  14. CaptBackslap Says:

    Based on the available evidence, Heather Wilson thinks the mark of leadership is that you don't just ASK a U.S. Attorney to change his docket for political purposes, you DEMAND it, and then go after his job when he doesn't.

    I guess it's not so terrible that Rhodes Scholar candidates don't exhibit that sort of leadership.

  15. Richard S Says:

    Ah me – Reality does have a well known librul bias.

  16. Jeff C. Says:

    @ LucyTooners
    Are you intentionally favoring the idea that the purpose of education is, or should be, to get a job – that a degree’s worth should merely be a function of its usefulness to the economy?

    That’s not an education – that’s job training. And a key problem is that the two are increasingly conflated. It’s toe-curling to hear some dimwitted imbecile approach a humanities major and, with genuine befuddlement and a straight face, inquire, “What are you going to do with that degree?” Perhaps some of us are simply more concerned with an actual education – developing a knowledge base, honing critical thinking skills – than a lemming-like desire to become another cog in the machine.

    There should obviously be a return on, for instance, your nephew’s wife’s art degree, but the answer isn’t developing better business degrees; rather, we should probe and question how it is that our cultural values became so myopic and impoverished as to exclude things like critical thinking, art, history, etcetera, from being economically viable.

  17. mothra Says:

    Pleather Wilson? Really? The man/woman I had representing me in the House for far too many years? It mystifies me why anyone listens to her. At all.