LEAST RESISTANCE

Posted in Rants on January 21st, 2014 by Ed

Like most universities, my campus was quite dead over the winter break. One of the few academic programs active between the semesters is a graduate program in computer science. It's not a huge program, as we are not a huge institution, but I saw its 20-25 students regularly. I'm not sure how to put this without sounding awkward, so I'll just say it: every student in the class appears to be south Asian (Indian, Pakistani, etc). English is clearly a second language for most or all.

Don't worry, I'm going somewhere with this.

Obviously there is no rule applied to the program that says "No American students allowed" or "White kids need not apply." The reason the program is composed differently than the student body as a whole is, in my opinion, simple: these classes are hard, and most students really don't like doing things that are difficult. This is, again in my opinion, one of the most persuasive explanations for why science, engineering, and technology programs are often made up largely of foreign students at U.S. universities. American and non-American students are both capable of doing the work; the question is who is willing to do the hard, time-consuming work of mastering really difficult subjects. American students as a whole are more interested in getting A's than in learning the most useful skill or picking the most lucrative major.

At a previous institution, we had a joke in the political science department whenever we would lose a major – "And another Marketing major is born!" Students leaving our major were inevitably transferring to Business, Marketing, Criminal Justice, or something with "Administration" in the name. They were choosing those majors not because they have a burning desire to learn about them. They chose them because those majors are easier. To clarify two things: First, there are students who take those majors very seriously and go on to great careers. Second, there are American students who work like sled dogs in college. But my own anecdata have convinced me that there's more to the popularity of these newer majors than legitimate interest.

The numbers don't lie: majors like business and CJ have increased in popularity four- and five-fold since 1970. Math and science majors have held steady, while humanities and social sciences have lost the most popularity. Part of this is no doubt due to the decline of liberal arts education in favor of a more "vocational" approach to higher ed. Majors like Business are perceived as more practical and useful. But students are very strategic when it comes to their grades; all they need to do is spend a few minutes online (or listening to the grapevine) to find out where the Easy A's are. At most universities you're not going to find them in Engineering.

I'll be the first to admit that a major like English or Poli Sci is objectively less difficult than mastering quantum physics, although the comparison is difficult because the skills involved are so different. However, English and Poli Sci both still involve a lot of work – lots of reading, lots of paper writing, and (usually) classes you need to attend to pass the course. Students have complained about their workload for as long as schools have existed, but I am continually amazed at how put off they are by the most basic course requirements these days. We have to read one chapter per week from the textbook? We have to write a ten page paper? No matter how little we ask, it always seems to be too much for some of them.

Everyone teacher has a pet theory about What's Wrong With Education and in most cases we're all too happy to share it. Many of them sound persuasive. But for all the complaints about No Child Left Behind and teacher's unions and standardized testing and whatnot, I can honestly say that I haven't encountered a student who was incapable of doing what was necessary to pass my course more than two or three times in nine years. And that's out of thousands of students. The problem in 99.9% of cases is the lack of willingness to work the amount necessary to get an A or B. There aren't many problems in college that can't be solved by spending more time reading, studying, and working with one's professors.

The prevailing attitude, increasingly, is "Screw it, I'll find some easier classes." Maybe this is the real consequence of NCLB, that it has made students outcome-obsessed to the point that they'd rather get a 3.7 GPA in Basketweaving than a 2.7 GPA in a six-figure major like Electrical Engineering. They seek out (and too easily find) courses that require little reading, post lecture materials online to make attendance all but unnecessary, and replace paper writing with various "projects" slapped together 12 hours before the due date. I don't mean to impugn the intellectual skills of anyone who majors in fields like Business; the issue is that students increasingly look toward majors like that because of the perceived level of difficulty in getting A/B grades, not because they want to learn anything or gain salable skills.

For all the talk among undergraduates about making good money and having a stable career, they certainly aren't flocking to the highest-paid and most employable majors. That is a symptom of the underlying issue – there is much more to it than a lack of interest in the subjects involved.

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