Are the Colleges Killing Education?

A professor of history at Harvard who has achieved national eminence for his study of the immigrant in America, OSCAR HANDLINwas awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history for his bookTHE UPROOTEDin 1952. As a teacher, Mr. Handlin is concerned about the stifling competitive atmosphere in the colleges, where emphasis on grades lends to destroy the broader educational values.



WITH the coming of spring, hysteria creeps across the campus. Tension mounts steadily, and even when it does not erupt in some overt form, it still disturbs the last two months of the college year. Now is the time when the steadily growing psychiatric staff’s come into their own.

The young people who brood in their rooms, who forget to come down to the dining hall, and who burst out in fits of irrationality are not worrying about who will win the great game or who will come to the dance or be tapped for the fraternity. Joe College is dead, and his little anxieties are unrecognizably antique. His successors are immersed in their books and laboratories, and their concern is for the grade that an incomprehensible marking system will grind out for them.

Among the undergraduates, it is worst for the juniors. Most of the seniors are reconciled; they have by now amassed whatever capital they will possess and know it is too late to make serious changes. The sophomores are frenetically hopeful; despite the facts of the past, they feel they have a chance. The freshmen are still reeling from the shock of self-discovery but are not yet fully aware of what has hit them. The juniors are, and therefore the panic that all share to some extent is particularly intense among them.

The phenomenon is relatively recent, and it is not everywhere the same. Indeed, there may still be some refuge which is entirely unaffected, where college remains a place of learning, not a racetrack. But year by year the infection spreads, and it seems most virulent in the best institutions and among the best students.

The American college functions with a timeencrusted mechanism, much of it immensely valuable because of the experience, tradition, and wisdom built into it. But some of its devices were designed for purposes long since forgotten. We do not question their presence; the grating noise they make seems a necessary part of the operation. Who can imagine that this is the sound of minds being crushed in a process that frustrates the whole educational enterprise?

Those great big beautiful A’s so avidly sought, those little, miserly C’s so often found, were meant for another time and another student body. They were the tools of the teacher in the day when the college was more a disciplinary than an educational institution. The miscellaneous lots of boys and young men who recited their lessons in the eighteenthand nineteenth-century American college were indifferently prepared, only occasionally interested, and given to outbursts that took them altogether out of control. The instructor needed grades and fines and other punishments to keep them in hand.

The problems of discipline became less pressing when the college acquired its modern institutionalized form. The grading system nevertheless retained its importance. The curriculum was divided into blocks of courses, each worth a number of points, and an education was defined by the score that stood to the student’s credit in the college accounting system. The grade then became critical, because it was evidence of the amount of learning deposited to his credit.

This pattern has persisted, although few remember what forces brought it into being. Yet no faculty would now maintain that education can be defined by a balance sheet of credits, or that the statistical magic that produces grade scores carried to the second decimal place is a reliable way of evaluating students.

Until recently the system was hardly effective enough to do much harm. A large percentage of the student body could afford to disregard it entirely. After the manner of the lads in Owen Wister’s Philosophy 5, they looked down on the grinds and occupied themselves in their own ways. And the minority who were interested could study away to their hearts’ content without the anxiety of involvement in a mass competition.

All that has now changed. The new students enter after a rigid selective process, they present few disciplinary problems, and they arrive after good and uniform preparation. The constant surveillance of their studies serves no useful function and only interferes with their education.

The trouble is that the students themselves do not know it. This generation has been so thoroughly harnessed to the treadmill of the examination that it accepts its servitude as a normal if strenuous condition of life. All the external pressures of society encourage that belief. Since education has become a national emergency, it is a patriotic duty to do well in algebra. The student who gets an A in physics will not only advance to a successful career in space but will also defend his country against the Russians. The talented boy has replaced the athlete as the school hero, and the letter worth getting is no longer that on the sweater but that on the report card.

IIE process of subversion begins almost in the first year of the best high schools. The most highly motivated students know that they are engaged in a close race; only the fleetest will enter the desirable colleges. Ahead of them loom the great goals, the College Boards and the National Merit competition. Along the way are the lesser hurdles they must surmount, and their task is to train themselves to score well.

How can their high school education have any other meaning? Admission to college comes generally in the spring of their senior year and is based on performances on tests taken a good deal earlier. Everything that comes later is totally irrelevant. Furthermore, a variety of schemes for early admission and early appraisal have pushed some of the tests back into the middle of the third year of high school. For many students, therefore, almost half of their secondary school career becomes meaningless, since it does not prepare them for the examinations. It is a rare teacher who can resist the tendency to turn his classes into extended cram sessions.

Alas, the young people finally discover that entry into college solves no problems. It only reveals the new hurdles they could not earlier see. True, the place is strange and the conditions of life new, but the race is the same, only the pace is faster. Back in those innocent high school days, these boys and girls were a select group — the brightest and best. Now they are thrown into a mass in which everyone is select and everyone had been brightest and best. In this renewed competition some who had always been winners discover that they too will have to be losers. The cruelty of the contest is clearest in courses which establish grades on the basis of a statistical distribution curve. No matter how hard they work, or how able they are, one half of the class will fall below the average. Each student, therefore, finds himself involved in a struggle with his neighbor, whose success will drag him down.

Any freshman can grasp the point of the explanation for his D on the question in Philosophy H. “No, there was nothing particularly wrong with the answer. But everyone else in the section did so well that the classifying apparatus sorted you out toward the lowest of the pigeonholes.” He will learn thereafter to crowd his way to the top.

Meanwhile, the goal of college is the same as that of high school — the high score that will open the way to the next stage of competition. Now the students work for the grades that will admit them to the graduate or professional school. The intense haste with which they reach toward what they mistakenly believe to be narrowing opportunities shortens their vision. Tactics become preeminently important. These young people work hard, and they shun the snap course “which gets you nowhere.” But they tiptoe gingerly through the curriculum, weighing all the angles. One will regularly carry an additional course all year, then at the last possible moment drop that in which the risk is greatest. Another sacrifices each summer vacation, not to shorten his studies, but because instructors are reputed to grow more pliable as the temperature rises. And only the reckless will dare not to know the right answers as the grader expects them, or allow questions to draw their thinking in unexpected directions.

Many students now feel unbearable pressure from their parents. The strain is not consciously applied, but it is none the less real. It is the product of a situation that leads young people to wonder whether their careers in college will jeopardize the love and affection of their parents.

Each family has hopefully groomed its own aspirants for the race. Mom and Dad often have made genuine sacrifices of time and energy to be sure their hopeful was adequately prepared. They must not be disappointed. The boy who does well advances to scholarships and jobs that will immediately have an effect upon the income of the whole family. The one who does not becomes a drag, reducing his father’s chances for a new car, his little sister’s prospects for an expensive education.

The solicitous letters and the regular telephone calls impress upon the student the fact that it is not he alone who is being tested, but the whole family. How proud they are when the stock rises, how concerned when it falls! The A shows the virtue of the home and school that produced the good performer. The C is not only a blow to the ego of the recipient; it is a reflection upon the adequacy of his training. Unless they rebel entirely, the young people carry to class the anxiety, lest they let down those who had invested in them. So much hangs on the outcome.

The proliferation of rewards has, paradoxically, stimulated this destructive competition. The National Science Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson fellowships have done immense good. But, at the same time, they have put undesirable pressure on the aspirants. Those who make it are free (they think); they see themselves firmly planted on the academic escalator with a regular income, security, and marriage just within reach. The attractiveness of these immediate goals obscures every other consideration.

It is in vain to point out that success in tests is not necessarily the way to achievement, that the careers of great men do not always begin with a ranking in the upper tenth percentile, that places are available, and that there are other than competitive values to education. Their whole experience points in the other direction.

THE losses to the students and to society are tremendous. The distorted emphasis nullifies much of what the colleges aim to do.

I speak now not of the reconciled mass who somehow make their peace with the system, but of the ablest, among whom the qualities of excellence might be found. These young people secure an admirable training in the techniques of the correct answer. They learn to remember; to be accurate, neat, and cautious. But they are rarely called on to use their ability autonomously or speculatively, to deal with situations in which the answers are not known but must be discovered.

They cannot afford the sense of the tentativeness of knowledge, of the imperfection of existing formulations. Writing against the clock, they must always put the cross in the right box and round out the essay with an affirmative conclusion. With what pain, if ever at all, will they learn how to know what they do not know, how to probe alone beyond the limits of what is handed to them, how to be creative original thinkers! By the time they carry their diplomas away, they will have missed an education — that experience which, by the exposure of one mind to the thinking of others, creates not answers but a lifetime of questions.

We are all sufferers by the losses sustained by this generation of students. An open society like our own depends in large measure upon the educational system to evaluate those who pass through it and to channel them into the proper places in life. If the colleges fail in the process of selection, the young people with the appropriate talents will not become the doctors and teachers, the diplomats and businessmen, the physicists and engineers they should be. When the pegs do not fit the holes, the structure creaks.

Undue emphasis upon performance measured by college may have precisely that effect. These scores have only a slight predictive value and are unlikely to furnish reliable indications of future achievement. I do not mean that high-ranking students do worse than low-ranking ones. As a group, they do better. But, in the long run, not all A students do as well as they should, and not all do better than all B students; there are enough dramatic reversals of form to raise doubts about excessive reliance upon these standards. Every teacher has seen the slow starter work at his own pace, then suddenly discover himself and outdistance the front-runners.

We organize the boys and girls in classes and treat them as anonymous integers in an elaborate record system. Yet we know that each is an individual different from every other. Each has his own way of learning. To pretend that all can be classified and graded on the identical scale denies those differences and does violence to reality. Above all, it puts a premium on malleability, upon accommodation to existing expectations, upon the qualities of getting along. The good boy is he who matches up to his teachers’ previously formed standards. But is he the one likely to grow into the man of achievement?

Unless he learns somehow to locate himself by his own standards, a blast of awareness, in school or later, will blow him off his course. My roommate, said the boy who was my tutee, was good at everything; there was not a blemish on the record at commencement. In his senior year, my roommate took the aptitude tests in business, medicine, and law, did well in all, and as a matter of course entered the law school, having done best in that subject. No doubt he would have been at the head of the pack in that race also, but in an unguarded moment my roommate allowed himself to wonder what being a lawyer would mean to him. He did not know the answer. He did not even know how to go about finding the answer.

In the past, the looseness and inefficiency of the educational system provided the means for rescuing talent in danger of being wasted. The boy whose interests matured late or changed as he grew up could jog along at his own rate and make up for lost time when he was ready. But the more rigid the system becomes, the less room it leaves for the variant patterns of the maverick. The species, indeed, becomes ever less likely to appear, as the habit or desire for nonconformity is stifled. The student totally absorbed in the race loses confidence in himself and accepts the premature rating as a valid measure of his ability. Then the evaluation becomes self-fulfilling. Placidly the young man tells me he would like to be a historian, and will if he earns a magna. If he gets only a cum he will go into his father’s laundry business. Life becomes a play in which the first act determines the outcome of the plot.

As a result, many of the most sensitive youngsters simply throw up their hands. They turn their backs on the whole process and all too often reject all the values attached to the college. They hasten into marriage, seeking in life the reality and personal security school does not afford them. Or they simply refuse to finish; increasingly, the able students are among those who leave before graduation. The stronger or more stubborn ones stick it out for the sheepskin; the weaker or more reflective ones break down or pull out — in either case, a tragic waste of talent. For they were all good when they got to college (otherwise they would not have been admitted), and the failure is not altogether theirs.

There was a boy who had been at Harvard only one year. As a freshman in a smaller college he had done so well, and his high school record had been so good, that he had been encouraged to transfer, and a scholarship had enabled him to do so. After two semesters he was defeated and refused to go on. In the interminable calculation of pluses and minuses, he felt he was in danger of losing sight of what he had come for, and he wished to leave college to be educated. This is the stuff beats are made of. Such people do better to preserve their authenticity as persons by going away or by abstracting themselves from the routine rather than by yielding to the pressures. Yet the college loses by the inability to influence — and be influenced by — them.

She is a junior of about twenty, neat and not bad-looking; nothing distinguishes her in the rows of notetakers in the lecture hall. Now she has found the excuse for a conference in some question about the reading. She talks nervously about what is not on her mind and then blurts out what is. She will not be back to finish next year. She has taken a librarian’s job in Georgia, in a small town, where she will be useful. Why? Nothing here seems worth doing; the courses she takes are all right, but she gets only B’s in them. She has studied bits of philosophy and bits of government, and she is interested in the relation of ethics to politics. As she talks, life comes back to her voice and the words tumble out fluently. Well, why not go on with the subject next year? It will not make a manageable thesis. It had not occurred to her that one could learn outside the framework of the requirements.

THE system favors certain character types over others, and not always the most desirable ones. For the young man who knows when he enters that he will be an actuary or a geologist or a patent attorney, the learning track runs clearly to his destination and all the stations are plainly marked. He will make few mistakes and run few risks. Even if he is not altogether docile, he operates within a limited framework and wastes no time. His schooling is likely to be uneventful; it may also be unadventurous and unimproving.

By contrast, those who come to college without specifically defined goals or who change as they learn are at a competitive disadvantage. They must make choices along the whole route, and therefore face the hazard of mistaken decisions. They are prone to turn into dead ends and to need second chances. Since what is relevant to their needs is not already marked out for them, they may gain more from looking out of the window than from taking notes. Their records will look spotty and erratic. Yet they may be growing at every stage and may, in the end, be the better for their mistakes than their fellows who never faltered. Society may be the loser by the failure to make room for the recovery of such talents. We need not only men who can get the job done, but also those who can wonder why it needs to be done.

Under the pressure of unremitting competition, a valuable sector of the educational enterprise shows signs of contraction. Since the measured blocks and units of formal instruction have clearly defined weight, it is foolhardy to expend precious energies upon activities to which no immediate reward is attached. Those who waste time by the way will lose ground in the race to the “bookers” who concentrate on the assignments. The tendency to shy away from distractions is recent and has not gone far, but it is already ominous.

Not all learning in the college community of the past was confined to the classroom. Often the students taught each other more effectively than the teachers could, gained more from extracurricular activities than from formal classwork. The experience of writing for the paper, or of managing a team, or of singing or playing, and, most of all, the undirected talk that swirled formlessly through the night have a value that cannot be recognized in grades or credits. There will be ever less time for them as the shadow of the examination falls across the college. Boys made rivals by competition will be less ready to help one another, and the immensely variegated activities of the college as it was may dry up.

Finally, the whole process thrusts an uncongenial role upon the instructor. His function as a teacher becomes subsidiary to that of the grader; he is judge rather than counselor, impartial arbiter rather than ally of the student. That, too, distorts the meaning of education. It destroys the intimacy of a relationship in which the older person conceives his role as that of helping the younger, in which the younger can turn to the older for aid and advice without fear of being evaluated in the process.

THERE is no simple corrective to this disorder, even were its nature clearly perceived. Much of the difficulty springs from the unprecedented demands a democratic society places upon the colleges. We cannot and should not halt the increasing size of student bodies. We need more rather than fewer fellowships. And the college should continue to play a part in career selection. These are conditions of the value we place upon equality of opportunity. Only thus can we locate ability wherever it may be found and compensate for the inequalities of family background. Yet, to the degree that we encourage these desirable trends, our institutions will become more formal, more bureaucratic, and more rigidly organized.

But we need not, in consequence, continue to encumber ourselves with outmoded methods of evaluation which frustrate the larger goals of education. It will be a long, difficult task to get away from them.

I tease myself sometimes with daydreams of how we might break out of the present situation. A few institutions have already separated the teaching and the marking functions. That is as it should be, and the result is to clarify the relationship of the teacher to his students. It would be gratifying to appear in a classroom where everyone was on the same side, where there was not one to police and the others to be policed, but all were to work toward the same end. Evidence points to the merits of a divorce between the essentially incompatible tasks of instructor and grader.

That separation of tasks would, of course, make it impossible to administer examinations and award marks for every segment of instruction. So much the better. No other system of higher education subjects its students to the endlessly badgering tests of the American college. The examinations of French and English universities are difficult, but they come where they belong, at the terminus of a stage in education. And they probe not fragments of courses, but the mastery of a whole field of knowledge, however and whenever acquired. These methods cannot be simply transferred to our own situation. But they indicate that we can safely do without the recurrent, meaningless hurdles we now set in the way of our students. We can aim at a mode of evaluation that will judge the whole man as he leaves the campus, not the bits and pieces of him we glimpse as he passes through it.

Above all, we can take the heat off by leaving these people alone. Most college freshmen are now eighteen years old. They are men and women who are, or should be, above all concerned with discovering themselves. All those prescriptions and requirements, all those efforts at surveillance and discipline, obscure the true nature of their tasks. They must learn after their own fashion, even at the cost of false starts, errors, and lost time. The college can help them, if they wish to be helped, mostly by creating an environment for discovery. The faculty can help them, if they wish to be helped, mostly through establishing the contacts, fruitful when free, of the more, with the less, experienced minds. But the stiffing competitive atmosphere of the race for position, which the college itself generates by anachronistic grading methods, has no place in that environment.