SHORT TAKES


October 26, 2012

Intellectual Standards = a Politics of Exclusion?

Universities today have lowered their standards of admission and accepted more students regardless of their level of preparation. For example, at the University of South Carolina, where I am presently employed, the number of undergraduates has gone up from about 18,000 in 2006 to 22,000 in 2011. As a result of the increased number of undergraduates, pressures are placed on teaching faculty to accommodate students regardless of intellectual skills. For one, political correctness has brought about that holding a student to an intellectual standard may be perceived to imply a political act as part of a politics of exclusion. This problem is further exacerbated by an increase in the integrative aspirations attributed to higher education and the increasing diversity of the student population, with all due ironic consequences.

On a purely educational level, the masses of students that are to be taught despite their sometimes relatively low intellectual skills place a rather distinct pressure on teachers to maintain standards in the face of resistance. Even for the best teacher it is not an easy job, under these circumstances, to not lower academic standards to accommodate students and avoid trouble. Most tragically, there are pressures exerted by university administrators towards departments to maintain enrollment or, in other words, to keep students in college and have them pass their courses, whether they earned it or not. Students of lesser skill-levels are not only admitted, they are also given degrees, and that is the most worrisome trend. Obtaining a college degree has become a matter of justice. The notion that prevails today is not only that access to education is a right, but so is the successful exit thereof. Under these conditions, the very notion of an earned degree has become a mockery....

University administrators have reconfigured universities as businesses and have abandoned any idea of the university as a special institution with a calling. Under these circumstances of an entrepreneurial university, it is a lack of morality, not a particular political or ethical direction, but an absence of any moral guidance, that has brought about many of the peculiar problems educators in higher learning are facing today.

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Mathieu Deflem is a sociologist at the University of South Carolina. This is an excerpt from a paper presented October 25 in New York City at a conference, "Changes in Higher Education Since the 1960s," sponsored by Manhattan Institute and the journal Society. Full texts of all papers will be published in Society next spring and summer.

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