A Dearth of Knowledge and The Death of Knowledge


I am not surprised at all that the findings of this study show young people in college don’t learn much in the first two years. I don’t think they learn much in all four. I was delighted that someone has the brass gonads to take these findings and make them public.

I am not sure how a standardized test would measure critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and writing skills, but let us assume for the moment that it does at least some of that.

I spent a hunk of my career on the faculty of a few medical schools.  It never would have occurred to me to try to do anything at all with those allegedly useful four years of “pre-med” college education. It was too evident to me that nothing was happening intellectually.  I could not wait to get out of there and get right to medical school.  I was marking time to get a bachelor’s degree, and the only reason was to get to medical school. The passion was for medicine, not for the four years of undergraduate college.

I actually, naively, said something to that effect at a party at the home of a chemistry professor –a bloke from New Zealand and was considered quite a radical, as he thought it was a very good idea for students and professors to get drunk together.  I was living with my parents then, and mother and father were to pick me up from this thing.  I believe I was the only person there who was stone cold sober.

The person to whom I made that remark gave me a harangue the likes of which I do not believe I had received before that point in time, and probably have not received since. He told me I was missing the point of college entirely.  He basically told me it was the first and last part of my life where I could study upper level knowledge in a number of fields. As such, it would determine the kind of person I would be.

He referred to medical school as a “glorified trade school.”  (I remember nearly choking on my appetizers with that one.) He said that all doctors had to learn and memorize the same thing exactly in order to function.  If I knew some philosophy and some art and some “humanities,” the core things that human knowledge is made of, I would have a better and happier life.

I remember thinking that I had already learned more about those things than anybody would in their lifetimes at the Beaver Country Day School For Young Ladies — then an elite private girls’ school, now a coed prep school with some more aggressive sports and such — but I got the point. My father had been telling me for years that I ought to play the flute more and better and know more music because I should be “well-rounded”– something he had figured out at Harvard was a very good thing.

The sharp-witted but very overweight young Estelle usually responded to her father by saying, “If I were any more well rounded I would roll away.”

In my four years of college, I studied poetry, visual arts, music history (mostly baroque) and literature, in English.  (Curiously enough, I placed out of French as foreign language.)  So I went to medical school in France based on what French I had learned at Beaver Country Day School.  Their teachers did not have to be American citizens.  I was good enough in French to handle the course work and am eternally grateful that I was a “Beaver Girl”. I got a top-class education there. I do not know anyone in college today who was told any of the things I was. I do remember learning early on, in gifted children’s school, about analytical thinking — being encouraged to figure things out for myself and not taking what adults said.  I do not know of anyone being told that anywhere in education except me. To know anything about these ways of thinking would make it harder for people to simplify their lives as they do, into “left” and “right” politics, and other absurdly stupid things people talk about.

It might even keep them from deifying the Kardashians. I am continually surprised about how people follow, like sheep. I do remember that even then, the only people I could relate to in college were older students — those who had been out in the world.  I have pleasant memories of a night club pianist who was in my college philosophy class, and a woman who sold real estate who turned up in my sociology class. Here perhaps, is the weakness of this study.  It was limited to “traditional age” students. I remember for those for whom it was the first time away from their parents, who lived in the dorms, the trauma they had “homecoming” weekend, when their parents would come from some low-income blue collar place in New Jersey to see what their children’s lives were like at their new “home.”  I remember there were lots of fights between parents and students that weekend.

The cost of education has risen a lot faster than inflation.  Average ages of students have risen.  Most of the students I talk to now are clinic patients, often buckling under the weight of paying their own way through, but doing it. The world has shifted. This “Classical academics” has not shifted. Does anyone actually expect kids straight out of high school to do academic work? Especially if we are selecting for kids whose parents can pay the often exorbitant-seeming tuition that colleges demand?  For pure knowledge, often not translatable into money or career?

Not long ago I heard nothing but the Bill Gates story — even at Harvard, you can do better if you drop out. Not only are critical thinking and analytic skills tough to teach, but their usefulness is hard to convince someone to believe.

Thomas Jefferson took his classical knowledge of European philosophy and used it to write the documents to start a country.  His knowledge of Italian architecture helped him design a wonderful place to live. It is unthinkable to most people right out of high school that knowledge can be applied to real life.

The people around them, or known to them, or famous to them, seem to look as if they have success independent of knowledge. I have long been curious about this.  I did not know what personal knowledge, if any, it takes to be a popular (and wealthy) success in my era. My husband and I have been studying marketing intensely the past few years, and I think I figured out some, and I can assure you it has little to do with Jeffersonian type knowledge.

I think the Jeffersonian type knowledge confers the abilities being tested in these college students. Add to this the idea that Universities have politics.

I have felt such pressures, even when I was a junior professor in a couple of different medical schools. I was informed that my job was like a three legged stool — Administration, teaching, and research. There was little time to prepare intelligent and stimulating teaching.

I actually prepared some lectures on applied neuroanatomy, took care of some lecturing that nobody else wanted to do, and I enjoyed it, but there was clearly no honor nor any rewards. I was never, while in a university, granted any independence in the direction of research. For as a junior researcher, I was expected to attach myself to a senior who knew about the politics of funding and other institutional aspects of research.

Money came from drug companies.  They fund universities and medical schools and direct the thoughts within more now than then, and this is a frightening thing.

I remember a professor sitting down with me when I had made the decision to leave the university system, telling me I would never have true freedom of scientific thought when I left. He was very naive (even more than I, something I did not think possible), and did not notice he had already lost his.

As for administration, I was always on some committee or other, usually the admission committee, and I was actually part of the following decisions:

I was the sole dissenting vote when a student who had already had three suspensions while detoxifying from alcohol was readmitted to the medical school without prejudice. “We have already spent a lot of money trying to educate him, we must continue” is what I was told.

I was the sole dissenting vote when the decision was made to recruit many members of a local minority to become physicians, and to give them additional tutoring resources and personal support that would not be made available to other students because of lack of funds designated to help mainstream, struggling students.

Since everyone was failing pharmacology sections of the medical boards, and there was no pharmacologist (doctor of pharmacy) available to teach them, I was asked to “get up to speed” and teach everyone immediately, substituting for a beloved older professor who had been giving everyone A’s and knew as much about pharmacology as maybe a high school student and certainly was not teaching any.

I was asked to tutor a woman who had an child out of wedlock and loved to bake bread and be a “homebody” because all of this had happened in her third year of medical school and the state had already invested a great deal of money in her, and did not want to kick her out.

If these things all happened (and they did) in a “glorified trade school,” consider what life must be like with political and financial considerations in a place that purports to circulate (unvalued) pure knowledge.

The older students whom I know or talk to are the life blood of universities, valuing knowledge.  Still, I cannot blame such students if they choose “practical” knowledge.  Like a 42 year old I know who will soon have an associates’ degree in auto body repair.  Such broken down partial colleges, of the community based sort, are where the people are who value learning, mostly because they are older and tired and want life to be different, which for them it will.

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