Kiwis Do It Better?

Back to December 2012 Ed Reporter

Kiwis Do It Better?

A professor who grew up in New Zealand finds American universities to be more like finishing schools.

by Richard Cocks

I am a New Zealand native who has experienced higher education both there and in the United States. I came to the United States in 1990 to do a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Cincinnati, and I now teach at SUNY’s Oswego campus. Let me share with you a few of my experiences in the United States and how they contrasted with higher education in New Zealand. But be warned: the end of the story is not a good one. Since I left in 1990, New Zealand seems to be following the path laid out by Americans.

In the United States, I quickly came to realize that “college” was not university, but more like a finishing school. Professors, though sounding grand in name to a New Zealander, have only a quarter of the status of a lecturer in New Zealand.

I also discovered that my so-called students couldn’t write.ΓΏ

In my first semester as a graduate assistant, I gave up the idea of asking American students to write essays because I was sure that failing all my students wouldn’t be regarded as acceptable.
Most would have failed because their writing was deplorable. Later I came to believe that their poor writing was because they hardly ever read for pleasure.

I decided to try other methods of getting students to learn to express themselves. One method is asking several homework questions, which, if properly answered, will constitute a well-written essay. The answers are submitted and corrected all semester until both the writing and the content are perfect. In that way, I can have high standards without failing the majority of students. The students master the material and improve their writing ability at the same time.

As a new instructor, I had imagined that I would be able to refer to famous cultural items as a common reference point. “This is like Madame Bovary,” I would venture. Silence. I naively thought that I just needed to find the right cultural references. Perhaps Charlie Chaplin. He rose to fame in the U.S. after all. Nope. Unfortunately, there are no universally known cultural references that all one’s students will be conversant with.

High standards are attainable only by restricting enrollment to those capable of meeting those standards. Open enrollment and high standards are incompatible. In addition, high achievement in any field is likely to be limited by one’s motivation, and motivation in turn is affected by interest. Only a small minority of any population is actually interested in academic subjects.

In New Zealand (before I left, that is) university was for the elite, but was strictly meritocratic. Only academic merit was considered. Community service and “leadership” abilities were irrelevant. There were no fees to speak of and the small government stipend meant that all who were qualified could afford to attend.

There were no remedial classes at university. The American idea of “college,” by contrast, seems to me to be more like a venue for trying to learn some of the things one should have mastered in high school.

The modern American system pretends to be more democratic and less elitist by making college available to nearly all. But this is largely an illusion. I would argue that the very concept of non-elite higher education is unintelligible. There is nothing “higher” about an education that requires no special abilities or effort to attain.

Most American students cannot actually understand what their professors are trying to teach them unless the professors reduce the level of what they are teaching to the level of concrete operational, or rule-governed, thinking. Biology as a subject seems to be very amenable to this kind of thing. Concrete operational thinkers are in principle capable of understanding “facts” and of rote learning. The students are told what three things will appear on the exam and then reproduce it.

Among the worst features of American colleges is the importance attached to student evaluations of professors and their courses.

There were no teaching evaluations in New Zealand. From my perspective, teaching evaluations are counter-productive. Teaching, like parenting, is not a popularity contest. In fact, seeking to win the favor of your students is directly at loggerheads with one’s mission to educate them.

I frequently have problems with teaching evaluations because I am considered to be a hard grader with high standards and I don’t focus on ingratiation in the classroom. I do try to include humor and I usually have energy and enthusiasm. Still, hard grading sometimes leads to complaints.

At one college where I taught, the mere fact of complaints was taken by my department to be evidence that I was doing something wrong. That those complaints were found to be groundless was no defense! Warrantless complaints were deemed an indication that I had a problem and I was told that if I wanted to keep my job, I needed to get better evaluations.

I found out which professor had the highest evaluations and then quizzed him about the secret of his success. His candor was astounding. His emailed response was that “in response to pressure from students and the administration, I have lowered my standards and increased my grades.”

Another problem with American universities is the fact that there is no attractive alternative. An incredibly important aspect of New Zealand’s system was a workable alternative to attending university, something called a Polytechnic.

Polytechnics were entirely focused on vocational training. The vocations one could train for at a Polytechnic included nursing, journalism, lower-level engineering, being a chef, graphic design and being a secretary. Those are not nasty, underpaid, low-status jobs.

The modern American habit of forcing prospective nursing students, for example, to take academic subjects seems almost punitive and possibly counter-productive. I imagine most nursing students are not terribly interested in academic subjects nor have any special aptitude for them, partly for that reason.

Polytechnics were not as high status as university, but graduates from the former knew that they were likely to be highly employable whereas university graduates had a much less certain future.

High school was very rigorous and failing their exams at some point was the prospect for ninety-five percent of the pupils. But failure just meant shifting away from academic subjects, which I imagine came as a relief to many people, and toward vocational areas with a relatively bright and assured future.

Thus, from my years in the United States, I believe that the nation’s education system would be improved by providing alternative vocational tracks to attending college, abandoning teaching evaluations (or limiting them to appropriate questions), and restricting enrollment at colleges to those few students who really want a higher education.

Post script: I am sorry to report that since I left New Zealand it has been moving in the American direction. Polytechnics have largely been converted to lower-level colleges. The well-established universities of old now admit thirty percent of the population instead of five, necessitating the lowering of standards. Following the dictates of revised government policy, New Zealand high schools have largely stripped the rigor and standards out of the system and now attempt to fudge the differences of attainment between students.

Instead of setting good educational examples for the rest of the world, the United States is setting bad ones.

Source: The John William Pope Center for Higher Education