Category Archives: Education

On teaching and learning.

To Bribe or Not to Bribe

For those who can’t afford to, or would rather not, bribe, here are some thoughts for anyone facing college admission.

Coming from a family of teachers at all levels; having spent most of my working life in one college or university or another,  including a dozen years as an academic advisor at a major university; being the parent of two college grads and of a current high school junior with high ambitions and qualifications both academic and athletic, I’ve got more thoughts about the subject of college and college admissions than any most busy person (meaning most anyone alive today) would have the time or patience to read at length about.

So I will attempt to give only what seems most important.

Anyone who doesn’t know that money can boost the odds of admission to an elite college and would like to understand a legal way the practice can work should watch The Gilmore Girls, in which Rory finds her way to an elite college through diligence, generational wealth, and an elite prep school. This, I believe, is an excellent route, but it might take several generations of hard work to achieve.

Another way, this one open to many of us currently in the financially bottom 99 percent, is sports. When my Zoe was eight years old, playing softball in a small, local recreation league, at all-star tournaments her mother and I often witnessed that the girls from our more prosperous competing leagues had textbook swings, quite different from most of our league’s girls. Meaning the prosperous families hired professional coaches. Since Zoe’s mom’s best friend was a pitching coach, we got a deal on that skill, and after year or two during which we came to believe Zoe would stick with the sport, her pitching referred us to a good and reasonable batting coach. Over these past eight years, we have paid well over $10,000 to her personal coaches. And since she eventually moved on to travel softball, that has cost us another couple thousand a year plus the gas money and lodging tournaments require and later the fees for showcase camps where college coaches come scouting. I’ll estimate we have spent around $20,000 on softball. And, we certainly have no guarantee that softball will factor into her acceptance to a college. Still, I don’t in any way begrudge those expenses. Softball has offered us lots of good times. Where some folks take dune buggies to the desert, we play softball. My advice here: if your kid loves a sport, give her or him every advantage you can afford, and have some fun in the process, but don’t bet the bank on it. For a closer look at the college sport scholarship route, read this article.

The same goes for private high schools. Because Zoe has always been eager to learn, we visited and considered two elite private schools but decided to give our local school a chance. Our high school has good reputation and has served Zoe quite well. We know several students who paid close to $30,000 per year at elite private schools, and we haven’t seen evidence that the choice substantially benefitted their kids as far as college admission. This is not to disparage private schools, because they are clearly the best place for some students, especially those who are more comfortable in smaller classes and will benefit from more personal attention from teachers. Again, if you can afford a private school, or have reason to believe a scholarship might be offered, look into that option.

Now that Zoe is a junior, we have faced the SAT and/or ACT test score challenge. And these days, every student aiming for college should spend some energy on test prep. A few options (in order of ascending cost) are reading a fat book; taking a daily summer or weekly class; and private tutoring. Since students can take the tests multiple times, we let Zoe choose what prep she preferred. She spent some hours on free sources from Kahn Academy and Princeton Review, mostly learning test strategies, and scored so high, not only did it save us the cost, and her the time, of tutors or classes, she has since begun tutoring on her own. So, in all, we have been blessed, as I wish all families could be. But such is not the case.

Before deciding how much stress to put on yourself as the parent or yourself as the student regarding test preparation, try asking, “What are my (or my student’s) reasons for college?” Because from this should come answers about what colleges to choose and consequentially how much test scores matter.

One of Zoe’s travel softball teammates could hit the ball so far over the fence it made us spectators gape in awe. She was also a straight A student, a great infielder and a quite personable girl. But at sixteen, she gave up travel ball, and one reason was, she had no interest in playing college softball and wanted to pursue other pastimes. Though she intended to go to college, she didn’t care much about a scholarship because her school of choice was the local state university whose tuition was relatively low, and her career goal was to become an elementary teacher, for which the state university offered a well-respected curriculum.

Other teammates of hers hope to become doctors, veterinarians, physical therapists, and since many colleges are known for their reputation in preparing students for particular careers, to identify a goal early on can narrow the choices of where to apply, and consequently which schools to read up about.

Deciding what kind of education would most benefit a particular student can be tricky.  Zoe, for example, is great at math and science, but is that what she should pursue, and why?  She has aptitude, but what career would make her feel most fulfilled, or most benefit our troubled world? And suppose she decides upon a STEM field, what specific major (math, engineering,  biology, chemistry, physics etc. ) will she most likely pursue.

Also, it’s wise to ask about each particular student, how mature is he or she, how motivated, how good a reader, listener, test-taker. I believe most everybody should attend college, but which one. Stanford or USC is hardly the best route for everybody.

A too often overlooked question: should the student go straight to a four-year college, or begin at a community college. I can testify that community college can in many cases be a far more beneficial arena in which to spend the first two years than state universities. Classes, in general, are smaller, and the same instructors may be also teaching at the local university.  My son and older daughter, who were hardly traditional scholars in high school, began their higher education in community colleges and are now quite pleased with their working lives. One is high school teacher, the other a school district administrator.

As an academic advisor, I often encountered students who should not have come to a university right out of high school. One common reason, they had no clue what their education should lead to. In hundreds of cases I witnessed, once students without career goals chose majors they found excitement in learning about, they  brought their grades (and their happiness) from poor or mediocre to excellent.

One girl I remember well returned to the college after flunking out and spending two years at a community college before she could gain readmission. She had earned straight A grades at the CC while, she told me, “My dad wouldn’t give me a dime. He said if I earned my way back into [the state college] and got a B average, then he’d start giving me money again. You watch, I’m going to get straight A’s. I’ll show him.”

With all the recent news about bribes being paid to assure admission to an elite university, it’s well worth asking, what’s the big deal about an elite college?

Several reasons to try for an elite institution come to mind:

Academic challenge, a mighty good reason, and one that can help in job placement following graduation and in making a good start in life-long learning. Many profs at elite colleges are smart and stimulating.

Opportunity to meet influential people, a decent reason, I suppose, though I have to wonder why don’t these people wealthy enough to bribe already know their share of influential folks.

Bragging rights. No comment, because you might just catch me one day sporting a bumper sticker or wearing a t-shirt from Zoe’s elite school, should she attend one.

At least one of the students admitted through a bribe cited her reason for choosing that school was its good parties. Do you suppose this kid told her parents that was her reason? And if so, did they bribe anyway? And if so, how does anyone that stupid make lots of money?

Whether using money to assist in college admissions should be considered unethical is not a question given to easy answers. In my mind, it depends upon whether the student deserves admission based upon merit. Because not all worthy students can be admitted. Too many excellent students seek to fill too few available seats.

If I were outrageously wealthy and any kind of decent human being, I would be looking for places to donate large sums, and if Zoe chose to go to go to an elite school, I might bestow a few million, if she met their qualifications, and I might be miffed if they didn’t accept her, and for sure I would look for another place to donate next time. Because I know that often the decision is based upon standards as suspect as money,  like ethnicity quotas or performance in very minor sports that don’t offer a whole lot of competition, or essays written by paid essay writers, or SAT scores that don’t mean a whole lot since the kid spent a year and a half in a prep class. Anyway, I would hope my donation went to build the school’s endowment, which would allow it to offer admission and reduced tuition to students who would otherwise need to mortgage their future and perhaps their family’s future to the student loan racket. And this is what endowments can do.

As the president of Perelandra College, I belonged to an organization of private college presidents, and at our annual meeting I sat in on discussions of whether or not colleges should willingly comply with some Education Department proposals that would require them to advertise the real average net price rather than the before common discounts.  To bring this down to earth, imagine you are in the Ritz Carlton and notice the posted rates in the room (the rack rate), and the rate for a double queen is $800, when you just paid $320 for your room. Now transpose this to the pricey private college that becomes much less pricey once you start the bargaining. Apparently some folks are so rich, they don’t bother to bargain, so they get hit with the rack rate, on account which the college can discount the tuition for you the bargain seeker.

Please don’t mention the above to your multi-millionaire friends.

Instead, bargain like crazy, and look at every other option including shopping colleges before you agree to a dime of student loans.

Student loans, in my humble opinion, rank at or near the top as the curse of our times. Because I am old, I can look upon them from a studied perspective. During the years I was an undergraduate, state taxpayers covered 80% of my college’s budget. Last year they covered 10%.

Now, if, as most of us believe, we all benefit from an educated population, why in the devil are we relegating our students to years of indentured servitude?

 

Job or Life, Take Your Pick

College should be more than vocational training. It should also be the introduction to a rich and satisfying life.

Here’s a passage from a recent New York Times article:

“’The largest problem of skills in the U.S. today isn’t a shortage of young workers with specific competencies,’ Eric Hanushek, researcher and Stanford professor, wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. ‘Instead it is a need for more general cognitive skills that give workers the ability to adapt to new circumstances and new jobs.’

“Clearly, this country still needs more and better vocational education. It remains a path to good blue-collar jobs for many Americans, and it could be a path for even more. But vocational education is not a perfect solution to blue-collar wage stagnation, and it can’t be the only solution.”

“We also need to think about how to retrain people as they age. And we shouldn’t be promoting vocational education at the expense of general education. Expanding the number of four-year college graduates also deserves to be a national priority. They continue to fare much better in the job market than people who have not had the benefit of a broad, flexible education.”

Please consider the benefits to you, family, or friends, of pursuing a broad, flexible education at Perelandra College, and perhaps pass along our message.

 

A Unique and Most Valuable Degree

About a dozen years ago, several of us founded a small online college. As I’m not patient enough to write the whole story here, I’ll only give the plot points.

Perelandra College got licensed by the state of CA to offer degrees and subsequently approved by a national accreditor. After a few years, for financial reasons, we gave up the accreditation, without which the license wasn’t worth all the work and money it required, so we also gave that up. Which left us as simply a provider of knowledge and encouragement.

We innocently believed that enough people just wanted to learn the writer’s craft to keep us afloat and perhaps help us bank enough to once again get licensed and accredited. But a cottage industry had arisen, offering to teach would-be writers the necessary craft and marketing skills, and all of this online. By now we’re competing with a legion of providers from blatant hucksters to the tolerably legit, among them Stanford University and James Patterson, most if not all of them far more capable of marketing than we are.

The obvious next step is to write off the school as a flop and move on. But since one of my tragic flaws is persistence, I’m not willing to give up. Another solution is to find an angle. I chose to follow the example of W.C. Field on his deathbed when somebody caught him reading a Bible and asked if he’d been converted, and he replied, “I’m looking for a loophole.”

Our first step in founding a college was to apply for status as a tax-exempt corporation. One of our partners knew an attorney with expertise in processing such applications for churches. So, we became a tax-exempt religious corporation. Which I recently learned can also exempt us from the cumbersome and expensive task of licensure, as long as “the instruction is limited to the principles of that religious organization.”

The ruling principle of Perelandra College holds that if artists diligently seek the source of inspiration with an active, humble, and open heart and mind, they will find what they need to make their work not only entertaining but true and of genuinely valuable. We view the source of inspiration in Christian terms, as the Holy Spirit.

When I first began teaching college creative writing, many of my classes were for beginners. Early on, I realized that most of the students might never, after finishing the class, write another story. So, I wondered, except for the sake of the few who were serious about learning the craft, what good was the class anyway? And soon I recognized that my goal was to teach creative problem solving — the use of both reason and intuition, both sides of the brain if you will, in the attempt to find the best answers to artistic problems. And I began to see that this skill is helpful, if not critical, in contending with the perplexing daily lives of most anybody. Which is why I believe the degree program, a Master of Arts in Writing and the Spirit — which I will soon propose to our board of governors — could also be called the Master of Arts in How to Live.

I imagine our board will approve and soon the primary goal of every class will be to find and apply inspiration, the highest form of creativity.

We currently offer certificate programs. But degrees are more valuable than certificates, and rightly so. Certificates are limited to skills. Degrees are meant to also offer a context in which the skills are applied, a holistic and rounded education.

James Patterson can’t (yet) offer a degree. Stanford University can, for about ten times the money we ask. And neither of them, or any of the others providers I know, has the nerve to claim they can help people get inspired, like we claim.

For a preview of what the Perelandra College degree program will offer, read Writing and the Spirit, free as an ebook until June 1.

Learning to Live in Perspective

         “tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner” –  French Proverb

In the early twentieth century, the British philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947 CE) developed a metaphysical system known as “process-relational philosophy” in which the fundamental nature of all of reality is one of process, dynamism, becoming, and perpetual change.  The intrinsic nature of reality is not static, but “processive”.  Whitehead sought to address the weaknesses of an emerging naturalism that favored being over “becoming”.  This post initiates a series related to Whitehead’s life, work, and philosophy.

In 1929, Whitehead published The Aims of Education, wherein he proposed an approach to learning that was rhythmic rather than linear.  Education, according to Whitehead, is not a matter of acquiring “half-digested” theoretical or knowledge; rather, it is the “acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge” (Aims 4-5).  Such knowledge is not, as Dewey contended, for economic gain or social utility – it is knowledge that permits us to live life and live it well.  Unfortunately, although Christians regularly speak about “life”, rarely do we make the connection between life and learning.

While “pedants sneer at education which is useful”, Whitehead argued that knowledge and understanding must be intrinsically useful for human existence.  He notes, “it was useful to Saint Augustine, it was useful to Napoleon” (Aims 2).  Knowledge and understanding “equip us for the present” and the present is “holy ground”.  Understanding of the knowledge of the past equips us for the present (Aims 3).  Such acquisition and utilization of knowledge is an active, but patient process that is lived in perspective.

Knowledge must be exercised and evoked in the “here and now” because that is precisely where life is lived. The essence of education is that it is religious and the essence of religion is life.  Religious education “inculcates duty and reverence”, duty to change the present with knowledge and reverence as a “perception that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, the whole amplitude of time, which is eternity” (Aims 14).  Thus, to Whitehead, religious education has nothing to do with dogma. On the contrary, it is full of becoming, dynamism, and life.

To attain understanding is to apply knowledge to life.  To live life well is to live with understanding.  To live with understanding is to see the present in perspective of the whole story.  The utilization of knowledge is when “general ideas give an understanding of that stream of events which pours through the life” of each human being (Aims 2). Thus, Whitehead concurred with the French proverb: to understand all is to forgive all.  To learn is to live life in perspective.

Joshua Reichard

In future posts we will explore the stages of Whitehead’s “rhythm” of education: romance, precision, and generalization.

References

Whitehead, Alfred North. The Aims of Education. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1957.