Strengthening Our Educational Backbone

As one of those graduate students "whose principle concern is not with his students but with finishing his degree," to whom our precious young undergraduates are entrusted, the editorial "Put the Emphasis on Teaching," Nov. 16, is offensive and completely off the mark. There are several major problems with American higher education not mentioned.

First, the quality of students we are forced to deal with and their lack of interest in learning makes "lively and stimulating contact with a teacher" virtually a moot point. Even at an allegedly prestigious Ivy League university, where I am a teaching assistant, students are here "to party." This society is obsessed with the quest for things and credentials and not for knowledge and skills.

Perpetuating this problem is the idea that all 18-year-olds should go to college regardless of whether or not they are prepared. Europeans and Japanese do a much better job of separating students who would truly benefit from a university education and those who would be better served by technical or vocational training.

Perhaps the most vexing problem is the structure of American universities. Tuition is dedicated not primarily to education but to administration. At my institution, there are nearly twice as many administrators as faculty members. My intent is not to deny that there are professors and graduate students neither interested in nor good at teaching, but to remind those outside of the academic world that the intense pressures to "publish or perish" and to finish PhD's before funding runs out are powerful disi ncentives to good teaching.

The problems of American higher education are complex, and solutions require a sea change in attitudes and a readjustment of national priorities. We drastically need to raise high school graduation standards. We need to devise alternatives to college, not merely as default options but as fulfilling life-paths. If this nation is to avoid utter decadence, leaders must mobilize to revamp our educational backbone from the ground up. Jeffrey M. Hornstein, Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania

The special report "Redefining Higher Education," Nov. 16, should remind us that just as our nation is in trouble in the industrial sector for a lack of sufficient research, so too are we in trouble with a lack of sufficient research in education. Will we ever learn? I have grave doubts. William E. Seachrist, Hudson, Ohio Broadening students' horizons

The Opinion page article "International Education: Don't Leave Home Without It," Nov. 17, contends that "we need to teach all our students to understand otherness and to acknowledge and respect differences." The practice of female circumcision is one of many examples of "cultural otherness." How about the ritual of sacrificing animals, or child labor, or slavery? Tolerance has its limits and, at some point, one must choose between higher and lower, between better and worse. Are we to acquiesce to the cur rent treatment of Serbians? John H. Tanton, Petoskey, Mich.

I agree that "we can and should give our students an understanding in depth of at least one culture." I add that the collection of those other cultures should include not only state-dominating cultures such as those of Japan or a European country, but some of the hundreds of small-scale cultures with values much different from our own, such as those of the Bushmen of southern Africa.

These can have even more to teach us about the great range in human ways of life. Guy Ottewell, Greenville, S.C.

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