A 12 year retrospective on the state of education by a veteran educator.
Friday, 12 June 2015
Below is an interview conducted by Orenda Review 12 years ago with now retired college professor R.L. Pritchard. He taught History, Political Science, and Law for over 40 years.
OR: In what ways has your perception of education changed since you began teaching?
R.L. Pritchard: One thing that has continued to amaze me during the long course of my teaching career, especially on matters of public interest and public affairs, is how ill-informed most people are. One consequence of that is that people arrive at political positions and opinions based on sort of gut-level responses or remembrances of things without really looking carefully into the facts to find out what truly was the case and how complex things were. Overall, it’s how simplistically people think, including a lot of very well educated people. And I’ve had a lot of very well-educated people in my classes over the years, including older students and people who’ve lived through just about everything I’ve lived through during my lifetime, and yet who know so little of it or retain so little of it. Consequently, because they don’t have the breadth and depth on these things, they tend to think simplistically in a kind of either/or manner. They don’t really want to be bothered with the facts. That’s something I’ve derived from my teaching career and I didn’t think it would be that way. When I started I thought everybody would be interested in these things, everybody would be interested in trying to arrive at some approximate version of the truth based on careful examination of evidence. Also, I’ve been struck by the fact that despite the broad ignorance that exists among people on so many things, how bright and open the different viewpoints of a lot of people are. So that kind of contradicts my first point I guess.
OR: What trends have you found most disappointing as an educator over the years?
R.L. Pritchard: Well, I think that sort of goes back to the first question. One of the things that really disappoints me, and this is especially true at all of the community colleges, is that the majority of students seem to want to go through the place accumulating units without really caring whether or not they learn anything along the way. They’re not willing to apply any extra effort to learn more, like reading outside of class. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, every teacher had books on reserve and an extensive reading list and students were required to read more. The whole thing now seems to be “I gotta get through Poli Sci I – that’s 3 units. If l wanna be a Poli Sci major I gotta take Poli Sci 2 – that’s 3 more units – and I gotta take Poli Sci 7 – and that’s 3 more units. And whether or not I learn anything along the way I don’t really care.” In other words, there’s a lot of “careerism” involved at the community college level. Of course, there are many students who are exceptions to that and who seem to really want to get some knowledge while they’re there. That’s the disappointing thing; they’re not really the majority. Now that might sound like an elitist attitude, and I guess by certain definitions it could be. I fully believe in the “open-door” policy, but I believe that when that door closes there have to be fairly high academic standards. They should be universal enough so that we have college-wide standards of academic excellence, so that a degree from here or even units from here really mean something. Courses that we teach here, especially lower division, should be equivalent to courses at UCLA and CSUN and other parts of the state university system.
OR: Has the work ethic of the student changed?
R.L. Pritchard: Yes. Generally, for the worse. I think it was better in the 60’s, began to slide a bit in the 70’s, and plummeted in the 80’s. It recovered a little bit in the 90’s, and it’s kind of at a plateau now, but still there’s not a really strong work ethic as compared to earlier times. There’s more of a “career ethic” to get the units, get a job, make the money and buy the goods.
OR: To what do you attribute this change in work ethic?
R.L. Pritchard: Part of it is that for 40% of our student body, English is not their first language. They came from somewhere else, and they come in with a different value system. But it’s also a product of the kind of background that students get in high school. The breakdown comes in middle school and high school. So many students nowadays come to an American government class at a community college and don’t even know what Congress is, that Congress has two houses, or that they’re called the House of Representatives and the Senate. Some of them don’t even know that the national capital of the United States is Washington, D.C. A lot of them don’t even know what D.C. means. You have to explain to them that it’s the federal District of Columbia. There’s a breakdown somewhere. And I don’t want to put down high school teachers – I used to be one myself. In addition, on any given day in the Los Angeles district, 10-15% of the teachers are absent, so you’ve got a hell of a lot of substitutes and the cumulative effect of that must be terrible. And they don’t really take attendance that carefully any more. If you’re truant nobody really cares. Most 15, 16 and 17-year olds don’t really want a rigorous curriculum if they can just slip by without really applying themselves. There are plenty of exceptions to that, but far too many have that attitude.
OR: In what way, and to what extent, does the responsibility of education lie with the teacher, and student, respectively?
R.L. Pritchard: The conventional answer there would be 50/50, but for the average student when they first enter Valley College the teacher is probably going to have to go 3/4 of the way to meet them. In a lot of my Poli Sci 1 classes, they come in and don’t even know what the subject is. So I have to explain to them that what we’re talking about here are the fundamentals of American government.
OR: What trends have given you hope about the state of education today?
R.L. Pritchard: One of the trends that give me hope for American education is how widely available it is, even higher education. I don’t think there’s any country in the world that compares with the United States on that. Community college is an American invention – actually a California invention. I’ve studied the educational systems of Britain, Germany and France, and no other countries that I know of have anything comparable. In almost all Western European democracies, there’s more of a selection process, a controlled process whereby if you don’t do well on a certain level you don’t advance to the next level. It’s stacked that way all the way through, whereas in the United States, especially because of community college, no matter how badly you screw up early in life you still have an opportunity to advance. It’s an open door system that is democratic. We get more people on the lower end of the income scale and I think that’s one of the very positive features of the American system. In fact, I favor the whole American public education system. We were one of the innovators of that as well. I know it has plenty of flaws, but that doesn’t negate the concept of making available to everybody a free public education. And the community college is virtually free because the fees that you pay don’t even come close to paying for it, it’s taxpayer supported. It used to be totally tuition free.
OR: Under Pat Brown?
R.L. Pritchard: Yes. It was part of the master plan for education. In fact, the master plan was that eventually the community colleges would provide the first two years, and then the university system, such as the UC system, would be for the upper division. The UC system would also have the function of graduate and professional schools: law, medicine, doctorates and so on. The master plan has never been applied that way. When the dollars for education became short during the 70’s and 80’s, everybody was scrambling for as much of the dollar as they could possibly get. The community colleges got the short end of the stick as they usually do. And they have become much more technical and vocations as well as academic institutions. And that’s okay, although I think it would be better if the community colleges were more academic, and others, like Trade Tech, would be more vocational and technical. But, overall I think it’s a wonderful system and I know so many people that would not have been able to get a college education had it not been for the community colleges.
OR: Has the bureaucratic apparatus of the educational institution helped or hindered your efforts as an educator?
R.L. Pritchard: I’d say the bureaucracy here hasn’t affected me one way or the other because basically I’ve ignored it, and it’s not so intrusive that if you ignore it that it really impinges on you. I couldn’t begin to list the number of deans and vice presidents that come and go and it didn’t make any difference. It’s been pretty much an environment of academic freedom here. They don’t interfere with what you teach or how you teach it in the classroom. And that might be just from inattention or neglect or conscious policy. They don’t really care what goes on in the classrooms so they don’t bother you. So if you don’t make any waves, so to speak, you don’t get into any conflicts with the administrators. The mission of this college, as with any college, is what goes on in the classroom – education. Education is the least thing they care about. They care about numbers, bodies, retention rates, even though they’re phony; those are the things they care about – looking good for the community. And they do a lot of lying to look good for the community. Nothing academic should be under administrative control.
OR: Are multiple choice exams an accurate measure of a student’s breadth and depth of understanding of the material presented in the classroom? Why or why not?
R.L. Pritchard: For the subjects I teach – Political Science, History, and Law – absolutely not. And I never use them. For the subjects I teach I think written exams, essay type exams, are the only valid exams. Now, Psychology or something like that, maybe multiple choice or other types of so-called objective exams are okay. I don’t want to put down another discipline. If you don’t take your multiple choice test out of some book that some publisher has made available to teachers and you’re really’ careful with the questions, and design the questions in such a way that if the student is a real thinker he won’t be thrown off by decoy type answers I think they can be valid.
OR: So you don’t think it’s a biased instrument out of hand?
R.L. Pritchard: Not in all respects, no. But so many teachers that use objective tests use standardized tests out of books that are made available by publishers. A lot of the questions have built-in ambiguities and a lot of the supposed answers could be just as easily and logically answered by A rather than B. I think that’s what bothers students about multiple choice tests. It’s often a question of whether or not the answer that the teacher has chosen to be the correct answer is really the correct answer. Some other types of so-called objective tests are even less valid than multiple choice tests, like true/false or completion/fill-in-the-blanks, that kind of thing. So again, in my subject fields I think essay exams are the only valid exams. I teach the subject, I make up the exams, and I read the exams. Essay exams would not be nearly as valid if they were read by somebody who hadn’t actually taught the subject, as is so characteristic of UCLA where the TAs do a lot of the reading of the exams. Sometimes they teach part of the subject too because they hold seminar/lab type sessions. But the actual lecturing and so on is done by the professors and the professors don’t read the exams – probably don’t even make up the exams. I’ve always felt that was wrong. It’s not educationally sound
OR: On a larger scale, what role do you think the trend towards test-driven accountability will have and has had on educational institutions?
R.L. Pritchard: Generally, I don’t think it’s a very good measurement of the effectiveness of teaching, or not always an absolutely effective measurement of how much the students have learned. You can learn a lot in a course and may not be able to put it together in such a way that will give you the highest grade on an exam, but you still come out of the course with a much stronger body of knowledge than you went into it with. And that’s not always measurable by testing. You can’t really measure a student’s intelligence or even the breadth or depth of a student’s knowledge by an exam or even three exams in a semester. So, I’m sort of against this trend to evaluate everything about education as some kind of a testing process. Especially if it’s a standardized testing process as they’re doing so much of in the elementary and secondary schools now.
OR: What role has the hidden curriculum* played in the degradation of some parts of the educational system?
R.L. Pritchard: Well, I think if you make a real effort to teach your subject truthfully and accurately it will inculcate any values that will naturally follow from that. I can see a certain element of indoctrination you need in elementary school, and maybe even secondary school, but at the college level I don’t think that really applies. It should be a part of our function. If anything, especially in my kind of subject matter, a really effective college teacher should subvert some of those values by raising ideas and viewpoints that would make students examine some of the assumptions they have that they come into college with. Because, as they say, “the unexamined life is the useless life,” so at some point you should start examining what you think and what you believe – maybe even discard some of it if you find it no longer valid. Colleges and universities to a certain degree should be subversive places, expose students to the things and ideas that they haven’t been exposed to before so that it will get them to come to grips with what they really think.
OR: How much weight do you think evaluations of teachers made by students should have in changing educational policy?
R.L. Pritchard: That’s a tough one for me because I know there are so many things that can affect student’s evaluations of teachers above and beyond the teacher’s knowledge, competence, means of delivery in the classroom, whatever. Although it’s been my experience over the years reading through student evaluations and so on that the vast majority of them are fair and try to be fair to the teacher. You sometimes get evaluations that you can just tell are based on prejudicial attitudes towards the teacher. What we’ve all learned to do of course is to pass out these evaluation forms towards the end of the semester and the students that are still with you at that time generally like you. If they didn’t like you they probably would have left long ago. If you handed them out early in the semester you’d probably get more negative comments. I never minded student evaluations and I’ve never been really evaluated negatively by most of the students. I’ve always had mostly positive evaluations. To improve our evaluation process, and I know it’s not going to happen, there probably should be more peer evaluations. I have never had another teacher in my classroom – ever. Although I learn a lot about how other teachers teach and what they know and don’t know just from the scuttlebutt in the halls and all of that, I think the best way of determining what kind of teacher a person is, is to be in that person’s classroom. A little bit of that coupled with student evaluations and committee evaluations and so on would probably be an improvement over what we have now. What we have now is a charade. It’s not a true evaluation. And also something else that I think should be included in the evaluation process is some kind of an assessment of how well a teacher is keeping up with what’s going on in his field, reading what’s being written and that kind of thing. That would be harder to determine.
OR: In your observation, have educators like yourself supported their students’ interest in taking a proactive role in their own education, even if that includes academic dissension?
R.L. Pritchard: Well, if l had to give you a yes or no answer on that one I’d lean more toward no, I think. I find even in a course among teachers, there isn’t a free-form approach to differences of opinion. As far as in class between teacher and student, or even after class, I don’t mind it at all. When I go into class I’m prepared. And not just for what I prepared for a particular day of class, but I’m prepared for whatever you might throw at me. And so I have a certain amount of confidence in that. If a teacher is not prepared, or prepares on a daily basis for a particular lecture or a particular discussion but who hasn’t really absorbed the subject, I can see why questions that challenge him might be kind of threatening. You might even get a very negative reaction from a teacher in a situation like that, because they feel that you’re kind of putting them on the spot. Most people don’t really like to be put on the spot, especially if they’re in a position of supposed authority where they’re the ones that are supposed to know more than the students – which they probably do in most cases.
* The hidden curriculum is a term used by social theorists to describe the peripheral values that are inculcated within the process of a compulsory education, e.g. democratic concepts, property values, competition, capitalism, etc.