Sara at Orcinus has an excellent article on the UC/Calvary Chapel Christian School lawsuit, in which a Christian private school is suing the University of California system to require them to accept their dreck for credit. She’s right that the universities need to stand up for standards, but I do have some problems with her opening statement: it ignores some complexities.
I’ve been saying for a long while now that the power to end the Intelligent Design fiasco, firmly and finally and with but a single word, rests in the manicured hands of the chancellors of America’s top universities. The message is short and simple: “Teach what you like, it’s all fine with us. But if you put ID in your science courses, we will not accept those courses as adequate for admission to our campus.”
Making this kind of public statement would be one small step for a university chancellor; and one giant leap for American science education. Somebody, somewhere, needs to set a firm standard. If our universities — which bear responsibility for training our professional scientists, and maintain the labs and faculties responsible for much of our best research — won’t stand up and draw that line, then we really are well and truly lost.
Unfortunately, while we’d love to stand up and demand higher standards, we face a couple of unpleasant realities: many schools have declining enrollments, and the pursestrings of state schools are held by legislatures populated with education-hating sleazebags. We’ve had double-digit tuition increases for years, and the public colleges are suffering. I suspect that another factor is the war—once upon a time, it was entirely reasonable for someone who couldn’t afford college to enlist in the military to get the education benefits and to save up a little nest egg. That’s become a much, much harder path to take in recent years.
So, we’re squeezed: at the same time that science education is hurting and we’d like to bolster up our requirements and our curricula, we also need to increase enrollments for those purely venal economic reasons. Suggesting that we slash our pool of potential applicants is the kind of idea that will get you thrown out of administrators’ offices.
Another concern is that those students who come out of junk schools like Calvary Chapel Christian School are kids who need help the most. If they’re turned away, that just means that there are a few more minds out there in the electorate that haven’t been given a decent education. That bothers me, too; perhaps the place pressure ought to be applied is accreditation agencies and government licensing bureaus that allow such worthless ‘schools’ to advertise and exist by misrepresenting themselves as educational institutions.
Finally, it’s fairly easy to filter out the students who come from specific religiously-driven anti-educational institutions like these Christian madrassas. The real worry, the cases that are the major threat to the future of American higher ed, are the public high schools. Many of them aren’t doing their job; they usually aren’t actively teaching anti-science (there are exceptions), but a lot of the essential college prep is gutted by school boards and parental pressure. The students I get are a mixed bag—some show up with good math skills, solid introductions to chemistry and basic biology (it’s about 50:50 whether they’ve been taught anything about evolution, though), but I also get some who have been thoroughly screwed over by public schools that taught them next to nothing. They are smart, they are ambitious and motivated, but their background is terribly deficient.
And there’s our dilemma. We don’t want to get sucked into the costly and distracting whirlpool of remedial education, but we also don’t want to let kids who have fallen through the net of our tattered social contract in this country. The universities could try to be more selective and spell out their demands to the rest of the educational system, but really—we’re the tiny top of the educational pyramid. Getting us to change is addressing the problems of individuals far too late in their scholastic careers.