More Trout in the Milk

“Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”—Henry David Thoreau

One of the gamy mysteries of “branding” is the way that some respected brands will go off, their products and services degraded. For a while inertia and advertising divert people’s attention from the degradation. Two examples occur to me. The first was one of the few remaining good-quality shoemakers in New England, which sold out to an enveloping company that lowered the quality of its shoes and hired cheaply paid foreigners to make them. Another was a company that provided services to automobile-drivers. A relative of mine who worked for them reported attending business meetings at which they planned to downgrade their formerly famous “member services.” My relative, now retired, pointed out that the reason many people kept their membership for thirty or forty years was that the company gave good service reliably. These companies downgraded their products the way an unscrupulous dairy farmer waters his milk before bringing it to market.

It is a chilling thought that a third case might be found in American education. In this case the “brand” is “college preparatory diploma.” A report that was no joke covered the increase in “rigorous” courses offered in high schools at which 40% of the students who took AP classes got failing grades (1 or 2). These schools’ students were in turned “prepared” by middle schools that offered “Jungle Gym Math,” beanbags, and bed sheets in their curricula

What is more, we now have a report that 40% of college students in the US who take them give up on majors in science, technology, engineering, and math because “It’s Too Darn Hard.” The report blames poor teaching at universities for this disaster. That may indeed be a part of the problem, but I guess there’s more to this story.

The reporter perplexingly notes that grades are lower in science majors because “the answers are clear-cut and there are no bonus points for flair.” I am not sure what non-science courses the reporter has in mind by way of contrast, but surely a good teacher in a humanistic discipline also insists on clarity of thought and response? As for “bonus points for flair”: what can this mean? That a student who thinks badly can salvage part of his grade with verbal flimflam? That kind of imposture should be, and is, smoked out by good teachers. Maybe good teachers are rarer than I like to think, but it’s possible that when students find themselves up against firm demands for intellectual work, they crumple because they were not held to account during their college preparation and have not developed the habits of work and intellect that they need.

We all recall the dismal history teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off lecturing about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff as his dazed students drool helplessly on their desks. Is it that bad at university? One way to find out would be to compare the rate at which STEM[1] majors are dropped by undergraduates from the US with that of students from India and China. If the home-grown rates are higher, it may mean that these undergraduates have been ill-served by a secondary education with trout in the milk rather than by universities with drool on the desks. To the argument that Indian and Chinese students put up with lectures because they don’t know any better, I would be tempted to counter that it’s because they don’t know any worse.

[1] Science, Technology, Engineering, Math


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