This article belongs to BUSINESS MONTH: Education theme.

The first job of the agnostic is constructive skepticism, not just about the lies of religion, but about most worldly matters such as education.

Many years ago, as a newly minted Ph.D., my first full time teaching job put me in front of a large lecture hall with about one hundred students sitting in ascending rows before me. I would talk for an hour, they would scribble notes, and later in the semester I would test them to see what they learned.

Research has shown that only about five percent of what is said in a lecture in remembered by students one year later. So, what exactly were these students in a private university paying for? They would continue for years attending lectures, reading assigned texts, and cramming for exams until, at last, they would be granted a degree. They were paying for our approval and for a piece of paper called a degree that future employers expected to see.

Unfortunately, these students are the sheep being sheared of their hard earned tuition. Many will be sheep for the rest of their lives, doing what they are told and resenting their lives.

The centuries old practice of lecturing to large numbers of students and of requiring some prescribed number of courses is long outmoded.
I also taught many psychology laboratory sections, and there I was a delighted to see students catch fire by actually doing something like training a rat or doing an experiment of their own design. I remember my days as an undergraduate in my beloved biology course in which we actually learned anatomy by dissection and by drawing what we found.

The centuries old practice of lecturing to large numbers of students and of requiring some prescribed number of courses is long outmoded. It is extremely inefficient, boring, and expensive.

Today I can go to my computer and hear lectures by the best of scholars, and I do love a stimulating, interesting lecture. But, not three times each week for a semester from a not very interested professor who has been reading from the same notes for years.

College and university tuition in the United States has become amazingly expensive, but some courses of study are worth it. Any situation in which the student is active rather than a passive listener is probably worth considering. This would include practical laboratories, art, music, chemistry, physics, and field work. Even freshman English, required of all, can be participatory.
It was for me; we had to hand in a theme every week, and the professor read them all and wrote comments on them.

The costs of education in the United States, however, leave many graduates with a debt that will take years to pay.

There are those professors who simply love to teach, and they should be honored and well paid for their work.
In college and university teaching I discovered that if you tell a student exactly what is required in order to earn an "A" grade, most students will go out and do it. I discovered that what is important is not talking to students, but allowing students to talk to the professor. For example, I taught an advanced graduate course on learning theory, and I selected the five best books in the field I could find, one for each major theorist. I told the students to start with any one of the books, read it, and come to me in the office. I would give them fifteen minuets to convince me that they knew the material. They would talk, I would ask a question here and there, and it was soon clear to both of us what they had learned. If they passed my review on one book, they earned an F grade rather than an Incomplete grade. Pass on two books, they earned a D. Pass on all five, they get an A.

They all got A's.

At the heart of it, however, the modern American University is not about education; it's about getting grant money to build little empires for senior professors.

Graduate students and new professors start out teaching the lecture sections and working on research grants run by senior professors. Being a good teacher is not really the goal. Building a research empire and becoming self-supporting are the goals, and, incidentally, providing up to thirty percent of grant income to the university as "overhead."

Once the professor has begun to bring in grants from government, corporations, or foundations, he or she must spend time writing reports, supervising assistants, worrying about a pay roll, and designing the next grant proposal. Academic pay and tenure depend on building the empire. Teaching at the undergraduate level becomes a nuisance or is avoided altogether. A professor's pay may range from $70,000 per year up to $150,000 and higher. But, that is just the beginning. Professors often earn extra income as consultants and even as grant reviewers. They are under pressure to publish research papers every year and get a book written once every several years. They work very hard, but does this matter to the struggling undergraduate who is going deeper and deeper into debt with each passing semester?

The government sponsors its own laboratories for such things a atomic research and space exploration, and it spends billions more every year supporting academic research. It spends very little in support of undergraduate education, and little research is done to improve things for the undergraduate.

There are those professors who simply love to teach, and they should be honored and well paid for their work. Good professors put students to work with real activities, and they listen and coach more than they lecture.

Arguments against government support of university research have been few; the English scientist Terence Kealey is one of the dissidents. In his book The Economic Laws of Scientific Research (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997) Kealey suggests that industry, not government, is the better source of research funds. According to Kealey, government money can corrupt and result in the loss of objectivity. However, the present system in the United States in not likely to change. All we can hope for is a better deal for the lowest person on the pecking order: the undergraduate student.

(Julian I. Taber, Ph.D. is author of Addictions Anonymous: Outgrowing Addiction with a Universal, Secular Program of Self-Development. ISBN 978-1-60145-647-2.
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