Machine Design, Editorial Comment
May 18, 2000

The commencement season is upon us, and once again I wait in vain for an invitation to address graduating seniors at a prestigious university. And once again it does not come. So I'll make my speech from the podium of this editorial page.

Tap, tap, tap, is the microphone on? Can you hear me in the back? Dr. and Mrs. Stoopnagel, esteemed faculty and honored guests, graduating seniors and parents, it is an honor to stand before you on this solemn occasion.

What I have to say is less than flattering, but I ask you not to slay the messenger. I have not set foot on a college campus in years. Everything I am about to say I have read in the newspapers. It isn't just me talking but instead is a distillation of some 20 salient articles on education appearing over the past year.

First of all, one theme in these articles is that political correctness continues to run amuck at American universities. Universities still launch endless assaults on what used to be considered fundamental democracy and scholarship. However, this created a backlash of sorts. Your older brothers and sisters, having passed through the same intellectual slum from which you are emerging, now realize their politically correct courses are irrelevant in the real world. In isolated pockets this has created pressures for a return to classical education capable of making you cultured and educated citizens.

Despite this, most of you simply were not equipped for rigorous learning. Professors say you arrived at college with a distaste for being made to read, write, and reason cogently.

Who can blame you when your preparation for college was so bad? Part of the reason is the low caliber of teachers in your elementary and secondary schools. For example, when 23 teachers being trained to instruct other teachers in math were asked to divide 13/4 by 1/2, only nine could get the correct answer. And many of those who answered correctly had such a muddled understanding of fractions that they couldn't explain how they solved the problem.

Here at your own university, you have the privilege of rating your instructors. Ironically, that does a lot to dumb down the institution. Teachers, under pressure to get good ratings which can help lead to raises and tenure, find that the way to get these ratings is to dumb down their courses. Instructors who insist on high standards consistently get poor ratings, lowering their chances for promotions.

Of course, when you arrived on campus from high school, you certainly weren't having problems with self-esteem. Grade inflation in high school imbued you with the feeling that you were above average academically. Thirty years ago, only 12% of incoming college freshmen were straight-A students. Today, 34% are straight-A students. What happened? Has someone been doing wholesale genetic engineering on the sly? Go figure.

Last but not least, we have to deal with something of utmost importance, and that is how you spent spring break. Despite your complaints about having to take out student loans to pay tuition, beer blasts in Florida aren't good enough anymore. Instead, by the multitudes you gravitated to pricey resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean during break. Back in March, Cancun was preparing for as many as 200,000 American students to crowd its beaches in spring. Another 20,000 were expected in other Mexican resorts, 15,000 were expected in Nassau, and 7,500 were expected in Jamaica. These were not Motel 6 excursions. Travel agents said you were reserving expensive rooms in the very best hotels. Hasn't federal financial aid to education done wonders?

Thank you for your kind attention, ladies and gentlemen. Good evening. Thunderous applause builds to pandemonium until Dr. Stoopnagel steps to the podium to announce: "Mr. Khol has left the auditorium."

-- Ronald Khol, Editor