Column #20, posted May 29, 2005

Is Trump Academic?

I have always said that everything wrong with education starts with the letter P (see below). One of my favorite of the 6 P’s has always been the press. If the press can misunderstand education, they will, and they will let everyone know about the depth of their confusion. The other day Trump University was launched at a press conference in Trump Tower in New York. I have been working with these folks since December. They have promised that we will be allowed to build high quality meaningful on line education and so far, we have been allowed to do just that. We haven’t been given an enormous budget, but these days we have learned how to work cheap. We launched this week with three courses of what we hope will eventually be hundreds. At the launch Donald Trump spoke. The press was eager to hear what he had to say – they showed up en masse – and they were just as eager to ridicule the idea after he left. Problem is, they never asked what the idea was. While Trump was being belittled in the press for putting his name on a university, I found myself wondering about the four universities I have worked for, named for or founded by men of similar wealth – Stanford, Yale, Northwestern (the man was named Evans and the town is named after him not the school) and Carnegie-Mellon. Do you think the press made fun of Leland Stanford when he started Stanford? Does the phrase “robber baron” come to mind for any of these folks? How do they know this won’t be a quality school? Truth is – they don’t much care.

Of course, I became most annoyed when I was attacked. Actually I have a pretty thick skin so it wasn’t what you think. But I was attacked for what was probably poor phrasing of an important idea. The press never asked about the idea and I was trying to be brief in my remarks. I said school was a little too “academic” and the pundits in the press came back with the brilliant rejoinder that that is why they call it school. Frankly I don’t know what that means, but I do know that the underlying assumption, held by the press and by much of the general public, is that school deals with school subjects in a school-like way and that that is how it has always been and always must be. In fact, in common parlance, the word academic tends to be used to refer to subjects of no real world interest of value only to professors.

Should school be academic? Should it deal with subjects that only come up in the classroom? Let the geniuses who thought my academic remark to be funny answer this: what is the quadratic formula? How do you calculate the volume of a rhombus? Don’t know? Why should you? You shouldn’t just accept that school, which was being too academic at the time, insisted that you memorize this stuff for a period of time long enough to pass some multiple choice tests.

The question is why school teaches the subjects that it does and whether that should be allowed to continue. Most of what you learn in high school is irrelevant to anyone’s real life. Ask any high school student – they know this all too well. The truth is that unless you want to be a professor, most of what you learn in college or graduate school can be quite irrelevant as well. Even MBA programs, practical as they may be in principle, tend to forget that the students are just there to learn how to do well in business. Professors, who are of course quite academic, might not be the best determiners of what students want to learn or need to learn. Typically they just teach what they want to teach, which is not the same thing. The high school curriculum, school incarnate, was designed by a bunch of professors in 1892. They were not thinking about what students might need to learn in order to succeed in today’s world.

I do hope the press at some point in the future begins to recognize that its job is actually not to defend the status quo, especially when the status quo is becoming quite harmful. School needs to change. The next time someone says that – ask how, or at least ask why and save the cute remarks for less important subjects.

The 6 P’s:
  1. Publishers — because they dominate the world of education the way it was.
  2. Politicians — because they only care about measurable change in existing education, hence tests.
  3. Princeton — or any great university that requires SATs and a fixed HS curriculum that was designed in 1892.
  4. Princeton — home of the education testing service the great evil of our time.
  5. Press — which intimidates all schools with publishing results of minute differences in test score results.
  6. Parents — who insist that school be like it was when they went to school.

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