View from Mudsock Heights

It’s not nostalgia that leads me to think of a television show that all but disappeared more than 50 years ago. I bring up the once-famous “GE College Bowl” for an entirely different reason.

College Bowl was a quiz show. A panel of four students from each of two schools would compete. They would be asked often-difficult questions that it was thought college students might be able to answer. The winning school would return the following week to take on four students from a different school. Winners could return for up to five weeks, at which point they would be declared undefeated champions. It was formatted in the fashion of an athletic event, with a “halftime” break during which short films promoting each school were shown. The original host was Alan Ludden, whom many may remember as later being the host of the “Password” game show or as Betty White’s husband. (I remember him as having one too many Ds to be a cough drop.)

The program was broadcast from 1959 through 1970, first on CBS, then on NBC, and in its day it was a pretty big deal. It certainly was in the college towns whose schools were competing any particular week. The front page of the local newspapers in my original home town made much of it the four times the University of Missouri’s team appeared, in 1959 and in 1967. (MU beat Swarthmore 180-135 in its 1959 appearance, only to lose a week later to the University of Miami 215-140; eight seasons later it outmatched New Jersey City University 280-110 before itself getting hammered almost as badly, 235-185, by the University of Pittsburgh.)

I don’t know how much fuss was made here at the time – quite a bit, I’d guess – but Ohio University made an appearance in December 1962. OU got spanked 315-70 by the University of Virginia. I suppose there are people still around Athens who remember it.

The show crossed my mind over the weekend. I wondered whether there could be such a show today, and if there were, what the questions would be like. Would they be hard questions from deep with in the difficult (which is to say fact-based) courses of study in modern academia? Or would they be pop-culture stuff? Perhaps we’ll find out: It appears that NBC plans to air a short, 10-episode version of the quiz beginning in June.

I further wondered whether the philosophies, if we can call them that, of universities and colleges today put all that much emphasis on students learning facts. There’s a movement that holds that the most important part of college education is that no one’s feelings get hurt. Standards have dropped in many places (though there has always been the “gentleman’s C” at certain schools, given especially to the scions of families who might make substantial donations to those schools). And sometimes extra-curricular activities – sports – seem less an entertaining sideline and more the real industry in which schools are engaged.

Numerous voices have charged that many if not most colleges today are more involved in political indoctrination than in teaching facts, to the point of chucking out facts that do not fit the political theory being taught. Having not attended a college or university in a while I cannot attest to the claim’s veracity, though I have noticed that students and graduates typically lack knowledge in such obscure areas as how the national government works to the extent that they would not have been able to graduate from high school a generation ago. Many can barely read and write.

I have listened to professors complain that their classes are full of undergraduates who are functionally illiterate and how some have organized off-the-books remedial classes because they would like their students to succeed. And these are professors at Ivy League schools, where pride is taken in rioting against and shouting down speakers who do not hold opinions with which they agree.

That seems like a foundational problem, one toward which some repair effort ought to be made, but that doesn’t appear to be the direction of things.

(The first lesson in every macroeconomics class not long ago was how price controls – rent control was always the example – are economically unsound, and why this is so. I wonder if that is still the case. I fear that it might not be.)

A push is on now to achieve something called not equality but “equity.” This means not that everyone should have not the same opportunity but the same outcome. This has invariably devolved historically into a lowest-common-denominator play, bringing those who could achieve down to the level of those who cannot or do not whether through some fault of their own or not. It does not work and it can not work. (I am terrible at higher mathematics, and nothing can change that. Anything that would give me an equal score to those who know their stuff on calculus exams would have the lone effect of demonstrating that the exams were useless. So, say the “reformers,” let’s eliminate the exams.)

Here’s an easy way to prove that this doesn’t work. In the name of equity let it be decreed that every student at every college and university in the land be members of the schools’ varsity athletic teams, the the players at each upcoming game chosen at random from among the student body a day or two before. Thus, each fall a team of random students from Ohio State would play a team of random students from Michigan. That would be a level playing field, would it not? Equity, doncha know.

Is higher education worth it? Maybe not, say scholars at the St. Louis Federal Reserve. Richard Vedder, a distinguished economist at, of all places, Ohio University who has specialized in the economics of higher education, has written at length that the student debt situation makes no sense, and why.

So yes, there is much wrong with our institutions of higher education. I’ve written before about how this could come to have a terrible effect on Athens. But it goes beyond that. The old question was why Johnny can’t read. The modern educational crisis is that college graduates frequently can’t, either.

But they can recite some erroneous political ideas.

Perhaps we’ll see the shortcomings this summer, with the new version of College Bowl. A good way to make the comparison is to go online and watch an episode or two of the original, the things college students were once expected to know.

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