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John A. Brownridge Ed.D.

Societal Concerns About Declining Standards in Education
John Brownridge Ed.D.

Some philosophers and sociologists, notably Pierre Bourdieu, have discussed the phenomenon of dominant and exclusive practices within a single culture. Prevailing or governing groups, it is claimed, are able to subjectively legitimize their values and priorities to the disadvantage of subordinate groups. These values are then portrayed as desirable societal values and any variation or modification is seen as deplorable and unacceptable. This attitude has historically been evident in cultural practices, in life style, and in political structures, but in the late 20th century it has been most evident in education.

The pejorative term “dumbing down” has been frequently used to refer to an inappropriate simplification or degradation of intellectual standards to the point that creativity and innovation are seriously affected. It is thought by some that standards themselves are undermined and trivialized by the introduction of non-traditional courses at the university or college level. As the knowledge base of popular culture infringes on areas of traditional academic excellence, many traditionalists are alarmed and shocked at the apparent departure from academic standards. The changes are evident, but they are not necessarily detrimental to the needs of a modern society.

Many western countries, including the United States, have taken positive steps to expand opportunities for higher education in recent times, and some have identified targets of up to 50% student enrolment in such programs. This combined with an urgent need for funding has led to a major increase in university places and the acceptance of many students with poor high school grades into three and four-year degree programs. Media reports have been highly critical of this development, claiming that standards have been drastically reduced to accommodate students whose applications would have been otherwise rejected.

Some programs such as psychology, media studies and political science have become key targets for criticism, although the representation of such courses is often erroneous or inaccurate. Critics claim that the content of these courses is not as rigorous as one would expect, though they do have relevance and application in the labor market. The main criticism, however, is directed at so-called vocation courses offered at the university level. The introduction of such courses represents a radical departure from traditional academic programs.

Some institutions of higher learning have been surprisingly bold in their expansion of curriculum content and perhaps they have gone too far. It is now possible for students to find degree-level programs in Golf Management, Surfing Studies, Boxing, and Wine Evaluation. A British university was severely criticized in the media recently for introducing a course in David Beckham Studies as part of its Sports Science program.

No one can doubt the relevance and practical value of vocational programs. The question is whether or not they should be part of a degree program. Realistically, however, it should be remembered that many polytechnical institutions and colleges have been converted into ‘new’ universities over the past twenty-five years and they continue to fill an urgent need for practical courses as well as continuing an academic tradition. Perhaps vocational courses are less intellectually rigorous, but they are necessary nevertheless and by providing them, the new universities are responding to an essential need.