In my experience, the public reports and pronouncements of academic conferences, commissions, committees, task forces and workshops never, ever, reflect the undercurrents of skepticism, cynicism, doubt and despair of individual professors. Some may claim that their experience contradicts mine. They are either deluded of lying. Probably lying.

If I tell you I was witness to a steady deterioration in the quality of education at my institution, I don’t speak as a lonely killjoy curmudgeon. This was the consensus of my colleagues — liberal, conservative, reactionary, socialist and Marxist. The faculty in the small engineering department may have seen a different result. They had an excellent record of transferring students to prestigious institutions like MIT. There may have been some other dissenters from this view, but I never met them.

This skepticism, amounting almost to despair, never appeared in public pronouncements. True, one president admitted that students in the lowest remedial reading courses almost never graduated (which probably meant that none of them ever graduated). She admitted that these courses practically amounted to “consumer fraud” — her very words. But this admission was made at an in-house meeting. The college’s public statements and committee reports never reflected such harsh realities. These useless courses continue and expand.

I have to qualify this a little. The dumbest, most indolent and indifferent students have not declined. They’d already bottomed out.

The most intelligent and determined students still get an education for themselves. As I wrote in a reference for one of my brightest students “he plays no favorites; he can learn something from the stupidest of his professors.” It’s the mass of middling students who grow less educated, less interested and less competent.

Moving on from mere anecdotal evidence, I draw my readers’ attention to the December 2005 U.S. Department of Education second National Assessment of Adult Literacy report (

It shows a steep decline in proficiency among all 37-million college graduates age 25 and up in the 11 years between the completion of the first and second studies.

The three categories of literacy tested were prose, document and quantitative. Prose proficiency tests ability to search, comprehend and use information in continuous texts. Document literacy means the ability to  accomplish these things in non-continuous texts in a variety of formats. Quantitative literacy tests the ability to use numbers and figures, i.e., charts, tables, etc.

The NAAL report shows a drop in prose literacy of almost a quarter and in document literacy by a third. Quantitative literacy has remained steady. Since the study includes all college graduates, this means that the most recent graduates must have performed very badly to bring down the average for all 37-million college graduates.

These results correspond almost exactly to my last 11 years of academic service, so the anecdotal evidence provided in the first four paragraphs above have direct statistical support.

The NAAL report has gotten very little attention. This column will get even less. Our politicians will continue to advocate stuffing even more students into college. A majority of voters will remain convinced that if you place a person in a college environment, education must result. They are fanatical environmentalists in that respect, if in no other.

The next NAAL report is due in 2016. It will show a still steeper decline as the older generation of college graduates dies off. I doubt this will make a bit of difference.

I close with another anecdote. Back in 2002, a group of my colleagues happened to be hanging around the departmental office. All joined in bemoaning the hopeless incompetence of the majority of students in the remedial classes. The chairman pointed out that if they were not enrolled a lot of us would lose our jobs. No one had an answer to that.

You see how it works. Stuff more students into college, and the institution becomes committed to the fraud that they are there for a purpose. Self-interest and survival always prevail over high ideals.

Professor John Frary of Farmington is a former congressional candidate and retired history professor, a board member of Maine Taxpayers United and an associate editor of the International Military Encyclopedia. and can be reached at: