Dr. Starr knows my son, Cody, who graduated from SDSU last summer. "Cody hardly had to write any papers," I say, "and he was an English major."
Starr isn't surprised. "Of course. One of the losses is in the writing instruction. For several reasons. It takes a tremendous amount of time to grade long papers, and faculty members aren't going to get promoted because they grade long essays. They're going to assign short papers, if any. And in a lot of disciplines, students don't write a word beyond their name on the Scantron.
"The world we live in is changing. People like you and I are due for extinction. Students don't read much anymore. I've known liberal studies students in their senior year to admit that the first book they ever read from cover to cover was something they had just read last semester. They don't read much at all as entertainment, and I find a great decline in what they read in many of their courses. And I suspect that ultimately people's writing skills are more a result of their reading than of writing instruction.
"I have always assigned my upper-division history classes five, six, or seven books. Few of my colleagues assign more than three now. The amount of reading assigned has dropped immensely."
"In favor of what?" I ask.
"Nothing. One of the things I've found in advising -- many students take 18 or more units and really do well. If you pin them down, you find that what is demanded of a student at San Diego State is not much. No one short of a true genius could've taken 18 units of history classes in 1965. Impossible.
"No doubt graduate programs and professional programs are better. It's just a matter of -- what's San Diego State supposed to be? A research university or a regional university serving the needs of the local population? Once you answer that question, then you can decide whether what's happening is good or bad. And I think some of us answer that question differently than the people in the administration building do.
"I'm still philosophically attached to the old California master plan, which saw a state university as serving a regional need as general university and with applied and professional programs. The emphasis on research and publication was left to the UCs. I don't think there's a place in the U.S. where you have a research/publishing/Ph.D.-oriented university that also has the attachment to undergraduate education. They're simply two different worlds.
"But now the university is committed to becoming a university of the first national order. As a matter of policy, if I were running the state of California, I would start talking about the need to establish a real CSU campus in San Diego. We don't have one now, and I think we need one more than ever, because with the immigrants coming in, the number of first-generation college students and students that may have language and other difficulties is growing daily, and we need a university that addresses their needs and that provides the teaching orientation to help those people make the entry into the mainstream. Education in America, at least since the middle of the 19th Century, has been the primary mechanism whereby new immigrants work their way into the system," Starr concludes. "We need that desperately, and San Diego State isn't meeting the requirement."