Friday, August 13, 2010
Higher Education? Part V: What is Higher Ed?
For my brief, positive review, see here.
For Part I, on how much a professor is worth, see here.
For Part II, on the issue of administrative bloat, see here.
For Part III, on college athletics, see here.
For Part IV on tenure, see here.
The question that shapes the book, Higher Education?, is: what is higher ed? What is it for? Who is it for? According to the authors, it is for basically a liberal arts education, not training for specific careers (engineering, medicine, fashion merchandising, etc) and should be for everyone. Cut away all of the bells, whistles, sports teams, rankings, research dollars, and students services, university should primarily be about education, learning to learn, and not training.
I am very sympathetic to this idea. I often get into arguments on Twitter when we talk about higher ed and the "training" of graduates for the future, giving them the "skills" they need to succeed. Often, these skills involve technical know-how, not knowledge and idea production. To me, students should have all the "skills" they need by the time they graduate high school: reading, writing, basic math. In higher ed, I firmly believe it is our job to refine these skills further and integrate them into knowledge and idea production. When I teach writing, part of what I am teaching them is how to move from a high school report to a university-level essay that has an idea that it tries to communicate. I do often wonder why many programs are a) even in the university and b) require a four-year degree (and increasingly, a two-year masters).
The authors call for all research institutes, hospitals, engineering and medical colleges, and any other branch of the university that isn't directly related to the basic, liberal arts education of the student to be spun off into their own, independent entities. They call for the faculty to abandon most, if not all, research if they are to be employed as professors (another reason to do away with tenure; over-reliance on the research part of the equation). And, of course, to end the prestige and rankings race that takes place every year, blinding parents to the realities of the campus as well as fueling much of the growth in cost of a Bachelors degree.
At the end of the book, the authors point to several large, multiversities as they are referred to, that a student can thrive in. One example that stands out to me is Arizona State University, with two (TWO!) engineering colleges and a smaller, liberal arts college. The authors really think everyone should do a liberal arts degree before a more technical, career oriented degree. But one of the advantages of the multiversity is that a student does just that: just about every bachelors degree requires the student to take a set of core required courses, usually outside of their major. Instead of calling for the destruction of the multiversity (which I don't even think would be possible) why not instead call for the strengthening of core requirements (a movement that is already taking root across the country)?
One of the greatest strengths of the American system of higher ed is the ability to offer choices to students, from going to a flagship state university campus to a small, liberal arts college and everything in between. Yes, they are getting more and more expensive and it is getting harder and harder to gain admissions to the "prestige" universities (although, man, Harvard really doesn't come off too well in the book). But why not celebrate the choice that is out there for students, and the opportunities even a degree in fashion merchandising presents if the student is on a large campus and required to take many different courses, rather than at a smaller, highly-specialized (and increasingly private) institution?
Another aspect that the authors tend to forget is that even the specialized, highly technical degrees are intellectually demanding. More and more engineering programs are about creating and not just recreating, problem solving, and communication (can't get that venture capital if you can't communicate your million-dollar idea!). My younger brother did a specialized certification in welding (after getting a degree in photography and doing that for a few years). He was required to do math (but with no official math course) in order to interpret or modify blueprints. He was also required to learn about aesthetics, because often the project he designed needed to look as good as it was functional. People won't readily buy something that is ugly. A recent article quite rightly indicates that students in technical programs are looking for more than "just a paycheck," but an education.
So I come away conflicted in my feeling about the university and the book Higher Education? On the one hand, I still strongly recommend it because it gets so much right about what's wrong with the university. If I have written a few thousand words here in discussion or disagreement with them, it does nothing to nullify the tens of thousands of words they have devoted to the problem (and there are problems) of the way higher education runs today. But I worry about some of their recommendations to throw the baby out with the bath water: professors don't really have academic freedom, so let's get rid of tenure; students should have a broader base in the liberal arts, so let's get rid of the more technical programs on campus. Have we gone too far in terms of publish-or-perish at the expense of the classroom setting? Yes, in many cases, but then is that a reason to do away with research institutes on campus, especially in the humanities or social science, where the work done there would never be recreated anywhere else?
Perhaps we need a new kind of university, one that will push the old ones in new and different directions. The authors are indeed correct when they call for presidents and university leaders who are brave and bold and innovative in their approach to the job of reshaping the university. I think even the biggest R1 institution can give a strong, broad-based core education to all students on campus, even though it will never match the experience at a small, liberal arts college. Read the book, think about the book, and speak up with ideas on how to make the university a better (and more affordable) place for our children.