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.

But wait.

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.


  1. Thank you for the blog posts. I have been thinking about these issues myself after coming back to a university as a nontraditional student and being frustrated by the quality of my classes, which were pretty much the same as twenty years ago, and the cost of education. Since then I have read this book as well as:
    The Last Professors by Frank Donoghue
    Freedom to Learn by Carl Rogers
    DIY U by Anya Kamenetz
    Self University by Charles D. Hayes and
    listened to PBS’s Declining by Degrees as well as many other books on adult education.
    I have come up with several conclusions.

    1. Businesses use degrees as a way to weed out applicants. During recessions there is a surplus of labor so one of businesses tools to weed out applicants is to demand a bachelors. If they get to many bachelors they demand a masters.

    As a worker, you have to go back to school, not to get an "education" but to get a degree so you can get a job. That is why the majority of students don't care about their classes. They are jumping through hoops to get the paper.

    The myth is that there are jobs out there if for those with degrees. The truth is that you are just trying to be able to compete with other applicants for the same few jobs.

    If there was a sudden shortage of labor and an excess of jobs, all of a sudden we would see more entry level jobs, on the job training, and a huge reduction in people going back to school.

    2. Schools are a business. They get money from the government for each student and they get money through students loans.
    Because business uses degrees to weed out applicants, schools can take advantage of this, grow in size, higher more administration, pay professors less and increase class sizes to pull in more money.

    The university is no friend of teaching and learning and is more concerned about ranking and prestige. This is proven in the classroom.

    If education was the number one concern, class size would be small, the classrooms would have the best technology and teachers would be trained how to teach.

    3. Professors are taught how to do research and how to publish APA and MLA style papers and not how to teach.

    As an undergrad in Communication Studies, I was dumbfounded by all of the academic papers, tests, and presentations I had to give, but I never had to practice the skills of communication. When I took Research Methods in grad school I realized that professors are teaching students how to be scholars and researchers and how to write, not necessarily for life, but for publication. The problem is that most students are in college to get a job, not to become an academic.

    Because professors have not been taught how to teach, they rely on the same format of lecture that they saw as undergrads. In education you learn that this is one of the worst ways to learn. Professors also get confused as to the purpose of undergrad classes. Because of this confusion they end up teaching content. Students read the material, the professor lectures over the material and then you are tested over the material, and then the student forgets the material to cram for the next class.

    The problem with teaching content is that we live in an age of information. Anyone can buy a text book and learn the information. Why should they pay hundreds of dollars and time to sit in a class? This is why it is easy for administration to increase class size, because it is just a transfer of information. Heck why not just do the lecture once, record it and show it to a couple hundred students, or better yet, lets get rid of that pricey teacher and put the information online. The students still need to go through the class because they need the degree, and the school still makes the money. Who needs a teacher. I think that is the future we are heading toward.

  2. I have read many of the same books and come to a lot of the same conclusions. And the information dump may be fine for the best and the brightest, but I fear for those very students I teach, those students who have been for too long let down by the current education system. The have never been taught how to learn, never been given the opportunity to really investigate and discover. This will not happen in a class of 300, nor, as you rightly point out, will it happen with a professor who is focused on creating the next generation of academic scholars. But it has to happen somewhere; we are training tomorrow's teachers, and we are training citizens in the most generic sense. Who needs a teacher? My students need teachers, desperately.


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