Higher Education: Problems and Promise

Some More or Less Random Thoughts on the Current State of Higher Education 

Higher education has no shortage of critics. Since the beginning of the Republic, we have argued about the appropriate purpose of education in America. Our colleagues are often the harshest critics. There are times when the arguments spill into public view, such as Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind (1987), which made a case against modernism in general, and in particular the curricular aims of the late 20th century university. More recently, Derek Bok's Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (2006) has criticized a perceived lack of attention to how we evaluate what our students learn, and the effectiveness our methods of instruction. (I don't intend to give a full accounting of either book, nor argue for or against their perspectives, but they are both worth reading if only to stimulate thought.*)

A traditional liberal education is defined by the American Association of Colleges and Universities as "a philosophy of education that empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills, and a strong sense of value, ethics, and civic engagement." Still an admirable (if somewhat vague) goal, but higher education is under pressure to prepare students to compete in a rapidly changing world, and it's often difficult to convince students (or their parents) of such values.

One can, I'm sure, find many reasons for the increased pressure on the nation's colleges and universities (and more particularly on faculty) over the last 25 years. I believe there are two principle reasons. First is the perception that a college degree confers significant economic value. In an era of limited job security and increasing economic churning, it is no surprise that parents are anxious to see their children succeed in college. Coupled with this is a roughly 50% growth in enrollment, driven to a large extent by increased enrollment of women and minorities. Thus faculty are expected to educate more students with more diverse backgrounds in an environment where the stakes are perceived as quite high.

On top of this, we are being asked to do a better job of documenting student learning in an integrated and systematic way, and show how our instructional practices are changing in response to what we learn about our students.

That our students abide in a media-saturated world is nothing new (most of the current faculty grew up with television as a fixture in their world, too); but the development and expansion of the internet and the ubiquity of cell phones has extended the reach of "infotainment" beyond anything imaginable when I was in school, and we thus have a tremendous challenge simply to get students' attention. I don't think we are, at this time, entirely successful. But it is important that we make an attempt to get students to slow down and think; decision-making should not be just another kind of nervous tic, made with the same amount of intellectual effort as sending an email or text message.

While these challenges are formidable, my interaction with faculty at diverse institutions has convinced me that there are many dedicated, smart faculty, across all disciplines that are successfully carrying out their roles as teachers and scholars, and that there are principles and practices that can be shared and adapted in a wide variety of settings to build on this success. Learning communities, service learning and undergraduate research come to mind. And there are now, as always, faculty who are able to engage students in more traditional classroom settings as well. 

One common element of most successful strategies, I think, is that we must first get students attention with a hook; a connection between what we want them to learn, and what they see as an issue or problem of direct concern to them. The educational process must aim to help students rethink the way they live their lives, move them out of their comfort zones and help them develop the intellectual tools for self-examination, as well as the professional knowledge and skills necessary to make a living. Not an easy task, but the history of higher education in this country is a story of growth and adapting to new environments.


 * Two books which focus on the development and relationship between science and the state which I think offer intriguing views on how we got where we are now are Science, Money and Politics, by Daniel S. Greenberg (University of Chicago Press, 2001; you can read a review here), and Scientists, Business, and the State, 1890-1960 by Patrick J. McGrath (University of North Carolina Press, 2001; read more here). While I am not familiar with the literature, there are certainly similar  arguments about the state of literature, languages, history, social sciences and the arts. 

On the other hand, there is plenty of fiction that, to my mind, can help us maintain a healthy perspective on our chosen profession, going back to Lucky Jim, written by Kingsley Amis in 1954, and including such modern classics as Jane Smiley's Moo, Don Delillo's White Noise, and perhaps my favorite, Straight Man by Richard Russo. Another quite interesting take on the modern academic scene, Saul Bellow's Ravelstein is based on Allan Bloom and his experiences leading to writing The Closing of the American Mind. There are some interesting references to what are now generally known as "neoconservatives"  in this one.

Here are some links to additional information about some of the books, etc, I mention.

For a look back on Bloom's book after 20 years, see this essay from the NY Times. Wikipediaalso has an entry on The Closing of the American MInd 

The Education Digest has a review of Our Underachieving Colleges

The National Center for Education Statistics offers reports on enrollment trends 

AACU has resources on liberal education. In early 2007, Harvard also released a new report on general education.

 If I am not convincing enough that decision-making is a problem, you might enjoy a recent book, "Predictably Irrational," by Dan Ariely. For more information, see www.predictablyirrational.com.

Another interesting take on what Barry Schwartz, a social psychologist at Swarthmore refers to as the "Paradox of Choice" can be sampled at his website, www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/bschwar1/