Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has compiled a list (warning: NSFW language) of the functions of higher education, ranging from promotion of cultural literacy to provision opportunities for mating, with much in between.
The list not exhaustive: although economic mobility has declined in recent decades, higher education still offers important opportunities for advancement. And some of the items could be clarified. For example, universities soften market pressures on intellectuals in some ways. But they certainly don’t eliminate them. Still, thinking about what universities are for, both in aspiration and in practice, is an important step toward meaningful reform.
Gobry’s contribution is to remind us that American universities are expected to complete an amazing number of tasks. It’s not very controversial to observe that that’s a recipe for mediocrity across the board. Universities would probably do a better job if they concentrated on a few key areas.
The problem is that there’s little agreement about what universities’ core competencies actually are. Students want them to emphasize personal growth and amenities; the faculty favors pure scholarship and graduate education; politicians want job training and economically productive research; and so on. None of these constituencies “owns” the university. On the other hand, none can simply be ignored. As a result, nothing much gets done.
These crosspressures are endemic to the modern “multiversity”, as it was described by University of California President Clark Kerr. Rather than pursuing comprehensive changes, then, reformers should look for ways to disaggregate the various tasks and associations that make-up the universe of higher education. Although they won’t be to everyone’s taste, there’s nothing illegitimate in principle about most of the items on Gobry’s list. But he’s right to suggest that they can’t and shouldn’t all be pursued within a single institution.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Michael S. Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, argues that students get real benefits from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Based on his experience teaching a MOOC on “The Modern and the Postmodern” for Coursera, Roth maintains that these benefits aren’t limited to the acquisition of technical skills: MOOC students can also engage in deep study of classic philosophical authors such as Rousseau and Kant. The op-ed is behind a paywall. But here is Roth’s conclusion:
Teaching this MOOC has shown me that online courses will be increasingly viable and valuable learning options for those who can’t make their way to campuses. Taking a course online is clearly not the same thing as integrating study with residential experience, but it is a powerful mode of learning that is already enriching millions of lives across the globe.
It’s probably an exaggeration to say that MOOCs are enriching “millions of lives”. But Roth provides anecdotal evidence that at least some of the nearly 4000 students who completed his course (of about 30,000 who registered) learned something from it.
The problem is, these were not the kinds of students that we should worry about helping. Roth’s anecdotes of positive engagement with course involve “a graduate student in the Netherlands”, “[a]nother adult student, in Germany”, and “[a]n American woman…taking the class with her husband and two other couples; all had Ph.D.’s”. In other words, Roth offers reasons to believe that MOOCs are a nice diversion for highly educated, highly motivated adults in rich countries. That’s fine, but no justification of all the excitement about MOOCs as an alternative, or even a meaningful supplement, to more traditional forms of higher education.
So what about students in this country who haven’t already earned a college degree? Peter Sacks offers a more realistic vision of the MOOCified future:
Well-off students will attend the few colleges and universities that are wealthy enough to eschew standardization and automation. They alone will have real relationships with great faculty. A second, less wealthy group of students will use online courses for their general education and attend “authentic” institutions for a short while. For poorer students, online learning could well become the main course. They will attend institutions that, strictly speaking, grant post-high school credentials to the coach class.
I don’t know if this scenario can be avoided. But I’m certain that it’s nothing to be celebrated. As the president of a rich college that serves mostly rich students, Roth can afford to offer free edu-entertainment to an international audience. But one wishes that he’d considered the consequences for the less fortunate institutions and students who dominate higher education here at home.
D. G. Myers earlier this week defended the use of literary history as an aide to the study of literature. Literary history is a shortcut to the advantages of wide reading and long experience, without which there is no good literary criticism, and without which one cannot begin to read anything with profit. He’s entirely right, but to admit that is to admit the limits of literature as an object of scientific scholarship.
Literary history works as an antidote to the dominance, in the undergraduate classroom, of New Criticism (named and championed by John Crowe Ransom and other southerners), which held that each word should be read closely with a mind towards its relation with the whole, and that nothing but the words of the text should guide a reader’s interpretation of it. Spin-off theories have replaced the sovereignty of the words with their own absolutisms, but, no matter the theory, professors have pointedly avoided teaching the literary context of the particular text, lest the innocence of the student’s imagination be tainted by suggestion. The reader is left to confront the text, like Francis Bacon’s inductive acolytes confront Nature, with nothing but curiosity, scepticism, and vast patience.
Literary criticism has always struggled to prove its rightful place at the table of the sciences. Ransom’s defense of close reading was a renewed effort to make literary scholarship scientific, by defining the scope of its study to that which uniquely belonged to literature and could not be found elsewhere. The outline of his ideas appears in his seminal essay from 1937, “Criticism, Inc.” It is suggestive that he offers the structures and linguistic tricks of poetry, as opposed to prose, as his prime example of the specific branches of knowledge which the critic ought to master. Close reading works better with poetry than with prose, since the working assumption of the critic, that every word is in an intricately balanced unity with the whole, holds up more often.
Since the beginning, English literature has been indebted to the study of classical literature and language, and for precision and breadth has never equalled it. The eighteenth century curriculum in England of the classical Greek and Latin literature was a model of education which cannot be replicated by the study of English. It was a synthesis of grammar, rhetoric, history, and ethics. Close reading sat alongside comparative literature, history, ethics, sociology as a profitable interpretative enterprise, in part because their knowledge of antiquity drew chiefly on the famous literature. Now that classical history has become scientific; that archeology, numismatics, the study of accumulated minor primary sources, etc. take up much more of the burden of historical inquiry, the famous primary texts are no longer quite so available as a vehicle for the transmission of humanistic values and the civilizing of the imagination and taste.
When the vernacular replaced the antiquities as the touchstone of a common culture, the study of English literature inherited the responsibility for transmitting that humanistic education. But it also inherited the same problem. Studying history and sociology through literature doesn’t get very far. The New Critics rejected that burden, devoting themselves purely to the text as an inherently interesting problem. Literary history goes the farthest one can go, now, to remedying the problem, by reincorporating the intellectual, cultural, political, and religious problems of the past back into the literature. It can become again the ground of humanistic education in the way that the antiquities once were. That, I think, is the natural home of literature. The science of literature serves that end, and not the other way round.
New York magazine has a disturbing story on relations between Ultra-Orthodox Jews and the rest of the population in the western part of Rockland County, New York. The Ultra-Orthodox began moving to the area in the 1970s. Since then, they’ve grown to a majority in the town of Ramapo, where they control a local school board.
This wouldn’t be a problem if the Ultra-Orthodox had much interest in secular education. But they send almost all of their children to religious schools and generally see public schools as a burden to be reduced as much possible. So the board of education has closed schools and cut staff and services to the bone.
What’s particularly striking is that the board members quoted in the piece make little effort to justify these cuts, even as a response to the district’s ongoing fiscal crisis. Consequently, they are seen as a deliberate strategy to drive the non-Orthodox residents out of the area. The board members’ view is that they won the elections, fair and square. As the former chairman put it, “You don’t like it?…Find another place to live.”
Contributors to The American Conservative, myself included, often defend local control against the centralized decision-making. The developments in Rockland County illustrate a weakness of that position. Local control is attractive when citizens of a particular jurisdiction have a shared understanding of their interests, which may be different from those in neighboring towns, counties, and so on. It can get ugly when they are internally split between fundamentally opposed goals.
The tension is heightened by the separatist orientation of Jewish community in Rockland County. The New York piece speaks generically of Orthodox Jews. That is misleading because the sects that dominate Ramapo are distinctive in their hostility toward secular society, which includes, in their view, adherents of other forms of Judaism as well as gentiles.
So what’s to be done? Opponents of the board may have a legal remedy if they show that the district is failing to provide the “sound basic education” that the New York Court of Appeals has held to be required by the state constitution. That could be challenging, however, because this standard requires that students be prepared for civic participation, but not that they made be attractive to competitive colleges.
There is also a pending lawsuit that accuses the board of fiscal mismanagement. If successful, it could lead to increased oversight. Another option would to convince the state to take direct control, as requested by a petition by angry residents. But the influence of Ultra-Orthodox voters, who are avidly courted by New York politicians, make this effort unlikely to succeed.
In addition to their practical disadvantages, all these possibilities are essentially centralizing. The challenge for conservatives who are sympathetic to local self-government but concerned about the tyranny of the majority is to find approaches that give students the opportunity to get a decent secular education without surrendering to the state.
That’s where school vouchers might come in. Education reformers often argue that vouchers will improve performance. But the more powerful justification is that they help resolve disagreements about the purposes of education–and of government more generally. Although the situation in East Ramapo is extreme, the tension that it reflects will only become more frequent as our common culture fractures. Rather than fighting for control of a single education system, we should figure out ways to let all students go to schools that best suit their intellectual, religious, and cultural needs.
I wrote a post earlier this week on the National Association of Scholars’ report on the condition of the American liberal arts college, represented by Bowdoin in Maine. I was critical of the study, which I found rhetorically provocative, intellectually shallow, and generally unsympathetic to reasonable concerns about social inclusion. Despite these criticisms, I share many of the ideals highlighted by the NAS statement of purpose. The argument of the post was that the Bowdoin report won’t do much to promote them.
Bowdoin’s president Barry Mills offered a response. Fairness demands that it be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as the NAS report. It doesn’t stand up very well. Mills refutes a narrow interpretation of the report’s more exaggerated claims. But he evades some serious issues that they raise.
Mills begins by denying that Bowdoin is anti-American. He points out, among other things, that its campus includes several memorials to American war dead and that its public events include moments of ceremonial patriotism.
All this is true, as a simple Google search reveals. But it is also beside the point. Bowdoin cannot escape its heritage and does not attempt to. The real question is whether these tributes are anything more than photo opportunities. As Mills acknowledges, it’s “important that we honor America through memorials and music, but most important is what we teach our students about this nation and its traditions.” So what does Bowdoin teach?
According the NAS, the answer is: not much. In particular, they observe that Bowdoin does not require students to take any course in American history, that Bowdoin offers no general survey of American history, and that “there are no courses devoted to political, military, diplomatic, or intellectual history except those that deal with some group aspect of America.” Read More…
The season of college admissions is now upon us, weeks of envelopes fat and thin.
With so many teenagers now discovering their future life-prospects as dealt out by our academic gatekeepers, discussions of the selection process are appearing in our media, and some of these include reference to my own Meritocracy article of almost five months ago, focusing on the same topic.
For example, the Sunday New York Times carried an interesting discussion by columnist Ross Douthat on the Ivies and their role in producing our national elites, which included linked references to my main Meritocracy article as well as my short piece for the NYT Forum on Asian discrimination.
Given that the reach of the electronic media so greatly exceeds the number of people who ever bother reading anything, I was even more pleased to see that Fareed Zakaria’s Sunday CNN television show ran a segment on college admissions, heavily drawing upon the findings of my article; his Time magazine column covered the same topic. One minor point of confusion was his suggestion that I had ignored the substantial number of Asian students whose fear of racial discrimination causes them to conceal their personal background and are therefore lumped into the “Race Unknown” category. In fact, I had discussed this and similar possibilities in detail, and provided all the related data. Read More…
The National Association of Scholars has released a report on the state of liberal education. Taking Bowdoin College in Maine as a representative example, the report argues that America’s liberal arts colleges are failing students by lowering academic standards, substituting highly specialized courses for broad surveys, and encouraging trendy political activism at the expense of serious study. These claims are staples of conservative or traditionalist critiques of higher education, but that doesn’t mean they’re false. Unfortunately, the NAS study is written in a way that makes it unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with its conclusions.
The problems begin to emerge in the opening pages, which include a foreword by Bill Bennett and prefatory letter by Thomas Klingenstein, a board member of NAS and the Claremont Institute whose encounter with Bowdoin president Barry Mills inspired the report. In different ways, each contribution signals that the report is a sermon for the faithful rather than an attempt at conversion.
Bennett begins by asserting that “Plato… remarked that the two most important questions in society are ‘Who teaches the children?’ and ’What do they teach them?’” Unfortunately, Plato “remarks” no such thing, at least in any of the works known to me (I invite readers to correct me if I’m wrong). I suppose that the phrase could be a reasonable, if rather simplistic summary of Plato’s thought about education. But the actual source appears to be a Michelle Malkin column. The phrase also appears, without a specific citation, on a number of cut-and-paste quote sites. Misquotation happens all the time, of course. But it’s a bad start for a defense of traditional education–particularly one that claims that Bowdoin students aren’t learning enough about Greek philosophy.
Klingenstein’s letter reflects a more serious problem. It is addressed to “to all Bowdoin alumni, but in particular to those over the age of, say, fifty to fifty-five, a line that more or less demarcates old Bowdoin from new.” I cannot imagine an appeal more likely to alienate readers outside movement conservatism. By appealing explicitly to nostalgia for mostly white and (until 1971) all male “old Bowdoin”, Klingenstein places the report right in its critics’ crosshairs.
The authors’ tin ear for readers’ sensibilities is in evidence throughout the report. In particular, the report shows no sympathy for students who doubt, with some justification, that old Bowdoin had room for them. Acknowledging such doubts does not mean agreeing that cheerleading for “difference” is the best remedy. Rather, it should be the starting point for the argument that traditional liberal arts education has something to offer all serious students.
The report does little better appealing to potential readers on the faculty. Here, the challenge is to demonstrate that critics of the college status quo understand the intellectual and professional context in which academics work. The report fails do that.
A small, but telling example of this failure is the report’s self-description as an “an ethnography of an academic culture, its worldview, customs, and values.” It’s actually nothing of the kind. The report is based on considerable research in public documents and some interviews with students. But it includes none of the direct observation or explicit reflection on the way that observation can influence outcomes that characterizes academic ethnography. There is no more effective way to tick off professors than to misuse a technical concept. That’s especially true when that concept is supposed to describe the study’s relationship to the faculty itself.
More importantly, the report tends to conflate interest in traditional subjects and teaching styles with political conservatism. It also associates conservatism with support for the Republican party. That’s precisely the opposite of the argument that defenders of a traditional curriculum ought to make.
One reward of teaching Plato, for example, is students’ discovery that classical philosophy cannot be associated with any specific political commitments. Indeed, it challenges all modern ideologies. And as for professors’ partisan allegiances, let’s get real. It is quite difficult, and correspondingly rare, for anyone who takes scholarship seriously to get excited about an organization so consistently and loudly anti-intellectual as the current incarnation of the GOP.
As an individual who often regrets his decades-old defection from the academic community, I was remarkably pleased to see anthropologist Peter Frost very generously discuss my recent China article under the rubric “the Clark-Unz Model.” The senior researcher identified is obviously economist Gregory Clark, whose influential 2007 book A Farewell to Alms had suggested a very similar evolutionary analysis for the forces shaping the British people over most of the last thousand years.
The nearly 100 total comments on that column and Frost’s previous one have most sharply focused on what certainly seems to me to be by far the weakest aspect of my theory, namely that it would predict a substantial performance gap between Chinese and Japanese, given that the traditional rural society of the latter was totally different in nature (although Frost himself argues that there may have been more similarities than I acknowledge). Obviously, if those two major East Asian peoples are very similar in their abilities, my analysis is probably wrong.
Certainly the conventional wisdom has always placed Chinese and Japanese in the same ability category, and if someone had raised that issue with me a year ago, I would have been very skeptical of any large difference. But while I was performing the research for my Meritocracy article I encountered some striking data.
California contains almost one-third of America’s total Asian population, and its Chinese outnumber its Japanese by about 3.5 to 1. But among the high-ability NMS semifinalist students in recent years, there have roughly 750 Chinese names each year as opposed to a mere 15 or so Japanese ones. Obviously, much of this difference may be explained by factors of cultural assimilation, differences in the age-distribution curves, and the impact of selective recent Chinese immigration. However, a 50-to-1 difference in the number of top academic students is large enough to catch one’s eye and make one wonder whether there might possibly also exist the sort of intrinsic factors produced by many centuries of disparate selective pressure. I’d also noticed that although a truly remarkable fraction of all the winners of America’s various national academic competitions had been Chinese, the number of Japanese names was so small that I never even bothered to separately record them. Read More…
I’m a bit late on this; following intradisciplinary feuding among academic anthropologists usually isn’t a high priority, but this is an interesting story. Marshall Sahlins, a prominent anthropologist resigned recently from the National Academy of Sciences over the election of his controversial colleague Napoleon Chagnon and what he perceives as the unhealthy relationship between the NAS and the military:
Nor do I wish to be a party to the aid, comfort, and support the NAS is giving to social science research on improving the combat performance of the US military, given the toll that military has taken on the blood, treasure, and happiness of American people, and the suffering it has imposed on other peoples in the unnecessary wars of this century. I believe that the NAS, if it involves itself at all in related research, should be studying how to promote peace, not how to make war.”
To see how the two are even related one has to dig down into two of the discipline’s major contemporary debates; the primacy of science and empiricism, and the ethics of using anthropological research in military campaigns such as the Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The former is less interesting to laypeople, but the basic shape of it is that Chagnon’s critics accuse him of bad science whereas he accuses them of being anti-science postmodernists. Barbara King, a biological anthropologist and former professor of mine, weighed in over at NPR:
Inside Higher Education and Gallup have released a poll of attitudes toward higher education among parents with school-age children. The main finding is that most parents see higher ed as path to good jobs rather than an exercise in personal cultivation. They also see vocational and pre-professional training as more likely to lead to that outcome than study in the liberal arts. Finally, the poll found that parents care a lot about price. 68 percent of parents with high-school age children reported that they will be very or somewhat likely to restrict where their children apply to study based on the tuition they’ll be charged.
A representative of private liberal arts colleges quoted in the companion piece calls these results a “wake-up call”. If that’s what they are, members of the academic guild, which includes administrators and fulltime faculty, must be the only ones who are still asleep. As another Gallup poll showed earlier this year, Americans almost unanimously agree that it’s important to get a post-secondary degree or certification. The cause of this consensus is simple: Americans know that completing some form of higher ed has become a de facto requirement, although no guarantee, of decent employment. Mass enrollment in higher education, in other words, isn’t indicative of broad interest in the life of the mind. It’s a response to economic conditions.
Indeed, the structure of American higher education has been tied to the economy for decades. Although we prefer to remember it a reward for service, one justification for the 1944 GI Bill was that encouraging returning servicemen to go to college would prevent them from swamping the labor market. It’s possible that many Baby Boomers, who had grown up in the unexpected postwar boom, enrolled in higher education without thinking much about their futures. By the 1970s, however, students in a cooling economy were mostly concerned about jobs, as they have been ever since.
Rather than documenting a change in public opinion, then, the poll reflects an old disconnect between the guild and the public.