“HITS WITH THE APPROXIMATE FORCE AND EFFECT OF ELECTROSHOCK THERAPY” raved Roger Kimball’s review in The New York Times, as quoted on the paperback jacket of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a surprise best-seller in 1987 and the opening salvo in a ceaseless conservative war against the academic and cultural left. On the 20th anniversary of The Closing, and 15 years after Bloom’s death, the most salient issues concerning Bloom are his role in neoconservative Republican circles and his semi-closeted homosexuality, possibly culminating -- as in Saul Bellow’s thinly fictionalized account in Ravelstein -- in death from AIDS.
In Bloom's introductory chapter to his 1990 collection of essays Giants and Dwarfs, titled "Western Civ," previously published in Commentary, he responded to the reception of The Closing as a conservative tract by claiming that he was neither a conservative ("my teachers--Socrates, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Nietzsche -- could hardly be called conservatives") nor a liberal, "although the preservation of liberal society is of central concern to me." He saw himself, rather, as an impartial Socratic philosopher, above political engagement or "attachment to a party" and denying, against leftist theory, that "the mind itself must be dominated by the spirit of party."
A close re-reading of his books, however, confirms that they are lofty-sounding ideological rationalizations for the policies of the Republican Party from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.
Bloom rages against the movements of the 60s -- campus protest, black power, feminism, affirmative action, and the counterculture -- while glossing over every injustice in American society and foreign policy (he scarcely mentions the Vietnam War).
Bloom’s personal affiliations further belied his boast of being above “attachment to a party” and captivity to “the spirit of party.” Today these statements appear to go beyond coyness into the kind of hypocrisy that has become boilerplate for conservative scholars, journalists, and organizations like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni or National Association of Scholars, whose leaders vaunt their dedication to intellectual disinterestedness while acting as propagandists for the Republican Party and its satellite political foundations. The magazine in which Bloom made these boasts, Commentary, and its then-editor Norman Podhoretz, were prime examples of this hypocrisy. Podhoretz proclaimed in his 1979 book Breaking Ranks about Commentary, “I could say that the reason for our effectiveness [against the New Left’s alleged subordination of intellectual integrity to political partisanship] was a high literary standard.” But in the 80s he turned Commentary into a fan mag for President Reagan and in 1991 commissioned David Brock, in his self-confessed “right-wing hit man” days, to write an encomium to the intellectual gravitas of Vice President Dan Quayle.
For years, Bloom was co-director of the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy at the University of Chicago, which received millions from the John M. Olin Foundation. That foundation, whose president was William J. Simon, multimillionaire savings and loan tycoon and Secretary of the Treasury under President Ford, at its peak spent some $55 million a year on grants "intended to strengthen the economic, political, and cultural institutions upon which ... private enterprise is based.
William Kristol wrote a rave review of The Closing in The Wall Street Journal (where his father was on the editorial board), which is also quoted on the paperback jacket; he was at the time Vice President Quayle's chief of staff, and is now editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard. Kimball, the Times reviewer, was an editor of The New Criterion, and yet another Olin beneficiary. (So much for the Times’ fabled vetting of reviewers for conflicts of interest.) The supposedly liberal mainstream media have been complicit at worst, silent at best, in these conflicts of interest concerning Bloom and other conservative culture warriors, as in failing to consider how much the success of The Closing was attributable to Republican-front publicity channels. Yet conservatives have the chutzpah to accuse liberal academics and journalists of cronyism!
More significant for today is Bloom’s influence as mediator between the ideas of his mentor at the University of Chicago, Leo Strauss, and what has become known as the “neconservative cabal” of Straussians behind the Iraq War in the administration of George W. Bush. Paul Wolfowitz was Bloom’s student; Bellow’s Ravelstein says of Wolfowitz’s fictitious counterpart, “It’s only a matter of time before Phil Gorman has cabinet rank, and a damn good thing for the country.” Ravelstein depicts Ravelstein’s apartment as a high-tech communications center with a Wolfowitz-like disciple in Washington and other movers and shakers in international affairs during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, including the Gulf War -- in which Ravelstein and his protégés (few of whose real-life counterparts ever served in the military) privately condemn President Bush for a failure of nerve in not taking Baghdad and toppling Saddam Hussein.
Avowed Straussians invoke Strauss’s key ideas such as the defense of the manly, militaristic exercise of power by nation-states acting for virtuous ends, the running of government by a behind-the-scenes intellectual elite serving as advisors to the ostensible rulers, and the elite’s use of “noble lies” extolling patriotism, war, religion, and family values, to manipulate the ignorant masses into supporting pursuit of tough-minded realpolitik. My sense, however, is that Strauss’s, and Bloom’s, high-minded philosophical formulations of these ideas have just been vulgarized by Republicans as a pretext for unprincipled American imperialism, hypocritical manipulation of their conservative base’s faith in “moral values,” opportunism by would-be Machiallevian advisors-to-the-Prince, and the kind of tawdry autocracy, secretiveness, venality, and lying that came to mark George W. Bush’s administration. Bellow portrays Ravelstein reveling in the money, celebrity, and influence in Republican politics that ironically resulted from his best-selling book that decried such vulgar distractions from the life of the mind. He is thrilled at being feted by President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher, as Bloom was. The implicit moral is that intellectuals, whether of the left or right, who aspire to be the erudite power behind the throne typically end up groveling before it.
Even more anomalously, in the past decade or so, conservative attacks on liberal academics -- whom Bloom and others like Podhoretz earlier accused of betraying scholarly non-partisanship and intellectual standards -- have taken a turn toward ever-more-stridently populist, partisan derision of scholarship and intellect altogether. I made this point in an a column here last year with reference to David Horowitz inciting know-nothing Republican state legislators like Larry Mumper of Ohio and Stacey Campfield of Tennessee to government interference with academic freedom under the banner of The Academic Bill of Rights. (All of the bloviating conservative commentators on my column evaded the issue of conservative flip-flopping between elitist and ad populum lines of argument.)
Horowitz, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh have presented themselves as champions of the rights of the ordinary people against the latté-sipping “cultural elitists” in university faculties, media, and politics itself -- as in the belittling of John Kerry in 2004 as French-looking, or the derision of Al Gore’s scholarly demeanor. Thus Bloom continues to be revered by conservatives, without their registering the bothersome fact that he advocated precisely the kind of cultural elitism that they now savage. (Never mind his atheism and preference for ancient Greek over Judeo-Christian culture, or his tidbits of gay lingo, as in his half-admiring description in The Closing of Mick Jagger, “male and female, heterosexual and homosexual ... tarting it up on the stage.”
All these contradictions in Bloom’s texts and life are an exemplary case of the long-running schizophrenia of American conservatism in what resembles the old Good Cop-Bad Cop routine -- Good Cop intellectuals who lay claim to aristocratic traditions and high moral or academic/intellectual standards, and Bad Cop philistines who are the public face of conservatism, in presidents from Coolidge to Reagan to Bush II, in vulgarian billionaires like Rupert Murdoch and Richard Mellon Scaife, along with the corporations and their executives whose pursuit of ever-increasing profits debases culture to the level of the lowest common denominator of taste. The baddest of the Bad Cops are rabble-rousing enforcers like Coulter, O’Reilly, Limbaugh, and Horowitz. It is the utter failure of Bloom and other conservative intellectuals to dissociate themselves from or even acknowledge the vulgar variety of conservatism, that ultimately exposes the hypocrisy of their lofty ideals and their selective indignation against every variety of liberal/leftist villains.
The same compartmentalized thinking that enables highbrow conservatives to champion Straussian-Bloomian elitism yet not speak out against philistine conservatism has enabled them to evade the issue of Bloom’s homosexuality, particularly in regard to Bellow’s Ravelstein. Bellow avowed that his Ravelstein was modeled on Bloom in virtually every detail. The novel’s narrator, a Bellow near-double and Ravelstein’s best friend, repeatedly insists that Ravelstein designated him as memorialist and instructed him to tell the unvarnished truth. That Bloom like Ravelstein was and notoriously misogynistic, is undisputed. In an article on Ravelstein in The New York Times Magazine, D.T. Max quoted Wolfowitz saying that in Bloom’s Chicago circle when he was alive, “‘It was sort of, Don’t ask, don’t tell.’” But whether Bloom had AIDS is disputed. Bellow’s narrator explicitly describes Ravelstein having the symptoms and medical treatment for HIV. After galley proofs circulated, Max reports that pressure was put on Bellow to revise, and he backed down to the extent of telling D.T. Max, “‘I don’t know that [Bloom] died of AIDS, really. It was just my impression that he may have.’” Yet Bellow subsequently made only minor revisions in the passages about HIV for the final book.
Furthermore, both Bloom and Ravelstein had a young, long-term male companion, whom they held in high regard and made their heir. In the galleys, they are said to be lovers, but in the published version Ravelstein “would sometimes lower his voice in speaking of Nikki, to say that there was no intimacy between them. ‘More father and son.’” Ravelstein also “disapproved of queer antics and of what he called ‘faggot behavior.’” Yet Bellow’s narrator also says Ravelstein “was doomed to die because of his irregular sexual ways.” Ravelstein himself says, “I’m fatally polluted. I think a lot about those pretty boys in Paris. If they catch the disease, they go back to their mothers, who care for them.’’
A rather vague sequence in which the dying Ravelstein says he still obtains sexual relief from “kids,” and asks the narrator to write a check for an unidentified one, is apparently a censored version of a passage in the galleys that, according to Christopher Hitchens in The Nation, read as follows:
Even toward the end Ravelstein was still cruising. It turned out that he went to gay bars.
One day he said to me, “Chick, I need a check drawn. It’s not a lot. Five hundred bucks.”
“Why can’t you write it yourself?”
“I want to avoid trouble with Nikki. He’d see it on the check-stub.”
“All right. How do you want it drawn?”
“Make it out to Eulace Harms.”
“That’s how the kid spells it. Pronounced Ulysee.”
There was no need to ask Ravelstein to explain. Harms was a boy he had brought home one night. . . . Eulace was the handsome little boy who had wandered about his apartment in the nude, physically so elegant. “No older than sixteen. Very well built...."
I wanted to ask, what did the kid do or offer that was worth five hundred dollars....
James Atlas’s biography of Bellow confirms Hitchens’ account of the galleys and adds, “On one occasion [Ravelstein] recruits a black youth from the neighborhood to satisfy him, insisting that he practices ‘safe sex.’” The racial factor here is disturbing, especially since the passage immediately follows a scornful comment by Ravelstein about the South Chicago “ghetto.” It also highlights the absence of any mention in The Closing of the vast black “neighborhood” that surrounds Bloom’s idyllic University of Chicago.
Atlas’s Bellow biography, published shortly after Ravelstein in 2000, contains only a few pages about the novel tacked on at the end, which cite Max and Hitchens but add little to their accounts of Bloom, other than the above sentence and another saying, “A frequenter of the sex emporiums of North Clark Street, Bloom confessed to Edward Shils that he ‘couldn’t keep away from boys.’”
Now, both at the time of Bloom’s death, when the obituaries labeled his cause of death a combination of bleeding ulcers and liver failure, and subsequently, the issues of Bloom’s predatory homosexuality and AIDS have been evaded by Bloom’s allies. Bellow’s own accounts are quite confusing. After proclaiming that Ravelstein was a true-to-life homage to his great friend Bloom, it would seem malicious beyond belief for him to have fabricated out of whole-cloth a character “destroyed by his reckless sex habits,” whom he knew everyone would identify as Bloom -- especially if, as he later claimed in the Max interview, he really didn’t know the truth.
These questions might not be worth dwelling on if Bloom and his book had not been canonized by social conservatives and Straussians, both of whom anathematize homosexuality and sexual promiscuity of all kinds. If Bloom’s private life was indeed louche, doesn’t that render suspect the encomiums in The Closing to Platonic love, especially in The Symposium, and Bloom’s denunciation of modern sexual license? And might the stonewalling by Bloom’s allies be an instance of the Straussian “noble lie”? (In his Commentary review of Ravelstein, Podhoretz, who elsewhere rages against homosexual promiscuous “buggery” and pederasty, displayed his infallible double standard toward leftist adversaries versus rightist allies in ignoring the more tawdry details to give Bloom dispensation for keeping his homosexuality discreetly closeted, and in accepting at face value Bellow’s late disclaimer about Bloom having AIDS.) Indeed, the Bloom case might be paradigmatic of neoconservatives’ predisposition toward dissembling and covering up vices in their own ranks that belies their exacting of moral rectitude from everyone else.
Students must obtain a cumulative grade-point average of 2.0 to graduate from my university. Sort of. In reality most students have to obtain a higher GPA for admission into a particular major. This second admissions hurdle is as important as gaining entrance into the university. Known often as a "progression requirement," it is one of the dirty little secrets in academe.
I know this because I wrote my department's progression requirement, which prohibits students from declaring a history major before obtaining grades of at least C+ in a series of courses. Some departments require even higher grades to begin the major, and a few go as far at to require a certain cumulative GPA for continued good academic standing in the department. Why did I write our department's progression requirements, and why did I push for their adoption? Because the professors in anthropology created their own first, and I did not want their "rejects" to scurry over into our major; so much for the love of teaching and a devotion to the success of all students.
Can I really tell you that a student earning a C+ in a survey course is likely to be more successful than a C student? No. Can I tell you that a history major who graduates with honors will be more successful than one who graduates with the minimum 2.0? Yes, but this presumes I know exactly what "success" means. Sure, the 4.0 student will likely be admitted into a top graduate school, might become a professor just like me, and be happy. But the 2.0 student might find just as satisfying a career, and be an educated citizen to boot.
As part of our effort to improve student retention and graduation rates the provost asked me to meet with deans, department heads and professors to review departmental progression requirements. In these meetings I have heard many rationales, but mostly these defenses rely on narrow definitions of what constitutes success in a given field, and are exactly the kinds of explanations I employed to defend my department's requirements. "Our students can't be successful accountants without at least a 3.0," or "our students tend not to pass the nutrition licensing examination on the first try if they have below a 3.0," are typical responses. Both may be true, but who is to say that the students in question have to be accountants or licensed nutritionists? Could they not proceed to have happy and productive careers in fields outside of their major? Also, if there is a pattern where people with grades below a certain level tend to fail licensure exams, could we not simply publicize this so that students can make informed choices?
Progression requirements are also appealing as a fast and easy way to demonstrate the rigor, high standards, and importance of an academic department (all of which I thought I was doing). As such they allow professors to ignore, diminish or at least supplement the real markers of a department's reputation, which at a research university are publications and the quality of the graduate program, both of which require much more effort and excellence than the creation of progression requirements.
Of course there are good reasons for progression requirements, such as when they are employed to limit admission into a popular major which simply does not have sufficient personnel to teach well the growing number of majors. Yet even here there are problems, for departments can create scarcity by capping enrollment, by requiring a series of small enrollment seminars, or, and this is my favorite, by pointing to the standards of their accreditation agency. Such agencies can function as a protection racket by saying: "do it this way- -- or else; teach no more than X students per class -- or else." Administrators are left to figure out how the agency derived the magic X number, and in the meantime many students admitted into the university have one less major available to them.
Progression requirements produce what a colleague calls "academic boat people," because these students drift from major to major even though they meet, and often exceed, the university's general 2.0 GPA standard for continued enrollment. What are we to do with these students? What are we to tell parents when they complain that their child has a 2.4 GPA and yet cannot gain admittance into any of three preferred majors? Who should teach these students, and help them graduate? At my university such students become "undeclared majors," and are transferred automatically into the College of Arts and Sciences. Do deans of the other colleges send flowers and chocolates in thanks of such generosity?
More important, who are these students? Last November I spied one of them late one evening at the local Sam's Club. She was a decent writer in my upper-division course, but consistently earned C grades, and contributed very little to class discussions. She was at work, of course, and her lapel button held a photograph of her infant daughter. She greeted me kindly, and noted that she worked full time, was a new mother, and that soon she would finish the research paper for my course. At once my assumptions about her ability changed; suddenly her course grade reflected the complexity of life, and was no longer a simple metric of future success. Much the same happened months later when I encountered another student in a restaurant. He too earned a C from me, and as we conversed he noted that he worked more than 40 hours a week while enrolled in my course. He attended my 8 o'clock class, went straight to work, and then returned to campus for a class at night. As a progression requirement pusher I failed to incorporate the reality of these students into our department's standards.
To be sure there are many students who do not work late, do not face double days with families, and who simply do not apply themselves in courses. This does not justify progression requirements, even though the goal of excluding just such students motivated my own jump into rule making. And herein lies the problem: progression requirements are exclusionary. They keep people from pursuing their particular academic goals. They prevent students from specializing in a field of particular interest to them. Yes, budget constraints mean that universities sometimes cannot meet the demand for programs. But often such issues are absent, and yet progression requirements remain. Take it from a former progression requirement pusher: Such exclusion, as well meaning as it may be, prevents universities from fulfilling the call to educate our citizens. As such they should be eliminated when possible, reduced when feasible, and abandoned as a means of determining in advance who will and will not be successful in life.
Todd A. Diacon
Todd A. Diacon is vice provost of academic operations at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
The 2004 Carnegie Classifications identified only 95 liberal arts colleges with no graduate school where 80 percent or more of all graduates are liberal arts and sciences, not career-based, majors. They accounted for a mere 0.8 percent of the total higher education enrollment in the U.S. In a 1990 Yankelovich survey, two-thirds of respondents believed the main reason to go to college was to get the skills necessary for a good job. A 2004 University of California at Los Angles survey reported that three-quarters of all students gave as their reasons for going to college "to get training for a specific career," "to be able to get a better job," and/or "to be able to make more money."
This year, a Special Commission appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings “to consider how best to improve our system of higher education” completed a year long study. Its 55-page report of analysis and recommendations does not even mention liberal education or the liberal arts.
The 95 "true" liberal arts colleges, the pure practitioners of liberal education, are in trouble. The number of persons who view themselves as liberally educated is declining. The number who wish they were liberally educated is declining even faster and the number who think they know what a liberal education is, or even that they would like to know, is shrinking fastest of all. In recent years, liberal education’s slide has been masked to some extent by demographics, the upsurge in applicants for all higher education resulting from the flood of college age children produced by the baby boomers. The flood is coming to an end.
A career-directed education has become the goal of many, if not most, young people eager to get ahead. A purely materialistic motivation for getting an education is now the norm, not the exception. There is economic pressure on liberal arts colleges to add career-directed courses and programs to attract students. The most prestigious colleges are to some extent relieved from this pressure by their wealth and the fact that so many of their graduates know they will go on to graduate and professional schools and therefore feel less need to collect a commercial credential at the undergraduate level; to learn what Elia Kazan’s immigrant father called something “use-eh-full.”
Even the richest colleges, however, are not immune from pressure to expand their curricula in vocational directions in order to attract students who are more interested in getting a good job and making money than in Aristotle, Descartes and Rousseau, and to make sure top students are not lured away by so-called honors colleges at state universities.
Can liberal arts colleges be saved or are they, to take Paul Neely’s apt analogy, becoming like high end passenger trains that went out of business because no matter how well they performed, consumers had come to prefer traveling by plane and automobile? Unless the case liberal arts colleges make for liberal education and for themselves is reformed, their curricula restored, and the across the board teaching excellence of their faculties secured, the answer in all probability is that those that survive will evolve into purveyors of career-directed, not liberal, education.
The Case as It Is Made Now
Much of the Case currently made for liberal education is internally inconsistent, cynically cobbled together to pander to the preconceptions of high school students and their parents, unsupported and/or simply not credible. As the steady decline in the demand for liberal education shows, the Case is not persuasive to those who are not pre-sold, i.e. those who need to be persuaded. Consider the following Case elements:
(1) Even though it won’t get you a job, a liberal education really is useful because it teaches students how to think critically.
The "critical thinking" mantra is an especially good example of embracing a bad argument solely because it is not laughable on its face. Never mind that no one knows what “critical,” as opposed to plain good, thinking is, or that there is no reason to suppose that one is more likely to become a critical thinker studying English literature than business management, or that there is certainly no reason to suspect that English literature professors are themselves more critical thinkers, or more capable of teaching critical thinking than business management professors. Yet no single assertion is more central to the Case made for liberal arts educations than the claim it will make you a more critical thinker, whatever that is.
(2) A liberal education best provides oral and written communication skills.
It is certainly true that a liberal education can provide these skills, but is it more true than for career-based education (or for that matter for the education that comes from being in the workplace)? There is no convincing evidence that the liberally educated are more effective communicators and the fact that the assertion is totally unsupported undercuts the Case as a whole.
(3) Liberal arts colleges provide an international education.
We live in a global world and it behooves liberal arts colleges to internationalize their curricula to the maximum extent possible. This does not mean, however, that the following common liberal arts promotion makes sense: "The globe is shrinking, we live in an international world, and our college recognizes these important facts by encouraging all students to spend a semester abroad."
Let’s restate this promotion from the point of view of a potential student or parent: "You have told me that spending 26 months at your college over the next four years at a cost of $150,000-$200,000 is a sound investment, but now you say I should spend more than 10 percent of that time somewhere else. Are you trying to cut your costs by giving me less or do you simply believe 26 months is more than I need?"
Everyone knows that study abroad is a useful and often meaningful, even life-changing, experience. But it makes no sense to say that it should be done at the expense of, rather than in addition to, the 26 months.
(4) You can study the subjects you like best and are most interested in.
In an effort to attract students, liberal arts colleges have reduced, and some have even eliminated, course requirements. To the extent they do so they turn over liberal education curriculum design to students who by definition are not yet liberally educated and virtually insure that their education will be less broad, less liberal. Maria Montessori’s maxim “follow the child” may make sense in first grade, but not at a liberal arts college unless, of course, the college’s education philosophy is that students will find liberal education on their own without the college’s guidance, in which case why should they spend $200,000 for 26 months?
(5) You will get good grades and this will help you get into the graduate or professional school of your choice.
Colleges don’t explicitly include grade inflation in their pitches to students, but everybody knows it is going on. In fact, grade inflation serves only to cheapen the value of a liberal arts degree and signals to students that a liberal education is simply a part of playing the credential-seeking game, of getting ahead. Further, since everyone is doing it, it doesn’t work very well.
The Case That Needs to Be Made
In contrast to these frivolous, disingenuous or wrong claims, the distinctively desirable features of a liberal arts education are de-emphasized or omitted entirely from the Case because it is assumed by admissions staff that they won’t be believed or understood.
(1) The quality of a liberal education that makes it so effective is that the subject matter studied is not “use-eh-full.”
It is the very "uselessness" of what liberal arts students study that opens the door to their appreciating knowing for the sake of knowing, that drives home the point that learning is of value in and of itself whether or not it leads directly to a marketable skill. It is possible to realize these things while studying banking or engineering, but it is much more difficult because the student is constantly distracted from the utility of acquiring knowledge by the utility of the knowledge being acquired. The genius of the American system of liberal education is that it eliminates this distraction. Its uselessness separates knowing from need to know, learning from need to learn, desire to understand from need to understand.
(2) The best teaching is at liberal arts colleges.
If liberal arts colleges pay attention in hiring, training, supporting and tenuring faculty, there is really no way universities, no matter now highly ranked, can match them in teaching excellence. The mission of universities is diverse and complex, the mission of liberal arts colleges is singular, to provide a liberal education to undergraduates. For the most part, the most famous names in higher education are associated with major universities, not liberal arts colleges, but the severe limits on their worth to university undergraduates are well known: limited exposure to students, huge lecture courses, smaller classes taught by graduate students, and so on. Universities, by their very nature, inescapably focus on specialization, not breadth.
Universities are aware of their inherent disadvantages in providing undergraduate liberal arts education and in recent years some have made efforts to shore up their performance by creating so-called honors colleges and requiring full professors to teach an undergraduate course now and then. By and large, however, these are Band-Aid efforts. A Nobel laureate once complained to me about being required to teach an undergraduate seminar. "I’m a professor, not a teacher," he growled.
(3) Your life will be fuller and richer if you read Aristotle, Descartes and Rousseau.
There is no doubt that this is a tough sell for college bound, wealth-seeking, "what’s in it for me" philistines and their nervous parents, but enrichment is inescapably central to the value of the liberal arts. Before I came to the academy, I was a lawyer. I know to a certainty that one does not learn how to practice law until one starts doing it. It is not learned in law school. Therefore, a career-directed, pre-law program at the undergraduate level makes no sense, i.e., even though vocational, it is neither useful nor enriching. By far the best, and often the only, way to learn any career skill is by practicing it. Career-directed courses are always of limited value; a liberal education is always enriching. The wise person, therefore, seeks both a liberal education and an on-the-job career education.
In the early 19th century, subject matter that made up the liberal arts curriculum was fixed: the ancient classics, rhetoric, logic, Greek and Latin. It was what a gentleman, a liberally educated person, had to know. Today, while the curriculum is flexible, taking advantage of the special skills and interests of the faculty, it still defines liberal education at each liberal arts college. It is the responsibility of the faculty -- not the students, not the administration -- to create a curriculum and the goal in doing so must be to make the best possible use of the faculty to insure that the college’s graduates are securely launched on a lifetime of liberal education.
Distribution, as opposed to course, requirements represent a partial abrogation of this responsibility. Perhaps after the first two or three years a distribution requirement makes sense, but course requirements come first. Elimination of requirements is a marketing, not educational, strategy. Since the objective of liberal arts colleges is to provide a liberal education the old Brown University no requirements strategy is disingenuous as well as wrong.
A liberal education is broad, not narrow. The more major requirements imposed, the narrower the resulting education. If all departments reduced their major requirements, liberal education would be facilitated. Experiencing some depth of inquiry is a part of a liberal education, but not at the expense of breadth. Graduate and professional schools, not to mention getting a job, will give students all the depth they need.
Which courses offered by a department receive the greatest departmental attention -- survey and entry-level courses or specialized advanced courses for major? Too often, it is the latter. I well remember a talk given by a creative writing professor who told us that the single most important and enriching course in his undergraduate career was Astronomy 101. At liberal arts colleges, his experience should be commonplace, not exceptional. 101 courses are the foundation of a liberal education.
Interdisciplinary courses are inherently pro-liberal arts. There are problems with them, however, including that creating a truly interdisciplinary syllabus is difficult and more work to teach, and that there is not the kind of recognition for success in interdisciplinary teaching that exists within departments. The steps colleges can take to ameliorate or eliminate these problems are obvious and should be taken.
A liberal education is best pursued when students share the learning experience. Common courses are a sound device for maximizing sharing. Similar problems inhere in teaching common courses as in interdisciplinary courses and require the same steps to remove them.
A much-used cost containment strategy is to combine departments, e.g. anthropology and sociology, art and art history, philosophy and religion. Reduction in, or failure to increase, the number of teachers in the departments is a common byproduct (or cause) of such combinations. While there is nothing inherently wrong with combined departments and, indeed, to some extent they may partake of the positive liberal arts qualities of interdisciplinary courses, combining departments can have unintended adverse consequences on the quality of instruction and should only be entered into after careful analysis. On the other side of the coin, too many departments can mark the way towards career-based education, especially in the social and physical sciences. Many universities, for example, offer dozens of economics majors, each directed to a specific career path and each leading away from breadth. Liberal arts colleges are to some extent insulated from this practice by the relatively small size of their faculties, but they are not immune.
There is nothing wrong with career-based courses and there is nothing wrong with encouraging students to pursue them, but not in lieu or instead of liberal arts courses. “Take them in the evening, in the summer, or before or after you graduate, but for the 26 months you are with us you will pursue a liberal education full time” is the correct rule for liberal arts colleges.
No course credit should be given for non-academic initiatives. If students have excellent summer work experiences or organize successful public service programs, they should put them on their resumes, not in their transcripts. The quality of the liberal education a college delivers is measured by what happens at the college, not in a congressman’s office or at a European university. If students can get a better liberal education somewhere other than at the college, why should they attend the college at all? Off-campus experience can supplement and enhance the liberal education a college offers, but not replace it.
Sadly, it is easier for liberal arts colleges to raise money for buildings, sports, or almost anything other than faculty salaries and support. If, however, liberal arts colleges do not offer the very best teaching, their prospects for the future are at best problematic. Faculties are the heart and soul of liberal education.
It makes no sense to staff a liberal arts college with teachers who are not themselves liberally educated. (Indeed, if college presidents, vice presidents, deans and other administrators are to play a meaningful role in directing the course of a liberal arts college, they also need to be liberally educated.) Hiring procedures used by liberal arts colleges – posting ads that ask candidates to furnish information about their qualifications to teach a particular specialty; 20 minute interviews in hospitality suites at professional society meetings where narrow specialists gather; observing candidates teach a 50-minute class to students chosen because they are majoring in the candidates area of specialization – are not well-calculated to reveal the extent and quality of candidates’ liberal education.
Certainly little that happened to candidates at the graduate schools where they earned their Ph.D.s provides assurance that the candidates are liberally educated. Graduate schools are antithetical to liberal education. They put a premium on and reward narrowness, not breadth. Indeed, most graduate schools have precious little to do with preparing their students to be effective teachers. The graduate school game is research and publication, no matter how frivolous or insignificant.
Worse, graduate schools dissemble about their graduates. A letter of recommendation from a graduate school dean or professor saying a graduate will be a good liberal arts college teacher frequently really means the graduate school believes the graduate will not be a successful researcher. Graduate school deans and professors often have little or no knowledge about the potential teaching capability of their students, and care less.
The one sure way to find liberally educated, potentially excellent teachers is to actively look for them, not wait for them to drop in at hospitality suite or respond to an advertisement. Networking is the key, talking to friends and friends of friends. Business understands this and there is no reason colleges can’t, too.
The number of new Ph.D.'s has increased faster than the number of college teaching positions. This can put colleges in the enviable position of having a surfeit of candidates to choose from. Too often, however, this advantage is lost because a first cut is made on the basis of the ranking of the universities from which candidates’ degrees were received. There is little reason to believe a social historian from Harvard is more liberally educated or more likely to become an excellent teacher than one from a lower ranked institution. The efforts and aptitudes required to gain admission to and earn a Ph.D. from Harvard (or any other first rate graduate school) are not closely correlated, if at all, with good teaching. Indeed, a respectable argument can be made that they are counter indicators. In fact, it is far from self-evident that liberal educatedness and teaching excellence are positively correlated with possession of a Ph.D. When a college has an opportunity to hire a potentially excellent teacher who lacks the Ph.D. credential, a retired judge or legislator perhaps, or a linguist or artist (even if an M.F.A. is also missing), the opportunity should be seized.
Hiring to fill a particular slot, the most common practice, itself risks losing teaching excellence. Obviously, a chemist cannot be hired to replace a retiring historian, but if a medievalist is the strongest candidate to replace a retiring professor of modern European history, changing course offerings should at least be seriously considered.
Flexibility in hiring is an especially important consideration in hiring minority faculty. The likelihood that a minority group member highly qualified and desiring to teach organic chemistry at a liberal arts college will happen to be available the very year old Charlie decides to retire from the chemistry department is not high. But such a candidate might have been available at an earlier time and, even though it did not fit perfectly into the then perceived staffing requirements of the chemistry department, grabbing the candidate before he or she went somewhere else could have made good sense.
If diversity in the student body is desirable, indeed essential, for a liberal education, as almost all liberal arts colleges acknowledge, then faculty diversity is essential, too. If there is no minority organic chemist available, there may be an outstanding astronomer or sociologist who will advance the liberal arts excellence of the college as well as the diversity of its faculty. When Branch Rickey set out to hire major league baseball’s first black player, he did not search for a third baseman, but rather for the best player he could find, and then played him where he fit in; at third base. Incidentally, in hiring Jackie Robinson, Mr. Rickey gave full consideration to Mr. Robinson’s personal, as well as athletic, qualifications. The parallel to giving full consideration to liberal educatedness as well as academic qualifications in hiring teachers is apt.
Once hired, most new teachers need to be taught how to teach. This did not happen to most of them at graduate school. Throwing them into the classroom and letting them sink or swim, a traditional approach, makes no sense. Instruction of new teachers by faculty members who are skilled teachers should be intensive and continuing, not hit or miss. The progress of new teachers needs to be systematically monitored. Too often what is known about a young faculty member’s teaching skills is as best anecdotal, largely based on passing comments by students. Reliable evaluation is essential to effective training and, of course, to making sound tenure decisions.
In the popular press, tenure is controversial, seen by many outside the academy as an undeserved life-long sinecure. The claimed centrality of tenure to preserving academic freedom, heavily relied on by tenure supporters, is not persuasive. The freedom to assert controversial positions is not an issue for the overwhelming majority of faculty members. Instances where it can reasonably be said that, but for tenure, a faculty member would be fired are rare. In addition, academic freedom can be contractually guaranteed without tenure, e.g. “No professor can be disciplined, demoted or terminated for expressing a controversial or unpopular view.”
Tenure is a ruthless, up or out system. A faculty member denied tenure at one college is less likely to get it somewhere else. Tenure denial is a wrenching experience not only for the teacher denied but also for the persons making the denial decision. The human response at most teaching-oriented institutions is to try to avoid making it. Doubts are resolved in favor or granting tenure. Weaknesses are under-weighted and strengths are over-weighted to reach the “grant” decision. Non-teaching contributions by the candidate are given significant weight to justify granting tenure to a candidate whose teaching is not first class. The result is “acceptable” or “pretty good,” but not excellent, teachers are rewarded with tenure and take possession of the college’s limited number of teaching positions for the next 25-30 years.
In making tenure decisions substantial weight is frequently assigned to a candidate’s publications. Indeed, at some of the finest liberal arts colleges a published book is a tenure requirement. This may make sense at graduate schools where the objective is to promote scholarship and research, not teaching. It makes no sense at liberal arts colleges. It is commonly observed that scholarship informs and enhances teaching. If this is so, as I strongly believe it to be, publications need not be considered separately as a part of the tenure review process because their enhancing effect will be reflected in the teaching performance of the candidate. On the other side of the coin, poor teachers can produce outstanding scholarship. They should be encouraged to devote their live to graduate school research, not liberal arts college teaching.
The first place most businesses look to save money is workers’ salaries. Such cost cutting efforts, however, are frequently frustrated by the pressures of competition and unions. At liberal arts colleges these pressures are more easily resisted. The result is that faculty salary increases tend to lag behind other employment venues and sometimes even languish below the rise in cost of living. Since far and away the most valuable resource of a college is its faculty, this is foolish.
The reluctance to grant salary increases to faculty is far less apparent in the case of college administrators. Perhaps in making salary decisions, business executive members of college boards of trustees identify faculty with their factory workers, and administrators with themselves. It has been observed that when the salary of a college or university president reaches three times that of senior faculty, a potentially destructive disequilibrium is created. This disequilibrium is becoming more common.
Salaries reflect perceived value. The fact that many liberal arts colleges pay their teachers poorly reflects how the institutions value teachers’ services, and inevitably how teachers value themselves. I am aware of no established benchmark for what faculty salaries ought to be, or of accepted comparables. There are, however, some useful guidelines. First, faculty salaries should increase no less rapidly than those of administrators. Second, salaries of senior faculty should increase no less rapidly than starting salaries for assistant professors. Third, teaching excellence should be rewarded by salary increases, not bonuses or prizes which are always sporadic, capricious and often devices designed to portray the institution as more generous than it in fact is. Fourth, special effort should be given to encouraging donors to earmark gifts for faculty salaries.
A not insignificant portion of the challenges now faced by liberal arts colleges are of their own making, resulting from competition between them. Costs have been increased by the addition of programs and resources for the specific purpose of attracting students away from competing colleges. Competition has caused dollars to be diverted from important uses, e.g. for faculty salaries and support, to flashy facilities and programs. Grade inflation and the elimination of requirements are examples of competition between liberal arts colleges that degrades the offerings of all of them.
A few liberal arts colleges are wealthy, but most struggle financially. They all, however, are threatened by declining demand for liberal education. If they have any long-run chance of resisting the vocationalizing of their curricula, they need to make common cause, to work together, not at odds with each other.
Victor E. Ferrall Jr.
Victor E. Ferrall Jr. was president of Beloit College from 1991 to 2000. Before then, he practiced law in Washington. He is currently writing a book on liberal arts colleges.
What kind of “life of the mind” ought higher education strive to develop in today’s students? What relevance does the historic ideal of the “educated person” have for the contemporary academy? What forms of knowledge and teaching give currency to that ideal today? These important questions concern the entire enterprise of higher education. Yet, their answers are not obvious.
How should educators and academic leaders respond? Confronted by conflicting pressures, this is no easy task. Students increasingly seek “meaning” and significance from their college education. They and their parents also insist that college provide entry to good careers. The public supports higher education but rightly worries about its escalating cost. State and federal regulators want more control and greater accountability, though the criteria of assessment are much in dispute.
We believe that any coherent response to these challenges must update the ideal of “a life of the mind.” Students must not only interpret the world, but take up a place within it as citizens, at work, and as whole persons. This requires teaching for practical reasoning, a long tradition that has been overshadowed by the advance of specialized theory and abstract analysis.
Consider an engineer at the beginning of her career. A recent graduate, she is skilled in the analytic techniques she learned in her engineering program. But she finds herself working on an international project for the first time, collaborating with engineers from other nations who define their work differently than she does. How can these engineers work together, in a way that meets the various needs of the client, the employer, and the engineers themselves?
Such practical situations inspire the teaching of one of the faculty members whose instructional practices are featured in A New Agenda for Higher Education: Shaping a Life of the Mind for Practice. The book documents a two-year seminar organized at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The seminar gathered 14 faculty members from professions with a strong humanistic heritage, from the science-using professions, and from traditional liberal arts and science disciplines. Our goal was to inquire into higher education’s ability to prepare students for lives of engagement and responsibility, and how the disciplines and professions contribute to this goal.
The result was a new vision of the value of higher education, developed over three sessions of cross-professional and cross-disciplinary dialogue between the faculty. Based on the seminar experience, we propose that undergraduate education must move beyond “critical thinking” to the idea of “practical reasoning” as the proper end of curriculum and teaching. Critical thinking -- the skill of standing back from the world in order to analyze experience in terms of general concepts -- is a crucial and important goal. But it is not sufficient to guide contemporary living.
Teaching for practical reason means providing students with educational experiences that model what it means to put skill and knowledge to work through judgment and action. In the engineering course mentioned above, for example, engineering students supplement the analytic skills learned in other courses with new knowledge about how the engineering profession and its history differs across nations. Through assignments that require students to imagine the work of other engineers and its ramifications for their own conduct, and vice versa, the course introduces students to important knowledge and skills -- drawn from both the liberal arts and the engineering profession -- for an increasingly global workplace.
Whether in engineering, teacher education, or human biology, the courses documented in the book break down the barriers that separate the disciplines from the professions. As our faculty partners reflected together on their own teaching, they found that they each drew inspiration from the liberal arts and sciences, which teach students how to use broad concepts to inquire into the requirements of particular situations. The faculty also drew inspiration from the professions, which provide students with experience in making judgments on behalf of others within changing and uncertain situations. The faculty also drew inspiration from one another.
Opportunities to engage in such shared inquiry are uncommon. This work is time-intensive. It requires collaboration and administrative encouragement and support. But the Carnegie seminar, which we hope campuses will use as a model for the integration of liberal and professional education, proves that higher education can address the question of what an educated person for our time needs to know and be able to do. This is the “value added” of practical reasoning as the center of undergraduate education, both for the daily experiences of faculty and students and the organization of administrative units. We believe that the seminar offers a powerful example of the kind of faculty development that can enable campuses to introduce their students to “a life of the mind for practice” that prepares them to engage situations, sustain aims amid changing circumstances, and discern purpose and meaning while seeking with others a common good.
William M. Sullivan and Matthew S. Rosin
William M. Sullivan is a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Matthew S. Rosin is a consulting scholar and former research scholar for the foundation. He is also a senior research associate at EdSource, an independent research agency that focuses on elementary and secondary education issues in California.
Student disengagement takes many forms and is particularly apparent in academic contexts, when many students avoid rigorous study, when professors and students mutually agree to a “if you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you” compact, and when students and their families define education in terms of degree attainment -- the cheaper and faster the better. Other patterns of disengagement are perhaps most visible in student behavior and student culture. A variety of national surveys now indicate that over 40 percent of "millennial age" students self report episodes of depression sufficient to interrupt their academic work, yet students report only occasional faculty awareness of the crises the students see among fellow students or the pain they themselves endure. Over 35 percent of current students engage in binging with alcohol or other drugs with the intent of passing out -- emotionally and physically disengaging. And for some observers, students’ civic disengagement is so alarming as to question what and who will be preserving key democratic values in the future.
What all this reveals is higher education’s failure to attend to the most fundamental of our responsibilities: the development of the whole person -- intellectual, emotive/behavioral, and civic. All college students should reach deepened levels of learning and understanding, as well as develop a strong sense of self-direction, and self-realization or well-being, and a greater sense of civic identity and responsibility. These are three separable, equally important categories of outcomes, related to the core purposes of liberal education. The integration, the reassertion, and the achievement of these all-important aims and outcomes can and must become the priority of our colleges and universities. And if we are to seek reliable indices of quality and achievement at our institutions, we can and must develop reliable means that get at each of these outcomes and their interrelatedness.
At the source of the expressions of disengagement lies the problem of the disintegration of the purpose and core outcomes of college. All too many institutions of higher education -- and even proponents of liberal education -- are off-course, addressing only narrowly academic means and strategies rather than the integrated goals and ends that matter to our students and to our democracy. As a result, many of our institutions risk becoming complicit in the troubling patterns of student disengagement.
Most institutions, in official handbooks and documents, still attest with eloquence and conviction to the importance of students’ personal and civic development. Regrettably, helping students actually achieve the full range of essential outcomes is much less evident, and only rarely are the institution’s resources, including its faculty and professionals, prepared and aligned to accomplish these ends. What is even more regrettable is that the current national debate about accountability has entirely ignored both the personal and the civic aims of a strong liberal education. As educators, as parents, as a society at large, we simply do not hold ourselves, or hold our institutions, responsible for achieving them or demand and expect such achievement. In fact, few institutions would have in place, or individuals have clearly in mind, what could be examined to determine if the core outcomes of higher education had been, even partially, achieved.
An incomplete step in the direction advocated here is the institutional use of the National Survey of Student Engagement. NSSE studies begin to look at some forms of student engagement. While promising, use of NSSE does not allow the institution to examine outcomes of student well-being (including depression and forms of abusive behaviors). And its use to assess civic outcomes is modest; for example, the affects of volunteerism and other service experiences are not distinguished from experiences involving community-based learning pedagogies.
The failure to acknowledge the practical aspects of disengagement suggests a mix of anxiety over liability (or marketing) concerns by the institution, campus peer pressures by the students, a concern of being too busy or “it’s not my job” by faculty, and a lingering sense among most that we, as individuals and as institutions ought to be, but are not, dealing openly with these problems. What is apparent is that the efforts and resources currently in place on campuses are offering, in large part, partial treatments of symptoms, rather than dealing with causes.
Even a partial solution to the patterns of disengagement by students, and by institutions, will surely come as a result of at least noticing the linkages among the forms of disengagement and, ideally, some sense of how each of the forms of disengagement could be affected through specific contexts (including mentoring and learning communities) and educational practices (pedagogies and curricula) on campus and beyond. Signature practices that reverse student patterns of disengagement include service learning, residence-based learning communities, joint student and faculty research, and institutional initiatives that model and value active and reciprocal engagement with the community -- near and beyond.
The practices that work to deepen student engagement often take students beyond the classroom to applied contexts, reveal to those who study, and to those who teach, their own presumptions and privileges, and link knowledge with action -- helping all involved appreciate that there are multiple consequences to full engagement in learning. Not only are there learning outcomes from such experiences, there are also documentable outcomes, effects and affects, that influence the well-being and the civic development of those who participate. Different types of institutions have modeled these achievements. For example, Georgetown University’s “curricular infusion” project links faculty from philosophy, mathematics, and theater with the Center for Social Justice, the health and counseling Centers, the nursing program, and the Office of Learning Assessment. As integrated teams, they have developed and now offer as established parts of the undergraduate curriculum, courses using forms of engaged pedagogy, each emphasizing the infusion of topics and methods getting at the related forms of student development: intellectual, emotional, and civic.
St. Lawrence University has established a Center for Civic Engagement and Leadership, under which community-based learning pedagogies are developed and then spread. With presidential and provost support, faculty participation is highly valued by the institution, including with faculty rewards. Departments of philosophy, psychology, biology, history, economics, and communications have integrated these offerings for majors and non-majors. Some require them for their major and the institution is moving to establish this coming year a civic engagement minor, which will be linked to multiple major curricula.
Collectively, these and related engaged learning practices can comprise a solution to the most troubling aspects of student disengagement. But these practices will work educationally only when colleges and universities themselves both expect and reward greater student and faculty involvement -- and when faculty who sponsor engaged learning are valued and rewarded within the institution and within the profession.
What gives us confidence that engaged learning practices will work for today’s students? Over the past four years, the Bringing Theory to Practice Project (BTtoP), supported by the Charles Engelhard Foundation and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, invited campus involvement in testing the hypothesis that engaged practices like these might mitigate patterns of disengagement and begin to address the problem of fractured or dis-integrated purposes and outcomes. In many respects, the rigor in evaluating their programs and initiatives was more extensive and thorough than any examination of learning assessments they had tried previously. To date, over 60 institutions have received grant support from the BTtoP Project in order to initiate or to sustain programs that have been defined to fit their institutional particularities, as they examine the linkages among the several core purposes and outcomes.
In addition to the contributions of the research documenting the relationships among outcomes, the process used in addressing patterns of disengagement makes its own contribution. We have seen that using the opportunities that already exist (from faculty meetings to parent weekends, from board discussions to town hall meetings), the institution that wants successfully to tackle the complexity of the problem of disengagement will involve its multiple constituencies (faculty and students, administrators and boards, researchers and parents, those within the campus, and those in the community beyond the campus) in considering openly and candidly the realities of disengagement on their own campus and their shared, among all of these constituencies, responsibility in both causing and solving them.
Through Bringing Theory to Practice, and through related “engaged learning initiatives” sponsored by AAC&U and other concerned organizations, faculty, administrators and students at many colleges and universities now agree that we must identify and address the patterns of disengagement in higher education and the fractured condition of its attention to core purposes and outcomes, and participate in exploration of the solutions. The beginning of a solution is to be found in recommitting our institutional actions and resources, robustly and creatively, to engaging students -- creating the contexts in which students can claim the full range of outcomes that liberal education promises -- and expecting that, in fact insisting that, such engagement occur.
Donald W. Harward
Donald W. Harward is director of the Bringing Theory to Practice Project, president emeritus at Bates College, and senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Submitted by Peter Wood on April 28, 2008 - 4:00am
Around 1952, the brown treesnake ( Boiga irregularis) arrived on Guam from somewhere in the South Pacific, presumably as an accidental passenger on a cargo vessel. It settled in and multiplied. This snake’s invasion of Guam is a nightmarish instance of ecological disaster. The animal has devoured the whole populations of native species on the island, blown electrical generators, gulped down pets, and attacked children.
Guamians who take the long view, however, need not worry. The voracious brown treesnake cannot keep up its deprivations forever. Its pattern of consumption is unsustainable. Sooner or later it will run out of food and its numbers will crash.
"Sustainability" advocates, however, are seldom content to wait for Malthusian logic to kick in. Especially when it comes to human activity, they counsel forethought. Let's not wait until we humans are left like treesnakes on a lunar plain, with nothing left to eat. Of course, as one begins to think about what it means to sustain a civilization as opposed to a treesnake, the list of items one would want to conserve goes beyond the equivalent of tasty lizards, fruit bats, and sea fowl. One begins to think about arable land, water resources, power generation, and anything else we might wear out or use up; and then one starts to think about how we might invent and engineer our way beyond these limits.
The concept of "sustainability" is thus expandable. It can be pegged down to hard core empirical questions about such things as the "carrying capacity" of an piece of land, or it can become a sail for utopian dreams in which advocates imagine themselves transforming humanity itself by changing our appetites. On college campuses, you can find instances of both.
Arizona State University has two new undergraduate degree programs in sustainability starting this fall, a B.A. and B.S., both of which promise to introduce students to the concept "in the context of real-world problems, exploring the interaction of environmental, economic, and social systems." The curricula for the Arizona State programs has not been posted, so one can’t tell how much actual science, economics, and rigorous analysis of "social systems” might be entailed.
For the major to be more than just ideological priming, however, students will have to advance fairly deeply into mathematical modeling, market theory, biology, material science, and social theory. The faculty for the Arizona State program has the right credentials. It includes civil engineers, economists, biologists, biochemists, architects, an informatics expert, and even an archaeologist. If “sustainability” has a future as an academic subject, this is what its faculty should look like.
At the University of Delaware, by contrast, Kathleen Kerr, the head the residence life program has seized on the idea of sustainability to advocate for a program that has no science at all but a great deal of ideology. Kerr and Keith Edwards from Macalester College made a presentation in November 2007 at a “Tools for Social Justice” conference in Kansas City, Missouri. Their PowerPoint presentation is posted online on the Sustainability Web page of the American College Personnel Association. There we learn quite a bit. Kerr and Edwards debunk the "myths” that sustainability is mostly about the environment” and that “sustainability is primarily a scientific and technical problem.” Rather, in their view, sustainability has over a dozen "social justice aspects"
Environmental Racism Fair Trade Living Wage Domestic Partnerships Corporate Responsibility Rights of Indigenous Peoples Gender Equity Water Rights Human Rights Child Labor Issues Affirmative Action Multicultural Competence Pollution and Farming Practices Worker’s Rights Sweatshop Labor Slavery
The list is almost whimsical. Why is "fair trade" a social justice issue bearing on sustainability, but not free trade, which has lifted billions of humans out of deep poverty? Why “domestic partnerships” but not stable heterosexual two-parent families? Why “multicultural competence” but not literacy and arithmetic that offer people a chance to wider their intellectual horizons? For that matter, why "water rights" and not mineral rights?
The answer to all these questions is pretty clear. Sustainability in Kerr’s and Edwards’ view is a campus on-ramp for the agenda of progressive left. The task of saving the planet appears too important to consider the views of capitalists, social conservatives, libertarians, nationalists, advocates of the traditional family, or a wide variety of other outlooks.
Near the beginning of Kerr’s and Edwards’ Powerpoint comes a slide titled “Triple Bottom Line” which shows three overlapping circles labeled “healthy environments,” “strong economies” and “social justice.” Where all three circles overlap appear the words “sustainable society.” Versions of this little diagram pop up in sustainability pronouncements around the world with the frequency of brown treesnakes in Guamian playgrounds. The Geography Association of the U.K. uses ellipses at vertices of triangles instead of overlapping circles. The International Association of Public Transport sticks with the circles but adds more words. The University of New Hampshire has a more baroque ensemble that includes a fourth bubble (“Climate System”) and a mysterious double-headed arrow that points the classroom and the community in opposite directions. Ithaca College goes for the stripped down model of three ovals, like a Ballantine beer bottle, or Borromean rings. The University of North Carolina giant-sizes the diagram so that the circles spill off the page.
Academe hasn’t seen this much creativity spent on dressing up a dull idea since the invention of the "Celebrate Diversity!" poster. Well, actually, it is some of the same creativity. Over on the Duke University sustainability page, the announcement of the Earth Day Bash on West Campus shows a picture of a cake decorated with an image of the earth and the motto, "Celebrating Sustainability." I give this month’s prize to the Calendar of Events at the University of Iowa's Sustainable Agriculture Program, which shows someone holding three apples arranged like the circle diagram and trusts the informed viewer to recognize the wordless image.
The widespread use of the diagram is another clue that “sustainability” is a more of a social movement, with its own symbols and passwords, than it is a nascent intellectual discipline. The popularity of the circle diagram surely lies in that third ring, whether it is labeled “social justice” or just “society.” It is an invitation to think that culture and society as open to systematic revision by people who better understand humanity’s long-term interests.
I don’t doubt that "society" is indeed a factor in sustainability. The first American anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan, writing in 1851 about the Iroquois, observed that a society based on hunting wild game needed not only to maintain control over a wide territory but had to organize its institutions to accommodate a mobile and dispersed population. "Sustainability" has been a prominent theme in anthropology ever since. One lesson of this study -- popularized by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed -- is that societies frequently make short-term decisions about their resource use that have disastrous long-term consequences. This is just as true of small-scale preindustrial societies as it is of mass-scale industrial ones. The spotted owl may not survive the American timber industry’s appetite for old growth forest, but the Maori ushered in the extinction of about half of New Zealand’s native vertebrates after their arrival c. 1250.
Perhaps another lesson to be drawn from the anthropological record is humility. Societies have often developed quite sophisticated adaptations to their environments only to be overwhelmed by unexpected developments. The ancient inhabitants of New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon (AD 850-1250) were superb in managing their scarce water resources, but apparently couldn’t handle a series of decade-long droughts. But it seems unlikely the Anasazi elders could have helped the situation much by drawing circles in the sand at the bottom of their kivas and maundering on about “sustainability.” Humans are much better at adapting to new realities than they are at inventing perfected social orders that can withstand the vicissitudes of climate, catastrophe, war, and disease. Planning goes only so far.
I offer that somewhat rueful observation by way of getting back to where sustainability is going on American campuses today. On a great many campuses, educators have spotted an opportunity to promote the sustainability cause outside the traditional classroom. Once upon a time this meant recycling newspapers and helping to green-up the campus. Increasingly it means, as Kerr and Edwards put it in November, trying “systematically [to] incorporate social justice education on your campus.” What exactly is social justice education? They explain that it involves examining “the oppressive systems that have existed and continue to function in society” and helping students to “develop a libratory consciousness.”
This strikes me as pretty plainly an ideological program, not education in any liberal sense. So maybe the question ought to be: how far has this ideology spread in American higher education?
Debra Rowe, for example, is president of the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development as well as co-coordinator of the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium, founded in December 2005. As Rowe explained at an event at Smith College in 2006, “We are the first generation capable of determining the habitability of the planet for humans and other species.” With this weight on our shoulders, said Rowe, we need to commit ourselves to “education for sustainable development.” The United Nations has “declared a Decade of Educational for Sustainable Development, 2005-2014.” ESD involves a lot of plain old environmental activism, but it also involves stuff the “U.S. public” doesn’t yet know about: “[The] public doesn’t know we can reduce human suffering, environmental degradation and social injustice now while building stronger economies.”
What Rowe represents is, in effect, the fusion of much of the progressivist political agenda with the relatively anodyne program of contemporary environmentalism. This fusion already occurred in Europe over the last decade in the increasingly strident pronouncements of Green Party activists. Now it is here, but it has acquired a more American character as it crossed the Atlantic. The difference is that in the United States, sustainability-ism has taken on the leafage of American utilitarianism. A good many sober-minded scholars and bureaucrats have looked at in terms of solving practical problems. The National Association of College and University Business officers (NACUBO), not known for giddy ideological stands, has joined HEASC and is holding its first Carbon-Neutral Conference at the end of March in College Park, Maryland. NACUBO has its own Campus Sustainability page, which has more to do with tracking systems and benchmarks than with overthrowing the capitalist world system. But I get the impression that NACUBO doesn’t much understand what kind of toboggan it has jumped on.
The sustainability movement does indeed have promising academic programs such as Arizona State’s, but the movement’s leaders aren’t interested in stopping there. They are committed to that third circle -- "social justice." In a good many cases, "social justice" translates into re-packaged hatred of Western institutions, from the marketplace to the traditional family, all of which are deemed "oppressive."
HEASC itself avows the ideological side of sustainability, seeking to “move sustainability to the center stage of higher education” to help “make a healthy, just and sustainable future a goal of all learning and practice.” Anyone who follows the links I’ve been sprinkling through this account will find a rapidly growing forest of Web sites, organizations, highly interconnected movement that includes many of the major higher education associations, such as the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards. While some of these organizations describe their commitments, as NACUBO does, in the language of recycling and conservation, some grab the third ring. ACPA is the most vociferous on “social justice,” which it hopes to promote in college residence halls around the country. But is the ideological side of the sustainability movement limited to the preaching of RA's and student activity czars?
Not at all. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education speaks to a much broader set of concerns than dormitories and has hundreds of member colleges and universities as well as business members, NGOs, and government agencies. AASHE “defines sustainability in an inclusive way, encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods, and a better world for all generations.” (Oddly, its symbol is a single ash leaf, rather than the nearly ubiquitous triad of circles.) AASHE aims to take this “encompassing” view to “all sectors of higher education -- from governance and operations to curriculum and outreach” and it serves as “a professional home” for a new breed of campus bureaucrat, “campus sustainability coordinators and directors.”
Earlier I described the sustainability as a “movement,” but it is clearly a movement that is already partly institutionalized. It has its own class of paid workers whose interest in advancing the cause is inseparable from their interest in sustaining their own careers and pursuing the usual challenges of acquiring staff and accreting budgets. It is hard to tell how many of these college offices have already been established. A Google search suggests something in the hundreds. Presumably AASHE’s list of member colleges and universities is a close match.
The typical college or university sustainability office draws attention to campus conservation efforts and academic courses (such as Natural Resource Economics). Some stop there, but many add to the mix some elements of social activism rooted in the “social justice” agenda. The University of Florida’s Office of Sustainability includes as a goal making the university a “model” of “social equity,” which it defines as hiring goals “to ensure the university reflects society’s racial, ethnic and gender diversity … a livable wage and benefits, including benefit packages for spouses and domestic partners of university employees.” The University of New Hampshire’s sustainability office is less specific but it too promotes “social justice” by “increasing student exposure to humanistic treatment of particular issues of justice.” The jargon of Kathleen Kerr and ACPA find their way into many of these sustainability office Web sites.
Sustainability bureaucrats are not the whole picture of this campus development. Beyond them lies the land of the hard-core campus activists, such as the Sustainable Campuses Project and the Sierra Youth Coalition -- a Canadian venture which foreground “the intersections between sustainability and anti-oppression work.” Anti-oppression work takes us back to Kerr and Edwards’ list, notched up yet a few more degrees. Sustainability for the Sierra Youth Coalition, for example, includes working for the liberation of “womyn, genderqueer, transgender, and intersexed people,” struggling against ableism, and overcoming whiteness.
There is rich vein of colorful pronouncements by student groups in the U.S., but quoting such stuff has the drawback of making the phenomena look merely silly. I would rather end on a more admonitory note. The idea of sustainability isn’t new. I alluded to the 19th century prophet of non-sustainablity, Thomas Malthus, and to the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, but surely the figure who rolls all the elements of the sustainability movement into one geodesic ball is Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983). Fuller summarized his life project as the attempt to discover, “Does humanity have a chance to survive lastingly and successfully on planet Earth, and if so, how?” Fuller’s environmentalism was held together with the gossamer logic of utopian dreams, and naturally he gained an enthusiastic following in the 1970s when the first wave of environmentalism hit. Fuller is an interesting and quirky figure, but it is hard to say that he made much progress with his basic question. He failed because his scientific objectives always blurred into his salvational dreams. His fitting monument was Biosphere 2, the giant glass terrarium in the Arizona desert whose supporters wasted hundreds of millions of dollars in a hapless search for a practical agenda. During the first biosphere “mission,” most of the animals and all of the pollinating insects died, and the volunteer humans emerged in none too great shape.
No doubt many of today’s sustainability advocates believe they are embarked on a more practical enterprise. Some are. Ann Rappaport and Sarah Hammond Creighton’s recent book, Degrees That Matter: Climate Change and the University,for example, is a compendium on setting goals for such things as campus gas emissions, electronic switches, and light bulbs. But for many others, the conservation initiatives and empirical research are perilously blended with the pursuit of “social justice,” at the cost of clarity and coherence. Few of these advocates venture to say what “social justice” is, preferring a vague commitment to ridding humanity of every painful “inequity” to the awkwardness of admitting that “social justice” typically means nothing more than the menu of causes currently favored by the political Left.
For those who take global sustainability as a serious scientific and intellectual problem, this snacking at the social justice table is a bad idea. The legitimate questions about how humanity can best thrive in a world beset with environmental challenges deserve to be answered with open-minded inquiry, rigorous pursuit of the facts, robust debate, and attentiveness to the full range of possible answers. We are ill-served by an approach that forecloses whole lines of investigation and that demands allegiance to political nostrums -- some of them of negligible relevance -- before the science has even begun.
American higher education is a bit like Guam in having no natural defenses against certain kinds of predators. Treesnakes aren’t a worry here but illiberal ideologies are, especially those that present themselves at first as thoughtful responses to practical problems. In recent years, President Bush has been strongly criticized for allegedly silencing science that cut against his policies or ignoring unwelcome findings. It is a hard irony of our times that American higher education is in the midst of an ideological enthusiasm that promises to do the very same thing.
Peter Wood is executive director of the National Association of Scholars. His books include A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now and Diversity: The Invention of a Concept.
Among the most striking phenomena associated with Barack Obama’s successful bid for the Democratic nomination has been his ability to attract young people to the political process. Youthful volunteers have staffed his campaign. They have used Internet skills to advance his candidacy and build his organization. They have even been among the thousands of small donors who have contributed to his record-breaking fund-raising efforts. In state after state, their support for Obama during the primaries significantly exceeded his margins among voters from other age groups.
The success of the Obama campaign refutes the oft-repeated notion that young people today are uninterested in national politics and are less ready than older generations of Americans to become responsible stewards of our democratic institutions. This resurgence of youthful activism delivers an important message for our colleges and universities.
The disengagement of young people from our country’s political processes after the 1960s has been well documented. Many studies have shown that during the last three decades of the 20th century, young Americans demonstrated less interest in public affairs than had previous generations, and also were less well informed about political and public policy matters, and less likely to vote.
The withdrawal of young people from active interest in public affairs paralleled reduced attention to citizenship by our colleges and universities. While higher education has long claimed as a core mission preparing students for democratic participation, it is a mission honored in recent years mainly in the rhetoric of college catalogs. Few campuses today provide organized or explicit programming with this focus, either inside or outside the curriculum. Most of our academic institutions address this matter only indirectly, by fostering the intellectual skills and qualities -- critical thinking, habits of reading and information gathering, broad interest in the social world -- that studies have shown relate to heightened levels of political participation.
It was not always this way. In the years after World War II, when patriotic sentiment was strong, academics paid extensive attention to the ways in which the undergraduate curriculum could promote appreciation of the ideas, values and experiences that constituted the shared cultural heritage of the country, a movement symbolized by Harvard’s famous report, "General Education in a Free Society." Many institutions established requirements in American history and Western political and social thought. A new emphasis on international studies reflected the country’s emergence as a global power. Outside the curriculum, there was a heightened focus on the ways in which student government could be a vehicle for teaching undergraduates the ways of democratic decision making.
During the 1960s, however, attention to active citizenship fell victim to the anti-governmental impulses inspired by the war in Vietnam. By the end of that decade, academe was far more concerned with promoting the kind of intellectual independence associated with dissent than with helping students understand the workings of democracy. In curricular terms, not much has changed since the 1960s. Indeed, the emphases of recent years on multiculturalism and world history have rendered special attention to a shared American culture or to American history passé or even objectionable from the perspective of many academics.
It would be unfair to blame academe entirely for the disengagement of young people from our political life. Many factors have been involved, not least the many unappealing qualities of contemporary political practice. But higher education, by abandoning attention to preparation for citizenship, has been an enabler of this pattern. In recent years, however, a growing number of educators have expressed concern about our continuing inattention to this matter. Individuals such as Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, and academic organizations including the Association of American Colleges and Universities have argued that we need to revitalize our traditional concern for citizenship education. Organizations such as Campus Compact and indeed the whole service learning movement are promoting civic engagement among college students, although these efforts are typically focused on community service rather than electoral politics.
The students who have responded so enthusiastically to Senator Obama’s campaign are making it clear that they are ready for renewed attention to our democratic institutions by our colleges and universities. It is inevitable, whatever the final outcome of the election, that the heightened interest in politics shown by young people will translate into a heightened receptivity to programming by colleges and universities focused on these matters. Higher education should seize this opportunity.
Not everyone will welcome renewed efforts by colleges and universities to promote political participation. Some, mainly outside academe, worry that higher education’s tendency toward liberal politics is already turning many college classes into indoctrination sessions; those who harbor such worries will not readily trust our campuses to avoid partisanship. Others, mainly inside academe, worry that an explicit focus on strengthening democracy will quickly devolve into nationalistic boosterism.
But recent work by thoughtful academics, most notably through the Political Engagement Project, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, have shown that collegiate programs focused on active citizenship can heighten political awareness and foster greater understanding and participation without greatly affecting the political inclinations of participating students or abandoning an appropriately critical perspective on our country’s policies. Boks’s study outlines a number of ways -- through required course work, extra curricular activities, sponsored events and speakers, and presidential leadership -- that colleges and universities can responsibly promote thoughtful political participation.
Individual institutions should craft their own responses to this moment of opportunity. Institutional characteristics such as scale, complexity, mission, location and educational philosophy will suggest the most fruitful approach to citizenship education in particular contexts. The first requirement of progress, therefore, must be engagement of the campus community -- faculty and staff -- in thinking about how citizenship education can most effectively be pursued. But local approaches will need to address some shared objectives.
The first of these is understanding. It is hard to imagine how an institution can claim to prepare its students for active citizenship if they are allowed to graduate with no knowledge of American history or of our political and economic institutions. The widespread absence of requirements in these areas is an embarrassment to higher education. A second challenge is motivation. Campus plans should seek ways to foster an abiding sense of the value and importance of civic engagement. In this area we have much to build on, given the inspiring surge in social activism among many young people. A final challenge is skill. We need to help students develop the capacity to use the vehicles available to citizens to influence the political process effectively. And we need to think about how to use the entire institution -- both the curriculum and the extra-curriculum -- to meet these challenges.
These will not be easy discussions. They will compel us to think about things we have found difficult, such as requiring students to study certain subjects and treating extra curricular life in a systemic way as part of the educational process. But if we can’t find ways to address these issues, we should perhaps abandon the pretense that our mission includes the preparation of citizens. I hope we will not do that. The country needs us to respond differently. It is time for academia to reassert our historic role in preserving and strengthening our democracy by helping our students appreciate what it is about and how it works. The young people turning out in droves to vote in the 2008 primaries are calling us to pay attention to this issue.
Richard M. Freeland
Richard Freeland is the Jane and William Mosakowski Distinguished Professor of Higher Education at Clark University and president emeritus of Northeastern University.
There is growing anxiety among educators and policy makers that American colleges and universities are not churning out enough science and engineering majors, thereby jeopardizing the economic advantages currently enjoyed by the United States. Gone are the days when university presidents such as Robert Hutchins placed the study of philosophical and literary works at the heart of undergraduate education; now academics are much more likely to recommend (as Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz do in The Race Between Education and Technology) an increased attention to developing technological skills.
But are the humanities really only good for soft skills and vague ideals, like self-realization or civic understanding? Do they provide nothing to our “hard” achievements in science and engineering? A comparative look at undergraduate curricula suggests otherwise, and that the American emphasis on a liberal arts education is key to our success in nurturing innovative thinking among students.
Let me begin by recounting how I came to realize the importance of the humanities not only for cultivating the mind, but also for teaching the profitable art of originality. It was in the context of Stanford University’s obligatory “Introduction to the Humanities” (IHUM) course series for freshmen. Unlike its “Western civ” predecessor, which was the source of so much criticism in the 1960s, IHUM provides a variety of course offerings, ranging from “Ancient Empires” to “Rebellious Daughters and Filial Sons of the Chinese Family.” In the course I teach with my colleagues Robert Harrison and Joshua Landy, “Epic Journeys, Modern Quests,” the students read literary works ranging from Gilgamesh to The Trial, and write a series of papers analyzing the texts along the way.
Speaking with some Chinese students one day before class, they explained to me how they found these writing exercises utterly baffling. “We are supposed to come up with an original thesis?,” they asked. “How are we meant to do that?” Never before had they been encouraged to provide their own interpretation of a text or event. High schools in China focus obsessively on memorization; there is no place in the curriculum for constructing an original argument.
American culture and economy, by contrast, place an almost unrivaled premium on originality: “Invent, invent, invent” was the title of a recent Thomas Friedman column in the Times. The iPhone may be made in China, but, as its packaging proudly declares, it is “Designed in California.” We have exchanged manufacturing for innovation, and seem mostly content with the deal. Rarely do we ask, however, how and where originality is taught. And if we try to answer this question, it becomes clear that humanities courses such as IHUM offer far more opportunities for innovative thinking than most science classes.
To be sure, universities such as Stanford offer seminars in, say, mechanical engineering, in which students are called upon to invent new designs and products. But these courses tend to be reserved for upper-level students. While science educators are beginning to emphasize the importance of problem-solving courses at the entry level, the purpose of most basic math or science classes is not to encourage originality. If you take a calculus exam and get the same answers as 50 other students in the class, you may well get an A. If your essay thesis for a history course is the same as 50 other students in the class, you most likely will not.
The point here is a simple one: humanities courses provide students with lessons in innovation from day one. Good professors model original thinking for their students in their lectures, which is one of the reasons that research and teaching can be mutually beneficial. Students in turn learn how to examine topics under new light. Whether they go on to become software engineers, surgeons, or physicists, this primary training in innovative thought will help them imagine, invent, and create the world of the future. The modest undergraduate essay on Euripides’ Iphigenia requires the same conceptual skill-set as does devising a new medical procedure, constructing a different architectural schema, or coming up with a creative business model.
University administrators are quick to recognize the importance of creative thinking in academic curricula, but too often assume that creativity is found only in the arts. In fact, if the arts offer more opportunities for creative expression, the humanities can provide a better forum for reflecting on innovative processes, and by extension, a better chance to apply these lessons in other fields. This is not to suggest that the arts fail to live up to their pedagogical promises, but rather that the humanities offer a critical supplement.
When we consider the future of American higher education, therefore, we would do well to remember that a long-standing attachment to a liberal arts education has contributed in no small way to its great renown. Why is it, after all, that students from around the world dream of studying in the land of Apple and Google, when such a large chunk of our curricula is dedicated to reading Aristotle and Goethe?
The United States is in fact one of very few countries where college students continue to receive a general education. After graduating from high school, French students dedicate themselves immediately to the study of law, medicine, biochemistry, or another narrow specialization; the same holds true for English, German, Swiss, Italian, and most other European students. In the United Kingdom, specialization begins around the age of 15-16; after that, students usually only pursue three disciplines, often within a single area (e.g. the humanities or sciences). This important difference means that American universities are quite unique in their insistence that all undergraduates receive a humanistic education.
Alumni of American universities do not seem to find that their time reading Jane Austen or Alexis de Tocqueville was in vain. Entrepreneurs, for instance, emphasize the importance of a liberal arts education for business: “Entrepreneurship is a philosophy. It’s a way of looking at the world,” the venture capitalist Randy Komisar recently told Siliconvalley.com, adding how it “dovetails nicely with a liberal arts education.” Even academics are insisting on the parallel: as Mary Godwyn of Babson College wrote in Academe, “Entrepreneurship is a tangible, practical manifestation of a liberal arts sensibility.” Steve Jobs famously dropped out of Reed College, but recalled in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford how a course in Asian calligraphy transformed his vision of fonts and text.
The thought that students in a Shakespeare class might read The Merchant of Venice for insights on investment banking rightly sends shivers down every English professor’s back. Rather than consider how we need to “integrate liberal arts and entrepreneurship courses,” as Godwyn suggests, it bears emphasizing the benefits provided by the liberal arts tout court. The fundamental activity that lies at the heart of humanistic studies is practical enough. If business, medicine, and engineering professors see it fit to incorporate literary or philosophical material in their syllabi, so much the better; but we would lose many of the other, more intangible values of the humanities if we reduce them to mere “how-to” studies.
This is not to say that professors and researchers in the humanities cannot retool their pedagogical and scholarly strategies in order to convey the excitement and passion of, say, the French Revolution to students who yawn at the mention of a pre-Facebook age. Indeed, as university presses become anemic, now is a good time to rethink the whole disciplinary pressures on specialization, which often translate into writing for a choir of a dozen faithful. No doubt we should aspire more to becoming “conversational critics,” in Adam Gopnik’s phrase. But equally important is the need for university administrators, policy makers, and cultural commentators, to recognize the important work already being done in freshmen seminars and writing classes in the humanities.
There are many steps from Iphigenia to the iPhone, but fostering an innovative, thoughtful, and humanistic environment is the first.
"All of you to whom furious work is dear, and whatever is fast, new, and strange -- you find it hard to bear yourselves; your industry is to escape and the will to forget yourselves. If you believed more in life you would fling yourselves less to the moment. But you do not have content enough in yourselves for waiting -- and not even for idleness."
Reducing the price of higher education by offering a three-year undergraduate degree for all students embarrassingly announces to the world that in America finance and clever marketing trump learning. Lopping off one quarter of the current norm for bachelor's degrees seems a compelling way to achieve the big savings we all long for, particularly when coupled with imaginings that college education is inefficient and readily compacted. Higher ed is easy prey to such imaginings because it deals often with what is not immediately perceived and readily measured. Its subject is the mind and the maturing young person. Its playing field is the duration of time.
It may be that we can no longer afford the four-year standard for an undergraduate education. If economic realities push against our current model, so be it. But before we fast forward college in the name of affordability, let's at least be honest about what is being lost. Three is usually not more than or equal to four. Not all results -- especially in education, where "widgets" are not the product -- are available at lower price and the same quality. Perhaps we can "get undergraduates through" in three years. However, what we may have to alter to achieve that end might severely compromise what we hope to accomplish for our students, particularly in areas vital to a thriving 21st century democracy and economy.
Consider the following areas of concern. Most involve potential dilution of those very educational goals deemed by the marketplace to be critical competencies to a global workforce and by the public to be essential to American democracy.
Global perspective. American higher education has traditionally done a poor job providing students with global perspective, despite the clear importance of globalization for our future. True, more Americans are studying abroad than in the past, but for shorter periods -- this despite convincing evidence that stays of up to an academic year yield markedly superior results. A three-year degree program -- with the "no frills" philosophy that often supports it -- is likely to reduce space for global education across the curriculum; it certainly will constrain study abroad. Not to mention the more specialized but important issue of impact on instruction in critically needed but demanding languages such as Arabic or Chinese.
Interdisciplinarity. The movement in higher education has been steadily toward more interdisciplinary work, and for multiple, good reasons. This is where much of the action is in research and discovery. Think, for example, of such fields as biochemistry, neuroscience, bioinformatics, or environmental studies. More generally, most of the problems we currently face are interdisciplinary in nature (think, for instance, of what one needs to know to address the issue of climate change seriously). Both in the workplace and as citizens the ability to "connect the dots" by drawing insights from multiple fields is becoming ever more essential. As a consequence, we now add "synthesis" to traditional demands for "breadth" and "depth" as a key dimension of undergraduate education. A shortened degree can limit our capacity for interdisciplinary programming, whether in majors or general education.
Complexity. As the foregoing indicates, academic fields -- and the world at large -- are becoming more complex, not less. Look, for example, at what it now requires to be a biologist as compared to 20 (or even 10) years ago. New information, new methods (often borrowed from other fields as in bioinformatics), and new instrumentation have opened doors both to more knowledge and more questions to answer, not fewer. This is not only a matter of mastering an academic discipline but of expanding into contemporary issues from health care to financial markets. We need more thinking and students knowing with some certainty about the complexity of issues, not less.
Choice. Growing complexity has meant that academic majors have become both fuller and more hierarchical (i.e., more courses with more prerequisites). Pushing hierarchical majors back from four years to three will inevitably up the pressure on students to decide on a major immediately, and significantly constrain the possibility of a change in direction. Early specialization is the European model, but should it become ours? Will it maintain America's edge of advancing students and a workforce who are engaged, entrepreneurial and creative in part because they have taken the time to find out who they are and remained open to new possibilities? This question has particularly salience as the new, 21st century economy demands ever more flexibility.
Creativity. Much of the foregoing focuses on an arena in which Americans, and American students, have been historically distinguished -- creativity. Can this quality thrive in a "hurry up," "let's get it done" version of higher education? This goal is certainly more difficult to achieve in a course of study that is predicated upon early specialization and in which combining depth with experience in a variety of fields is minimized?
Democracy. It is true that we as a nation must educate for the skills/abilities that fuel our economy, and at reasonable cost. But we educate for the habits of mind and action that fuel a democracy as well. Educating for democracy as opposed to mere academic coursework is a global differentiator of American higher education. Three-year compacting may very well push out opportunity for the broader tools and vision we need for citizenship to unfold over time in a residential setting -- especially among students who are generally the youngest to begin university in the industrialized world. Let us remember that many of the skills of organization and association that since Tocqueville have been identified as guarantors of American civil society are developed in co- and extra-curricular activities that characterize current residential education. These, too, are potential victims of degree acceleration.
Meaning. When advocates of a shorter degree call for "no frills" and an end to "waste," likely targets for substantial cutbacks are the humanities and arts. The press for more practical undergraduate degree programs, intensified by global economic competition, has already reduced enrollment in these fields. Is it worthwhile to have a system in which speculation on what it means to be human and exposure to the range of human creativity and expression in the arts are increasingly pushed aside? Our students already do too little of this.
Technology. New online technology is often offered up as the elixir for students of any age that shortens time and improves quality by simultaneously accelerating and enhancing instruction. But this is far from proven. The emerging reality may be that technology works best among younger students when combined with more traditional, faculty-contact based approaches rather than as a substitute. Moreover, mastery of many technological innovations -- whether general skills of computing or more specialized skills associated with new instrumentation and techniques, especially in the sciences -- itself places time pressures on the undergraduate degree. Not to mention that the substantial costs of developing and applying effective technology in instruction work against promised cost savings through degree acceleration.
It is worth noting that at many institutions the door is already open to a three-year degree. Students can deploy credits earned in high school through Advanced Placement, summer school, and/or a few semesters with a course overload to reduce their time to a bachelor's degree to three or quite easily three and a half years. How many do? Very few. Advocates of degree acceleration would claim, with some reason, that we do not advertise the fast track and have built the system to discourage it.
They might also argue, again with cause, that students who might otherwise finish in three years fear competition from peers who have taken longer to mature, hone their abilities, and develop resumes full of internships, study abroad and senior research experience. But could it also be that many students are in no rush because they sense some of the points made above? Perhaps they have an inkling that four years of study and maturation prepare them better for graduate work, career, and life?
Supporters of the three-year degree often cite the example of Europe as justification for reducing our time in undergraduate study. Indeed, as part of the Bologna Declaration, member countries are required to move by 2010 to a five-year bachelor's-master's degree sequence. Many nations are choosing the 3+2 option. Yet the comparison of the two systems of higher education is highly misleading, most obviously because conditions in Europe are quite different from conditions in America.
Take Germany as an example -- a country that has chosen the 3+2 option. There, high school students prepare for the university with a rigorous liberal arts and science course of study until the age of 19. This study is so demanding that numerous colleges and universities in the United States award a full year of college credit for the completion of the Abitur -- the German high school degree. In essence, the German secondary school experience de facto makes for a four-year degree. Moreover, German men are required by law to complete a period of either military or civil service and thus will begin undergraduate study generally at 20 and finish at 23 or 24.
Certain fields of study, however, have a limited number of seats for study available in any given year ("Numerus Clausus") and therefore, students have to wait a year or more additionally to begin university. The American three-year proposal would have our students completing college at 20 or 21. The age difference is striking -- and not to our advantage. Moreover, at present only 35 percent of German school students proceed to university study versus approximately 65 percent in the United States. Clearly Germany is subjecting a far more uniformly well-prepared and limited number of students to the "three-year" baccalaureate than would be subject to it in the United States. The comparison of the two nations for advocacy of the three-year degree simply breaks down on several fronts.
Importantly, many European professors, students and educational agencies are awakening to negative outcomes of the three-year degree. For example, increasingly German students are forgoing their former practice of study abroad in order to finish on time their tightly prescribed three-year program. The situation has become so alarming that the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) is apparently advocating a four-year undergraduate degree program to accommodate a year of study abroad. Students and professors are also discovering that the three-year course of study is so regimented that there is little to no time to engage in studies across disciplines or to reflect upon what has been learned.
Returning to America and looking at our system as a whole, the key numbers may not be four and three. As the Obama administration has clearly discovered, roughly one third of our students are enrolled in community college, and here the issue is improving the quality of two years. Even in regard to four-year institutions, the real challenge may be increasing the number of students who complete on time. Our focus ought to be on the five, six or more years it often takes to complete. For example, more than 60 percent of students with Advanced Placement credit -- theoretically prime candidates for an accelerated degree -- currently fail to finish in four years. In addition, all of this, as the European example demonstrates, is predicated upon another set of numbers -- K through 12.
Underlying the issue of degree non-completion at all levels of our higher education system are the demographics of access. Opening the doors of college to more Americans, including particularly students from groups historically underrepresented in higher ed, creates challenges in regard to cost. But it also raises the issue of quality. Will we expand opportunity and access by diluting the product by introducing a three-year degree at such a critical period of opportunity in their lives?
Of course, the commentary on three-year degrees is typically based on the assumption that it will radically decrease cost. But the new model has yet to be rigorously structured financially. The claims are that three years will save a great deal of money, but are we certain that is so? Implementing an accelerated degree efficiently in regard to scheduling, advising, and facilities will require additional administrative overhead. Offering the necessary courses may well mean additional faculty. And there will be other added instructional costs. These might include extra professors to implement more intensive pedagogy, new monies to support online work, or both. Could it in fact cost the same or at the outside even more to accelerate?
Capturing the spirit of the times, one prominent advocate styled the three-year degree as the "higher ed equivalent of a fuel-efficient car" compared to the "gas guzzling four-year course." A metaphor from the food industry might be more apt. Slow education, as in slow cooking, is enthusiastically replaced by Fast Ed or McEd, with comparable results. Higher education is certainly in need of efficiency. Our current business model, which has yielded steadily increasing costs, needs change and, perhaps, radically so. Let us not be fooled by adapting across the system solutions that appear corrective but may be destructive of the virtue and distinction of American higher education and its ambition -- education for the workforce and for participation and leadership in a democracy.
Reducing the undergraduate program to three years from four is a "quick fix." Much is to be lost and much wagered, ironically at a time when the four-year program that has helped so many to success is being made available across American society. We can do better.
William G. Durden and Neil B. Weissman
William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College. Neil B. Weissman is provost and dean of the college at Dickinson.
Without intending it, I offended my friends by speaking a foreign language.
When I left a research center for the humanities and started work in a philanthropic foundation over five years ago, I wanted to know if a foundation could make a difference to the extent and depth of student learning in the liberal arts. To answer that question, I had to learn as much as I could about how students learn and how we know about their learning. Before long, I was studying reports such as the one produced by the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative (LEAP) that argued that liberal education ought to be understood not as exposing students to certain fields of knowledge, but as helping them to develop long-lasting cognitive and personal capacities. When I started using that phrase, I was on a slippery slope.
The next thing I knew, I was asking whether colleges and universities were translating that understanding of liberal education into clear learning outcomes. The phrase did not come tripping off the tongue, but the question was such an important one that I went right ahead and asked whether their practices were truly and effectively aligned with these outcomes. Were scaffoldings in place to help students move from one cognitive level to a higher one?
Despite its efforts to strengthen teaching, almost no one at the humanities center had spoken this lingo -- or asked such questions. When I started to do so, I found myself making the strange hiss sounds of “assessment,” a sound so savagely obnoxious that my friends began to hint that I was opening the gates to the barbarians.
I tried to conciliate them by substituting the term “evidence” for “assessment,” but they were too smart for that. And when I found I needed to investigate the various instruments that had been developed to help measure student learning, it was clear to many friends that I had gone over to the dark side. Terms such as NSSE, CLA, HERI, and CIRP were shibboleths that marked me as one of them.
It did no good to explain these were just convenient acronyms for titles in plain English. The titles themselves gave the show away: the National Survey of Student Engagement, for example, was clearly code for an alien view of education. The surveys were quantitative, a classicist friend noted with horror, warning me that “You can’t measure the human soul with numbers.”
Even worse, when I learned that the NSSE surveys had produced an empirical base for identifying a few high-impact practices, ones that demonstrably improved student engagement, learning, retention and graduation rates, the terms were so off-putting that in some quarters the ideas behind it could, as they say, gain no traction.
One friend -- who has somehow remained so despite my wayward behavior -- told me I needed to find some way to “translate” phrases such as high-impact practices into language more acceptable in the more ethereal reaches of the academy.
But I had done enough translating in my days as a classicist; now I was more interested in changing practice, and that, I realized, meant changing discourse. My theoretically minded friends had taught me one thing, after all. Discourse shapes practice.
Or, freely translated, “You have to talk the talk before you can walk the walk."
So I went on to other ophidian sounds, asking how higher education could successfully make systemic and systematic changes. Teagle Foundation grants for this purpose were going well, but the sibilants still sounded pernicious in many ears. Nor did it help to “translate” systematic into the phrase continuous quality improvement. That had few sibilants, but an unmistakable whiff about it of a Toyota factory or some other banausic enterprise.
The new mode of speech had a disconcerting inflection as well as an annoying vocabulary. For example, the stress in the “teaching and learning” moved disconcertingly from the first syllable of the dactyl, “teach’ing and … ” to the penult in the spondee, “learn’ing.” That reflects the emphasis in the new discourse on student learning. It expects students to take responsibility for their education rather than leaving the burden on “great teachers” and “good pedagogy.” Goodbye, Mr Chips. Hello daily development of cumulative cognitive and personal capacities.
Although it continues to give offense, the new discourse has in the last year or two passed a tipping point. It has now become the dominant mode of arguing, thinking and doing something about higher education.
There are two reasons, I believe, for this. First the accrediting organizations now insist on clear learning goals and rigorous assessment of progress toward them. And they are “drilling down” to the department and even course level to see what is being achieved.
More important, however, is a second reason: Faculty members who approach teaching in this way report that it is energizing, empowering, refreshing. It’s a welcome change from endless debates about the literary canon, or the curriculum. They say the terminology is no more opaque than the vocabulary of the economists, or the language we philologists use in establishing the stemmatics of ancient texts, or the useful technical terminologies developed in reader-response theory, deconstruction, and subaltern studies.
Every craft has its discourse, and every discourse shapes practice. It’s the results that count. It’s worth learning some new vocabulary when new friends whose speech I have come to understand are saying that they like having students who are more intensely engaged in learning, and taking greater responsibility for their education. They even talk about greater “satisfaction.”
How’s that for a change in discourse?
Robert Connor is president of the Teagle Foundation.