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How to Combat the High Schoolization of the University

Some reflections on UNC professor Molly Worthen’s defense of more traditional approaches to pedagogy and definitions of the faculty role.

December 7, 2022

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Kobayashi Maru scenario, a training exercise at Star Trek’s Starfleet Academy. Cadets who are being considered for leadership positions are confronted with an unwinnable situation in order to test their command capabilities. They must rescue a civilian freighter, avoid a fight with opposing forces and escape with their starship intact. The catch: this can’t be done—at least not without cheating or bending the rules.

Even though higher education has its own hazing rituals and rites of passage, it doesn’t impose tests of character. That Sam Bankman-Fried was a graduate of MIT, George Lincoln Rockwell from Brown, Ted Kaczynski from Harvard and Lyle Menendez from Princeton doesn’t raise any alarm bells. We can dismiss flawed graduates as a handful of bad apples

I raise these examples to prompt a bigger issue: Are there things that higher education should do but can’t or won’t? If a moral education strikes most faculty as inappropriate at liberal, secular institutions, are there pedagogies that we might use but don’t, to test student knowledge at a deep level or prompt their intellectual, social and moral growth?

In a recent opinion essay in The New York Times, Molly Worthen, a University of North Carolina professor of religious and intellectual history, follows up an earlier defense of lectures (“Lecture Me, Really”) and the study of the Great Books (“Can I Go to Great Books Boot Camp?”), an attack on learning objectives (“The Misguided Drive to Measure ‘Learning Outcomes’”) and the use of the language of feeling as a substitute for avoiding engagement with fellow students’ arguments and points of view (“Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’”) with an argument on behalf of oral exams: “If It’s Good Enough for Socrates, It’s Good Enough for Sophomores.”

An intellectual provocateur and a staunch defender of more traditional approaches to pedagogy, Worthen expresses concern about what she considers “the gradual the high schoolization of the university”: not just the reduction of rigor, but an overemphasis on marketable skills, the embrace of overly simplistic abstract concepts that fail to capture the essence of what a higher education is all about.

For example, she favors teaching students the value of empathy not through the standard techniques of social-emotional learning, like “anti-bullying workshops, classroom rules stressing compassion and wall charts of ‘feeling words’ and ‘emoji meters,’” but the intensive study of works of literature. Right on, I say.

She has also quite rightly criticized the learning outcomes assessments industry with its predilection for testing requiring skills-based “learning outcomes” on every syllabus, its focus on job-related skills and its use of testing software, surveys, standardized rubrics and e-portfolios that utterly fail to capture the subtleties of learning. She cites as a graphic example the absurdity of California’s Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory, which claims to be able to measure “qualities like ‘truthseeking’ and ‘analyticity.’”

When we define learning objects in strictly utilitarian terms or too vaguely, when we use phrases like “critical thinking,” Worthen writes with words that we should all take to heart: “We end up using the language of the capitalist marketplace and speak to our students as customers rather than fellow thinkers.” She points out that her goals as a teacher of history—to teach students to read a historical source, interpret evidence, construct an argument and demonstrate historical consciousness—ought not be reduced to such banalities.

The purpose of college, she eloquently argues, is “to carve out space for intellectual endeavors that don’t have obvious metrics or market value.”

Among the ironies of learning assessment that Worthen points out: at a time when public outrage over higher education’s high cost is at a fever pitch, the assessment movement has forced universities, especially those regional campuses with large numbers of economically disadvantaged students with deficits in preparation, to hire a large assessment support staff.

Here, I must firmly disagree. I believe that instructors have an obligation to measure the effectiveness of our teaching and to do a far more serious job of evaluating what our students are learning. To that end, we need to articulate our learning objectives with far greater specificity and precision and design assessments and rubrics that truly do evaluate the extent to which students have mastered those learning outcomes.

In her op-ed essays, Worthen makes a strong contrarian case for questioning conventional thinking and routine practice. Lectures, she argues, are especially educationally purposeful and impactful practices—despite the arguments frequently leveled against this pedagogical approach. Students can learn a lot by taking listening quietly and attentively, taking notes and reflecting on what they hear when a smart, articulate organized, informed expert speaks at length.

She also argues that tenure needs to be tweaked to encourage faculty to devote more attention to teaching, to explore bigger ideas in the courses and to take greater risks in the classroom.

In her most recent opinion essay, she asks a series of questions that I found especially provocative. Should we cold call on undergraduates, in part to make our students more comfortable with argument and disagreement? Is it OK to grill students with questions on an oral exam—not to “expose a trembling student’s ‘skull full of mush,’” but, rather, “to test a student’s intellectual agility and ability to synthesize in a way that is impossible on a standardized written test.” Her answer is yes.

But that would be difficult to do at my institution. A number of colleagues have been told in no uncertain terms that such approaches can cause undue stress to highly anxious students who must be notified in advance if they will be asked to respond to a particular question orally in class. Worthen herself cites a U.K. case in which a British court ordered the University of Bristol to pay damages after an undergraduate with severe anxiety ended her own life in 2018 just before an oral assessment. One colleague received pushback when he required students simply to identify by name their classmates in a small class.

Critics of the Socratic method and of oral exams raise a number of valid points: that oral questioning is unduly stressful and not just for students suffering from anxiety, stage fright or aphonia paralytica and that the grading oral exams is inherently subjective and excessively time-consuming to boot. And isn’t it true that questioning can become performative, grading arbitrary and responses glib and facile? Can’t such questioning leave students feeling humiliated and embarrassed? Yes and yes and yes.

But aren’t there ways to address the Socratic method’s shortcomings yet build on its genuine strengths? One approach is to workshop student projects and to engage in what the arts call peer critique. Of course, for this approach to work effectively, classes must be relatively small and students must be taught how to offer pointed criticism and analysis with empathy and understanding

Another approach involves integrating oracy systematically into our classes. Oracity, the oral equivalent of literacy in reading or numeracy in mathematics, is a skill that deserves much more attention than it currently receives. We need to teach students how to build on what another pupil has said; to articulate, clarify and summarize arguments; and analyze such arguments respectfully. We should also do something that the educational journalist Natalie Wexler recommends: give students the beginning of a sentence and ask them to complete the sentence stem with three different conjunctions: “because,” “but” or “so.”

If students feel overly stressed by oral discussion—and a recent a survey of 2,000 undergraduates found that three-quarters struggled with anxiety or depression during college—then part of the answer is to “normalize” pedagogical practices like Socratic questioning. For example, inform students beforehand what they will be asked to do; also go around the classroom in a predictable manner or break the class into pairs or small groups to give students time to prepare. Also, if worse comes to worse, students who may feel extremely uncomfortable speaking to the class as a whole might feel more at ease speaking in a smaller breakout group.

Over the past half century, the academy, especially at the upper end that serves about 20 percent of college undergraduates and most graduate and professional students, has undergone a series of seismic shifts. By far the most important is the embrace of a business paradigm that focuses on brand, finances, enrollment management, cost control, student services and amenities, rankings and growth in programming, research dollars, and reputation. In the process, senior campus administrators have been transformed from intellectual leaders into managers, students into customers and faculty members (increasingly divided between the tenured and the contingent) primarily valued for their publications, patents and grant-getting acumen.

The primary reason for this shift isn’t ill will; it’s rooted in market pressures, cost constraints and incentive structures.

This shift has produced the very issues that Worthen has diagnosed, including the embrace of terminology, concepts and approaches first adopted in K-12 education. Many of those terms and ideas can genuinely improve higher education. Instruction benefits substantially from a constructivist understanding of how students learn and a greater emphasis on lesson planning, culturally responsive teaching and the value of aligning learning objectives, activities and assignments and assessments.

But Worthen quite rightly decries the “high schoolization” of higher ed: that is, unduly reducing our expectations for student reading and writing, impoverishing our teaching methods by eschewing memorization and oral presentations and Socratic questioning, or diminishing our standards in order to make learning less difficult, stressful or demanding.

Authorities on the science of learning emphasize the importance of desirable difficulties—practices that make learning more challenging but more effective, more effortful in the short run but more durable in the long term. Deep learning is inherently a difficult and demanding process. It requires students to actively process information and construct their own conceptual understanding of complicated realities.

Orality (and memorization, close reading and rapid recall, too) are essential to that process. Students must be able to summarize and articulate ideas and arguments, interpret and analyze evidence, engage in discussion and debate, and apply essential ideas and skills in fresh contexts. Among our many tasks as instructors is to require our students to actively process difficult content, practice skills repeatedly and demonstrate orally as well as in writing their command of essential content and skills. If we don’t do that, we aren’t doing our job.

I agree with Worthen that lectures—if they take place in person and involve a high level of interactivity and include in-class assessments and embed opportunities for reflection—can be a highly efficient way to transmit information and can provide students with a model of how an expert organizes and analyzes and transmits a difficult body of content. I also concur with her argument that Socratic questioning (though not necessarily oral exams) can be a valuable tool in helping students learn—and that we need to resist attempts to eliminate that element from our teaching tool kit. I share Worthen’s enthusiasm for introducing students to the Great Books (though I might define the canon more broadly than she does), because there is no better way to understand the human experience or key issues in political and moral philosophy than through those texts.

In other words, Worthen’s ardent defense should prompt us all to recognize that the ultimate purpose of college education is not to instill marketable skills or prepare graduates for the workforce: it is, as Worthen writes, to give “students an opportunity that most of them will never have again in their lives: the chance for serious exploration of complicated intellectual problems, the gift of time in an institution where curiosity and discovery are the source of meaning.” To that, to quote the last words of James Joyce’s Ulysses: I say, “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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