Over the last generation, most colleges and universities have experienced considerable grade inflation. Much lamented by traditionalists and explained away or minimized by more permissive faculty, the phenomenon presents itself both as an increase in students’ grade point averages at graduation as well as an increase in high grades and a decrease in low grades recorded for individual courses. More prevalent in humanities and social science than in science and math courses and in elite private institutions than in public institutions, discussion about grade inflation generates a great deal of heat, if not always as much light.
While the debate on the moral virtues of any particular form of grade distribution fascinates as cultural artifact, the variability of grading standards has a more practical consequence. As grades increasingly reflect an idiosyncratic and locally defined performance levels, their value for outside consumers of university products declines. Who knows what an "A" in American History means? Is the A student one of the top 10 percent in the class or one of the top 50 percent?
Fuzziness in grading reflects a general fuzziness in defining clearly what we teach our students and what we expect of them. When asked to defend our grading practices by external observers -- parents, employers, graduate schools, or professional schools -- our answers tend toward a vague if earnest exposition on the complexity of learning, the motivational differences in evaluation techniques, and the pedagogical value of learning over grading. All of this may well be true in some abstract sense, but our consumers find our explanations unpersuasive and on occasion misleading.
They turn, then, to various forms of standardized testing. When the grades of an undergraduate have an unpredictable relevance to a standard measure performance, and when high quality institutions that should set the performance standard routinely give large proportions of their students “A” grades, others must look elsewhere for some reliable reference. A 3.95 GPA should reflect the same level of preparation for students from different institutions.
Because they do not, we turn to the GMAT, LSAT, GRE, or MCAT, to take four famous examples. These tests normalize the results from the standards-free zone of American higher education. The students who aspire to law or medical school all have good grades, especially in history or organic chemistry. In some cases, a student’s college grades may prove little more than his or her ability to fulfill requirements and mean considerably less than the results of a standardized test that attempts to identify precisely what the student knows that is relevant to the next level of academic activity.
Although many of us worry that these tests may be biased against various subpopulations, emphasize the wrong kind of knowledge, and encourage students to waste time and money on test prep courses, they have one virtue our grading system does not provide: The tests offer a standardized measure of a specific and clearly defined subset of knowledge deemed useful by those who require them for admission to graduate or professional study.
Measuring State Investment
If the confusion over the value of grades and test scores were not enough, we discover that at least for public institutions, our state accountability systems focus heavily on an attempt to determine whether student performance reflects a reasonable value for taxpayer investment in colleges and universities. This accountability process engages a wide range of measures -- time to degree, graduation rate, student satisfaction, employment, graduate and professional admission, and other indicators of undergraduate performance -- but even with the serious defects in most of these systems, they respond to the same problems as do standardized tests.
Our friends and supporters have little confidence in the self-generated mechanisms we use to specify the achievement of our students. If the legislature believed that students graduating with a 3.0 GPA were all good performers measured against a rigorous national standard applied to reasonably comparable curricula, they would not worry much about accountability. They would just observe whether our students learned enough to earn a nationally normed 3.0 GPA.
Of course, we have no such mechanism to validate the performance of our students. We do not know whether our graduates leave better or worse prepared than the students from other institutions. We too, in recognition of the abdication of our own academic authority as undergraduate institutions, rely on the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, and GMAT to tell us whether the students who apply (including our own graduates) can meet the challenges of advanced study at our own universities.
Partly this follows from another peculiarity of the competitive nature of the American higher education industry. Those institutions we deem most selective enroll students with high SATs on average (recognizing that a high school record is valuable only when validated in some fashion by a standardized test). Moreover, because selective institutions admit smart students who have the ability to perform well, and because these institutions have gone to such trouble to recruit them, elite colleges often feel compelled to fulfill the prophecy of the students’ potential by ensuring that most graduate with GPA’s in the A range. After all, they may say, average does not apply to our students because they are all, by definition, above average.
When reliable standards of performance weaken in any significant and highly competitive industry, consumers seek alternative external means of validating the quality of the services provided. The reluctance of colleges and universities, especially the best among us, to define what they expect from their students in any rigorous and comparable way, brings accreditation agencies, athletic organizations, standardized test providers, and state accountability commissions into the conversation, measuring the value of the institution’s results against various nationally consistent expectations of performance.
We academics dislike these intrusions into our academic space because they coerce us to teach to the tests or the accountability systems, but the real enemy is our own unwillingness to adopt rigorous national standards of our own.
A new survey of literary reading in America by the National Endowment for the Arts, " Reading At Risk " has once again raised the alarm about the cultural decline of America. This one provides the news that we read much less literature, defined as fiction and poetry, than we did some 20 years ago. Indeed, the decline is substantial (10 percent), accelerating and especially worrisome because the malady of literature non-reading particularly afflicts the younger members of society, that critical 18-24 year old group (which shows a 28 percent decline in this survey).
Academicians rushed in to analyze, comment and explain this decline, but some of the commentary both in the report itself and in the academic discussion it provoked seemed to miss the mark. The predictable villains of the visual media, the electronic media and the Internet all came in for blame. Truth is, I am not sure that the data represent a cause for alarm.
I know I should worry. I am a historian, after all, and if people will not read fiction, surely they will read less history. And I'm a teacher, and like everyone else in the humanities, I know students just do not read like they used to do.
The trouble is, I am not sure the changes in our cultural context are necessarily a bad thing. I read many airplane novels, and I have to say that if the younger generation is doing something else with their time, not much is lost. I read New Yorker fiction when I feel the need to be literarily virtuous, but the pieces tend to be mostly depressing stories about lives that do not work out in rather low-level ways.
Then I go online. Here I find a complicated world filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly. Alive and constantly changing, engaged and engaging, requiring my constant decisions about what is worth reading or seeing and what is not. From the lowest pornography to tours of the treasures of the Library of Congress, from the stupidest blogs of the radical fringes, to the most sophisticated discussions of the decline of America's reading habits, everything is there.
What is missing of course is the prescriptive, gate-keeping censorship of the academic and other cultural mandarins, sorting out what is good for me and what is not. The college students who now show up in my classroom come with an informational sophistication unimaginable in my generation. They find what they want, they use what they find, and they discard immense amounts of information made available to them.
Are they naïve about authority, methodology, logic and accuracy in these endless streams of information? Sure, they are. Who should teach them how to sort this stuff? We academics, sophisticated readers ourselves who all too frequently escape into trendy obscurantism rather than engage the real world information flow that constitutes the actual cultural context of our time.
We, the literate part of the American population, need to reconnect with the actual cultural context, rather than fight micro-academic battles of almost no interest to people outside the elite tiers of the academy. We need a better metric than reading print books, stories and poems to define the active imagination and the creative industries of our time. Why is a trashy airplane best seller more of a valuable cultural artifact than the telenovelas watched with enthusiasm and discussed in endless analytical detail by the large and growing Spanish speaking part of America? Why do we assume depressing short stories or over-hyped formulaic bestseller novels represent more significant cultural artifacts than the film version of The Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars series, or the computer game community's imaginative products?
The decline in reading may well reflect the decline in formal study of the humanities in American universities. However, the problem is not the students but the material we teach, the sectarian nature of our controversies, and our general reluctance to put the humanities in the center of our culture rather than relegating them to fragmented enclaves along the partisan byways of academic enthusiasms.
We lose influence on campus to the sciences on one side because they appear and act as if they know exactly what they are doing, how they do it, and for what purpose they do it. We lose influence on campus to the professionally oriented disciplines on the other side because they have a purpose and a method anchored directly in the center of the real world their disciplines address.
We in the humanities, and very frequently as well in the social sciences, often do not know and do not agree on what we think we are doing. We have few common standards and we ask little of our students who have time for non-academically related campus activities. We wonder why our voices carry such little weight when our culture seems to need us so desperately to sort out fundamental issues of values and judgment.
Our weakness on campus as humanists and social scientists reflects our frequent disconnect from the major issues that drive our culture and society. We know a lot, about many topics and issues. We have complex and specialized languages that define our place in political and intellectual sectarian spaces. While the best among us teach interesting courses to many students, most of us publish and build our prestige in the academy with mostly unreadable prose using such terms of art opaque to any but the specialists.
Although our scientific colleagues are often even more incomprehensible than we are, they have found ways to demonstrate the utility of their work so that a whole industry translates their science into terms ordinary citizens can understand. Some of our humanistic and social scientific colleagues find audiences outside the academy, but many people find it hard to distinguish between the opinionated rant of an e-zine commentator and the reasoned logic and well-researched judgment of a humanistic scholar. Often the rant is easier to read and more accessible than the reasoned argument.
What to do? I am not sure, but the first thing would be to pay close attention to what people are reading, what they are seeing, and how they do engage the common culture. The message of "Reading At Risk" is that something other than literature in print form engages more and more of our fellow citizens, and we might want to try to learn how to speak to them in the voices they want to hear.
Where better to learn how to do this than with our 18- to 24-year-old undergrads?
What does private and wealthy Princeton University have in common with the public and less-wealthy University of Central Arkansas? What links Acadia University in the Canadian Maritimes and Vanderbilt University in the American South? What does the new International University in Bremen, Germany, share with the Universidad de las Américas, in Puebla, Mexico?
Each of these institutions has established, is planning, or is expanding an internal system of residential colleges: permanent, cross-sectional, faculty-led societies that bring the educational advantages of a small college into the environment of a large university. This wave of college founding, taking place in public and private institutions from Kentucky to Louisiana, from Missouri to Florida, from Pennsylvania to Arkansas, and elsewhere around the world, is one of the most substantive structural reform movements in higher education today, and it promises to repair a half-century of destructive bureaucratic centralization.
Dividing a large university into cross-sectional residential colleges is not a new idea: it is the organizational structure of Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham Universities in Great Britain, and as such is one of the oldest ideas in higher education. The collegiate organizational model is common in universities in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and it was adopted by the undergraduate divisions of Harvard and Yale Universities in the 1930s and by Rice University in the 1950s. But residential college systems have remained rare in American higher education until quite recently. Paradoxically, they are better understood by many American undergraduates today than by American senior faculty and administrators, since, as students often remind me, the collegiate model is "just like Harry Potter." The fictional School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in J.K. Rowling’s popular young adult novels is divided into a system of four "houses" that parallel, in their structure, the structure of a collegiate university.
Although many universities that are in the process of establishing residential college systems are also embarking on construction projects at the same time, the two do not have to be connected. Creating residential colleges within a larger institution is more a matter of arranging resources that already exist than it is a matter of acquiring new resources. It need not be expensive, and it doesn’t require any changes to the curriculum.
The residential college movement today is guided not by financial concerns or questions of curricular reform, but rather by four organizational principles: decentralization, faculty leadership, social stability and genuine diversity. Each of these principles attempts to repair a portion of the damage that was wrought during the "industrialization" of higher education in the post-World War II era, and especially in the post-1960s era, two periods of widespread bureaucratic massification when student numbers exploded, central administrative offices proliferated, faculty retreated, high-rise dormitories sprouted, and alienation spread.
Decentralization is a fundamental principle of both new and old residential college systems because all education is local. Real education -- the substantive development of intellect and character -- depends on sustained personal contact between students and teachers over the long term. But universities forgot this basic principle when they ballooned in size from the 1960s onward. No matter how many slogans campus public relations people may invent about being "student-centered" and "caring," a university with high-rise dormitory towers, vast impersonal dining halls, and central advising offices that students report to for 15 minutes each term to have their schedules checked cannot possibly offer the sustained, local, personal contact that is fundamental to real education. The slogans are phony, and the students know it.
Small, decentralized residential colleges counteract the effects of educational massification by bringing students and faculty from all academic disciplines together into rich and cohesive social communities. Because of their small size -- 400 members is ideal -- residential colleges ensure that all students are known one by one, and that no student is anonymous. And while these collegiate societies are usually called "residential" colleges, they need not be entirely residential, and can be established within any university regardless of the number of students who actually live on campus. The emphasis is on the word college as a small, intimate society of members, rather than on the word residential.
Faculty leadership of residential college systems is fundamental because as universities became more centralized and bureaucratic over the past half-century, the oversight of campus life within them was largely handed off to a class of full-time residence life managers. However well-meaning these officials have been, because they are detached from the academic structure of the university, they have not been able to create meaningful educational environments for students. Even more noxiously, some universities have come to see campus dormitories as income-generating tools analogous to parking lots and vending machines. For more than a generation these deep structural flaws have cheated students out of the most important thing a university can offer them: sustained personal contact with their teachers in a rich and diverse educational environment for years at a time.
Residential college systems return the management of campus life to the faculty, and distribute most of the functions now performed by departments of student affairs and residence life into the faculty-led residential colleges. And they treat student life and housing as academic functions of a university, not as business functions. Residential colleges, as faculty-led academic societies, are consciously crafted to provide a wide range of informal educational opportunities for their members day and night, week after week, year after year. Their object is to ensure that students’ formal learning in the classroom is integrated in every way with their external life in the world.
Social stability is vital to the health of every human community, both within the university and without. But two generations of bureaucratic centralization and non-academic leadership have profoundly eroded the social fabric of university campuses, and nowhere has this erosion been greater than in "endlessly rescrambled" campus residential life. Alcohol abuse and vandalism have proliferated, elementary discipline has not been maintained, students have been bounced from "freshman experience halls" to "health and wellness halls" to social fraternity halls to upperclass apartments, all the while never seeing any older adults except an occasional police officer or maintenance worker. Students have described their time on campus to me as "the worst living experience of my life" and as "unbearable and unacceptable." For many years universities have been failing in their fundamental responsibility to support student welfare and have produced what William Willimon and Thomas Naylor have called an "abandoned generation."
Small, permanent residential colleges under faculty leadership return meaningful social stability to campus life. And as educators we must provide students with this basic social stability if we want them to take the kinds of risks that produce intellectual instability. Social stability means that elementary civil order is maintained, that buildings and grounds are attractive and safe and, most importantly, that there is a weekly, monthly and annual rhythm of events that give students a sense that they are part of something bigger than themselves, something that existed before them and will continue after them. The life of each year in a small residential college builds on the life of the year before, and students and faculty alike know that their contributions to their college endure and are remembered.
Lastly, an appreciation for genuine human diversity is fundamental to decentralized residential college systems. While it is true that nearly every university today promotes the value of "diversity" in education, the diversity that is promoted is often simple-minded and superficial, and is based on little more than broad ethnic and racial categories. And while universities promote the value of this superficial diversity with one hand, with the other they often actively segregate students according to temperaments and interests, thereby denying those same students the benefits of deep diversity -- diversity at the level of individual talents, passions, strengths, and weaknesses. This kind of segregation is most often practiced through the creation of "theme halls" -- science halls, arts halls, nursing halls, sports halls -- dormitory spaces that encourage students to spend all their time with lots of other people who think just like they do. So much for diversity.
Genuine diversity, and the deep education that comes from exposure to it, flourishes within small residential colleges that are complete cross-sections of the universities to which they belong. Each college contains the teacher, the student, the old, the young, the poetic, the prosaic, the bold, the shy, the clever, the plodding, the careless, the careful, the wealthy, the poor, the cold, the compassionate, the indolent, the industrious, the neurotic, the peaceful, the refined, the vulgar, the emotional, the analytical, the earnest, the satirical -- and by bringing all this pied beauty together into the small, stable, academically rich setting of a residential college, week after week, year after year after year, the true promise of educational diversity is realized.
At the moment of its founding in the 1630s, American higher education was given a choice: it could, as some advised, follow what was historically the Continental European path, and just rent halls and hire specialists to give lectures; or it could instead look after the whole lives of students, as the residential college systems of Great Britain did. At that moment, Cotton Mather tells us, “the Government of New-England” decided it was best to have its students “brought up in a more Collegiate Way of Living.” Mather’s turn of phrase has been picked up by many writers on higher education over the years: it appeared at the head of a chapter in Frederick Rudolph’s The American College and University: A History, it provided the title for Mark Ryan’s important collection of essays A Collegiate Way of Living: Residential Colleges and a Yale Education, and it now serves as the name of my own comprehensive Web site “The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges and the Renewal of University Life,” where additional readings and many practical details of residential college implementation are available.
As more and more universities in the United States and around the world rediscover the importance of the collegiate way of living, we would do well to remember not only Mather’s own turn of phrase, but also the lines he quotes in the same setting from the poet Richard Blackmore: the centralized Continental model might succeed in filling students’ heads with facts, but it is in small decentralized residential colleges, “as in furnaces of boiling gold,” that new stars should be dipped, for it is there that they learn, grow, shine, and come away “full as their orbs can hold, / Of glitt’ring light.”