While touring a factory in northern Wisconsin that makes millions of aluminum cans on a daily basis, we asked the plant manager whether he thought regional colleges and universities were meeting his company’s needs. He looked surprised by the question and answered, “You can’t teach [in a classroom] the way we make cans here.” If he had employees with basic skill sets in the field, he said, his company could train new hires to use their machinery and learn their procedures.
Similarly, the human resources director of a large plastics manufacturer told us, “As long as [employees] have the basic knowledge and certain abilities, we can typically teach them the skills that they need on the job -- that’s the bottom line.”
Such responses beg the question: What are these fundamental, even nonnegotiable skill sets that employers seek in their employees? This is a question that our research group is investigating within the biotechnology and advanced manufacturing industries in Wisconsin. As part of a three-year study, we have interviewed over 150 C.E.O.s, plant managers and human resource directors in companies large and small, as well as educators and administrators at two- and four-year colleges and universities across the state, asking them about the skills and aptitudes required to succeed.
The Dominant Narrative of the Skills Gap
Throughout Wisconsin, we have found that the answer to this question is more complicated and nuanced than the dominant narrative of the skills gap suggests.
That narrative is rather simple: employers need certain skills, usually said to be occupation-specific technical aptitudes. The nation’s high schools, colleges and universities, which should be preparing students for entry into the workforce, are failing to provide these skills. Because of the lack of technically skilled workers, the argument goes, many companies reportedly cannot take on new accounts or hire new workers.
The oft-reported notion that employers are unable to find appropriately skilled workers has become intertwined with the sentiment that the liberal education model and the broader College for All movement have produced too many students with poor career prospects and massive student debts. Stories abound of Starbucks baristas and parking lot attendants with expensive baccalaureate degrees in the humanities, while 70 percent of the new jobs created through 2020 in states like Wisconsin will require less than a four-year degree.
How big of a problem is this? Instead of being part of the normal ebb and flow of the labor market, some suggest that, when coupled with demographic shifts that include mass retirements of the baby boomer generation, a perfect storm may be brewing that spells disaster for certain sectors of the economy in Wisconsin and the nation -- even the White House is rushing to figure out how to solve the nation’s skills gap.
The Skills Gap and Public Policy
The solution to this state of affairs has been to continue pushing the educational sector to align its aims more closely with the supposed needs of employers.
In Wisconsin, the ascendancy of this viewpoint has manifested itself most directly in Governor Scott Walker’s approach to higher education policy. While the administration has recommended $300 million in cuts to the University of Wisconsin System, a network of two- and four-year public colleges and universities across the state, it has proposed language to the system’s charter about meeting workforce needs and directed over $35 million to develop new training programs in the state’s technical college system -- all with the explicit goal of recalibrating public education to meet the skills-related needs of the state’s employers.
This emphasis on tailoring education to fit industry needs has also taken root at the national level. In the 2015 State of the Union, President Obama underlined his intention to connect “community colleges with local employers to train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding, nursing and robotics.”
As part of this effort, the president has also articulated a national goal of finding “faster pathways” for students to get “the best skills possible at the cheapest cost,” while in the past he famously poked fun at art history degrees.
At the state and national level, the policy response to the skills gap idea has been to focus almost exclusively on training students in the so-called hard skills, or the technical knowledge and ability to perform tasks like welding or computer-aided design programming in two-year technical colleges. This focus is also marked by an attendant de-emphasis on general education and the liberal arts across the entire postsecondary spectrum, but especially in the nation’s four-year colleges and universities.
Even if we grant the first (mostly unexamined) assumption of the skills gap narrative -- that institutions of higher education should be geared toward training students with the kinds of skills that industry leaders demand in the short term -- we are still faced with two important questions. First, do employers want new hires with solely technical skills? Second, do our current education policy choices actually reflect the desires of industry? The answer to both questions -- based on our extensive work in the field -- is no.
Employers Want More
While our research indicates that business leaders certainly need employees who have basic knowledge and technical expertise appropriate to their job type and industry, the evidence clearly indicates that they place a high premium on other qualities as well. These skill sets, often denigrated as soft skills, are not viewed as optional competencies but are indispensable complements to technical expertise.
Our data reveal that the skill that is in most demand among employers in Wisconsin is a strong work ethic. Employers spoke of work ethic not only in basic terms such as showing up to work on time but also in terms of being persistent and sticking with a problem until it is solved. Both employers and educators alike underscored the challenges that one person termed “the work ethic problem,” as it implicates not only formal education but also parenting, social norms and company-specific traditions and expectations.
Interestingly, a strong work ethic implicates another attribute that is rarely discussed in the skills gap debate -- the desire to continually learn throughout one’s working life, or what some call lifelong learning. This aptitude is particularly important given the rapidly evolving nature of technology and the subsequent changes in the workplace. “A diesel technician 10 years ago would work on the same pump every day for years and become experts in it,” one employer told us. “Now we're flowing employees to different product, so... we're really looking for people that can handle change and can adapt.”
Businesses are also searching for employees who can effectively work well in teams. For instance, the C.E.O. of a biotechnology firm spoke of the importance of collaboration in their team-based contract work. “We have an example here... a tremendous scientist, but virtually impossible to work with in a team,” he said. “That's just not conducive to the work we do.” An integral part of working in teams is also being an effective communicator, both in writing and in everyday conversation.
Employers also perceived critical thinking, or the ability to problem solve and think on one’s feet, as an important quality in new hires. An executive at a manufacturing company explained, “To be able to think analytically and problem solve... is a critical skill.”
A growing body of evidence supports these findings. A 2011 survey of manufacturing executives revealed that the most serious skills deficiencies were in the areas of problem solving, basic technical training, fundamental employability skills such as work ethic and technology skills. Along similar lines, the National Research Council, the industry-supported Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Department of Labor are beginning to conceptualize skills in ways that extend beyond the traditional focus on hard skills alone.
Thus, the issues facing our workforce are much more complicated than a shortage of technically skilled employees that can be addressed through more fast-track programming in our nation’s two-year technical colleges. Indeed, what employers are seeking is not simply a cadre of workers who are technically proficient, but engineers who can work easily with customers, chemists who can write clear, succinct prose and CNC operators who can collaborate with coworkers.
While contemporary policy and rhetoric suppose an either/or dichotomy between technical training and liberal or general education, it is evident that employers want to see skills and aptitudes that are associated with both models of education. “To meld the creative side with the practical side,” as one manufacturer told us, should be the ideal. Instead, he and others found few job applicants who represented this ideal -- which is what we argue is the true skills gap.
Integrating Education and Training
Beyond a reconceptualization of which skills and attributes are needed to fuel the 21st-century economy, what is missing in the national debate is a clear plan of action for the nation’s business and postsecondary leaders.
In Wisconsin we have found numerous examples of educators and corporate trainers who have created education and training programs that focus on the entire skills spectrum. The key ingredients in these programs can be distilled to the following three components.
1. Appreciate the role of liberal and general education in preparing students for the workforce.
The thinking on essential workplace skills needs to shift from the traditional focus on technical training to a more comprehensive view that acknowledges liberal and general education’s role in cultivating these varied skill sets. This is not necessarily an argument for more art history majors or that cultivating varied skill sets is impossible in shorter-term programs, but that the modern workplace demands adaptability, broad-mindedness and creativity -- competencies that are well developed in programs based on a liberal or general education model. This is true for all postsecondary programs, from one-year certificates to baccalaureate degrees.
2. Support educators in using active learning techniques in all postsecondary classrooms.
A striking aspect of the skills gap debate is the lack of attention paid to issues of curriculum and instruction, especially approaches specifically designed to integrate technical, content-based instruction with other skill sets such as critical thinking and collaboration. These techniques, broadly known as active learning, are grounded in research from the learning sciences and include techniques such as problem-based learning, Socratic lecturing and peer instruction. Fortuitously, active learning is being actively promoted in colleges and universities across the country, particularly in the STEM disciplines.
But one thing is clear -- asking educators to teach the skill sets that employers need requires substantial resources, since few postsecondary teachers are trained in these instructional techniques. Yet the looming budget cuts to higher education in states such as Wisconsin, Louisiana and Arizona will likely translate into fewer resources to support professional development, and will ultimately mean that one of the principal tools for providing employers with the skilled workforce they so desire -- education -- is being rapidly undermined across the nation.
Other promising approaches include internships and apprenticeships, where the blending of academic training with real world experience frequently results in students who are highly sought after by employers. And as several of our study participants from industry have reminded us, the responsibility for cultivating these valued skill sets lies not only in the hands of our nation’s educational system, but also in corporate training programs that should also strive to integrate education in basic concepts with more hands-on training.
3. Create opportunities for partnerships between educators and employers.
While it was not uncommon to hear our study participants say lines of communication between local colleges and industry “do not exist,” we found that education-industry relationships are critical for both sharing of information about job opportunities and as a platform from which collaborative initiatives that leverage the respective strengths of each partner can emerge. Whether the result is an online corporate training program designed by local technical college educators or advisory councils where local business leaders have a voice in shaping the curriculum -- promising collaborations in Wisconsin usually depend on policy mandates or visionary leadership to bridge the gap between education and industry.
What Is the Purpose of Higher Education?
Ultimately, the skills gap debate raises questions about fundamental issues facing society, many of which are overlooked when the discussion devolves to a focus on what employers need or do not need from graduates. What is the purpose of higher education? Is the current effort to frame this purpose of higher education as primarily vocational in nature beneficial to our economy, our democracy and the long-term success of our population? These questions need to play a more central role in policy making and debates about education-industry relations. As the University of Wisconsin at Madison military historian and native Wisconsinite Lieutenant Colonel John Hall recently wrote, “I understand and respect the notion that the purpose of an education is to prepare students for a ‘good job,’” but “this is not the only purpose of an education.”
Matthew T. Hora is an assistant professor of adult teaching and learning at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Ross J. Benbow is an associate researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at Madison. Amanda K. Oleson is an assistant researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.
Charged €1,000 ($1,140) for damage to two rooms and the destruction of another family’s possessions, Mohammed giggled and explained, “No problem, I buy them.” Over the past 4 weeks, the boys who shared room 305, Mohammed, a 16-year-old Tehrani, and his kindred spirit, Vlad, a 17-year-old Muscovite, had built a tender friendship. (I have changed all names to protect the anonymity of the school, students and faculty.) They sought my acknowledgment in every way they could, both benignly by gifting me Haribo gummy bears, and also by provoking my anger by prank calling in the middle of the night. Eventually they settled on a new plea for attention: running water taps. What began with a running faucet culminated in the flooding of their hotel room and the one below it.
Camped in a four-star resort in a one-street Alpine village, the institute where Mohammed and Vlad were studying English caters unabashedly to the global 1 percent. Accommodations feature five-course meals, king-size beds and a choice of four saunas. With parents at the helms of Russian petroleum companies, Swiss banks and Brazilian multinationals, these students are both extraordinarily wealthy and remarkably maladjusted. Some -- like Vlad -- have the acute (and not inaccurate) sense they’ve been quarantined while their parents gallivant around the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Others, such as Mohammed, have been raised by fawning tutors who have inculcated them with a profound overestimation of their talents in language -- and everything else.
Financial necessity led me to the institute. My graduate stipend pays only enough to support me during the academic year, and I needed summer funding. My preparation to teach freshman writing at my university entailed a semester of intensive pedagogical training, replete with sample assignments, reading materials and instruction strategies. At the institute, I received a dated Oxford textbook (in which beepers were cited as new technology) and a stiff drink purchased for me by the director the night before I was to begin. With little sense of what to expect from this new pedagogical environment, I immediately began to develop a diagnostic to sort a cohort of students, some of whom would stay for a week, others two, and others the entire month, with new students enrolling each week. My class size ranged from 3 students (in the final week doldrums) to 15 at the height of the program.
With four hours of daily instruction to fill and no practical ELL (English language learners) experience, I relied on two fellow English instructors, who generously provided me with lessons and exercises. My lessons often failed. Once, I asked students to describe their home bedrooms. Each one took a turn speaking while the others drew illustrations based upon this description. This exercise, which I intended to hone locational vocabulary, failed because students didn’t know how to describe or depict “bedrooms” that occupied multiple rooms and, sometimes, entire floors. On another occasion, I asked students to create a brochure for a dream school. I intended for my students to apply educational vocabulary. Instead, they submitted descriptions of shopping malls, glutted with Gucci, Prada and Boss boutiques.
The same thing happened during extramural activities as well. The institute featured daily instructional excursions, about which students were encouraged to write copiously in weekly postcards to family. (The excursions were of such import that I was asked to allocate a weekly lesson to postcard writing.) We visited some of Western Europe’s most impressive cultural destinations, including Munich, Salzburg and St. Gallen. On an excursion to Brixen, Italy, students performed what was for me an all too familiar ritual: they retreated to a Starbucks to watch YouTube videos. Offered the choice to visit a castle or an outlet mall nearby, all but one voted to shop. Some students called the outlet their favorite destination of the month.
I loathed their lack of curiosity, but mostly I lurched between detachment and exasperation. I was far busier than I had anticipated, and after a 12-hour day I found it easy to dislike my students. I skipped group lunches for the relief of solitary walks and siphoned precious sleep time to study for my coming qualifying exams. My colleagues, many of whom were full-time students or high-school teachers, commiserated but could not relate. To them, the institute provided a lucrative means to a holiday that they not otherwise afford. They didn’t overthink it.
My detachment and exasperation gave way to defiance. If tutors or teachers wouldn’t correct student misbehaviors, I, as the graduate student with little to lose, would compel these students to acknowledge the humanity of those around them. As the institute’s tenderfoot, I was primarily responsible for the largest and most disruptive cohort, the Russian boys, who threatened me with retribution by their familial connections. (The Russian mob notwithstanding, I had a hard time taking that seriously.) I intervened at a dinner when Vlad mocked a gay student. I intervened when Mohammed poured his soda on the ground (because it was diet). I intervened when the Russians spoke Russian in English class and when the Brazilians wandered off on their own during excursions. Gradually, some students reluctantly changed behaviors.
Mohammed and Vlad, both of whom I had in class, changed most dramatically. After receiving failing grades on their first exams (perhaps the first F’s ever assigned at the institute), they began to worry -- and take notes. I used their camaraderie to cultivate a productive rivalry, awarding daily lesson “championships,” more choice of assignments and even the chance to teach units.
I also learned more about them. Vlad shared a photo of himself, his father, and a brand-new Mercedes-Benz -- the only photo of him with his dad. Mohammed’s father, on the other hand, applied so much pressure to his firstborn son that the young man suffers chronic health problems, including an eating disorder. Both of the boys of room 305 were boisterous, privileged and unaware. They were also children who were, despite their luxurious lives, unhappy.
I gradually realized I had misread my students. If Brixen was a hop away in a private jet, there could be nothing inherently special about it. Like the social media-addicted students I taught at home, these teens craved a sense of belonging, which they achieved by wearing the same labels, watching the same mass media and locating themselves via Starbucks and smartphones. When they didn’t feel they belonged, they behaved like puppies that hadn’t been housebroken: they broke rules, sneaked out and destroyed rooms. I sometimes felt I was succeeding in domesticating my cohort.
By the end of the program, Vlad and Mohammed visited my room to acknowledge me as their instructor (to prove they were doing homework) and mentor (to learn how to tie a tie). However, those very same students cheated on their final exam and flooded their hotel room. I couldn’t ascertain whether I was dealing with accident-prone pets or young sociopaths. Nor was I confident that I was a suitable trainer. The very transience and poverty that equipped me to confront their misbehaviors also formed a boundary against any kind of meaningful or lasting connection with these future plutocrats. It also made me doubt that I, their teacher, could change them.
For one of our final excursions, I took my students back to the outlet mall. It was the equivalent of letting the foxes into the Gucci henhouse, but given my exhaustion, I let them gorge. And they did. I brought a book and read on a lawn chair at Lafuma while the students maxed out their parental credit cards on what everyone agreed to call souvenirs. When it came time to leave, the van couldn’t accommodate the bags, so Mohammed and Vlad stacked Armani, Dior and Boss boxes high on their laps. For the next two hours, boxes tumbled across the backseats as we wove up serpentine roads to our town. By the time we arrived at the resort several hours later, it was dark and the boys were ecstatic to escape the van. They left behind their souvenirs.
At dinner, I asked Mohammed if he had found what he wanted. He shrugged and asked me what I bought. I told him I didn’t need anything. He looked at me as though he didn’t understand. He told me he would buy me a new suit on our next trip.
Will Fenton is director of the Writing Center at Fordham University Lincoln Center, a teaching fellow and a doctoral candidate of English at Fordham University, where he specializes in 19th-century American literature and the digital humanities.
As Victor E. Ferrall Jr. offered a valediction for the liberal arts here, declaring them “over the brink,” colleagues at the recent Association of American Colleges and Universities conference in Washington, D.C., were abuzz designing its future: #libedunbound.
During a session entitled “Liberal Education Unbound: The Life of Signature Student Work in the Emerging Digital Learning Environment,” Rebecca Frost Davis of St. Edward’s University asked audience members to live tweet their reflections to the hashtag #libedunbound, to illustrate the productive potential of this networked back channel. The tweets posted during the session (including my own) were less than inspirational, perhaps because they were penned (thumbed?) on demand, in response to an assigned topic, “Where and from whom do you as a professional learn outside of the formal classroom or conference session?”
But the hashtag itself was inspired, as became evident during a later session, “The Future of Liberal Education in the New Learning Ecosystem,” led by Randy Bass of Georgetown University. Bass invited the panelists -- José Antonio Bowen, president of Goucher College; Gardner Campbell, vice provost for learning innovation and student success at Virginia Commonwealth University; and J. Elizabeth Clark, professor of English at LaGuardia Community College -- to move away from technology-driven questions about the future of higher education and instead pose a true design challenge: How would we reimagine and reconstruct the future (of) #libedunbound? As the speakers took on a series of probing questions about the possibilities as well as the threats “the new learning ecosystem” might represent, audience members’ -- and the panelists’! -- live tweets were projected onto a large screen. In this way, the panel’s official channel ran alongside its unofficial back channel.
The panel’s oral channel focused on a new vision of learning that will transform our conception of the liberal arts and higher education alike. Panelists spoke, for example, not just about students as content creators but about professors as “cognitive coaches.” They hypothesized that the role of faculty members might become to make their learning -- as process, not as an achieved state of being -- visible to students and to one another. How will we fulfill our responsibility to prepare students to “live fully in their time”? Are we preparing our graduate students to teach the future generations of networked learners?
As the panelists considered the conceptual parameters of the new learning ecosystem, the digital back-channel chatter -- a word that I find particularly suitable, as it captures the unscripted and unedited murmur of live tweeting -- both deepened and challenged the panel’s official argument.
Some tweets obliquely echoed the panelists, while others amounted to philosophical challenges and engaged fellow tweeters in a parallel conversation. One tweet asked, for example, if “it is possible to think deeply on [T]witter” (@noreen_o), while another (my own) mused that the concept of depth may have to shift in a networked environment. Particularly amusing was the banter about an imaginary gadget that a panelist described as the “academic [F]itbit,” which might provide future students and professors with a feedback loop on vital cognitive data. But even that jest quickly turned into a serious query: What questions would we ask about our learning and how would we measure it? How will we teach our students to read and monitor their own data?
We were, I admit, in a glorious echo chamber of like-minded liberal education enthusiasts, caught up in one of those electric moments of communal inquiry. We needed no convincing of the value of liberal education and we have not given up on its future. Ferrall is no doubt correct that we cherish liberal education because it helps students become “critical thinkers, able and eager to distinguish opinions from facts and prejudices from truths, alert to the lessons of history and unwilling blindly to accept unsupported claims and assertions.” But what the hundreds of tweets to #libedunbound also demonstrated is that we may benefit from the exercise of thinking about the future of liberal education away from the historically accurate but no longer productive dichotomy that juxtaposes it with vocational training.
In the knowledge economy, critical thinking and what we typically call skills are much more closely bound and more difficult to disentangle than they were at the inception of the liberal arts centuries ago or even in the relatively recent course of their 200-year history in U.S. higher education. As Gardner Campbell observed from the panel table, the new learning ecosystem offers innovative symbolic possibilities that liberal education has yet to explore. Our conception of the liberal arts will evolve with the learning ecosystem that it inhabits.
That is the key point Ferrall missed: liberal education has never been static. An argument that presents it as such has already given up on its key component: learning as a never finished process, always renewed and always contextual. #Libedunbound may be one way to capture this idea: the chatter to this hashtag indeed emphasized active liberal learners of the future over and above the nominalized form of liberal “education.”
Any valediction for the liberal arts should, like John Donne’s, at the very least “forbid mourning”: our historical moment can certainly be read as a “breach” of the venerable tradition, but it must equally be read as presenting an opportunity for its “expansion.” As Nicola Pitchford of Dominican University of California observed in a tweet from the session, “Instructional technology is for augmentation of what we do, not automation.” Any tradition worth preserving must live and breathe with the times, and we are responsible for its augmentation in the future.
“Valete artes liberales.” Not yet. And hearty welcome to #libedunbound.
Eva Badowska is interim dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Fordham University.
It may make sense to move beyond the Carnegie unit, but where should we go? This is the question at the heart of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s new report, The Carnegie Unit, on which Inside Higher Edreported this week.
A primary critique of the Carnegie unit, or credit hour, is that it measures “seat time” but not the quality of learning. The first thing to remember, the report usefully reminds us, is that the credit hour did not evolve to evaluate student learning or quality teaching. One of its primary goals was to ensure that faculty members were fairly compensated for their time and work. A big challenge at the turn of the 20th century -- one that has reemerged in the early 21st century -- was that universities provided insufficient pay and economic security for scholars to devote their lives to teaching and intellectual inquiry.
Andrew Carnegie sought to provide pensions for faculty members to ensure professors economic security. Later, the American Association of University Professors’ core tenets linked tenure to bothacademic freedom and economic security. At a time when more and more faculty members work as adjuncts or lecturers with low salaries and little protection for academic freedom, the question of the economic security of academics is pressing.
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The most prominent alternative to the credit hour is competency-based education. Two of the most high-profile competency-based programs, Western Governors University and College for America, both of which have been praised by President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, outsource thinking, eliminate faculty roles through “unbundling” or “disaggregating,” rely heavily on adjunct labor, and offer little protection for academic freedom. They thus undermine rather than strengthen the American academy’s ability to meet its public mission. They increase educational inequality between those who receive a serious college education and those who get fast degrees.
There is no necessary connection between moving beyond the credit hour and weakening the American academy. As noted above, already too many traditional institutions rely on adjunct labor. But the fact that two of the most highly praised examples of competency-based education go much further should give us pause.
There is nothing sacred about the credit hour, but there are higher purposes to college. Thus, any effort to move beyond the credit hour must always reflect what college is for. For starters, college signifies much more than the acquisition of skills. Knowledge matters. We cannot embrace the anti-intellectual perspective of Thomas Friedman and others who argue that “the world doesn’t care anymore what you know” but “what you can do.” This assumption presumes wrongly, first, that knowledge and skills can be disaggregated, and second, that the acquisition of knowledge through intellectual inquiry, the very purpose of the college or university as an academic institution, is worthless.
Cognitive science has made clear that knowledge combines information with activity, that all real learning is active learning. The old distinction between knowing and doing -- which critics like Friedman assume -- cannot be sustained. To know is to do, and good teachers require their students to engage with the material, to use their minds, to develop new modes of thought and neuronal pathways. Students must make knowledge their own and learn to use it to understand the world. This is a time-consuming process.
This is not to say that generic competencies such as critical thinking have no value. Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, for example, have used the Collegiate Learning Assessment to evaluate student learning across campuses. In their two books, Academically Adrift (2011) and Aspiring Adults Adrift (2014), they found that gains in the CLA are correlated with courses in the liberal arts and sciences and that high CLA scores are correlated with better employment prospects. Most important, they found that campuses that value learning and create cultures oriented around high expectations for students produce better results.
Yet, as Arum and Roksa admit, their study captures only a slice of what matters. The Carnegie report concurs, concluding that too great an emphasis on generic “common assessments in higher education run[s] the risk of narrowing curricula.” The purpose of studying history or literature or chemistry is not to acquire generic skills. Instead, we care about skills such as critical thinking or analytical ability because they enable students to have better insights and ideas, and to gain more from the subjects they study. Skills should not be abstracted from their ends. Skills are purposive. The skills of a carpenter are connected to the craft of carpentry. The same is true of the skills of a historian or chemist. Skills are used to achieve an end.
Skills are vital, of course. One cannot do history or chemistry or carpentry without them. They must be learned. And no doubt they are often transferable, and thus have general value. Yet to evaluate a historian or a chemist on some set of generic skills with no attention to knowledge or purpose is muddled at best. It would be like evaluating a guitar teacher on how effective he or she is in encouraging manual dexterity with no concern about what it means to be a guitar player, or even to play particular songs. The dexterity gained in learning guitar cannot be alienated from the student’s or the teacher’s goal of producing specific kinds of music with a particular musical instrument. A student learning guitar seeks a particular kind of excellence.
We cannot treat knowledge as incidental or epiphenomenal. We do not just want to teach students “literacy” or “critical thinking," but to read, to enjoy, and to learn from actual literature; and not just from “literature,” but from actual texts. To reduce literature to literacy misses the point entirely and denies students meaningful access to the liberal arts.
Because the particulars matter, a liberal education is an education in the liberal arts and sciences, and those arts are not skills but rather organized ways of engaging in inquiry to gain knowledge and insight. They combine knowledge, skills and dispositions. Knowing history or chemistry or math is not about knowing facts. Nor is it about skills. It is instead about being historians, chemists or mathematicians who have knowledge gained from the use of particular skills. The purpose of these fields is to help students achieve some of the hard-earned insights that the liberal arts have gained about the human and natural worlds.
Thus, assessments of student learning must be designed in ways that are compatible with the purposes for which the university exists. To measure student learning in ways that are abstracted from the lifeworld in which skills take on meaning, are practiced and are developed would erode the moral and intellectual foundations of the university. It would treat skills as ends, not as means to an end. Any move beyond the credit hour, then, must be grounded in the particular, must move beyond general competencies and must take seriously the specific knowledge gained by studying particular things with particular people.
Answering the Critics
Critics of the credit hour raise two important concerns that cannot be dismissed. First, the credit hour does not give us a sense of what students learned. That was never its point. As the Carnegie report concludes, the credit hour “was never intended to serve as a measure of what students learned. Teachers and professors were left to gauge students’ actual learning through grades and tests, papers and other performance measures.” Thus critics who condemn the credit hour for not measuring learning are confusing categories.
The second important critique of the credit hour is that it allows students to view collegiate education as a matter of credit accumulation -- when students have a certain number of credits in this and that they get a college degree. But colleges do not allow a student to receive a degree for credits alone. They establish guidelines for what counts for a degree according to the faculty’s understanding of what students need to think about and do before graduation.
The real problem occurs when the credit hour is extracted from the context in which it takes place. On its own, the credit hour is meaningless. Students who go to college part time, over many years, attending multiple institutions, come to equate a college education with counting credits and hoping that they transfer. But that is because students have been seeking credits, perhaps out of the necessity of their own working or personal lives, rather going to college. If students are not permitted to spend serious, devoted time steeped in the life of the mind, stepping away from their lives and onto college campuses, then it does not matter how many credits they have piled up. Focused, devoted time really matters. The same is true for competency-based education or any other approach.
Thus, one of the real risks to eliminating the credit hour is that we will forget the vital importance of time. Education Secretary Duncan mocks “seat time” as a measure of learning. New America’s Amy Laitinen also contrasts learning with time. This dichotomy hides as much as it reveals and reflects an impoverished notion of what it means to educate.
If we really wish to graduate knowledgeable students with the aspiration to know more, time, which the Carnegie report calls “an often undervalued component of equal educational opportunity,” matters very much. In other words, whether we get rid of the credit hour or not, we need to ensure that all American college students have devoted, sustained time to work under the guidance of faculty members. Many of the efforts to move beyond the credit hour seek to reduce students’ time in college by allowing them to progress as fast as they can a series of competencies; this is what both WGU and College for America do, but, as Debra Humphreys argues, such approaches reduce colleges’ ability “to increase students’ exposure to deep learning, research and real-world applications of learning.”
Why Class Time Matters
Class time is formative. It enables students to gain specific insights into the world under the mentorship of experts. Every course is a vista point over a landscape that allows students to see their world differently. This is by its very nature particular -- particular to the teacher, the text, the material and the student. These insights in turn form the lenses by which students view the world. They provide understanding, cultivate the imagination and are the basis for asking new, better questions. This all takes time. Students must have more than just competencies or skills -- they must have the right kinds of intellectual experiences, whether we measure those experiences in terms of credits, tutorials, classes or some other unit.
Time is formative. It takes time to foster students’ dispositions, or their virtues and habits. It is not enough that students demonstrate the ability, for example, to write a research paper. Students must come to think of intellectual inquiry as an end in itself, something that they cannot, and would not, avoid. They should seek not credits, grades or competencies, but understanding.
Time is also required to develop skills or competencies in any meaningful sense. Real skills come from repetition. For example, one can pass a driver's exam by cramming and taking written and skills-based tests. Yet that does not a driver make. A driver becomes a driver through repeated practice, until driving becomes something that one does skillfully. The same is true for intellectual skills.
Thus, time is required to gain insights, to develop new dispositions or habits and to master the skills necessary to achieve knowledge. Students don’t learn skills or knowledge; they must become the kind of people who use their intellectual skills to seek knowledge. And to do that well, they need actual knowledge, actual vistas, to make sense of the world.
To defend "seat time" is not to defend the status quo. Class time must be good time -- it must ensure that students engage their minds. Students cannot sit passively; faculty must do much more than lecture. Classes must be small enough for real faculty-student interaction, and faculty members must demand of themselves and their peers that they are teaching students all three things -- knowledge, virtues and skills. To make seat time good time requires, first, recognizing the value of seat time, and second, helping students use seat time to get off their seats. In other words, what matters is time more than seats.
Time matters, but the time must be good time in good communities oriented to the right ends. Any person who has been part of a community -- a church, for example -- knows how important time is for forming and educating human beings. One cannot become a church member by passing a set of competencies quickly and easily. One becomes a church member by changing, and this requires knowledge and a new set of dispositions, a new orientation. The same ought to be true for college graduates.
That is also why higher education cannot be integrated into the world even as it prepares students for it. Some, including President Obama, celebrate campuses that bring employers in, that integrate the “real world” and the campus, but college and university campuses are places apart for a reason. They establish sites for reflection, something that is not easy to do in a world that places many demands on us. From this perspective, programs that emphasize speed and align themselves too closely to employer needs can never achieve the goals of a good college education, can never ensure that all college students have the opportunity to be, as philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it, “inhabitants of a place of learning.”
Finally, time matters because to educate a human being requires human relationships; it requires mentors who form deep, meaningful, trusting and intellectual relationships. These relationships matter at a practical level because they are correlated with student retention, but they ultimately matter because that is the way we human beings learn best. Our brains, cognitive science teaches us, set up barriers to learning that make it difficult to change our minds. Students -- and faculty members too -- need to feel able to open themselves up to risk, to engage in real learning. Good teaching and good student learning thus require that students have time to find intellectual mentors and to develop trusting relationships, and vice versa.
Ultimately, efforts to think beyond the credit hour cannot dismiss the central importance of time. There are some proposals that move in the right direction. One example is the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ LEAP (Liberal Education, America’s Promise) initiative. In its most recent rendering of what should constitute a college education, the authors of the LEAP initiative make clear that a college graduate ought to be a particular kind of person. A college graduate needs actual “knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural worlds” through serious study in “the sciences and mathematics, humanities, histories, languages and the arts.” Knowledge, however, is linked to the “intellectual and practical skills” necessary to acquire it well and to use it to gain insight on the world. Finally, a college graduate needs to link their knowledge and skills to virtues, which the LEAP initiative calls “personal and social responsibility.”
Another promising effort is the Lumina Foundation’s most recent version of the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP). The DQP also takes knowledge, skills and dispositions seriously. It divides the kinds of knowledge students need into five “learning categories,” including “specialized knowledge” and “broad and integrative knowledge.” Gaining knowledge, the DQP recognizes, is linked to the development of “intellectual skills.” Finally, students must develop new dispositions, a direction -- or telos -- to which they apply their knowledge. Thus, the DQP asks students to engage in “applied and collaborative learning” to see how academic knowledge helps answer important questions, and “civic and global learning” to remind students that their education comes with duties to their communities, American democracy and the world.
Neither LEAP nor DQP could be done quickly or easily, at least if done well. It takes time to develop in students the kind of knowledge that matters. It takes time to hone their intellectual skills. And it takes time to develop lasting dispositions.
No matter how we move forward, then, we will need to think about time as an asset rather than an impediment. We will need to find ways to provide students of all ages and backgrounds with time to devote to becoming educated. Already, students spend too little time on campus. Already, working adults lack the resources to take time away from their busy lives. To overcome the credit hour in a way that reduces students’ time on campus would only make it more difficult for colleges and universities to offer a high quality and meaningful education. Such efforts might increase access to college degrees but not to the education that must accompany the degree.
There is absolutely nothing sacred about the credit hour, as the Carnegie report makes clear. The time may well come to do away with it and find something else. We must, however, be sure that whatever we do instead provides economic security and academic freedom for professors, and recognizes that a good education takes time.
Johann Neem, professor of history at Western Washington University, is an affiliate of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is currently a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.
1. Thou shalt have no other object of attention in the classroom. No devices — phones, gadgets, computers, guns — or distractions; I am a jealous and wrathful instructor.
2. Thou shalt honor thy fellow students. They are also struggling, growing, with opinions always changing, and with perspectives always in transition. Be kind and patient with them, and yourself. In discussion, be sensitive to the feelings of others, slow to be offended and quick to not offend, though do not censor yourself. Try to use “I” statements, speaking from your own experience, and speak your mind knowing that all controversial arguments can be made with tact, humility, and sensitivity to others.
3. Thou shalt assume the best intentions of the instructor and fellow students. Take what is said in the classroom with interpretative charity — assuming all speak in earnest and in good faith — though treat what is said with a critical eye. We are all in this together and we all want to “do the right thing” by each other.
4. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s work. But feel free to consult with them on notes and materials, share feedback, look at each other’s drafts, and so forth. Attend to the customs and rules of proper citation. Put things in your own words, and if you use the words of others, honor them by citing them.
5. Honor the work of the authors. You do so by reading the assigned materials and appreciating their arguments, but also by raising objections, comments, and questions. On class days you shall participate; outside of class, you shall labor by reading.
6. Thou shalt ask questions for the benefit of the good and welfare of the class. Ask away about issues or substance of the class — no question is dumb. On procedural matters, consult the syllabus first and the professor when appropriate.
7. When all else fails, follow directions. Consult the syllabus, the assignment specifics, and other missives sent by the instructor. See Commandment #6.
8. If thou speaks too much, step back. If thou speaks too little, step up! Be mindful of your own contribution balanced with the needs of your fellow students. Don’t dominate the conversation, but don’t hesitate to contribute. Assume that if you have a question on the material, others are thinking of it as well, so do them a favor and ask!
9. Thou shalt figure out a goodly system to take notes. The classroom is not a passive arena — all discussions, videos, lectures, and chalkboard notes are important grist for the mill of our common learning. If you want, record the lectures and take notes. After each session, ask yourself what you learned.
10. Thou shalt be an active agent in your own learning. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own learning. Be resourceful — if the classroom experience is difficult or not useful, or if the experience is not working for you, consult with the instructor who wants to help (see Commandment #3). Approach the instructor with your concerns, issues, and questions sooner than later.
What commandment would you add?
Elliot Ratzman is assistant professor of religion at Temple University.
Students have lost their honor! The recent revelation that 64 Dartmouth College students were charged with cheating this past fall was followed by the predictable comments on a larger social malaise. We learned that some students allegedly ditched classes, providing their handheld electronic “clickers” to other students who attended and then answered questions on their behalf. There were also students who reportedly passed clickers to their classroom neighbors to answer questions for them.
To make matters worse, this happened in an ethics class. The students have been decried for their self-centeredness and lack of scruples; some wonder how they could be allowed to remain at Dartmouth. What better evidence of the decline of honor in a society where, in the instructor’s words, “it’s not surprising that students would want to trade the nebulous notion of honor with what they perceive as some sort of advantage in professional advancement.”
The instructor may be right, but the decline in honor in this instance cannot be separated from another problem: How we define student learning, and how learning is relevant to the advancement of democracy. Were those cheating Dartmouth students wanting in honor? Yes, and they should be held accountable for their poor judgment. But their lack of honesty lies at the surface of a larger issue: How do they find value in the subject matter presented to them?
If the subject matter of ethics or any field of study is presented as a body of fixed truths that students get or don’t get (clicking correctly or incorrectly), then how does it have meaning in their experience? The answer, of course, is obvious – subject matter matters as students’ ability to prove that they know what those in authority know, avoiding the painful consequences of failing to do so. When subject matter is ready-made information to just “learn,” then the fields they study have been depleted of their creative oxygen.
The issue of “honor” is then reduced to whether or not students honestly reproduce what has been transmitted to them. The American philosopher John Dewey saw that there is no a better prescription for developing a misguided sense of the world as closed, with the meanings of things already settled, as opposed to in flux, open to interpretation, change.
What should society desire from higher education in the long term? The value of higher education is under intense scrutiny today. Should colleges be rated against set criteria, will this or that type of degree yield employment; how does the so-called value proposition drive the publics’ view of higher education? The question I am posing here concerns how higher education can contribute to democratic citizenship.
We need higher education to excite students with the prospect of their participation in the advancement of knowledge and solutions to social problems. This is how education can serve the development of an imagination, as well as of the capacity for and motivation toward making sense of and improving the world with others. Do we want our students to have honor? Let’s help them to see and experience their own potential to make a real difference through their learning, and not just by getting a grade or earning a degree.
Learning can mean cramming in information as “subject matter” and being done with it. It can also mean embracing the power of academic fields to open mysteries, to anchor present and future living in intellectual and creative pursuit and discovery. In order for education to reach its transformative potential, what the educational theorist Maxine Greene called the “lure of incompleteness” should frame our conception of subject matter and the activities it incites. Education can be an opening for the building of sensitivity to an environment in flux, where meanings are not settled, fixed, and where anticipation of and solutions to problems are possible.
James Ostrow is vice president for academic affairs at Lasell College.
“Turn the air conditioning off.” It was a hot July day in New York City. “Trust us,” one of my students beamed, “we need absolute quiet.”
Quanisha rose, shyly adjusted her T-shirt and started to sing. Her voice was raw and stunning. When she finished, my 16-year-old students looked at me and said, “Now we’re ready for Rousseau.” That was the day I learned that great classes contain extraordinary moments of intimacy.
In a policy climate enamored with technology and distance learning, the Freedom and Citizenship Program at Columbia University stands out for its commitment to books and teachers. For the past six years, low-income, mostly minority, high school students have arrived on Columbia University’s campus to take a three-week intensive seminar based on the Columbia College Core Curriculum. These students return to campus throughout the academic year to research a contemporary political issue, such as immigration and prison reform. As Casey Blake, the American studies professor who directs the program explains: “The goal is not only to introduce the students to the centuries-old debate about the meaning of freedom and citizenship but also to prepare them for lives as active, engaged citizens.”
Two convictions animate the seminar. One is that 16-year-olds from low-income communities can handle and benefit from a college-level Great Books course. The second is that nothing can replace personal attention. Two Columbia professors, two graduate students, and six undergraduates serve as reading, writing, public speaking, and college-prep mentors for 30 rising high school seniors who live on campus while enrolled in the seminar.
When I first contemplated teaching the summer seminar, I did not grasp its purpose. I was more or less terrified. I had just completed my Ph.D. in American history and the seminar had little to do with the subject I had studied: aging in America. The syllabus was overwhelming: one day Plato, the next Aristotle, and then on to Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, Dewey, and King. For weeks I tried to fill the gaping holes in my education, panicked that my students would look to me for answers I couldn’t give.
The first day of class I showed up an hour early, paced, and imagined the personal horrors of an oral exam on Plato. The students arrived on time. They ambled into the seminar room, some laughing, others stoic, all clutching their copies of The Trial and Death of Socrates. As they sat down, I knew that they desperately, achingly, wanted to be in this room. I recalled what the director of the Columbia Core, Roosevelt Montàs, said to me when I agreed to take on the course, “be quiet and be curious.”
When Montàs speaks about the Freedom and Citizenship Program and the Columbia Core, he often reflects on the purpose of a humanities education. “In most disciplines,” he explains, “the subject to be learned is at the center…. In this field of study, the student, the individual as a living growing entity, is at the center.” My job was not just to transmit facts and skills. My job was to create the conditions for these students to relate to, and grow from, these extremely challenging texts. Silence would be key.
I don’t come by silence naturally, but I spent years understanding its value. While working on my dissertation, I learned that sitting with an older person in need is a powerful lesson in humility and presence.
On that first day of class I sat quietly for a minute or two and waited for them to be ready. Then I took a page from Bertrand Russell and opened our time together with a question that would remind us all of the powerful, childlike core of all forms of learning: What fills you with a sense of wonder?
Their answers were tender and earnest; they ranged from observations about primary colors to small acts of kindness. And then came Quanisha. “I’ll tell you,” she offered, “but don’t laugh. I wonder what this guy Socrates is saying. I just don’t understand him. I have been up all night. I read this three times and I don’t know what he is saying and I wonder about it.” So our seminar really began, with that familiar little phrase, “Let’s turn to the text.”
It was Socrates’ description of wisdom that caused the most collective confusion. “I don’t get it,” Lanique piped, “he is wise and not wise, but wiser than other people and still ignorant. That doesn’t seem very wise to me.”
I smiled knowing that my students cared and were close to understanding something of great value. “Let’s look closely at what he says when he is off investigating those who might have a claim to wisdom,” I said. “But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom….”
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
Gabriel spoke up, “I think he is saying that you’re not wise if you think you know something that you don’t know. It’s like a person who knows a lot about one subject and just because of that he thinks he knows about everything.”
“So, how would you describe this definition of wisdom?” I followed.
“Maybe wisdom is just knowing what you don’t know,” he replied. Laura and Genesys smiled. Now we could all remain in the classroom and claim to be wise, just by admitting what we did not know. Fabulous!
“But wait,” questioned a soft voice to my left. “Is that enough?” Fatoumata leaned into our seminar table. “How can it be enough to just say you don’t know? Don’t we have to do more? Don’t we have to figure out how we could learn about a subject?”
The class found its rhythm and my students, drawing deeply from their reading of the Apology, debated the contours of wisdom, knowledge, and learning for the greater part of an hour. The morning ended with our own working definition of wisdom that we would try to apply to our future seminars, “Wisdom is being upfront about what you don’t know and then carefully, ploddingly, figuring out how you would learn more about it.”
Thus began an intellectual journey short on ego and long on responsibility. As one of my own professors at Columbia, Andrew Delbanco, reminds us, the founders of America’s colleges thought learning could be blocked by pride. This is what Socrates gave our classroom: he allowed us to let go of pride while holding onto obligation.
From big questions, we launched into big problems. With Hobbes, we discussed the human proclivity toward violence, and with Locke and Frederick Douglass, the agony of slavery as well as the challenges of securing freedom. My students began to articulate a definition of freedom as the essential right to develop oneself and to a find purpose. The day Quanisha sang, our philosophical conversation about freedom grew more intimate.
It began with a question posed by Mysterie. “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,” she read. “Why does Rousseau think we are born free? Is anyone really born free?” My students pounced; everyone had a contribution. That day their comments didn’t just come from the text, it came from them. They talked about the challenges of living with a parent suffering from drug addiction, the lasting effects of physical insecurity, and the oppressive emotional state that can be induced by racism. That summer we didn’t just discuss freedom as an abstract concept; we discussed what that word meant to us as individuals, as members of families, of learning communities, and as citizens of our shared country. Our seminar became a model for education that was not only about absorbing facts, but one that was beholden to our world as it is and as it should be.
“If for Du Bois,” began Afroza in our last week together, “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line, then the problem of the 21st is empathy fatigue. Human suffering is just so great; how do we know what to do first?” Kevin nodded but offered his own response, “I think the problem is really about access.”
Reyna agreed, “Some people can access the best of what we have, technology and education, and others can’t. It is completely unequal.”
“Isn’t the problem really then poverty?” posed Maisa. Kisairis and Joangie nodded. The nodding continued but the shoulders around the seminar table started to slump. Heebong voiced our collective sense of defeat, “but what can we do about those issues. They are so … big.”
We could have ended there. If I were alone, I probably would have. But we were in a classroom and we had started with Socrates.
“We need to get wise,” said Fatoumata, at first quietly and then emboldened by a chorus of her peers, “We need to get wise.”
These extraordinary students then started designing a plan of study, a course of intellectual action to learn how to tackle these problems. Their plan of action required knowledge produced by biologists, physicians, psychologists, philosophers, politicians, and sociologists, to name only a few. These students understood that the great human problems of their generation were at once structural and personal. To solve them, they would need a STEM education and a liberal education, the sciences and the humanities.
As the distance closed between 4th-century Athens and 21st-century New York City, between ideas and our actual lives, and between my students and myself, our collective education took on its full purpose-driven force. My students came to this course because it was a means to an end – college. They left the seminar almost embarrassed by the shortsightedness of that goal. As one student put it, “Now I want to go to college not just to get there but to really learn something, so that I can give back; it’s not just about me and my success but about what I can do with it.”
We are in a period of exceptional innovation in the way education takes place. We must test and develop ever-new forms of virtual courses to convey skills while containing costs. But while doing so, we cannot forget the value of an education that is personal and beholden. This July, over 40 individuals, both teachers and students, learned about freedom, citizenship, and the purpose of knowledge by reading significant books and talking to one another around a battered old wooden table. The results were wondrous.
Tamara Mann is the John Strassburger Fellow in American Studies at Columbia University, where she teaches in the Freedom and Citizenship Program. The program is a partnership between the Center for American Studies and the Double Discovery Center at Columbia University and has received financial support from the Teagle Foundation and the Jack Miller Center.