You’ve probably heard about the distracted seaman in California who was secretly caught on camera. Sitting on a boat floating near Redondo Beach, the seaman was staring blankly at his cell phone when he failed to see or hear a giant humpback whale rising up dramatically from the sea just a few feet away from his boat.
Pundits joined eyewitnesses and other observers to poke fun at the clueless man who was in fact left entirely alone by the surprise beauty -- too dull a person, it would seem, too boring a catch for the huntress craving more than a voracious textual appetite.
Sadly, the case of the distracted seaman is merely the tip of the texting iceberg. Nationwide something far more costly and dangerous is happening to civilization (I mean something besides Brian Williams’s lie and 50 Shades of Grey) -- that is, the whale of a problem surfacing daily in today’s college classrooms: texting during class.
From New York to California -- and with a frequency of up to 11 or more times per class period, researchers find -- today’s college student is texting off with wild -- and sometimes wildly erotic -- abandon. And thus they are missing out on -- and blatantly reducing the quality of -- their own classroom education and opportunity to learn and contribute.
These are not the students of Howard Becker’s Outsiders, just a few eccentric misfits dressed in black and stretching the boundaries of social deviance. No. Texter-offers are all the way in, vanilla as can be, and that’s the problem.
Texting off in class means just as it sounds. It begins when a texter-offer has the urge to text off or when he feels in his pants the vibration of incoming text or data, which might, in fact, have been delivered by a classmate seated close by to him. Even in courses strictly prohibiting texting during class, today’s texter-offer can hardly resist, and many give in to the temptation.
Texting off begins when he or she surreptitiously leans back a little in his or her seat, and removes from her or his pants the urgent object of desire. Next thing you know the head drops down low, the chin heads for the chest and hands are held close, facing inward on the lap. Breathing is sometimes halted or hesitant at this stage, as the new text is read and replied to.
There then emerge two at first very wide and then increasingly narrow and squinting eyeballs staring fixedly at the little glowing object (or the big one, so to speak: iPhone 6 Plus).
The student with long experience texting off is frequently touching and stroking with their fingers so quickly -- and with such determined concentration -- it looks from the outside as if they can’t tell that their classmates, and especially their irritated professor, are staring back at them, interrupting class for everyone.
Theirs is a practiced and deliberate lack of cognition. The texter-offer only pretends to be invisible. He uses game face, strategically, to unsee what is seen. In this she is sort of like the celebrity on Main Street who stares mainly into the far middle distance, a technique she uses to avoid speaking or making actual eye contact. Post-Facebook, the pretense of hiding while being watched is probably a big part of getting off on texting off.
Sometimes the head of a texter-offer pops up immediately, a text-off quickie, before tucking the thing back inside his pants. You can always tell when the texter-offer has completed a nice session because seconds later a little blush arises in the cheeks, a wry smile, a frown or a faraway look might ensue.
Other times, the texting-off activity can last for many minutes in a row. Intense texting off produces many strong feelings causing such symptoms as more blushing, rapidly blinking eyes, those “I can’t believe it”-type head shakes (well, that’s what they get for texting Mom and Dad during class, or the toxic boyfriend or girlfriend), and those audible grunts of frustration or relief.
Put simply, if you’re texting off in class you can’t contribute to the conversation of learning. You’re not even trying to learn. Imagine the dialogues of Galileo or Plato in today’s texting-off culture:
Gorgias: Click click. Click click click. Arg! [Types into phone]: OMG u r kidding. [Sighs to himself, but audibly. Says aloud]: Huh? What?
Socrates: I said, “Gorgias, I wonder if your rhetoric is a science, such as medicine is a science?”
And texting off is a social problem in other regards. For example, if you text off in class, that tempts others sitting nearby to text off, reducing further everyone’s understanding of the invisible hand, statistical significance or another topic of the day.
I’ve noticed that even the tiniest sidewise glance at someone else texting off can cause other students to text off. Texting off is contagious. One observes rows and rows of students texting off together, like a team of synchronized swimmers going furiously nowhere.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t agree with those hypocritical moralists who waltz around like drunk monks claiming that texting off is a shameful act in and of itself, a sin to be managed and limited by church and state. As the old saying goes, there’s a time and a place for everything, and texting off can be a perfectly healthy supplement to actual human intercourse. I myself have texted off with great abandon. But I wouldn’t dream of doing it in a church or classroom, God forbid.
Recent research is consistent with another fact I observe: today’s college student does not want to be caught texting off. Texting off is a private activity, surveys and common observation suggest, or anyway it is something that is reserved for a special friend and time and place (at home on a Saturday).
In fact, a study of the in-class texting behavior of more than 1,000 students at the University of New Hampshire showed that about one-half of the students (49 percent) confess feeling guilty for texting in a class with a strict no-texting policy.
It’s helpful to recall what Adam Smith observed long ago in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1790): that perfect knowledge of the “awful” and “amiable” virtues is not sufficient for virtue. To be great, to be virtuous, one must marry the knowledge of virtue with what Smith called after the Stoics “perfect self-command.”
“The man who acts according to the rules of perfect prudence, of strict justice, and of proper benevolence, may be said to be perfectly virtuous. But the most perfect knowledge of those rules will not alone enable him to act in this manner: his own passions are very apt to mislead him; sometimes to drive him and sometimes to seduce him to violate all the rules which he himself, in all his sober and cool hours, approves of. The most perfect knowledge, if it is not supported by the most perfect self-command, will not always enable him to do his duty.”
“Easier said than done,” today’s texter-offer replies (via text message). True.
In the same 2011 University of New Hampshire survey, two of every three students (65 percent) surveyed admitted to texting during class -- a figure that, while disturbing enough, might turn out to be below average. A similar survey was conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Their data suggest that about 9 of every 10 students (86 percent) are texting during class.
Until recently my own students showed enough self-command to abstain from texting in class. I’ve been teaching device-free or what I call hands-free classes for 19 years -- ever since my first job as an assistant professor of economics. For 19 years the moral economy has sufficed. No longer. A new cohort of students is texting off to the point of finger blisters, and moral shaming in front of others is not powerful enough to stop them. The damaging digital indulgence is dumbing them down, they need to know.
They’re silently asking now to learn it the hard way, the decadent way. In a prescient book, The Culture We Deserve, Jacques Barzun offered an essay titled “Look it Up! Check it Out!” Barzun lamented the postmodern decline to “decadence” he saw in what passes for education today. He called the newly educated person Alexandrian, in mock homage to the Alexandrian decline of dialectics and replacement with idealization of reference books and handbooks, knowledge as factoids to be looked up and checked as necessary.
Barzun was understandably worried about a culture educated in the idea that knowledge could be acquired by looking up facts or names or book titles in “handbooks” and “reference works” that Barzun, a Columbia University professor and polyglot scholar, found crowding bookstores and library stacks. Strange thing is, Barzun’s lament was issued in 1989 -- at least 5 years before Google and the Internet first appeared in the computer laboratories of major university campuses, and around 15 years before the birth of texting in mainstream America. Barzun would have an Alexandrian cow if he could see the look-it-up-check-it-out culture of the Smartphonean Era.
If a professor is a mere conveyor of information, a talking head at the pulpit (and yes, some professors we know are) one could have more sympathy for students who text off in class.
I’m a professor of economics who also teaches history, statistics, rhetoric and theories of justice to economics and social justice studies majors. My teaching style is dialogical, Socratic, pluralistic and rhetorical. A simple social rule follows: each student enrolled in the course has an equal right to speak, and each in turn has an equal duty to listen and reply. The professor plays the role of Socrates and any other characters -- from Shakespeare to Rihanna -- he deems necessary to fill in the blanks, reveal a truth or falsehood, or otherwise advance the conversation. Texting, I find in the classroom, not shyness; texting, not sloth or ignorance, is the main obstacle to advancement.
When I was in graduate school in 1994 at the University of Iowa, I was made an unusual offer from the Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry (POROI) that ought, I realize now, to be copied elsewhere: I could work 24-7 on my research in a quiet, monastic-like environment -- a private, big and beautiful office located in one of the old academic halls -- so long as I agreed to two restrictions: no Internet, no telephone. In other words, no outside distractions.
I did it, I accepted the offer. And it paid dividends. During the next three years I earned a Ph.D. in economics and a Ph.D. certificate in rhetoric, I published two papers (one of them is now a seminal paper of econometrics), and meantime raised two children under the age of eight. The discipline I started in grad school is now strong enough to beat today’s biggest distractions -- cracking out on e-mail, Internet searching and, yes, mindless texting off.
We need to recover again the value of concentrated thought. Rilke took a house in Rome to create the best environment he could imagine for the flowering of his own creativity and innovation: writing poetry and criticism. Rilke’s Letters shine with the illumination of one who’s logged some time concentrating on the words and thoughts and feelings of others, and especially on the conditions for the full flowering of his own creative genius. The result of his experiments in concentrated thought? Rilke’s poetry.
Think of National Football League player Marshawn Lynch, who recently grabbed national headlines when at the close of a pre-Super Bowl press conference, and with all cameras pointed at him, he grabbed his crotch. Even with the ball in play, Lynch has acted like a comfort-loving baby, or the compulsive texter-offer.
It wasn’t Lynch’s first time testing the mainstream limit of tolerance for public fondling or whatever you’re comfortable calling it. For previous crotch grabs, the NFL had already tagged Lynch twice with a fine (most recently, a $20,000 fine) and the professional football organization threatened further to levy a 15-yard penalty against Lynch’s own team (the Seattle Seahawks) during Super Bowl XLIX should Lynch feel himself up even once.
Texting during class and crotch grabbing are not the same thing, true. Texting off is worse, much, much worse: its losses are large and widely distributed to others, including innocent classmates.
The larger economic fines seem to be working for the impulsive crotch grabbers. For example, during Super Bowl XLIX not one player grabbed his crotch in the big game.
That’s why I’ve decided to join the NFL and make useful my own science, economics, to get the incentives right in the classroom.
From now on I will fine any student who texts off in class. I don’t care if you’re texting the pope or Janet Yellen. No free pass, no exception to the rule. From now on if students text off in class they’re going to pay for it on a sliding scale of taxes. First violation: lose 10 percent from your final exam or project grade. Second violation: lose 20 percent. Third violation: lose everything, that is, 100 percent of your final exam or project grade. Consider this first, and then do the right thing and turn off your phone. Vibrators included.
Stephen T. Ziliak is professor of economics at Roosevelt University.
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.