Has public higher education outlived its usefulness -- like cassette tapes and typewriters? Are our students "academically adrift," our institutions shams? Who benefits from this tale? Policy-makers and government officials are regarding public higher education as an industry that needs to operate on cheap labor in order to manufacture products. William Deresiewicz, Peter Brooks and Martha Nussbaum make clear the consequences: the dismantling of public higher education eviscerates the creation and perpetuation of knowledge, access to education, and the principle that an educated citizenry is the keystone of democracy.
The crisis in higher education must be redefined by those of us in public institutions who are living it daily. For us, there are two crises: the bowdlerizing of what learning means, and the critical need for a counter-discourse that will lead to material change in public attitudes and allocation of resources.
Numbers reveal a certain kind of information and conceal other kinds, such as what it means to be a human being. How do we quantify students’ experiencing the wonder of intellectual discovery, those moments when, as Rita Dove conveys so beautifully in her poem "Geometry," the ordinary is transformed into transcendent possibility? How is this learning accounted for when it occurs outside a public college course or institution, but is a direct result of both?
I prove a theorem and the house expands: the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling, the ceiling floats away with a sigh.
As the walls clear themselves of everything but transparency, the scent of carnations leaves with them. I am out in the open
And above the windows have hinged into butterflies, sunlight glinting where they've intersected. They are going to some point true and unproven.
To those of us who teach working-class students that using their minds expands and transforms their lives, the data on spreadsheets is akin to thinking of students as if they were part numbers. In our classes, we propel students to grapple with the paradoxes of the "true and unproven" gleaned from different disciplinary perspectives. At semester’s end, we judge how well they’ve achieved this and other objectives and assign a grade. We can never assess, however, if, when, or how students integrate what they’ve learned into their psyches and experiences. Counting, quantifying, and measuring are not the only ways to make sense of what and how students learn. These methods do not illuminate the value of a college education to working-class students for whom privilege is not a birthright.
Stories and story-telling are other options, potent sources of information. Stories provide entrée to the inner life, "ourself behind ourself concealed," access to knowledge about what it means to experience learning. Stories humanize numbers on spreadsheets. They are a different kind of currency in an economy in which the exchange of ideas is the basis of community. Stories perform a multiplicity of functions as Robert Coles reminds us: they "point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course. They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers — offer us other eyes through which we might see, other ears with which we might make soundings." Stories, the ones we and our students tell, make possible an alternate way of thinking about learning, success, and achievement in publicly funded academic institutions.
Here is such a story. I was on a New York City subway deeply absorbed in reading Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried when a young man sitting across from me noticed the book’s title and started talking to me: “I remember that story. That’s the story that begins with the description of what the soldiers are carrying. Oh, I remember that story. We read it in my freshman English class.”
O’Brien’s book is indeed memorable. A searing account of soldiering in Vietnam, the collection of interwoven stories probes the anguish of war while meditating on the porous boundaries among reality, truth, and fiction. Most spectacularly, O’Brien employs the metaphor of carrying to convey the gravity of heartbreak, senseless loss, and war’s breach of moral ethics. "First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey," the first story begins. "They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack." Within the first two pages, O’Brien develops the metaphor further by listing the literal objects the soldiers wore on their bodies, hauled on their backs, and stashed in their pockets.
The subway encounter between the young man and me is as symbolic as the literal weight of the items the soldiers carried: the interaction encapsulates the very best a liberal arts general education can achieve. Something in the O’Brien text, the reading, the discussion, and the college classroom experience entered into the student, changed the way he constructed meaning, and became part of his world. Like the soldiers who carry the material and psychological weight of war, the student carries the book and the experience of reading it with him, and that is what inspired him to initiate connection with a stranger on a New York City subway.
The experience in the general education classroom provided the model for the interaction. The young man wanted to create connection about being moved emotionally, his discovery of the meaning of metaphor, and his memory of that experience. The interaction between the young man and me sparked by the O’Brien text suggests that the general education classroom fosters community building. Unknown to each other, the young man and I are part of a community premised on the idea that learning, and communing about learning, are fundamental, unifying values. Not limited by class or status, the community is the Jeffersonian ideal of an enlightened democratic citizenry. All involved, including the English professor who taught the class, the public institution in which the student took the class, and the faculty who designed the curriculum and deemed it a requirement, are academically on course, guided by a compass that keeps the true meaning of learning in view. Best explained by Ken Bain, true learning occurs when students embrace “new mental models of reality” spurred by teaching that cultivates their abilities to question, judge, evaluate, and construct meaning out of facts and information. True learning is personal and intellectual transformation.
In the story I just told, what proves the student’s learning? The student may not have done well in his freshman English class. He might have failed the class, transferred to another college, or dropped out for a year or two. He could be a statistic on a retention or graduation rate chart. Outcomes, measures, deliverables: inadequate. What this student learned is ineffable, as difficult to wrap our minds around as Emily Dickinson’s claim that the Brain is wider than the sky.
The Brain -- is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside
Dickinson’s dictum about the sanctity of the human imagination must guide us as we create a counter-discourse about the crisis in public higher education. Colleges and universities are not factories in which we produce widgets on an assembly line. Academics work with people, human beings whose height and weight can be measured, yes, but whose brains are wider than the sky, “For — put them side by side — /The one the other will contain/ with ease — and You — beside--.”
We need to create a competing conversation that honors the idea that brains are wider than the sky and deeper than the sea, “For — hold them — Blue to Blue — /The one the other will absorb — / As sponges — Buckets — do.” And we need to tell a collective story about what is right and on course about public higher education: the ways in which it defies an intellectual caste system and is currently one of the few places that comes close to realizing the American value of equality — in the diversity of faculty and students, and the pursuit of unregulated intellectual freedom.
Linda M. Grasso
Linda M. Grasso is professor and chair of English at York College of the City University of New York.
Public criticism of higher education continues to gather momentum; the primary issues are cost, quality and political bias. The objective evidence regarding high and rising cost is compelling and the body of evidence suggesting a secular decline in quality is also growing.
The political bias issue is more controversial, although it is nonetheless important. Bias is an existential threat to higher education’s central mission (scholarship and instruction). If society cannot trust the academy to produce nonpartisan scholarship and instruction, why should it support higher education? Financial support is always dependent on the public's perception with respect to our value added. There is no escaping that rude fact. In an era of compromised economic prospects and rising global competition, these are not issues that can be ignored without consequence.
In our contacts with students, we learn to read their responses to questions about performance; you either learn this or you will be manipulated by students. When I ask students about their performance, there are some responses that always make me suspicious; an aggressively defensive or indignant response, for example, suggests the student is in denial or is hiding something. If the student admits deficiencies, recognizes an absence of effort or a problem comprehending, this is a good indicator of sincerity. If the student follows through with remedial action, the results generally improve.
Is the academy’s collective response to questions about cost, quality, and bias constructive? Do we appear willing to objectively consider the issues and to reform where necessary?
Based on our actual record, one could reasonably conclude that the academy is not “cursed with self-awareness.” We are uncomfortable with introspection and actively discourage inconvenient questions. When teaching loads or class sizes are discussed, faculty members studiously avoid the cost question, preferring to focus on how reduced loads and smaller classes will improve quality. No attempt is made to balance the very real higher costs with the intangible improvements in quality. Worse still, we make no effort to study the outcome after teaching loads or class sizes are reduced; did we really improve quality? It is hard to escape the conclusion that we really do not want to know the answer to that question.
There is cause for hope, however; some insiders are asking the right questions. Unfortunately, these brave souls are at risk of being shouted down by those who believe all the issues are either bogus or a political agenda. For example, a prominent University of Virginia social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, is asking very important questions about his discipline. He documents the absence of conservatives in his profession and explores what that absence means for the quality of research and the professions’ credibility with the general public, where conservatives out number liberals two to one. In the end, he calls for a “post-partisan social psychology” and affirmative action for conservatives in social psychology.
By making this stand, Haidt is taking a professional risk for the sake of improving both research and teaching. Since he is a committed liberal and is going outside his own comfort zone to take on this politically incorrect topic, he is to be respected.
According to Haidt, the damage done to the social psychology profession is through the creation of a “tribal moral community” that leads its members to be “blind to any ideas or findings that threaten our sacred values.” He also notes that tribal moral communities create inhospitable environments for those who do not share the tribe’s sacred values. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider how at odds that is with the values expressed by scholars and diversity advocates alike. It also explains why campus diversity programs rarely concern themselves with intellectual diversity; the people who control those programs are committed members of the tribal moral community who believe alternative intellectual perspectives have little diversity value.
In order to illustrate why tribal moral communities obstruct research, Haidt revisits the firing of Larry Summers as Harvard’s president. During an academic conference on the chronic problem of female underrepresentation among math and science faculty at the elite research universities, Larry Summers suggested the disparity might be explained by the greater variance in male IQ scores than in female IQ scores. Summers’ point is that the higher variance means there are more men in the upper tail of the distribution than there are women (it also means there are more men in the lower tail of the distribution). Despite the fact that this hypothesis needs to be tested, the event launched the movement that led to his firing. Haidt says social psychologists should be most “outraged by the outrage” over Summers’ comment and very supportive of testing the hypothesis.
Haidt’s work has significant implications for academic culture and is a defining moment for all of higher education. It comes from a scholar in the right discipline to explore the inherent conflict between tribal moral communities and higher education’s mission: scholarship, and teaching. Tribal moral communities obstruct research and they easily turn education into indoctrination. Furthermore, they explain why higher education stubbornly refuses to reform.
The well-established tribal moral communities on campus create very high costs, both in the literal and figurative sense. We spend insufficient time and effort asking difficult questions about cost, quality and bias. When these questions are raised, some people become very angry and indignant, even enraged that a member of the campus community could suggest there might be a problem. Anger and indignation are aggressive defenses; they suggest the angry person cannot support his or her position with evidence or carefully reasoned argument; it is an unambiguous red flag. Anger, indignation and character attacks are used to enforce adherence to “sacred values” and for that reason they have no place in a community of scholars.
We are very gifted in the art of analyzing the behavior and motivations of other groups and institutions. Furthermore, we are intensely trained in the tools used to conduct complex inquiry; yet, we rarely bring those tools to bear on our own activities. As a consequence, our costs grow out of control, quality declines, and we become progressively more defensive. These are not behavioral modes with survival value in a technocratic society.
An important part of the academy’s “sacred value” set is the conviction that academy members are not subject to the same failings that plague the rest of humanity. It is a belief in “academic exceptionalism,” if you will. Members of the academy who served elsewhere in society, such as the military, government, and/or corporations, know this is simply not true; people are basically the same wherever they serve. The academic exceptionalism assumption leads to insufficient protection against the pursuit of self-interest, which causes the pervasive principal/agent problem.
The principal/agent problem always means that costs are higher than necessary. It also means some people do not carry their share of the load. Ironically, the worst example of economic exploitation in our capitalist economy occurs in higher education (a decidedly non-capitalist institution), where adjunct faculty members are employed at will, carry a disproportionate teaching load, are paid very little, and have few benefits; they are truly the modern “reserve army of the underemployed.” This is why “accountability” is a legitimate public concern.
Someone totally unfamiliar with our academic culture would assume that a “community of scholars” pays close attention to the quality of its intellectual climate. They would be surprised to learn that that subject is taboo. Try raising this issue on your campus. Make a careful intellectual argument for a post-partisan university. Explain how an ideology free zone is most conducive to controlling bias in research and teaching, or how it teaches true critical thinking skills, rather than the sophomoric notion that “critical thinking” means saying harsh things about other people’s character and motivation.
Fearless and totally honest introspection leads to self-improvement and, after all, self-improvement is why we committed ourselves to a lifetime of study. Imagine what kind of working environment you would find in a post-partisan university.
Robert Martin is emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College and author of The College Cost Disease: Higher Cost and Lower Quality (Edward Elgar, Ltd, 2011).