My nephew always wanted to design things, and as a teenager he seemed to be on the fast track to a good engineering degree. Took a community college calculus course while in high school. Worked for a computer aided design (CAD) company part-time. Got admitted to a top-notch engineering program.
In the middle of his first year, however, he dropped out. Now he’s enrolled in a technical institute, learning CAD skills and only CAD skills. He’s very happy, apart from the fact that he’s had to move back home.
Where did I, his college-professor aunt, go wrong? Or did I?
What upsets me is that he doesn’t see any inherent value in a liberal education, in a college degree rather than a tech-school certificate. But I also wonder whether mine isn’t a narrow attitude -- after all, the kid wants to do CAD, so why should he have to get a degree? What doors would a bachelor’s degree open for him? He knows what kind of work he likes to do, and he can start earning money at it a lot faster with a certificate in “Drafting/CAD.”
I checked out the Web site for the school he’s chosen. The school’s URL is a .com, not a .edu. It boasts that "Our short term curriculums focus only on courses directly related to your field of study, without any fluff. These classes are taught by instructors that have professional experience in the industry."
Besides bringing out my usually-held-in-check pedantry (“the plural of curriculum is not curriculums, dammit” and “instructors WHO, not instructors that!”), the Web site rankles because it’s pitching itself directly against the idea of a liberal arts education or “fluff.”
I worry that I’m being a snob. Why shouldn’t he study a job skill instead of spending his time reading books he doesn’t care about? Why not go to class at a place that teaches auto body repair instead of philosophy? I’m sure they’ll get him a job when he graduates, which is more than I do for my students.
My nephew is a working-class kid. Neither of his parents went to college, and most of his friends won’t. Still, I had assumed that because he got good grades in high school and wanted to be an engineer he’d want to get a degree. The problem is, I think, no one ever told him what a degree was. No one ever talked to him about the difference between higher education and job training. No one ever said why he should want to read books he wouldn’t choose on his own or take a class in chemistry or go to a lecture by a political scientist. And now he probably will never do any of those things.
As a professor I have to mourn that choice. Yet as an aunt who wants to see her nephew happy, I have to agree with my brother that the tech school is probably an OK place for my nephew right now. I don’t mean to imply that he’s doomed. I just worry that he’s severely limited his future choices.
I wonder how it is that higher education is still, in the 21st century, failing to get its message across. Failing to explain the difference between a college degree and a tech-school certificate to the high school student whose parents never went to college. Failing to convince the engineering-school freshman that he should bother to stick around and learn the things that don’t seem immediately applicable to his future career. We have not convinced legislatures that the state has a stake in higher education, that a citizenry trained in critical thinking, writing, and research skills beyond the high-school level is citizenry better able to make informed decisions.
Both my nephew and I want him to be happy in his work. But he sees short-term, where I am trained to see long-term. He wants a job, very soon, in the computer work he has come to like in his part-time job. His model is his father, a union worker who will spend his whole adult life doing the same well paid work with good union benefits. But such jobs are fast becoming extinct in the United States, and the jobs that are replacing them, especially information-industry jobs, are nowhere near as secure.
As the sister who didn’t start building up her retirement fund until 15 years after her younger brother (all those years of college and graduate school), I may have limited credibility here. Nevertheless, I believe that a degree would offer my nephew more options in the long run, more opportunities years down the line, in an age in which most people change careers multiple times in their working lives.
The problem is that I cannot be convincing in a larger culture that does not actively promote the value of higher education. Cushioned in a liberal arts college whose mostly middle- and upper-class students enroll (presumably) because they already understand that there’s value in an education that is not job training, I sometimes forget that a college degree can still be a tough sell. That’s why my nephew’s rejection of college came as such a jolt. But it’s reminded me that American anti-intellectualism can have personal consequences. It’s reminded me that I can’t assume the product I’m selling will advertise itself. If I believe that a better educated citizenry would make for a better state or country or world, then I’d better start writing letters and contacting legislators and talking to kids. Guess I should have started with my nephew.
Paula Krebs is professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.
Most people think of small liberal arts colleges as cloistered sites nestled on sweeping land in the middle of a city, out in the suburbs, or in quaint small towns miles from civilization. The stone buildings and gothic architecture of most of these colleges invite thoughts of monasteries, of being somehow beyond the world.
They are places where students go to study at the feet of masters, to reflect, to be removed from the cares of the world. And they’re certainly not places where one thinks of cutting-edge technology in the fast lane of the information superhighway. No, that’s for places like MIT, Berkeley, Harvard.
Many students and faculty believe that there is no place for technology in small liberal arts colleges, a belief they cherish and are loathe to let go of. But technology doesn’t have to be the great invader, the destructor of the special nature of a liberal arts college education. It can, in fact, make that education better and more sustainable.
When I was an undergraduate in the late ‘80s, our technology resources were limited. Always a little ahead of the technology curve, I had a computer of my own. It had no hard drive; data was stored on a floppy which had to be switched out with the floppy for the program itself. It was prone to crashing. Once it crashed in the middle of not one, but two, papers I was writing. When I called tech support, I heard a message indicating that the manufacturer had just filed for bankruptcy. We had no computing department to whom I could turn for help.
My only other option for computing was to use the terminals in the library, VAX machines. In order to write a paper, I had to know a few formatting codes, symbols that now make even the most tech-savvy among our students and faculty cringe. And the papers printed out on dot-matrix printers with holed edges that had to be torn off. There was no Internet, no e-mail, on the campus. All our research had to be done in the library using card catalogs and journal directories.
I cannot imagine going back to that. I recently returned to my alma mater for my 15th reunion and was amazed at how much has changed, and yet how much has remained the same. The buildings, built from stone mined from the same quarry, look like they did a hundred years ago. But inside, much has been transformed. Computers now sit on every professor’s desk. Students have access to computers in any number of places and wireless access in even more places. The new library puts books, journals and computers side by side comfortably. The fiberglass stone-like columns hide all the data conduits to allow information to speed around the library quite quickly. As at many small colleges, technology and the liberal arts are coexisting quite nicely.
One of the advantages of a college like my alma mater, or of Bryn Mawr College, where I am now an Instructional Technologist, is to have a more intimate experience of college. Students have smaller classes, participate in extracurricular activities together and see each other around campus frequently, which means they know each other well. They also know their professors well. Professors open their office doors to students more often than at larger institutions. There is more opportunity for a face-to-face conversation with just about everyone. In light of this opportunity, people think that technology only distances people from each other. But that’s not necessarily so; in many ways, technology helps to encourage more face-to-face interaction rather than less.
From a basic communication standpoint, technology such as e-mail, instant messaging, course management systems and course Web sites offer the ability for students to ask questions, to find information about the class, to interact with other students or with course materials. The mechanics of assignments, class schedules, announcements and the like can be relegated to course management systems or Web sites, leaving more time to cover real material in class. E-mail and IM exchanges can lead to a face-to-face appointment.
These methods of communication, one-way or two-way, merely provide an opening for a more meaningful exchange. An e-mail from a student that asks a question might indicate that he or she is having trouble understanding a particular concept -- which might lead the professor to invite the student to visit and go over the concept more thoroughly. Several such e-mails from students might prompt the professor to shift the next class’s focus to the concept in question.
No matter how much instruction is offered on the Web, the core of these schools is the classroom experience. Technology can do a lot to enhance that experience. At Bryn Mawr, Michelle Francl, a professor of chemistry, is recording all of her lectures for her physical chemistry course. She’s capturing her computer screen and her voice, saving the video and the audio file, and posting them to her blog. For now, these recorded lectures, or screencasts and podcasts, serve primarily as review for the students. In the future, however, she plans to assign these recorded lectures much as she would assign a text and use class time for something more engaging than a lecture.
As she said recently at a conference, “I used to always show the students the easy case during the lecture and send them home to work on the hard case, but that’s just the opposite of what I think I should do. Now we can work on the hard case in class.”
At the same conference, Scott Warnock of Drexel University, demonstrated how he was using the same technology to comment on student papers. He created a video of the paper with his voice commenting on different parts of it, highlighting as he went along. I was so excited by his demonstration that I tried it myself when I returned. I posted the resulting flash files in Blackboard and asked students to review them before our conference and come prepared to discuss their plans for revision. This worked out wonderfully and I had much more productive conferences. The students were able to ask what I meant by certain comments I’d made. Rather than my spending conference time saying what I had already said in the video, I was able to guide them in their revision process and work with them on more complex aspects of the paper. This, to me, is the essence of a liberal arts education, the ability to have these one-on-one conversations that are productive and help the student begin to tackle problems themselves.
For me as a student, the biggest benefit of a liberal arts education was the ability to make connections between classes and topics. I remember realizing that my classes were not these discrete units, that my economics class had something to do with my Victorian literature classes, that in fact, my classes could inform each other. The advent of the Internet and many Web-based technologies creates a unique environment in which those connections can not only thrive, but flourish.
Via blogging, for instance, students can write about the connections they’re making between topics and classes. They can actually make connections with people and resources that I just couldn’t 15 years ago. Now, they can e-mail a researcher or read their blog and comment on it, which might, in turn, lead the researcher back to the student’s blog and might even lead to a collaboration. Not only do students have nearly instant access to many library resources, but they also have access to the wider resources on the Web, including personal blogs by academics, unpublished papers, “open access” journals, and Wikipedia.
But students aren’t content anymore to simply be passive recipients of this plethora of information; they also want to create their own content and increasingly are provided the resources with which to accomplish that aim. In the lab that I run, I have helped many a student create multimedia presentations, using video, audio, and photos. Some have created Web sites and still more have blogs (some of which I read), on which they reflect on their schoolwork and college life. Last semester, in fact, a computer science professor, Doug Blank, and I co-taught a class that is studying the blog phenomena, mostly by writing in our own class blog and reading other blogs and media. The students write an average of two posts a week and comment on each other’s posts even more frequently than that.
They are creating content that is, in turn, being commented on by others, including the authors of the articles they’ve written about. In the beginning, we felt we had to post and comment fairly frequently to help get the blog off the ground, but now the students are the primary authors of most of the content. We use that content as fodder for class discussion. Not only do we discuss the topics that they have addressed, but we also discuss they way they’ve formulated their arguments and how they could be improved. We talk about any comments that present counter arguments and how they should address them. The students are learning valuable lessons about what it means to write publicly and how to evaluate what they say against the standards required by writing publicly.
By now, some of you may be feeling a little queasy about all of this. Blogging? Screencasting? How is that part of the liberal arts? Aren’t we losing control if the students are creating the content? If all the content is online, what need is there for books? What need is there for a teacher then?
Students still need guidance -- and perhaps more so now than ever before. They still need help figuring out when an online resource is a good one. They still need to learn to analyze, synthesize, and critique. They need help making connections. These are skills that technology can’t teach, though it can facilitate the process. I am not saying, you’ll notice, that technology makes it easier.
It doesn’t, but it definitely opens up possibilities that fit in quite naturally with a traditional liberal arts education. Instead of just reading a book and writing a paper about it that gets read only by a professor, students can write an analysis of it on their blog, which their classmates and instructor can then comment on, giving them valuable feedback. Students may engage in an out-of-class online discussion of reading or lecture material that helps them think more deeply about the material. They can ask questions of not just the faculty member teaching their course, but even of the author of an assigned article or other experts.
If a liberal arts education is about increased connections between students and faculty, about learning to learn, about creating critical thinking skills, about eventually going into the world and contributing, then technology is absolutely a part of that. Technology broadens the conversation beyond the ivied walls of the institution, facilitating a student’s own transition beyond those walls. Professors, especially at liberal arts institutions, certainly see themselves as instrumental in that transition. To remain so might mean trying out new technology. It doesn't have to be scary and it doesn't mean an end to the liberal arts. As Sam said in Green Eggs and Ham, "Try it. You may like it. You will see."
Laura Blankenship is Senior Instructional Technologist at Bryn Mawr College. She is also Geeky Mom.
Paula M. Krebs has been a professor of English at Wheaton College, a selective New England liberal arts college, for 15 years, since earning her Ph.D. at Indiana University. Her sister Mary Krebs Flaherty has been an administrative assistant at Rutgers University’s Camden campus for a year longer than Paula has been at Wheaton. Last fall Mary taught her first course, Basic Writing Skills III, on the inner-city, campus of a two-year college, Camden County College. She teaches on her lunch break from her job at Rutgers. Mary has been taking evening classes toward her M.A. for three years, ever since she finished her B.A. at Rutgers via the same part-time route. This article is the first in a series in which Paula and Mary will discuss what it’s like to teach English at their respective institutions.
Paula: My place is about as different from yours as can be, I know. I often find myself longing for your city setting, your students who are so motivated. At the same time, I realize that teaching my students is a real privilege -- I can push them in exciting ways. Wheaton’s admissions standards keep going up, and I’m starting to see it in my classes. This semester my sophomores in English 290, Approaches to Literature and Culture, seemed to finish with a really good sense of how they can use literary criticism and theory in writing essays for their other English classes. They weren’t intimidated by the critics and theorists they were reading -- they actually used them well in their final essays.If only they could follow MLA style and prepare a proper Works Cited!
Mary: MLA style is something my students can do. They were able to pick up on it easily -- I think that’s because they take well to the idea of structure. They like the five-paragraph theme. The part of the class they had the most difficulty with was the content of their papers -- they couldn’t find their voice at all, let alone critiquing literary theorists.
Paula: Oh, mine had plenty of voice. Sometimes I wished for a bit less voice and a bit more work. I think sometimes that the sense of entitlement many of them have means that they don’t necessarily understand that their word isn’t always good enough. They need to cite some authorities, place their work in a larger context, indicate their scholarly debts. They have pretty good skills coming in, so it’s sometimes difficult to make clear to them how they can push to the next level. If they’ve been getting A’s on their five-paragraph themes in high school, they find it difficult to understand why their first efforts, in English 101 or a beginning lit class, are producing C+’s or B-‘s. Some are grade-grubbers, but most just don’t understand what makes a college A.
Mary: Just a week before the semester ended, one of my students finally understood what makes a college B. In the beginning of the term, her grades were “R’s,” which means that the paper cannot receive a grade; it must be revised. When she failed her midterm portfolio, she cried to me that she couldn’t see her mistakes so she couldn’t fix them. She continued to work on her essays and revise them, over and over. Close to the end of the semester, she approached me before class and said, “Mary, please take a look at this paper that someone wrote for another class and tell me what you think.” Knowing that I was being set up, I quickly looked over the essay. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her smirking, so I told her “You’re right, I wouldn’t have graded this paper.” She shouted, “I knew it! Look at the subject-verb agreement error in the first sentence. There’s even a fragment in the introduction!” Not wanting to trash another teacher’s grading, I pointed out to her that the most important thing was how she had changed since midterm -- that she was now able to identify mistakes so she could correct her own. She passed the course with a B and I am so proud of her.
Paula: See, that’s what’s so great about teaching! I knew you’d love it. That pleasure when you see the lightbulb go on over their heads. That’s the same at Camden County as at Wheaton. But I think you have to do a different kind of work than I have to do in order to get it to happen. In some ways, both our students believe in the value of what we’re teaching, but we both have to do some convincing as well.
Mary: Mine need convincing that what they have to say is important and that saying it in an academic format is worth the effort. Most of the Camden campus students are from Camden city, recently awarded the dubious distinction of being named the most dangerous city in the nation for the second year in a row. They are typically from poor or working class families whose parent(s) may or may not have a high school diploma; many students are parents themselves, and most are minorities: African-American, Latino, or Asian-American. Many CCC students test into basic writing or reading skills classes, which is an indicator that their high school education did not prepare them well enough for college. In an informal discussion, I asked several students about their high school experience, and they claimed that they were never asked to write for content in English class -- the focus was on grammar and fill-in-the-blank or short answer tests. This explains why they are more comfortable with the grammar portion of the writing skills class, as well as how easily they grasp the five-paragraph essay structure. Following the rules is easy for these students, but finding something to say is much more difficult. I am there to assist them in this writing process and hopefully to convince them that they can grow as individuals and be successful in the academic community.
Paula: I have to do some of that, too. But we’re starting from such different places. Mine come to college because it’s expected of them. They need convincing that a liberal arts education really can bring them advantages after they graduate -- that digging into how a literary text works, learning to put together a really well researched research essay, or understanding the connections between Darwin and the poetry of Robert Browning is worth the money the parents are investing and the time the students are investing. In some ways, it’s a harder sell than yours. I have the luxury of time, though, in a way you sure don’t. My teaching is my full-time job, and my teaching load is relatively light. I can’t even imagine what it is like for you, working fulltime and taking classes while learning to teach in probably the most challenging of circumstances -- as an adjunct at a community college. I know how hard it is for you to keep all these balls in the air. Do you think it’ll be worth it in the long run?
Mary: I certainly hope so. That’s the reason I’m teaching this year -- to find out the answer to that very question.
Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty
Paula and Mary's next exchange will be about the out-of-classroom work they can ask of students.
Paula M. Krebs has been a professor of English at Wheaton College, a selective New England liberal arts college, for 15 years. Her sister Mary Krebs Flaherty teaches writing as an adjunct at the inner-city campus of Camden County College, a two-year institution. They are writing a series of artiles about what it's like to teach English at their respective institutions.
Paula: I'm trying not to be annoyed at my students who have e-mailed me that they won't be in class today and tomorrow because their flights back to school were cancelled due to the snow. What business, I wonder, do they have flying out of town three weeks into the semester? And this snowstorm was predicted all week -- they knew there was a chance they'd not get back for classes. Then I remind myself that one said she'd left for a "family emergency" and another because his sister had just given birth. They have a right to set their own priorities -- it's up to me how to handle those decisions in terms of grading.
Mary: Very few of my students have a computer at home, let alone internet access, so they can't e-mail me about problems that come up, such as not being able to attend class due to a snowstorm. None of my women students with children attended class during the snowstorm -- not because they couldn't make the commute, but because they didn't have a babysitter for their kids and the elementary schools were closed in Camden. The priority for these students is exactly that -- their children first, class second. I am acutely aware of the time restrictions that my students face in their personal lives. Most, if not all, have part time or full time jobs, and as I said before, many of my female students have parenting duties when they get home. I find that I have to make homework assignment decisions based on what I think they can actually accomplish without overwhelming them.
Paula: Mine would love it if I took into account their part-time jobs and other obligations when I assigned homework, but I can’t do that. This is a residential college (more than 90 percent of our students live on campus), and I operate on the assumption that taking classes is their full-time job. So I assume that they’ll spend at least three hours outside of class for every hour they spend in class, and I assign reading and writing accordingly. They grumble, but most of them do it.
Mary: I would love half of that time commitment from my students! Instead, I have accepted doctor’s notes for prenatal care appointments and family court documents from students who wanted “excused” absences from class. If a student wants to see me before or after class for additional help, I feel that I have to be generous with my schedule to accommodate them given that, as an adjunct, I have no office or office hours. Since most students have part time jobs and several students even work full time jobs, they have to balance outside work, family obligations, and homework. I admire their tenacity, but I also have to make sure that they are doing a fair amount of school work outside the classroom. This is especially difficult because for many of them their only access to a computer is on campus, and they have to alter work schedules and family schedules to type their papers. To add on to their schedules, I encourage them to participate in a campus bookclub called Mental Elevations, which is one of only three school-sponsored clubs on the Camden campus.
Paula: On my campus, most students have part-time jobs, but many also participate in activities on campus -- theater, singing groups, clubs, and, of course, sports. Scheduling events outside of class is always problematic. We have to work around rehearsals, practices, and working hours. I have never had a student with childcare responsibilities. For me the biggest problem is to make sure they see the relevance to their future careers of what I’m asking them to do. The value of a liberal arts education is clear to the faculty, but it isn’t necessarily self-evident to a 19-year-old how reading Elizabeth Gaskell will help in the world of high finance or state government or retail management.
Mary: It’s much easier for me to make clear to my students that effective writing carries over into their other academic courses as well as future careers. We read paragraphs and essays in different rhetorical patterns that directly correlate to specific career choices. We recently worked on the process essay (“how-to”), and I told them to think about being a human resource manager who had to write a training manual. Before that, we went over the narration paragraph, which corresponded with a nurse’s record of a patient. For me, translating the usefulness of effective writing is relatively easy -- getting the students to believe that writing is a skill that they can learn is the difficult part. They bring a "one and done" attitude into the class, and I need to help them come to think about writing as a process. By following certain steps, they can learn to be effective writers.
Paula: Your students must have pretty clear career goals or aspirations that bring them to a community college at a nontraditional age.
Mary: My class dynamic is definitely interesting because I do have some students directly out of high school (with children of their own), as well as a number of returning students who have now realized that, say, having a CNA certificate (Certified Nursing Assistant) is not as valuable or rewarding as an RN degree. In either case, it seems that the beginning students in Basic Skills classes only have a level of practicality that college equals money and better opportunities for their potential careers.
Paula: I think liberal arts colleges like mine want to have it both ways, really. The students and their parents are investing huge amounts of money in this bachelor’s degree, so they want a return on that investment in the form of a job. At the same time, they have chosen a liberal arts college and not a community college or a state college or university, so they also have a sense that they want an education that is more training in critical thinking, writing, and arts and sciences than it is job training or vocation-oriented, as in engineering or business school. So in our courses we treat knowledge and inquiry as valuable in and of themselves, but outside of class we stress internships, networking, and job and graduate school placement.
Mary: I find myself having this exact duality in my role as graduate student and as a teacher. There is a huge gap between critically discussing 19th century novels like Bleak House at night with fellow graduate students, then turning around and teaching the concept of concrete supporting details in a basic skills class the next morning. What makes this even harder is the fact that in between teaching and being a grad student is working 40 hours a week at a job that doesn't have any relevance to my academic life. But it's the job that pays the bills, and allows for my education, so it has first priority. Maybe this is why I have so much empathy for my students....
Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty
The previous column by Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty explored grading and other measures of academic performance.
Paula M. Krebs has been a professor of English at Wheaton College, a selective New England liberal arts college, for 15 years. Her sister Mary Krebs Flaherty teaches writing as an adjunct at the inner-city campus of Camden County College, a two-year institution. They are writing a series of articles about what it’s like to teach English at their respective institutions.
Mary: I took spring break week off from my 9-5 job at Rutgers as well as my adjunct teaching and my night class, and I spent it reading, resting, and relaxing. But as soon as I got back, I noticed a lot of students missing for our first class. So I did a head count of the number of students who showed up -- 11 out of 22. Where was everybody? I waited an entire week -- three classes -- and the same 11 students showed up. I think to myself, "Can students actually believe that they can pass a class without showing up?" I log onto Web Advisor (Camden County College's administrative Web site) to see if they have dropped the course -- and only two of them have officially dropped! Then, as if by fate, I ran into one of the students who officially dropped my class and I asked her why she dropped. She replied that she has two young children and she was finding it too hard to arrive on campus by 9 a.m., so she withdrew and plans to take a late morning class in the fall. But this leaves unanswered questions about the students who are just not showing up. Are they not interested in finishing the course? Are they not interested in my class or school entirely? And most importantly, how can I get them back into my classroom?
Paula: That is so not my problem this semester! I started with 51 students in my Victorian class, and I was praying for it to shrink. One reason is the U.S. News & World Report college guide statistics. We lose points for classes over 50 -- even if there are only 51 in the class. So it was a good result the day I dropped to 49 in that class. Now I’m down to 47 and I am not the least bit interested in why the students dropped or in getting them back into English courses. If it’s not their cup of tea, that’s fine. It would be a different matter if it meant they might be dropping out of school entirely. With your teaching, so much hinges on keeping them in the class -- students’ futures are at stake. That’s the difference between our institutions but also the difference between our courses. Teaching literature is lovely. It opens up minds, and it pushes students outside their own perspectives in wonderful ways; I wouldn’t give it up. But teaching writing, especially teaching writing the way you do and where you do, can change lives.
Mary: Stop scaring me! That's what bothers me the most -- I know the magnitude of the importance of education in these students' lives, but I can't make them come to class. I know that some of their excuses are sometimes just that -- lame excuses. But for the other students, like the one I ran in to, their issues are real. I contacted the program director to ask her about my retention rate this semester and she advised me that the spring semester is problematic for retention. She also said that retention problems for Camden County students could be caused by numerous reasons, among them are that some of these students lack the support, commitment, or confidence to make college their first priority.
Paula: Well, I had a conversation with a student of mine today that could have been a conversation with a student of yours, I think. She’s a second-semester first-year student, living at home (itself highly unusual at Wheaton, where something like 95 percent of our students live on campus), working to help pay the family bills since her parents broke up and her dad lost his job. Whereas you worry about your students sticking it out at Camden County, I found myself advising this student to get the heck out of Wheaton. We don’t have the kind of financial resources that would allow us to give a student like this one the financial aid she’d need to stay here once her home support has fallen apart. I could just picture her trying to support her dad and brother on three or four summer jobs, all the while accumulating massive student loan debt. It does not make sense for her. I’m a huge believer in a liberal arts education, but I think she could get a very good liberal arts education at a place that could get her through more cheaply, and that needs to be a priority for her now. It’s different at your place, where the only option for someone like her would be to drop out entirely.
Mary: It's an ominous choice, though, isn't it? Maybe that explains why I still have 20 people on my roster and only 11 or 12 showing up to class -- they just can't bear the finality of dropping out. Or another explanation -- which I think may be more likely -- is that these students don't know how to withdraw or ask for help because, as the director of the program pointed out, they lack the necessary support. I don't think she's referring to financial support; it's more personal and familial for these students. Most of my students do not have parents or siblings who graduated college, and therefore they are in a totally different world with no assistance from family members.
Paula: That seems like a real issue -- you can make help available, but you can’t manufacture the conditions under which students can take advantage of it. A student whose family members are used to depending on each other, who has never sought help through an institutional structure, may not know how to do it. She might not know how to walk into the financial aid office or the counseling center or even the advising office and say, “I’m lost. My life is out of control, and I don’t know what to do about my classes.” And the longer they delay seeking help, the more things spiral out of control. And how can you, an adjunct instructor, know how to find them so they can get the help they need?
Mary: That brings me back to my issue with computers, or my students' lack of computers at home. After many of my students did not show up for a week after spring break, I used the e-mail addresses that were on the Web Advisor program to try to contact them and encourage them to come back to class. Out of the eight e-mails I sent out, six came back undeliverable. The two who actually received the e-mail opened it when they came back to class and logged into their e-mails from the classroom workstations! Obviously the e-mail approach doesn't work too well. Similarly, the phone numbers listed on the student handout sheets from the college are also outdated. The college does have a Student Support Service office, but they do not have the resources to track students down. If the students do come back to class, I work with them as much as possible to help them catch up. But the ones who don’t come back or seek help may not make it, and to me that is devastating. I think I’d better learn not to take this as a personal failure, or my teaching career may fizzle before it starts.
Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty
The previous column by Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty explored expectations of students.
Paula M. Krebs has been a professor of English at Wheaton College, a selective New England liberal arts college, for 15 years. Her sister Mary Krebs Flaherty teaches writing as an adjunct at the inner-city campus of Camden County College, a two-year institution. They are writing a series of articles about what it’s like to teach English at their respective institutions.
Paula: Well, how was your first year of teaching? When I started teaching in grad school, it was freshman comp, a required course but one that at least carried graduation. I've never taught "developmental," non-credit courses like the ones you were teaching. Was it frustrating to your students to have to pass your class just to get into a position where they could take an English course that counted for credit? Was it frustrating for you? Did it feel like college teaching?
Mary: Since I've only taught developmental, non-credit courses, I'm not sure there is a difference, but I can tell you that I had college expectations for my students. Several of my first semester Writing Skills III students approached me this past semester and thanked me for preparing them for Comp 101, even though they had complained about how much work there was in my class. They said that Comp was a breeze. I think that their frustration while taking my class was in part due to it being a lot of work for a non-credit course (eight essays in 15 weeks).
Paula: Eight essays in 15 weeks is a lot of work, especially if you know you’re not getting college credit for it. How do you keep them motivated? My students are sometimes motivated to pass my classes so they can keep their scholarships or stay on an athletic team or just stay out of hot water with their parents. But more of your students are independent, aren’t they?
Mary: You’re right -- the students in my classes are at just completely different starting points than your students. Many of the Camden County College students on the Camden campus are usually the first of their family to attend college and they seem to have an inner drive to pass their classes for themselves, while the students with children are motivated because they want to eventually provide better lives and opportunities for their children. Students who test into basic writing classes also test into developmental reading and math classes as well. Imagine paying for three remedial classes that you aren't getting any college credit for!
Paula: Speaking of paying for classes you aren’t getting any credit for: I have a colleague who once a year or so asks his students to bow their heads in silent thanks to the students who don’t show up for class -- the ones who are not cluttering up the classroom but whose tuition dollars are making it possible for those who want to learn to do so. But back to the point: How do you motivate students if they’re not getting credit, and what exactly goes on in a "developmental" course?
Mary: Well, my Writing Skills II class in the spring seemed even more frustrated than my Writing Skills III course in the fall, partly because they knew they still had to pass into Writing Skills III before getting into Comp 101. That's a lot of work to do and not receive any course credit. The students also know that they only receive a pass/fail grade for the developmental classes (although their actual numeric grade will show on their transcripts). On a daily basis, keeping their interest in the writing material and assignments is pretty easy. It’s when we cover a grammar lesson that their eyes glaze over. Luckily, I have a lot of support from the program director and I've done a lot of research for interesting grammar activities. Students’ favorites seem to be cartoons and ad spoofs with grammar topics.
The objective for the Writing Skills II students is to write grammatically correct essays with unity, support, and coherence. These students start at the paragraph level with a focus on topic sentences, supporting evidence, and grammar, and are given ample classroom time for revising and editing with teacher input. After mid-term portfolios, each Writing Skills teacher can modify assignments based on the class’s needs (as long as each student completes seven essays). The majority of my students were ready to move on to a five-paragraph essay. I added in some reading-based assignments, but allowed students to continue to use their personal experiences as supporting evidence. On the other hand, WS III students start off with the five-paragraph essay, usually experience-based as well. They concentrate on writing thesis statements, grammar, and eventually work up to doing peer editing in class. They also move on to reading-based essays and using citations by the end of the semester. The objective for these students is, in addition to proper grammar, unity, support and coherence, to be able to edit their own papers, and to start to critically read an article and write about it objectively. I think the largest leap into Freshman Comp 101 is that comp students must come up with a thesis statement that attempts to prove something, not one that just states the obvious. Of course, you've probably had some students in your classes that could have used a bit of developmental writing before coming into your class!
Paula: My problem this semester was not first-year students who needed developmental writing (although I did have a couple in my Victorian lit class). No, my problem was my seniors, all of whom were well trained in writing good essays. But good training did not always translate into motivation, as it turned out. I had some excellent essays in the senior seminar, and I also had some of the laziest work I’d ever read. It really took me aback. I try to tell myself that it was an acute and contagious case of senioritis, causing otherwise hard-working students to turn into do-the-bare-minimum artists in their last semester. But I can’t help blaming myself, too -- I had to have created the conditions that let them think they could get away with turning in such work. I hate giving C's. It’s a rare thing in a course for majors.
Mary: My students ran the gamut in both semesters: A’s through F’s. All of the F’s in my Writing III were simply no shows -- there wasn’t one student who tried but didn't pass. The Writing II class seemed to be divided in half -- they were either really strong or really weak writers. There were several students in my Writing II class who tried and still failed and there were a couple of others who were right on the border of passing or failing their final portfolios. The decision then comes down to which would benefit the student the most -- repeating the class or taking a risk of failing Writing Skills III the next semester. It’s a difficult decision, especially considering the non-credit status of the class and keeping the students motivated and interested in staying in school. I realize that not everyone is college material, but if students can maintain the desire to do well, then I really do believe that they will eventually succeed.
Paula: Well, I’m really proud of you. I know I never could have done it -- worked full time, taught during my lunch hour, and taken graduate classes at night. I loved doing grad school the traditional way, and teaching is a great joy for me. But I do envy you. I envy you the impact you have on your students -- the difference an inner-city two-year college can make in a student’s sense of self, career prospects, family life. I hope you can stick it out and eventually, if you want, move into full-time teaching.
Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty
The previous column by Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty examined the meanings of classrooms that are full (or aren't).
Why do narratives of decline have such perennial appeal in the liberal arts, especially in the humanities? Why is it, year after year, meeting after meeting, we hear laments about the good old days and predictions of ever worse days to come? Why is such talk especially common in elite institutions where, by many indicators, liberal education is doing quite well, thank you very much. I think I know why. The opportunity is just too ripe for the prophets of doom and gloom to pass up.
There is a certain warmth and comfort in being inside the “last bastion of the liberal arts,” as B.A. Scott characterized prestigious colleges and research universities in his collection of essays The Liberal Arts in a Time of Crisis (NY Praeger, 1990). The weather outside may be frightful, but inside the elite institutions, if not “delightful,” it’s perfectly tolerable, and likely to remain so until retirement time.
Narratives of decline have also been very useful to philanthropy, but in a negative way. As Tyler Cowen recently noted in The New York Times, “many donors … wish to be a part of large and successful organizations -- the ‘winning team’ so to speak.” They are not eager to pour out their funds in order to fill a moat or build a wall protecting some isolated “last bastion.” Narratives of decline provide a powerful reason not to reach for the checkbook. Most of us in the foundation world, like most other people, prefer to back winners than losers. Since there are plenty of potential winners out there, in areas of pressing need, foundation dollars have tended to flow away from higher education in general, and from liberal education in particular.
But at the campus level there’s another reason for the appeal of the narrative of decline, a genuinely insidious one. If something goes wrong the narrative of decline of the liberal arts always provides an excuse. If course enrollments decline, well, it’s just part of the trend. If students don’t like the course, well, the younger generation just doesn’t appreciate such material. If the department loses majors, again, how can it hope to swim upstream when the cultural currents are so strong? Believe in a narrative of decline and you’re home free; you never have to take responsibility, individual or collective, for anything having to do with liberal education.
There’s just one problem. The narrative of decline is about one generation out of date and applies now only in very limited circumstances. It’s true that in 1890, degrees in the liberal arts and sciences accounted for about 75 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded; today the number is about 39 percent, as Patricia J. Gumport and John D. Jennings noted in “Toward the Development of Liberal Arts Indicators” (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2005). But most of that decline had taken place by 1956, when the liberal arts and sciences had 40 percent of the degrees.
Since then the numbers have gone up and down, rising to 50 percent by 1970, falling to 33 percent by 1990, and then rising close to the 1956 levels by 2001, the last year for which the data have been analyzed. Anecdotal evidence, and some statistics, suggest that the numbers continue to rise, especially in Research I universities.
For example, in the same AAA&S report ("Tracking Changes in the Humanities) from which these figures have been derived, Donald Summer examines the University of Washington (“Prospects for the Humanities as Public Research Universities Privatize their Finances”) and finds that majors in the humanities have been increasing over the last few years and course demand is strong.
The stability of liberal education over the past half century seems to me an amazing story, far more compelling than a narrative of decline, especially when one recognizes the astonishing changes that have taken place over that time: the vast increase in numbers of students enrolled in colleges and universities, major demographic changes, the establishment of new institutions, the proliferation of knowledge, the emergence of important new disciplines, often in the applied sciences and engineering, and, especially in recent years, the financial pressures that have pushed many institutions into offering majors designed to prepare students for entry level jobs in parks and recreation, criminal justice, and now homeland security studies. And, underlying many of these changes, transformations of the American economy.
The Other, Untold Story
How, given all these changes, and many others too, have the traditional disciplines of the arts and sciences done as well as they have? That would be an interesting chapter in the history of American higher education. More pressing, however, is the consideration of one important consequence of narratives of decline of the liberal arts.
This is the “last bastion” mentality, signs of which are constantly in evidence when liberal education is under discussion. If liberal education can survive only within the protective walls of elite institutions, it doesn’t really make sense to worry about other places. Graduate programs, then, will send the message that success means teaching at a well-heeled college or university, without any hint that with some creativity and determination liberal education can flourish in less prestigious places, and that teaching there can be as satisfying as it is demanding.
Here’s one example of what I mean. In 2000, as part of a larger initiative to strengthen undergraduate liberal education, Grand Valley State University, a growing regional public institution in western Michigan, decided to establish a classics department. Through committed teaching, imaginative curriculum design, and with strong support from the administration, the department has grown to six tenured and tenure track positions with about 50 majors on the books at any given moment. Most of these are first-generation college students from blue-collar backgrounds who had no intention of majoring in classics when they arrived at Grand Valley State, but many have an interest in mythology or in ancient history that has filtered down through popular culture and high school curricula. The department taps into this interest through entry-level service courses, which are taught by regular faculty members, not part timers or graduate students.
That’s a very American story, but the story of liberal education is increasingly a global one as well. New colleges and universities in the liberal arts are springing up in many countries, especially those of the former Soviet Union.
I don’t mean that the spread of liberal education comes easily, in the United States or elsewhere. It’s swimming upstream. Cultural values, economic anxieties, and all too often institutional practices (staffing levels, salaries, leave policies and research facilities) all exert their downward pressure. It takes determination and devotion to press ahead. And those who do rarely get the recognition or credit they deserve.
But breaking out of the protective bastion of the elite institutions is vital for the continued flourishing of liberal education. One doesn’t have to read a lot of military history to know what happens to last bastions. They get surrounded; they eventually capitulate, often because those inside the walls squabble among themselves rather than devising an effective breakout strategy. We can see that squabbling at work every time humanists treat with contempt the quantitative methods of their scientific colleagues and when scientists contend that the reason we are producing so few scientists is that too many students are majoring in other fields of the liberal arts.
The last bastion mentality discourages breakout strategies. Even talking to colleagues in business or environmental studies can be seen as collaborating with the enemy rather than as a step toward broadening and enriching the education of students majoring in these fields. The last bastion mentality, like the widespread narratives of decline, injects the insidious language of purity into our thinking about student learning, hinting that any move beyond the cordon sanitaire is somehow foul or polluting and likely to result in the corruption of high academic standards.
All right, what if one takes this professed concern for high standards seriously? What standards, exactly, do we really care about and wish to see maintained? If it’s a high level of student engagement and learning, then let’s say so, and be forthright in the claim that liberal education is reaching that standard, or at least can reach that standard if given half a chance. That entails, of course, backing up the claim with some systematic form of assessment.
That provides one way to break out of the last bastion mentality. One reason that liberal education remains so vital is that when properly presented it contributes so much to personal and cognitive growth. The subject matter of the liberal arts and sciences provides some of the best ways of helping students achieve goals such as analytical thinking, clarity of written and oral expression, problem solving, and alertness to moral complexity, unexpected consequences and cultural difference. These goals command wide assent outside academia, not least among employers concerned about the quality of their work forces. They are, moreover, readily attainable through liberal education provided proper attention is paid to “transference.” “High standards” in liberal education require progress toward these cognitive capacities.
Is it not time, then, for those concerned with the vitality of liberal education to abandon the defensive strategies that derive from the last bastion mentality, and adopt a new and much more forthright stance? Liberal education cares about high standards of student engagement and learning, and it cares about them for all students regardless of their social status or the institution in which they are enrolled.
There is, of course, a corollary. Liberal education can’t just make the claim that it is committed to such standards, still less insist that others demonstrate their effectiveness in reaching them, unless those of us in the various fields of the arts and sciences are willing to put ourselves on the line. In today’s climate we have to be prepared to back up the claim that we are meeting those standards. Ways to make such assessments are now at hand, still incomplete and imperfect, but good enough to provide an opportunity for the liberal arts and sciences to show what they can do.
That story, I am convinced, is far more compelling than any narrative of decline.
Higher education, like the human species itself, is the product of evolutionary forces that produce structures -- the DNA if you will -- that enable one variant to thrive and cause another to falter.
The life form known as higher education was hatched in a monastic cocoon in the 10th century. From this beginning, higher education institutions took shape as an evolving species, changing form and mission in response to external forces. Familiar milestones on this evolutionary journey include secularization, development of academic disciplines, evolution of administrative structures, growth of the research university, and the concepts of academic freedom and tenure.
With the dawn of the Knowledge Age, the evolution of higher education has drastically accelerated so that the pace of change is now measured in years, not centuries. Higher education today is a global commodity with all the competition and product diversification that entails, including the splitting of the production from the distribution of knowledge. This is much like the movie industry, where a few companies make movies and many companies distribute them in theaters, on television, and on DVDs.
Research I universities that produce new knowledge thrive in this new environment, but they are now dependent upon strong financial links with the economic agendas of companies and countries. They are no longer the sole citadels for the production of new knowledge, but rather just one node on a global network of corporate and national R&D sites.
The transformation of Higher Education Life Forms on the distribution side of knowledge is even more dramatic, evolving a new species that concentrates simply on distribution of currently available knowledge.
This new species features a small core of knowledge engineers who wrap courses into a degree to be distributed in cookie-cutter institutions and delivered by working professionals, not academics. There is no tenured faculty, no academic processes; the sole focus is on bottom-line economic results. These 21st century institutions are not burdened with esoteric pursuits of knowledge; rather, they focus on professional degrees for adults that have a fairly clear market value for a given career path.
The exemplars of this new species are the for-profit universities, which are cutting their teeth on the weakness of the 20th century universities. Though new at the game, in a few years they will be capable of hunting with lethal success. This new species is market-driven. Its key survival mechanism is the ability to rapidly evolve to new environments and to position in the market. Since they do not carry tenured faculty, they can rapidly jettison disciplines of study that do not penetrate market. Since they do not have academic processes, they can rapidly bring to market programs that can capture market share.
Certainly, not all for-profit providers have the core capabilities to compete long term in the market. Some emerge quickly and as quickly become extinct, but others are proving quite adept at drawing strength from this globally competitive market.
As mass, longevity and a voracious need for large quantities of prey (resources) proved lethal to the dinosaurs in the stark environments created by global darkening, so the universities of the early 20th century may face serious thinning or perhaps even extinction in the new globally competitive environment of higher education. Universities rooted in the early 20th century are intrinsically inefficient in today's environment of market valuation and brand identity. Given the current internal structure of tenure and faculty governance, these universities lack the capability to respond to market forces in a timely fashion -- to close out product lines no longer playing in the market and rapidly bring new and more efficient product to market.
Still, these once elegant life forms persevere, but for reasons having nothing to do with innate capability to embrace change. Instead, at the undergraduate level it is the instinctual and perhaps irrational desire of many parents to see their children prosper in a traditional liberal arts environment, and so their willingness to spend inordinate amounts of money for education. At the graduate level, the "brand name" is the driver. The reputation of leading institutions, established in an era before global market competition, is based on a footing much different from that used today to obtain market position, but it still works to sustain the life form, at least among a few elite universities.
In addition, traditional universities have benefited from some serious slack in the evolutionary rope. The Industrial Age required a few knowledge workers and a lot of folks doing heavy lifting, whereas the Knowledge Age requires vast numbers of educated workers. Almost overnight, this has led to a massive spike in global demand for education, with motivated consumers increasing perhaps 100-fold. What was the privilege of a few has become the expectation of all.
But global supply falls far short of meeting demand. With a population of 295 million, the United States has only 15 million active seats in the higher education classroom; China, with a population of 1.2 billion, has 2 million seats available; Brazil, with a population 170 million, has 2.5 million seats available.
This imbalance between supply and demand has creating a robust market for all providers. Suppliers of higher education simply have to dip their nets in the water to catch students. There is not yet the fight-to-the death competition for market share, and inefficient institutions have received a short reprieve from their evolutionary fate. But at some point, as with all markets, a saturation point will be reached, with supply outstripping demand -- perhaps in 5, perhaps in 15 years. When this inversion occurs, those life forms with the required flexibility to quickly adapt to a fiercely competitive environment will survive and the others will fade from memory.
As there is private health care for those who can afford to pay at any price point, so there will continue some form of higher education that will meet the need and the check book of those wealthy enough to afford it. But for most now driven to higher education to meet the requirements of the Knowledge Age, it is value (the ratio of perceived quality over price) that will be the key determinate of what institution they will choose for their tuition dollar. To further stress the current market, state funding is not keeping up with inflation or enrollment growth, forcing higher education institutions to rely more on tuition and donations. Thus higher education is being pushed to stand on its own financial bottom rather than be a subsidized commodity, once again forcing the value proposition.
So what will be demanded of 20th century universities to survive when market supply reaches or exceeds demand? As in every market, those producers that have driven efficiency into their production system and responsiveness into their market positioning have at least a change at surviving. But the challenge is daunting because the 20th century university is trying to play serious catch up in new markets -- adults, women, diversities, the under privileged -- while using the same mentalities that allowed them to attract the 18 to 25 year old male.
As with IBM, which played in the personal computer market, but really lived in the mainframe business market, there is no fire in the belly of 20th century universities for these new markets. These institutions have not changed the way they go about their business to serve these new markets; and if there has been some change, it has been accompanied by the widespread grumbling of the faculty: Why do we have to teach at night? Why do we have to teach at multiple campuses? Why do we have to provide support services in the evening? Why do we have to teach students who aren't educated the way we were? Why do we have to schedule classes so students can maximize their employment opportunities?
Meanwhile, 20th century universities are running average price increases twice the inflation rate and carrying multiple overheads of unproven value to the buying market. Walk into the library of any university today that has ubiquitous connections to the Internet, and you will find the stacks empty of both faculty and students. Is the traditional library a value add or a costly overhead? As with IBM, 20th century universities believe their brand will sustain price increases. "No frill, just degree" competitors are producing product without the high cost of minimalist full-time faculty workloads, large libraries and multiple staff intensive manual processes. As with the personal computer, will the buying market ultimately see any difference between the products except the name on the plastic and the price on the sticker?
What will be the destiny of the current life form we have called the 20th century university? It consumes far too many resources for what it returns to the environment, and though there are vast resources (markets) available, its structures do not let it tap these resources effectively. Its evolutionary tardiness has provided opportunity for a new species to take hold - the profit driven university. As the evolution of the human race has picked up the pace with each passing millennium, a future life form that has little resemblance to current higher education life forms will emerge much sooner than the usual eons it takes for evolution to create the next iteration of life.
The 20th century university is indeed obsolete and faces extinction.
Rev. John P. Minogue
Rev. John P. Minogue is senior lecturer at the Center for Higher Education and Organizational Change at Benedictine University and was president of DePaul University from 1993 to 2004.
Sometimes we forget to appreciate what is most valuable to us until we are on the verge of losing it. I fear this is the situation we are in with American higher education – a system most believe has been the best in the world. At times awareness of what matters most is restored by the comments or behavior of outside people who value and appreciate what we may have taken for granted. I was obliged to think about what matters most in American style, liberal arts, education when I attended a meeting in the Middle East. This experience made me believe that, if we are not careful, we could very well destroy what is greatest about our system of higher education.
In this era when anti-American sentiment is high in so many countries I was delighted to be invited to attend a meeting with educators from Muslim nations. This gathering, organized on behalf of the Hollings Center, was organized by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers. It was designed to bring 15 educators from Muslim majority countries together with five counterparts from the United States. Meeting in Istanbul, participants explored the reasons for the growing number of locally originated, American-style, liberal arts-oriented, independent undergraduate colleges and universities in these Muslim states.
Why would these types of institutions be developing at this time in history when relations between the U.S. and Muslim countries are at a particularly low point? The reason, as one participant said, is that “people from our countries who went away to college in the U.S. came back different, and changed in ways we value and which our societies need.” The basic question of the meeting was whether there is potential for the development of productive relationships between these independent universities in Muslim countries and institutions in the United States.
There was rich discussion along many dimensions, but the focus of my attention -- which I pursued in conversation during breaks and meal times -- was what makes “American-style” education different in the minds of these educators. While education in the tradition of the liberal arts can be accurately described as “distinctly American,” we Americans are notoriously inept in describing the essential characteristics of our educational approach.
It is not that we don’t try, but the hundreds of books and many thousands of articles and speeches on the topic -- often filled with educationese of little meaning to others -- vary widely in their accounts and terminology. I wondered whether these educators from places with very different educational traditions could be more profound in understanding and describing “American” higher education than their counterparts in the United States. Could their fresh views from the outside make them today’s educational de Tocquevilles -- as insightful about American-style higher education as was Alexis de Tocqueville in his writings about the development of American democracy based on his 1830s visit from his native France?
What became clear very quickly is that higher education in these countries is most often based on the content-expert model: the professor delivers knowledge in a disciplinary area and it is the student’s responsibility to memorize that information and report it back on some type of test. To be educated is to be a content specialist – a view also typical in traditional European approaches to higher education and which underlies most US government accountability measures. Yet they see this form of education as less valuable and useful than “American style” education.
What differentiates “American style higher education” from the modes more typically seen in their own nations? What are the most fundamental attributes of this preferred approach to learning? As I understood them, these de Tocquevilles from Muslim majority countries identified three essential and interrelated attributes of an American-style higher education – attributes that, though undoubtedly idealized, they believe create a better approach to college education. These attributes are, in fact, very obvious ones once stated; yet they are, like the air we breathe on a clear day, so obvious we often forget to pay attention to them:
Our Purpose. Higher education’s purpose is to accomplish the long term goal of preparing a person to contribute and be successful over a lifetime, not just preparation for a job after college. This purpose has societal value, for it creates societally leading intellects who question the assumptions of society and lead their societies forward; it has intellectual value, as it creates people who know how to formulate questions and think about the implications of knowledge and who are open to new ways of thinking; and it has individual value, as it develops the whole person, socially, personally and maturationally.
Centrality of Students. Students are the first priority; they are partners in the educational experience. Decisions about educational practices and priorities are based on what best serves the education of the students, not on the self-serving concerns or priorities of faculty, disciplines or professions. Further, respect for the student is role-modeled in every context; student thinking is valued even when it is flawed, with their errors used as opportunities for educational growth.
Role of Faculty. Faculty, while respected, are not viewed as fully informed experts who transmit their knowledge, but as professionals who must themselves be constant learners. Their capabilities and effectiveness, whether in their disciplinary expertise or their pedagogical effectiveness, must be grown and developed through institution-supported programs, workshops and policies.
These “obvious” characteristics of American-style higher education are troubling because of where I see us heading right now. They are contrary to the current regulatory emphasis on bringing K-12-style, fact-oriented outcomes assessment to higher education; they are unrelated to the U.S. News-type assumptions underlying the prestige-based competition among institutions that consumes ever-greater amounts of their attention and resources; and they run counter to the growing emphasis on technical and professional education that seems to be consuming every undergraduate institution – including many liberal arts colleges.
Most fundamentally, these insights from Muslim educators don’t support several trends that are currently most fashionable in higher education in the United States, including the idea that a good higher education is one that results in a job; the arms race-like rivalries that require that each institution to spend more resources every year to build prettier or larger athletic and other facilities; the emphasis, even at teaching institutions, of having faculty measured according to research productivity, even though that attribute seems more related to institutional prestige than student learning; and the priority so many parents (and their children) place on attending the best-ranked school rather than the one that seems best suited for an individual student’s learning.
Are these educators from Muslim countries merely describing American higher education as it was rather than as it should appropriately be for today’s world? Their answer, I believe, would be “no” – what has made American-style education the best in the world is not the pursuit of prestige, the delivery of job-ready graduates, nor the provision of unrivaled facilities. It is a context for learning that is without parallel in most other nations’ higher education traditions, and involves long term good for humanity and for a nation, a respectful focus on the development of the student, and an honest view of the role and needs of the faculty.
This “American style” approach is in contrast to the educational traditions in many other countries that have involved the provision of a few institutions of prestige where only the “best” are allowed to enroll, and where graduation is intended to certify a level of knowledge about a topic that makes graduates immediately employable in a particular profession. To paraphrase what a business executive in one of these Muslim nations once said to me: “Give me a graduate of an American-style university who knows how to think and learn and make decisions, for those are the competencies necessary for long-term success; within a few months I can teach them the specific knowledge they need to start their job, though with the reality of constant change people will need to continue to learn throughout their career.”
There is a certain irony in all of this: At the same time that people in other nations are founding American-style liberal arts-based colleges, or are working to transform their own institutions in ways that make them more consistent with the key attributes of traditional American higher education, colleges and universities in the U.S. are changing in ways that take them ever-farther from our historic educational ideals. We are losing what they are gaining: educated people who are “changed in ways we value and which our societies need.”
Perhaps these higher education de Tocquevilles are telling us that it is time for a back-to-basics movement in American higher education – one fundamentally different from that which we have seen in K-12 education. For higher education to realize its distinctively American purpose -- to retain its renown -- it must not aspire to teach the 3 R’s, to be the best system for filling brains with facts, nor to have the highest rankings status. Instead, American higher education must seek in all ways to transform individuals into more fully developed, thinking, and engaged citizens.
This outcome results, not from the prestige ascribed to an institution nor from the luxuriousness of the campus, but from an educational context which develops people in essential ways. As Jefferson knew in crafting his approach to education in his newly founded nation, our society will advance only to the degree that there are educated, thinking, always developing and inquiring, engaged citizens to inform and shape developments.
Last year -- my first as the president of a liberal arts college -- I attended a gathering of about 40 college and university presidents along with various experts on higher education where the challenges of higher education were being discussed. At one point during the meeting, all other attendees were asked to exit the room, leaving just the college leaders. The idea was to give us the opportunity to have an honest and forthright discussion, to offer questions and answers about issues such as increasing diversity and improving accessibility that we had all agreed were crucial.
I asked: since we effectively had the power in that room to transform the world of higher education, why weren’t we doing it? Much to my consternation, one of my peers responded that we are “lacking in both the individual and collective courage to do so.” This is indeed troubling.
I’ve been struck by the challenges facing higher education today. And, as someone who has spent his career in higher education, first as an academic and then as an administrator, I believe the issues facing higher ed leaders now are more profound than at any other time in the last several decades -- and are perhaps even unprecedented.
We face mounting pressure from all sides to do well in the rankings and increase revenue; but, as our institutions become significantly more market driven, we’re in grave danger of losing touch with our core academic missions. Reports like the one issued by the Spellings Commission are escalating the demands on leaders for new approaches to the pressing issues facing higher education including affordability, access, and outcomes assessment. There are also genuine real-world problems -- challenges that impinge directly on our institutions and missions -- from trying to keep pace with the breathtakingly rapid changes in technology to facing a global environment rife with injustice, violence, and a deepening divide between world cultures and religions.
And what do people hear about us, the leaders of these institutions? Often, media coverage characterizes college and university presidents as highly compensated career opportunists more concerned with our generous perks and benefits than in tackling the tough issues facing our institutions today.
It is therefore disconcerting to me that the traditional model of college leadership does not appear to be up to the challenge. The new and evolving demands being placed on our leadership need new and creative strategies. And we educational leaders must look to each other for examples of successful experimentation and innovation as well as for counsel and criticism.
There is cause for optimism. If we look beyond the overheated rhetoric, we see individual examples of educational leaders rising to meet these challenges. Deborah Bial, founder of the Posse Foundation, for example, is helping bring about greater social and intellectual pluralism on American campuses. Lloyd Thacker is working to restore reason and educational values to calm the admissions frenzy through the Education Conservancy. And with his colleagues, William Bowen has done groundbreaking work in setting a national agenda for substantive assessment and reform in the areas of race sensitive admissions, college athletics, and most recently, socioeconomic status and educational attainment.
At Lafayette College, we are in the throes of developing a strategic plan and using a very inclusive, time-consuming, and at times down-right frustrating process. The challenge has been to make this process open and interactive enough to gain the benefit of valuable individual contributions while creating a vision that is widely embraced and actively supported.
As we move forward, it seems increasingly clear to me that presidential leadership must acknowledge that fundamental tensions exist between what we feel pressured to do to be successful leaders today (such as raising funds and worrying about rankings) and what, ethically, we need to do (improving the quality of the academic core of the institution, increasing diversity and accessibility, and producing an engaged and enlightened citizenry.) As educational leaders, the most important challenge facing us today is balancing these fundamental tensions.
As we continue the work on our strategic plan here at Lafayette, we have been thinking about how to balance some of these conflicting pressures:
1) The commitment to educational excellence with the prudent management of costs. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. To reach this seemingly straightforward objective, two fundamental facts have to be addressed.
First, especially at liberal arts colleges, our model of education -- that of faculty working closely with individual students -- is inherently inefficient and always will be. There is no substitute for individual mentoring, teaching in small classes, or interaction between students and faculty outside of the classroom. But there are opportunities to do this work more effectively, beginning with more efficient use of technology and better use of faculty time. (As a start, we might reduce by half the number of committees on which our faculty members are required to serve which would free up several additional hours per month for each of our professors to work with students).
Second, it requires college leadership to understand that a hand-tooled education is, above all else, what makes a student’s college experience distinctive -- and it is worth the cost. If we acknowledge these factors, we set priorities more clearly and manage more effectively.
2) The enduring values of a liberal education with support for the skills needed in an increasingly professional marketplace. Students and their families have begun to question the utility of a broad, values-based curriculum in this fast-paced, skills-driven economy. They are concerned, and justifiably so, about outcomes and their prospects for gainful employment. However, we need to make clear that, for most of our students, the real value of time at college is to obtain a liberal education: to encourage individual growth, the cultivation of ethics, new capacities for expression, and most important, the skills and desire to continue learning.
3) Preparing students to function in a global environment, regardless of where they are located or the limitations of resources. By providing them with an educational experience that is international in reach and presence, they will have a basis for understanding what it really means to be global citizens. I see this not so much as a technological or logistical challenge as a creative one requiring new thinking about curriculum, allocation of faculty resources, and campus climate. For example, at no additional cost, a small number of existing faculty positions might be redeployed to support a program for visiting international faculty in various content areas.
4) Strengthening our core programs by reaffirming our commitment to community and civic engagement. Our institutions need to show by example the type of community partners we can and should be. At Lafayette, service learning has been used to great educational and community benefit in many of our departments, including civil engineering, English, economics, sociology and mathematics. By modeling values and principles we espouse and encouraging students to join us in this work, we can help instill greater recognition of the importance of civic engagement and an educated citizenry. We serve our educational mission best when we foster our role as vital and engaged citizens, connected in myriad ways to our communities and to the world.
5) Embracing technology as a fundamental component of the educational process not merely its infrastructure. This too, at bottom, is not a resource problem -- it’s a question of vision. We must understand that technology is no longer a productivity enhancer nor a marginal benefit. Rather it is a core element of our educational system just as it is for our society. It’s difficult to be a technological leader if we can’t keep pace with the technological sophistication of our own students. This was brought home to me recently when a student complained about a faculty member who was still using old-fashioned e-mail rather than a hand-held PDA. Academic and facilities planning must include various perspectives on how technology contributes to learning across the disciplines and the campus.
6) Pursuing excellence and an agenda of pluralism. True diversity -- social and intellectual pluralism -- enriches the educational possibilities by a measure greater than any other means. Diversity in its broadest sense must be a core value of higher ed institutions because it provides us with the optimal access to talent, quality of learning environment, and service to our social mission. To achieve this, however, it requires rethinking the admission and financial aid paradigm, the structure of the curriculum, and the very nature of the communities we create. Difficult though it is, initial success in student recruitment is far easier than the ongoing challenge of maintaining a vibrant community that is fundamentally diverse.
The challenges are great but the opportunities to do the right things on the right issues are greater. If we wish to succeed in the new century -- if we wish to have a transformative impact on higher education in America and throughout the world -- we must accept the challenge that we can do more for our students and the broader communities that we serve. The work ahead will require both individual and collective courage.
Daniel H. Weiss
Daniel H. Weiss is president of Lafayette College. He was formerly the James B. Knapp Dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. An authority on the art of medieval Europe in the age of the Crusades, Weiss also was a professor of art history at Johns Hopkins.