In December, some 250 students, professors, university administrators and other citizens attended a daylong conference organized by Columbia University’s Center for American Studies on the theme of “Democracy and Education.” The event took the centennial of the publication of John Dewey’s classic book of that title as an occasion to consider how schools, colleges and universities might reinvigorate civic education with new pedagogies and partnerships with community organizations.
The stakes could not be higher. As Dewey wrote, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” The recent election added urgency to the day’s discussion, throwing in relief the question “What does democratic education mean today?”
Years ago our keynote speaker, the political philosopher Danielle Allen, grappled with that very question as she taught Great Books courses to night students at the University of Chicago. The Declaration of Independence became the sole text for one of those seminars, as she invited the students to join her in parsing each line of the country’s founding document. Allen explained in her book Our Declaration, “I wanted my students to claim the text …. I wanted them to understand that democratic power belonged to them, too, that they had its sources inside themselves …. I wanted them to own the Declaration of Independence.”
Ownership of the democratic tradition is key to a civic education. Allen understood that if students formed a personal relationship with a text, if they acquired it as a work that awakened their own civic intelligence, they would move from passive recipients of a heritage that they didn’t believe was theirs to active participants in shaping their country’s democratic future.
Allen is not alone in this insight. Programs across the country have begun to teach Great Books to underserved populations, be it:
The students in these programs -- whether prisoners, the homeless or first-generation college applicants -- have mastered major works in this country’s literary, moral and political traditions and in the process mastered themselves as thoughtful individuals and citizens. The aim of such an education is what Allen has elsewhere called “participatory readiness”: “verbal empowerment; strategic and tactical understanding of the levers of political change … and the ethics of their use; and democratic, associational know-how.”
The “Democracy and Education” conference took place the day before the publication of a New York Times op-ed by Molly Worthen on Great Books camps sponsored by conservative foundations and other right-leaning groups. Worthen noted the different emphases and syllabi of those Great Books courses but added that all “seek to correct the defects they see in mainstream higher education by stressing principles over pluralism, immersing students in the wisdom of old books and encouraging them to apply that wisdom to contemporary politics.” She suggested that liberals should learn from the example of these conservative efforts and reminded readers of the intellectual traditions that shaped generations of progressive activists and thinkers.
The search for wisdom is not the same as the search for partisan advantage, however. The age-old goals of humanistic education are character formation and training in the civic arts, not the creation of political cadres. In a historical moment like our own, when many of the values that underpin our democracy are under threat, it is the responsibility of educators of whatever political disposition to introduce students to the history of ideas that have shaped our contemporary world. It is a self-destructive myth -- for conservatives as well as liberals -- to believe that an education in philosophical and literary classics is an education in political partisanship. And it is a grave strategic mistake for progressives to cede the study of political theory and the history of ideas to conservative boot camps and think tanks. Instead, we should all invite students to lay claim to the history of free thought, debate and the quest for justice that is the very foundation of our political tradition.
The canon is not a set of eternal doctrines once given and done with, but an ongoing argument that elucidates both the insights and the foibles that have shaped our public life. Entering into that argument gives students, in Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s words, “a grasp of those future possibilities which the past has made available to the present.”
Understanding the Great Books as a debate -- and not a settled dogma -- is hardly a new revelation. When Frederick Douglass rose on July 5, 1852, to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, close to 14 percent of the inhabitants of the United States was enslaved. Douglass seized the opportunity to uphold the ideal of American independence while excoriating the political heritage of oppression and hypocrisy: “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it.” Douglass, like all of our great leaders, from Lincoln to King and beyond, framed his moral argument in a shared tradition of foundational texts and essential values -- in his case, the Declaration of Independence and the Enlightenment idea of individual liberty.
A Transformative Power
Those of us who have taught a classical curriculum of political thought to students from so-called disadvantaged backgrounds can attest firsthand to the transformative power of such an education. For eight years, Columbia’s Center for American Studies has partnered with the university’s famed Core Curriculum initiative and the Double Discovery Center, an outreach organization for high school students from low-income families who hope to be the first in their families to attend college, to offer a yearlong program to rising high school seniors that combines Great Books education with research into contemporary public issues.
The students begin with a three-week summer seminar on classics of political philosophy in the ancient, Enlightenment and American worlds. As they make their way from Plato and Aristotle to Locke and Hobbes and then the American founders, Douglass, Jane Addams, Dewey and Martin Luther King Jr., they enter into the centuries-long debate about the meaning of freedom and the promise of civic democracy.
They explore how the arguments at the heart of the tradition they are studying inform their own lives and the lives of other Americans who do not look or think the way they do. “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” wrote W. E. B. Du Bois. These students take a seat at the table with Du Bois and those great thinkers who came before and after him. They hear echoes of Pericles’s Funeral Oration in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, of Plato’s Apology of Socrates in King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail and realize they are not lone travelers on the road to a more decent society.
One morning last July, our students conducted a debate on the political principle animating the familiar term liberal. Rather than a partisan attempt to ingrain a certain set of ideas into the minds of our students, our syllabus presents the term as an argument embodied in two pivotal works in our modern canon: Dewey’s Liberalism and Social Action and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom.
That day, the students split the class in two and asked whether liberty is best advanced by limiting state oversight over economic development or by expanding government policies to ensure that every citizen has a basic income. Which approach, they asked, is the greater threat to liberty? Is it government intervention in economic affairs, which might conceivably limit citizens’ ability to create new businesses and invent new careers, or the profound fear and lack of choice that comes from poverty?
Our students did not come to an agreement. Rather, they spent the morning and the following week putting these arguments in terms that mattered to their lives. They referenced Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech and reminded one another that, despite different approaches, both sides cherished the values of personal freedom and communal responsibility.
After the summer seminar, students in the Freedom and Citizenship Program reconvene in their senior year to embark on a research project on an issue in contemporary public life. Over the years, they’ve examined debates over immigration rights, access to voting, mass incarceration, human trafficking and other topics. Needless to say, they have voiced strong opinions about such issues and have often taken strongly partisan stands. That’s to be expected, especially at this historical moment. But their experience with the humanities offers them the skills they need to transcend sloganeering. They learn to weigh different positions with care, to step out of the immediacy of the daily news cycle and set conflicting policies in a larger historical context, and to see how different visions of the good life animate particular political positions. Above all, they learn the arts of persuasion and civil disagreement.
In a meeting after the election, the students offered different explanations for Donald Trump’s victory. Some saw his campaign as driven by racism. (Many of those students expressed fear about an impending wave of hate crimes against people like themselves.) Others countered that Trump’s supporters had many different motivations, and that some gave him their vote because of economic grievances. That is a familiar debate to those who have followed commentary since the election, but what was remarkable was the degree to which the students were able to express their convictions with passion and precision yet still listen carefully to their peers’ differing positions. They practiced the skills they had learned in conversations with past thinkers who had struggled with issues of civic belonging, personal freedom and social justice. They owned their political tradition.
Our Declaration of Independence holds that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The third president understood that consent would be the activity of an informed and educated citizenry. Today, colleges and universities have an obligation to educate students beyond their walls in civil discourse and our shared national arguments and traditions. Institutions of higher education should collectively commit to creating an informed citizenry by democratizing the Great Books and connecting our least-enfranchised citizens with the challenging, fraught and majestic tradition of self-governance.
Casey N. Blake is director of the Center for American Studies and Mendelson Family Professor of American Studies at Columbia University. Roosevelt Montás is director of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. Tamara Mann Tweel is a seminar instructor in the Freedom and Citizenship Program at Columbia University
At U of All People, it pays to be creative. At least, that’s what we’re banking on. Google and Microsoft are looking for creative people. Any successful startup in the past decade has begun with a couple of creative millennials and a laptop. Not to mention that creative writing is one of the few non-STEM growth industries in academe these days.
With students desperate to find work beyond a gig at Starbucks, you’d think they’d be less inclined to take a workshop that teaches them how to write a ghazal -- but no. Five years ago, the creative writing program at U of All People swallowed the English department in a semi-hostile takeover and now offers courses in Shakespeare and Creativity, How to Read and Write Poetry Like Sylvia Plath, and Advanced Hemingway and Faulkner Workshops. Business is good.
Of course, in its perpetual quest to boost enrollments, our administration has finally caught on to what sells seats. As of fall 2017, every department and program must have at least one course with some form of the term “creative” in its title. To attract maximum numbers, some departments have even hired copywriters for their course descriptions. Herewith, a sampling of the coming offerings:
JNLSM 220: Journalism and the Creative Edge. Got a good story to tell? Though short-form journalism was taken over by fake reporting years ago, a slavish adherence to the facts still hobbles many major news stories. Find out how to harness the power of your imagination and report what might or ought to have happened instead.
MATH 123: Beat the Curve: How to Be Creative with Statistics. If one person in a group of 100 says she’ll vote one way, and then another person joins her, that’s a 100 percent increase. Don’t like the figures? Take a look at our bar charts!
CHEM 105: Creative Chemistry in Motion. Mix something white with something black and get something purple. Or find out just what nitric acid will eat through! Never mind balancing chemical equations -- be a creative chemist! We even have cool new synergistic test tubes.
SOC 226: Big-Time Funny: Sociology and the Creativity of Humor. What makes people laugh and why? In this hands-on not-quite-lab, we make up our own jokes and try them out on each other. Prizes for the best chuckle analysis.
HIST 201: Who Won What? Getting Creative with History. Why memorize dates and names when you can create video games based on famous battles? Who’ll win the battle of Gettysburg this time? Extra gore, please!
ANTHRO 116: Creative Anthropologists Do It in the Field. What makes different cultures creative? We don’t really know, but we get mighty creative in our guesswork. Maybe it’s something tribal -- or based on urban legends.
ECON 157: Buy! Sell! Supply and Demand for Creativity. Line up five economists and get six different opinions -- now that’s creative! The secret is in our models. No, it’s in the GNP! Check out our economic role-playing app at www.uap.edu/econ.
LING 145: On the Tip of My Tongue: Speech and Creativity. What’s another word for snow? And another? And another? Isn’t this fun? Does it mean anything that snow spells wons backwards?
SPAN 222: Forget the Verb Forms -- Just tell the Story in Creative Spanish. Most upper level language courses have you learn more about the culture that speaks the language, but in this course, you write flash fiction in Spanish. Create your own story -- en español!
PHIL 206: Nothingness, Logic, and Creativity. In this seminar, students learn to argue for propositions based on sheer nonsense. Nothing is more fun than that! Get it? Get it!
ENGL 333: Chaucer Studies. The Canterbury Tales, The Parliament of Fowls and Troilus and Criseyde. Midterm and research paper; class participation essential. [This course has been CANCELED for lack of creativity.]
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book, Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook, was recently published by Columbia University Press.
Every university has a list of A journals, those it considers to be the most prestigious in its field. Even the journals that rank institutions have such lists, and many universities use them to measure their impact. As a result, academics establish their credentials by publishing in these journals, and universities grant tenure and promotion for the same. Various institutions even pay their professors a bonus (what some people would call a bribe) for publishing in such select journals.
This is warping the scientific process by narrowing the scope of impact to one type of journal, which reaches one type of audience using one type of content and style. The situation became so bad that Randy Schekman, a Nobel laureate in cell physiology, announced in 2013 that his lab would no longer send research papers to what he calls the “luxury” journals of his field -- Nature, Cell and Science -- because of their distortive encouragement of research that pursues trendy and mainstream lines of inquiry instead of more self-directed and innovative directions.
I have seen that firsthand, working with junior faculty who say they cannot publish in a particular journal because it is not on their institution’s A list and therefore will “not count” toward their accomplishments. This is anti-intellectual. As Russell Jacoby warned in his book The Last Intellectuals, it “registers not the needs of truth but academic empire building.” Academic publishing is becoming more about establishing a pecking order and less about pursuing knowledge. And that has several unintended consequences.
A limited audience. It is time to recalibrate our research norms over who we are trying to reach with our work, to re-examine our notions of impact through outlet and audience. A good research portfolio has a mix of A and B journals, each used for its own purpose. The target of A journals is typically a narrow audience of other disciplinary academics. But that misses entire swaths of audiences. Many B journals reach a broader set of academics, many with a more empirical focus. And some journals reach beyond the walls of academe to speak to policy makers, nongovernmental organizations, businesses or the general public. Further, they are not all traditional outlets. Blogs and other forms of social media are now becoming part of the academic portfolio.
Does our work actually result in real-world change? In the A journals, that is a question that is rarely, if ever, asked. Many academics, in fact, would argue that the question is irrelevant to their pursuit of knowledge. But certainly our work is meant for more. In a recent decision to include social media and digital activities in its criteria matrix for academic advancement, the Mayo Clinic's Academic Appointments and Promotions Committee announced, "The moral and societal duty of an academic health-care provider is to advance science, improve the care of his/her patients and share knowledge. A very important part of this role requires physicians to participate in public debate, responsibly influence opinion and help our patients navigate the complexities of health care." This is a compelling challenge to move away from a narrow focus on A journals.
Less creative and diverse research. Beyond audience, publishing only in A journals can limit creativity and diversity, as they are one type of channel with one set of criteria for what constitutes “good” research. But is that the only criterion?
In some fields (such as mine, management), the A journals are generally theory driven, whereas the B journals are generally phenomena driven. That has led Donald C. Hambrick to offer the critique that the former have a “theory fetish,” where practical relevance takes a backseat to theoretical rigor, and empirical evidence is used to inform theory, rather than the other way around. As papers go through the review process, he warned, “The straightforward beauty of the original research idea will probably be largely lost. In its place will be what we too often see in our journals and what undoubtedly puts nonscholars off: a contorted, misshapen, inelegant product, in which an inherently interesting phenomenon has been subjugated to an ill-fitting theoretical framework.”
Hambrick continues, “In academic management we have allowed obsession with theory to compromise the larger goal of understanding. Most important, perhaps, it prevents the reporting of rich detail about interesting phenomena for which no theory yet exists but which, once reported, might stimulate the search for an explanation.”
These are the foibles in the management A journals, but each discipline has its own issues. In the A journals of any field, what constitutes good research is only that which propels the research tracks of the moment. It blinds the field to the interesting ideas that may lie outside those tracks, and only a few brave scholars would deviate from those tracks for fear of risking tenure.
Yet such nonconformity can lead to real payoff. For example, Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate in economics, published some of his best papers in B journals because, he told me, “They were rejected by A journals!”
Krugman’s story is a cautionary tale for young academics in the midst of the great explosion of publishing outlets. Today, there are just under two million articles published annually in an estimated 28,000 journals. Some are in what are considered A journals, but the vast majority are in B journals. Add to that growing landscape the world of social media. Many academics are now using blogs to test and crowdsource their ideas with peers and the general public. In short, future academics can publish in a broad portfolio of outlets to increase the creativity and impact of their life’s work.
Guaranteed irrelevance. How long does it take between submission and publication of an article? One study found that publication lags range from nine to 18 months, with the shortest overall delays occurring in science, technology and medical fields and the longest in social science, arts/humanities and business/economics. Such long lag times virtually guarantee the practical irrelevance of a paper’s research.
Moreover, as the number of researchers and papers grows over time -- according to another study, the number of scholarly papers is growing at a rate of 3.26 percent per year, or doubling every 20 years -- you could fairly hypothesize that much this growing volume of research will be aimed at the short and fairly static list of A journals, thus leading to ever-longer publishing lag times.
As this lag time increases, think about the number of hours an average academic will spend over the course of the one to four years necessary to publish an A paper. One study estimated that the cost of a single scholarly article written by business school professors was as much as $400,000.
Is that really the best use of so much high-powered mental capacity? Is the outcome and payback really appropriate to the effort? How could that time be better spent? In some cases, the same paper could be submitted to a B journal, accepted and published more quickly, with time remaining to disseminate the results in a blog, a media interview or some other format -- and with the next paper begun.
Questionable impact. Regardless of such sobering statistics, academics are still directed to pursue the A journal for academic status. And that pursuit disregards another sobering statistic on who actually reads them. We can take this issue in two parts.
First, let’s consider a journal’s impact factor, which is the ratio of (a) the number of citations in the current year to articles published in the previous two years divided by (b) the number of substantive articles and reviews published in the same two years. So an impact factor of 5.3 for a top-tier A journal in my field, Administrative Science Quarterly, means that the average paper is cited 5.3 times annually over its first two years. The five-year impact factor only raises that number to 7.5. Is that real impact?
Looking more deeply, the distribution is not normal, leading to what some call the 80/20 phenomenon, where 20 percent of articles may account for 80 percent of citations. A 2005 editorial in Nature noted that 89 percent of the journal’s impact factor of 32.2 could be attributed to 25 percent of the papers published during that time period. In a larger study, only 0.5 percent of 38 million articles cited from 1900 to 2005 were cited more than 200 times.
And that leads to the second way to look at the question. Citation counts are our primary measure of a paper’s scholarly impact, and yet citation counts on average are distressingly low. By one count, 12 percent of medicine articles were never cited, nor were 27 percent of natural science papers, 32 percent in the social sciences and 82 percent in the humanities. Another study found that 59 percent of articles in the top science and social-science journals were not cited in the period from 2002 to 2006. It is time to question our primary reliance on citations and journal impact factors for measuring impact.
B journals that reach nonacademic audiences are cited much less by academics (if at all) and are therefore ignored as having impact. Further, social media is starting to enter the academic portfolio and is again ignored, even though increasing numbers of the public, politicians and even fellow academics find their information about science there. How does a blog with a half million views compare in impact to the average academic paper that was cited only 10.81 times between 2000 and 2010 (that number drops to only 4.67 for the social sciences), according to Thomson Reuters?
Further, some preliminary research is beginning to show a positive value from social media, like Twitter, for increasing visibility (even citation counts) for academic papers. And some organizations, like the American Sociological Association, are exploring metrics and models for rigorously measuring the impact of alterative outlets. It is time to reconsider whom we are trying to reach and how we measure the extent to which we are reaching them.
What Are We Becoming?
In 1963, Bernard Forscher published a letter in Science magazine, lamenting that academic scholarship had become fixated on generating lots of pieces of knowledge -- bricks -- and was far less concerned with putting them together into a cohesive whole. In time, he worried, brick making would become an end in itself.
Perhaps his critique has now come true. We are becoming a field of brick makers, and the narrow focus on A journals is one factor among several that is helping to guide us there. That is truly dangerous as we may, as a result, be courting irrelevance. We need to be re-examining how we practice our craft, not challenging the rigor of what we do, but recalibrating and expanding our focus. Returning to the sentiments expressed by the Mayo Clinic: “As clinician educators our job is not to create knowledge obscura, trapped in ivory towers and only accessible to the enlightened; the knowledge we create and manage needs to impact our communities.”
Andrew J. Hoffman is the Holcim (U.S.) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, with appointments in the Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources and Environment.
I teach -- what is on paper, at least -- a mundane course required of all majors in my department. Few students are excited about being there. I acknowledge that in my opening comments each semester and make it my goal to surpass students’ expectations. My favorite evaluation comment, which I get in some form nearly every term: “I was expecting this class to suck, but it was actually interesting.”
One way that I try to make the class interesting -- or, at least, not suck -- is to allow students to select the topic and partners for their group project. That way, my thinking goes, they are more likely to be engaged with their topic and have a positive group experience.
Of course, the choose-your-own-partner philosophy has its downsides. Friends pick one another rather than going outside their comfort zones. There’s inevitably a please-don’t-let-me-be-the-last-pick-in-PE-class moment when the students who don’t know anyone else scramble to find partners. And once students have formed groups, the room can look like a middle-school dance: women on one side, men on the other. I encourage students to form mixed-gender groups and to select group partners based on shared interests rather than personal preferences, but the pull of familiarity is strong.
I’ve long considered the positive outcomes of open group selection to outweigh such drawbacks. But last semester, I reconsidered for a different reason: racial self-segregation.
On the day when students divided into work groups, I immediately noticed that with a few exceptions, white students were in groups with one another, and black students were in their own groups, as well. Groups formed so quickly that I couldn’t tell which students found each other first and which joined forces out of necessity, given the few remaining openings.
In past semesters these divisions haven’t been so glaring -- perhaps because it’s common for my classes to have so few black students that forming a group of three isn’t even possible. But there I was, on the second day of class, unexpectedly faced with a decision about whether to use this as a teachable moment or to let it pass without comment.
A few facts for context: I am a white man. My university is located in a region with considerable racial tension. Our campus, like many others, has been the site of student protests over lack of diversity and the administration’s handling of race relations. Addressing self-segregation in the classroom -- even in a class like mine that isn’t explicitly about race -- wouldn’t seem out of place at a time when such discussions are encouraged. Pausing to point out group dynamics would, to use a higher education cliché, contribute to a campuswide conversation about race.
On the other hand, drawing attention to group self-segregation could have detrimental effects. Who wants to start off the semester by noting students’ inherent biases? It’s hard to have this conversation without seemingly pointing a finger. Even if students became more aware of their decisions -- a positive outcome, to be sure -- what exactly did I want them to do about it? Re-sort into new, mixed-race groups? Acknowledge the problem and then carry on with their existing groups? After all, I’d just finished telling them to pick whomever they wanted as group partners. Perhaps students, as usual, just picked their friends, who happened to be of the same race (a problem in its own right).
Self-segregation in roommate selection and at cafeteria tables is unfortunately common, but I would never think to intervene in those cases. My decision about whether to do so in this instance came down to this question: Since this happened on my watch, in a classroom setting, did I have a moral obligation to say something?
In that moment, I didn’t have time to process all of these conflicting thoughts. It was noticeable to me and uncomfortable to witness, but did anyone else in that classroom feel the same way? It was hard to tell. I never asked anyone on that day -- or at any other time during the semester. No one brought it up in person, in email or in anonymous course evaluations.
Several months later, I still feel conflicted about what I should have done in that moment. Part of me wishes I had intervened, although I don’t beat myself up too much over my choice: it’s always easier to craft the perfect response in hindsight.
As I will soon prepare for another semester, I’m curious not only what my students thought but also what my colleagues think. How would you handle -- or have you handled -- this in your classroom? What would constitute an appropriate response?
I’d like to know, because I’m sure this won’t be the last time I face this situation. And next time, I want to have thought through my response.
The author is a tenure-track assistant professor at a four-year college.