Academic administration

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Essay on the continuing importance of the Carnegie unit for academic credit

It may make sense to move beyond the Carnegie unit, but where should we go? This is the question at the heart of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s new report, The Carnegie Unit, on which Inside Higher Ed reported this week.

A primary critique of the Carnegie unit, or credit hour, is that it measures “seat time” but not the quality of learning. The first thing to remember, the report usefully reminds us, is that the credit hour did not evolve to evaluate student learning or quality teaching. One of its primary goals was to ensure that faculty members were fairly compensated for their time and work. A big challenge at the turn of the 20th century -- one that has reemerged in the early 21st century -- was that universities provided insufficient pay and economic security for scholars to devote their lives to teaching and intellectual inquiry.

Andrew Carnegie sought to provide pensions for faculty members to ensure professors economic security. Later, the American Association of University Professors’ core tenets linked tenure to both academic freedom and economic security. At a time when more and more faculty members work as adjuncts or lecturers with low salaries and little protection for academic freedom, the question of the economic security of academics is pressing.

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The most prominent alternative to the credit hour is competency-based education. Two of the most high-profile competency-based programs, Western Governors University and College for America, both of which have been praised by President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, outsource thinking, eliminate faculty roles through “unbundling” or “disaggregating,” rely heavily on adjunct labor, and offer little protection for academic freedom. They thus undermine rather than strengthen the American academy’s ability to meet its public mission. They increase educational inequality between those who receive a serious college education and those who get fast degrees.

There is no necessary connection between moving beyond the credit hour and weakening the American academy. As noted above, already too many traditional institutions rely on adjunct labor. But the fact that two of the most highly praised examples of competency-based education go much further should give us pause.

Nothing Sacred

There is nothing sacred about the credit hour, but there are higher purposes to college. Thus, any effort to move beyond the credit hour must always reflect what college is for. For starters, college signifies much more than the acquisition of skills. Knowledge matters. We cannot embrace the anti-intellectual perspective of Thomas Friedman and others who argue that “the world doesn’t care anymore what you know” but “what you can do.” This assumption presumes wrongly, first, that knowledge and skills can be disaggregated, and second, that the acquisition of knowledge through intellectual inquiry, the very purpose of the college or university as an academic institution, is worthless.

Cognitive science has made clear that knowledge combines information with activity, that all real learning is active learning. The old distinction between knowing and doing -- which critics like Friedman assume -- cannot be sustained. To know is to do, and good teachers require their students to engage with the material, to use their minds, to develop new modes of thought and neuronal pathways. Students must make knowledge their own and learn to use it to understand the world. This is a time-consuming process.

This is not to say that generic competencies such as critical thinking have no value. Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, for example, have used the Collegiate Learning Assessment to evaluate student learning across campuses. In their two books, Academically Adrift (2011) and Aspiring Adults Adrift (2014), they found that gains in the CLA are correlated with courses in the liberal arts and sciences and that high CLA scores are correlated with better employment prospects. Most important, they found that campuses that value learning and create cultures oriented around high expectations for students produce better results.

Yet, as Arum and Roksa admit, their study captures only a slice of what matters. The Carnegie report concurs, concluding that too great an emphasis on generic “common assessments in higher education run[s] the risk of narrowing curricula.” The purpose of studying history or literature or chemistry is not to acquire generic skills. Instead, we care about skills such as critical thinking or analytical ability because they enable students to have better insights and ideas, and to gain more from the subjects they study. Skills should not be abstracted from their ends. Skills are purposive. The skills of a carpenter are connected to the craft of carpentry. The same is true of the skills of a historian or chemist. Skills are used to achieve an end.  

Skills are vital, of course. One cannot do history or chemistry or carpentry without them. They must be learned. And no doubt they are often transferable, and thus have general value. Yet to evaluate a historian or a chemist on some set of generic skills with no attention to knowledge or purpose is muddled at best. It would be like evaluating a guitar teacher on how effective he or she is in encouraging manual dexterity with no concern about what it means to be a guitar player, or even to play particular songs. The dexterity gained in learning guitar cannot be alienated from the student’s or the teacher’s goal of producing specific kinds of music with a particular musical instrument. A student learning guitar seeks a particular kind of excellence.

We cannot treat knowledge as incidental or epiphenomenal. We do not just want to teach students “literacy” or “critical thinking," but to read, to enjoy, and to learn from actual literature; and not just from “literature,” but from actual texts. To reduce literature to literacy misses the point entirely and denies students meaningful access to the liberal arts.

Because the particulars matter, a liberal education is an education in the liberal arts and sciences, and those arts are not skills but rather organized ways of engaging in inquiry to gain knowledge and insight. They combine knowledge, skills and dispositions. Knowing history or chemistry or math is not about knowing facts. Nor is it about skills. It is instead about being historians, chemists or mathematicians who have knowledge gained from the use of particular skills. The purpose of these fields is to help students achieve some of the hard-earned insights that the liberal arts have gained about the human and natural worlds.

Thus, assessments of student learning must be designed in ways that are compatible with the purposes for which the university exists. To measure student learning in ways that are abstracted from the lifeworld in which skills take on meaning, are practiced and are developed would erode the moral and intellectual foundations of the university. It would treat skills as ends, not as means to an end. Any move beyond the credit hour, then, must be grounded in the particular, must move beyond general competencies and must take seriously the specific knowledge gained by studying particular things with particular people.

Answering the Critics

Critics of the credit hour raise two important concerns that cannot be dismissed. First, the credit hour does not give us a sense of what students learned. That was never its point. As the Carnegie report concludes, the credit hour “was never intended to serve as a measure of what students learned. Teachers and professors were left to gauge students’ actual learning through grades and tests, papers and other performance measures.” Thus critics who condemn the credit hour for not measuring learning are confusing categories.

The second important critique of the credit hour is that it allows students to view collegiate education as a matter of credit accumulation -- when students have a certain number of credits in this and that they get a college degree. But colleges do not allow a student to receive a degree for credits alone. They establish guidelines for what counts for a degree according to the faculty’s understanding of what students need to think about and do before graduation.

The real problem occurs when the credit hour is extracted from the context in which it takes place. On its own, the credit hour is meaningless. Students who go to college part time, over many years, attending multiple institutions, come to equate a college education with counting credits and hoping that they transfer. But that is because students have been seeking credits, perhaps out of the necessity of their own working or personal lives, rather going to college. If students are not permitted to spend serious, devoted time steeped in the life of the mind, stepping away from their lives and onto college campuses, then it does not matter how many credits they have piled up. Focused, devoted time really matters. The same is true for competency-based education or any other approach.

Thus, one of the real risks to eliminating the credit hour is that we will forget the vital importance of time. Education Secretary Duncan mocks “seat time” as a measure of learning. New America’s Amy Laitinen also contrasts learning with time. This dichotomy hides as much as it reveals and reflects an impoverished notion of what it means to educate.

If we really wish to graduate knowledgeable students with the aspiration to know more, time, which the Carnegie report calls “an often undervalued component of equal educational opportunity,” matters very much. In other words, whether we get rid of the credit hour or not, we need to ensure that all American college students have devoted, sustained time to work under the guidance of faculty members. Many of the efforts to move beyond the credit hour seek to reduce students’ time in college by allowing them to progress as fast as they can a series of competencies; this is what both WGU and College for America do, but, as Debra Humphreys argues, such approaches reduce colleges’ ability “to increase students’ exposure to deep learning, research and real-world applications of learning.”

Why Class Time Matters

Class time is formative. It enables students to gain specific insights into the world under the mentorship of experts. Every course is a vista point over a landscape that allows students to see their world differently. This is by its very nature particular -- particular to the teacher, the text, the material and the student. These insights in turn form the lenses by which students view the world. They provide understanding, cultivate the imagination and are the basis for asking new, better questions. This all takes time. Students must have more than just competencies or skills -- they must have the right kinds of intellectual experiences, whether we measure those experiences in terms of credits, tutorials, classes or some other unit.

Time is formative. It takes time to foster students’ dispositions, or their virtues and habits. It is not enough that students demonstrate the ability, for example, to write a research paper. Students must come to think of intellectual inquiry as an end in itself, something that they cannot, and would not, avoid. They should seek not credits, grades or competencies, but understanding.

Time is also required to develop skills or competencies in any meaningful sense. Real skills come from repetition. For example, one can pass a driver's exam by cramming and taking written and skills-based tests. Yet that does not a driver make. A driver becomes a driver through repeated practice, until driving becomes something that one does skillfully. The same is true for intellectual skills.

Thus, time is required to gain insights, to develop new dispositions or habits and to master the skills necessary to achieve knowledge. Students don’t learn skills or knowledge; they must become the kind of people who use their intellectual skills to seek knowledge. And to do that well, they need actual knowledge, actual vistas, to make sense of the world. 

To defend "seat time" is not to defend the status quo. Class time must be good time -- it must ensure that students engage their minds. Students cannot sit passively; faculty must do much more than lecture. Classes must be small enough for real faculty-student interaction, and faculty members must demand of themselves and their peers that they are teaching students all three things -- knowledge, virtues and skills. To make seat time good time requires, first, recognizing the value of seat time, and second, helping students use seat time to get off their seats. In other words, what matters is time more than seats.

Time matters, but the time must be good time in good communities oriented to the right ends. Any person who has been part of a community -- a church, for example -- knows how important time is for forming and educating human beings. One cannot become a church member by passing a set of competencies quickly and easily. One becomes a church member by changing, and this requires knowledge and a new set of dispositions, a new orientation. The same ought to be true for college graduates.

That is also why higher education cannot be integrated into the world even as it prepares students for it. Some, including President Obama, celebrate campuses that bring employers in, that integrate the “real world” and the campus, but college and university campuses are places apart for a reason. They establish sites for reflection, something that is not easy to do in a world that places many demands on us. From this perspective, programs that emphasize speed and align themselves too closely to employer needs can never achieve the goals of a good college education, can never ensure that all college students have the opportunity to be, as philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it, “inhabitants of a place of learning.”

Finally, time matters because to educate a human being requires human relationships; it requires mentors who form deep, meaningful, trusting and intellectual relationships. These relationships matter at a practical level because they are correlated with student retention, but they ultimately matter because that is the way we human beings learn best. Our brains, cognitive science teaches us, set up barriers to learning that make it difficult to change our minds. Students -- and faculty members too -- need to feel able to open themselves up to risk, to engage in real learning. Good teaching and good student learning thus require that students have time to find intellectual mentors and to develop trusting relationships, and vice versa.

Ultimately, efforts to think beyond the credit hour cannot dismiss the central importance of time. There are some proposals that move in the right direction. One example is the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ LEAP (Liberal Education, America’s Promise) initiative. In its most recent rendering of what should constitute a college education, the authors of the LEAP initiative make clear that a college graduate ought to be a particular kind of person. A college graduate needs actual “knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural worlds” through serious study in “the sciences and mathematics, humanities, histories, languages and the arts.” Knowledge, however, is linked to the “intellectual and practical skills” necessary to acquire it well and to use it to gain insight on the world. Finally, a college graduate needs to link their knowledge and skills to virtues, which the LEAP initiative calls “personal and social responsibility.”

Another promising effort is the Lumina Foundation’s most recent version of the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP). The DQP also takes knowledge, skills and dispositions seriously. It divides the kinds of knowledge students need into five “learning categories,” including “specialized knowledge” and “broad and integrative knowledge.” Gaining knowledge, the DQP recognizes, is linked to the development of “intellectual skills.” Finally, students must develop new dispositions, a direction -- or telos -- to which they apply their knowledge. Thus, the DQP asks students to engage in “applied and collaborative learning” to see how academic knowledge helps answer important questions, and “civic and global learning” to remind students that their education comes with duties to their communities, American democracy and the world.

Neither LEAP nor DQP could be done quickly or easily, at least if done well. It takes time to develop in students the kind of knowledge that matters. It takes time to hone their intellectual skills. And it takes time to develop lasting dispositions.

No matter how we move forward, then, we will need to think about time as an asset rather than an impediment. We will need to find ways to provide students of all ages and backgrounds with time to devote to becoming educated. Already, students spend too little time on campus. Already, working adults lack the resources to take time away from their busy lives. To overcome the credit hour in a way that reduces students’ time on campus would only make it more difficult for colleges and universities to offer a high quality and meaningful education. Such efforts might increase access to college degrees but not to the education that must accompany the degree.

There is absolutely nothing sacred about the credit hour, as the Carnegie report makes clear. The time may well come to do away with it and find something else. We must, however, be sure that whatever we do instead provides economic security and academic freedom for professors, and recognizes that a good education takes time.

Johann Neem, professor of history at Western Washington University, is an affiliate of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is currently a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

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