“Everyone is entitled to his own opinions,” the sociologist and politico Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “but not to his own facts.” He may have been improving upon a similar if less trenchant remark (“ …but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts”) attributed to the financier Bernard Baruch.
Until sitting down to write this I did not know about Baruch’s version. A certainty that my eagle-eyed editor would inquire about the source obliged me to vet the attribution to Moynihan; she requires more than my vague recollection of having read it somewhere. In checking my facts, she bolsters my conscience, enforcing Moynihan’s (and Baruch’s) point about accountability.
Lucas Graves, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, uses the expression “internal fact-checking” to describe this kind of preventative, behind-the-scenes work. It tries “to eliminate untruth, not call attention to it” by catching and correcting mistakes in an article before it goes to press. In Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism (Columbia University Press), Graves traces how internal fact-checking morphed into something almost antithetical: the very public evaluation of factual assertions made by politicians and other figures in the news.
News organizations such as PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and The Washington Post’s Fact Checker -- to name only the most nationally prominent -- intervene so frequently in American public discourse now that it seems counterintuitive to think they’ve only recently become a force in the world. Until the last two or three presidential election cycles, scrutiny of a candidate’s claims tended to be episodic and ad hoc -- and often enough conducted by the opposing campaign, bringing its own biases to the process. To the ethos of newspaper editors and reporters circa 1950, the idea of confirming or debunking a public figure’s statements of fact seemed perilously close to an expression of opinion, to be avoided at the risk of compromising one’s reputation for objectivity. Reporting that a fact was in dispute might be acceptable in some cases, but making a judgment call on it was best left to the pundits and thumb suckers.
The title Deciding What’s True is clearly an homage to Deciding What’s News by Herbert J. Gans, a classic study of newsroom culture, and Graves followed in his predecessor’s participant-observer footsteps by working for two major fact-checking organizations between 2010 and 2012. The book thus benefits from having two vantage points: the historical and sociological perspective available from media-studies scholarship, plus close ethnographic observation of how major fact-checking stories are discovered, investigated, debated in-house before being sent out to make their mark on the world.
His most striking insight, it seems to me, is how specific, self-defined and virtually self-contained the world of professionalized fact-checking tends to be. The naïve observer might think of fact-checking organizations as being akin to media watchdog groups such as the Media Research Center on the right and Media Matters for America to the left, with PolitiFact falling somewhere in between. But in reality the fact-checking milieu sees itself as unrelated to the partisan watchdog groups: it doesn’t work with or quote them, and Graves recounts one fact-checker as saying he almost decided to kill an investigation when he saw that Media Matters was already interested in it. Likewise, fact-checking journalists see a bright line between their work and blogging.
This is not just a matter of professional amour propre. The major fact-checking organizations have ties to established media institutions, including journalism schools, and retain a belief (which watchdogs and bloggers alike tend to reject) in old newsroom ideals of objectivity, impartiality and conscientious reporting.
The ’00s put confidence in those ideals under enormous strain from a number of catastrophically bad judgment calls (reporting war propaganda and Wall Street shilling without due diligence) as well as cases of plagiarism or outright fabrication in major news publications. Compounding those problems, even inducing some of them, was the growing array of new media competing for public attention while also driving up the pace of the news cycle.
In an email exchange with Graves, I indicated that PolitiFact, Fact Checker and so on seemed like a response, in part, to the 24-hour news cycle that emerged around the time of the first Gulf War and intensified still more once the internet started to permeate everyday life. Rumors, misinformation and bogus statistics could spread faster, and farther, than ever before.
Graves agreed, but added, “Another way to think about that is that the traditional model of objectivity, for all of its flaws, made some sense in a world where professional journalists acted as gatekeepers and could effectively police the borders of political discourse. Then wild rumors about the president’s birthplace didn’t have to be debunked because they could be denied coverage altogether. But the opening up of political discourse after the 1960s and the fragmentation of the media beginning in the 1990s -- both healthy developments in many ways, and both with echoes in the 19th century -- also effectively spelled the end of the journalist as gatekeeper. And especially with the rise of the internet, that fragmentation calls for a more critical style of political reporting that’s willing to directly challenge false claims.”
In principle, at least, systematic and high-quality fact-checking ought to make politicians and other public figures more careful about the claims they make while giving the public a running lesson in critical thought at the same time. At times, Deciding What’s True seems to encourage that hope. But I’ve been reading the book between rounds of binge-watching campaign coverage, and it is not an experience to recommend. The idea that fact-checking can impose some kind of restraint on a candidate, or influence public response, seems utterly negated by the candidacy of Donald Trump. His well-documented but unrelenting dishonesty -- his talent for lying without restraint or regard for evidence, outright and brazenly, even after the facts have been shown repeatedly -- never wavers yet makes no dent in his level of support. This seems really strange.
“This a large and complicated question,” Graves responded, “and people who study journalism and political communication are trying to approach it in many different ways. But one answer is that there have always been fairly wide slices of the American electorate that are deeply suspicious of establishment discourse, sometimes with good reason. If you listen to Trump supporters in interviews, they seem to accept that he doesn’t have the grasp of policy that other politicians do, and they don’t necessarily believe everything he says or subscribe to all of his views. He seems to say whatever he thinks and embrace a common-sense approach that many people find appealing. Beyond that, none of us makes political calculations in the detached, rational way that political theorists sometimes imagine.
“And at the same time, fact-checking has made a difference,” Graves continued. “It arguably has helped to solidify the ceiling over Trump’s support, giving ammunition to both voters and politicians who say they’ll never back him. And it has had a tremendous influence on coverage of his campaign, with front-page articles on Trump’s extraordinary disregard for the facts and constant references to his falsehoods even in straight news reports. We have nothing to compare this race to, and it’s impossible to say where this thing would be if more journalists had stuck to the traditional ‘he said, she said’ formula.”
Even the most well-intentioned colleges and universities have a hard time figuring out where to start on the path to improving student success and completion. Financial incentives that keep students on track toward graduation have, in many cases, proven effective, but they often don’t scale in an era of tight budgets. Emerging technologies promise transformation, but they can fall short in a world where financial or organizational challenges tend to stymie implementation.
As it turns out, the road to innovation is lined with real-world hurdles. Initiative fatigue abounds. And all too often, fiscal and organizational barriers can win the day when colleges and universities consider doing something new.
But what if colleges and universities flipped that model on its head? What if the most successful initiatives started with doing less, not more? Can colleges and universities drive outsize gains without spending any money or imposing new responsibilities on faculty and staff members?
Savvy colleges and universities are doing just that, by embracing basic engineering strategies like design thinking or process mapping. Process mapping, as the name suggests, entails mapping out an institutional process from start to finish. The goal is to understand processes from the perspective of the person encountering a product or service -- in the case of higher education, students. It requires institutional leaders to ask, “How does a student engage with our college or university when trying to do X?”
The exercise is inherently empathetic -- it demands that administrators and faculty members put themselves in students’ shoes. And it guarantees, at the very least, greater self-awareness and knowledge of pain points and hurdles that students experience and that need to be removed.
Underlying this approach is a somewhat controversial premise: colleges and universities were not, historically, designed around the needs of students. Like those in charge of many organizations that evolve to meet new demands, well-meaning administrators and faculty members have put processes into place with an imperfect understanding of the user experience. Most campuses have unintentionally put the onus on the students to navigate the complexity of a college campus. When you start looking at problems from that perspective, design flaws leap out.
As consumers, we expect that retailers or service providers have designed the experience around the customer. We become frustrated when things are counterintuitive, bureaucratic, slow, difficult or painful. So why should we tolerate flawed processes that frustrate our students? If colleges and universities really want students to complete their degrees, why is it up to students to let the university know when they are ready to graduate? And why should the students then have to apply to graduate -- and often pay a fee?
Process mapping allows the university to identify and confront the roadblocks for students and then work to remove them, yet it also reveals where faculty members, advisers and administrators are encountering inefficiencies and unnecessary work.
In fact, some of my favorite examples of campus transformation began with process mapping.
Georgia State University has used process mapping to better understand how the university communicates with students, mapping out every email, letter and call that students receives from dozens of offices across campus from the time that students first apply through the end of their first semester. The results of the exercise -- showing an overwhelming stream of often repetitive, conflicting and uncoordinated messages -- inspired the university to better organize how it orients news students and how it explains the choices that they face.
Those insights, in turn, led to more substantive changes -- changes that helped them transform the institution into a national model for student success, eliminating race and income as a predictor of academic outcomes. For instance, university administrators saw how freshmen immediately upon enrolling were expected to make a choice between dozens and dozens of majors, an overwhelming and stressful experience with students too often feeling pressure to make ill-informed decisions. Instead, they paired down the initial choice into seven “metamajors,” or broader-themed categories of study, to give students an opportunity to explore and discover during their first year of college. That small shift has led to a decline of more than 30 percent in the number of changes in major among students at Georgia State -- saving students both time and money in earning their degrees.
Georgia State’s success inspired Michigan State University to bring together representatives from across the campus to map all the ways the university interacted with students from the time they were admitted to the end of the first semester. They discovered that each new student was being barraged with about 400 emails from admissions, financial aid, the registrar’s office, student life, housing and residence life, academic advisers, the student accounts office, academic colleges, and more. The process mapping team found messages that were redundant, that could have been delivered in a different format or that could have been delayed so that other, more critical communications would get noticed.
The campus was overwhelming new students with noise during the time when they really needed clear and thoughtful guidance. That was especially problematic for first-generation and low-income students, who often lack external support in navigating university processes.
The team at Michigan State immediately started work on identifying ways to streamline, prioritize and redesign their interaction with students to be particularly sensitive to the needs of low-income and first-generation students. Financial aid communications now take priority for new students, while notices about extracurricular activities like intramural sports or clubs can wait until students arrive on the campus.
In the past, students who ended up on academic probation at the end of their first semester would receive four different emails from four different people. Now, Michigan State sends one email with clear information about how the student should seek academic advising help and get financial aid questions answered. Viewing the institution through the eyes of the students has allowed Michigan State to find new ways to help students who are at risk of going off track just out of the gates.
Most higher education institutions can benefit from a similar exercise. I have never found a campus that is too self-aware of how they impact their students, faculty members and administrators. Process mapping takes very little time and no additional financial outlay. The team at Michigan State, for example, was able to convene over the course of a day to map out the various communications students were receiving and, in the following weeks, agree upon which messages would be prioritized in the admissions-to-enrollment process.
Process mapping isn’t limited to enrollment and admissions. Colleges and universities can also use process mapping to examine a wide variety of operational challenges, such as course scheduling bottlenecks, barriers to graduation or the delivery of nonacademic student support services. Process mapping can also help the university ensure that students from diverse backgrounds feel welcome and supported on the campus.
Change doesn’t have to be complicated. The harder we make it to change, the less likely it is to happen. If you are asking yourself where to start working to improve student success, a simple exercise like process mapping is the right answer.
Bridget Burns is the executive director of the University Innovation Alliance, a national consortium of large public research universities collaborating to improve outcomes for students across the socioeconomic spectrum through innovation, scale and diffusion of best practices.
For years, our prevailing view of student retention has been shaped by theories that view student retention through the lens of institutional action and ask what institutions can do to retain their students. Students, however, do not seek to be retained. They seek to persist. The two perspectives, although necessarily related, are not the same. Their interests are different.
While the institution’s interest is to increase the proportion of their students who graduate from the institution, the student’s interest is to complete a degree often without regard to the college or university in which it is earned. When viewed from the students’ perspective, persistence is but one form of motivation. Students have to be persistent in their pursuit of their degrees and be willing to expend the effort to do so even when faced with challenges they sometimes encounter. Without motivation and the effort it engenders, persistence is unlikely -- institutional action aside.
To promote greater degree completion, institutions have to adopt the student perspective and ask not only how they should act to retain their students but also how they should act so that more of their students want to persist to completion. The two questions, while necessarily linked, do not lead to the same sort of conversations about institutional action. The latter, rarely asked, requires institutions to understand how student experiences shape their motivation to persist and, in turn, what they can do to enhance that motivation.
The answer to that question is far from simple. Many experiences shape student motivation to persist, not all of which are within the capacity of institutions to easily influence (e.g., events beyond the campus that pull students away from persistence). But of those that are, three stand out as being central to student motivation: students’ self-efficacy, sense of belonging and perceived value of the curriculum.
Self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief in their ability to succeed at a particular task or in a specific situation. It is one manifestation of how past experiences shape how individuals come to perceive themselves and their capacity to have some degree of control over their environment. Self-efficacy is learned, not inherited. It is malleable, not fixed. It is not generalizable in that it applies to all tasks and situations but can vary depending on the particular task or situation at hand. A person may feel capable of succeeding at one task but not another.
When it comes to students’ belief in their ability to succeed in college, a strong sense of self-efficacy promotes goal attainment, while a weak sense undermines it. Whereas people with high self-efficacy will engage more readily in a task, expend more effort on it and persist longer in its completion even when they encounter difficulties, persons with low self-efficacy will tend to become discouraged and withdraw when encountering difficulties. Although many students begin college confident in their ability to succeed, more than a few do not, in particular those whose past experiences lead them to question their ability to succeed in college as well as those who experience stereotype threats that label them as less likely to succeed.
But even those who enter college confident in their ability to succeed can encounter challenges that serve to weaken their sense of self-efficacy. That is particularly true during the crucial first year as students seek to adjust to the heightened demands of college. What matters for success in that year, however, is not so much that students enter college believing in their capacity to succeed, as it is that they come to believe they can as the result their early experiences.
Therefore while it is important that institutions challenge existing labels as marking some students as less likely to succeed than others, it is equally important that students are able to obtain the timely support they need to succeed when they encounter early difficulties in meeting the academic, and sometimes social, demands of college. To be effective, such support must occur before student struggles undermine their motivation to persist -- thus the need for institutions to employ early-warning systems that, when properly implemented, alert faculty and staff to struggling students and trigger support when needed. Midterm grades will not do.
Sense of Belonging
While believing one can succeed in college is essential for persistence to completion, it does not in itself ensure it. For that to occur, students have to come to see themselves as a member of a community of other students, faculty and staff who value their membership -- that they matter and belong. Thus the term “sense of belonging.” The result is often expressed as a commitment that serves to bind the individual to the group or community even when challenges arise. It is here that engagement with other people on the campus matters. But more important still are students’ perceptions of those engagements and the meaning they derive from them as to their belonging.
Although a sense of belonging can mirror students’ prior experiences, it is most directly shaped by the broader campus climate and their daily interactions with other students, faculty, staff and administrators on campus -- and the messages those interactions convey. Students who perceive themselves as belonging are more likely to persist because it leads not only to enhanced motivation but also a willingness to become involved with others in ways that further promote persistence. In contrast, a student’s sense of not belonging, of being out of place, leads to a withdrawal from contact with others that further undermine motivation to persist.
Here there is much colleges and universities can do. First, they must ensure that all students see the institution as welcoming and supportive -- that the culture is one of inclusion. They can do so by not only speaking to issues of exclusion but also by promoting those forms of activity that require shared academic and social experiences. In the academic realm, that can take the form of cohort programs and learning communities. Within classrooms, it can mean using pedagogies like cooperative and problem-based learning that require students to learn together as equal partners. In the social realm, institutions can take steps to provide for a diversity of social groups and organizations that allow all students to find at least one smaller community of students with whom they share a common bond. However they promote students’ sense of belonging, institutions should address it at the very outset of students’ journey -- indeed as early as orientation. As is the case for self-efficacy, developing a sense of belonging during the first year facilitates other forms of engagement that enhance student development, learning and completion.
Perceived Value of the Curriculum
Students’ perceptions of the value of their studies also influence their motivation to persist. Although what constitutes value is subject to much debate, the underlying issue is clear: students need to perceive the material to be learned is of sufficient quality and relevance to warrant their time and effort. Only then will they be motivated to engage that material in ways that promote learning and, in turn, persistence. Curriculum that is seen as irrelevant or of low quality will often yield the opposite result.
Addressing this issue is challenging if only because student perceptions of the curriculum vary not only among different students but also the differing subjects they are asked to learn. But there are steps institutions can and should take. First, institutions should see to it that students enroll in a field of study appropriate to their needs and interests, that they find the material within those courses sufficiently challenging to warrant their effort and, with academic support, reasonably within their reach to master. Second, they should ensure that the curriculum -- in particular, but not only, in the social sciences and humanities -- is inclusive of the experiences and histories of the students who are asked to study that curriculum. Third, institutions, specifically the faculty, should be explicit in demonstrating how the subjects that students are asked to learn can be applied to meaningful situations in ways that have relevance to issues that concern them. This is particularly important in first-year introductory courses as they serve as gateways to courses that follow. Too often, meaningful connections in those courses are left for students to discover.
One way of making those connections is to use pedagogies, such as problem and project-based learning, that require students to apply the material they are learning to resolve concrete problems or to complete a project that frames the class. Another is through contextualization, where students are asked to learn material within the context of another field, as is the case in developmental education, where basic skills are taught in the context of another area of study. In this and similar cases, students are more likely to want to learn basic skills because it helps them learn a subject in which they are interested. One promotes the learning of the other.
Colleges and universities can also achieve contextualization through the use of learning communities. When properly implemented, students co-register in two or three courses that are linked through an issue, problem or project that provides a unifying theme to the community. Such multiple course linkages can provide not only academic and social support but also promote a form of interdisciplinary learning that is not easily achieved in stand-alone courses. Lest one forget, the goal of persistence is not simply that students complete their degrees, but that they learn in powerful ways while doing so. Education is the goal of our efforts; persistence is only a vehicle for its occurrence.
All this is not to say that students will not persist if they have little sense of belonging or see little value in their studies. Some will if only because of external pressures to do so (e.g., family) or because of the perceived value of obtaining their degree from the institution (e.g., occupation, income and status outcomes). But doing so is a hollow achievement, for it fails to take advantage of the intrinsic benefits of a college education: belonging and learning. At the same time, as Sara Goldrick-Rab has made abundantly clear, many students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, who want to persist are unable to do so because they simply can’t afford the full cost of attendance. Many would succeed if only they could find a reasonable way of financing their education.
There is little doubt that many colleges and universities have improved rates of student completion. But they can and should do more. Institutions must expand their conversation about college completion beyond simply how they can retain their students to how they can act in ways that lead all students to want to stay and complete their degrees. Though it is undeniably the case that academic ability matters, student motivation is the key to student persistence and completion. But addressing student motivation requires institutions to do more than simply issue another survey questionnaire. Rather, it necessitates that they understand students’ perceptions of their experience and how events throughout the campus influence their perceptions and shape, in turn, their motivation to persist.
Colleges and universities need to listen to all their students, take seriously their voices and be sensitive to how perceptions of their experiences vary among students of different races, income levels and cultural backgrounds. Only then can they further improve persistence and completion while addressing the continuing inequality in student outcomes that threaten the very fabric of our society.
Vincent Tinto is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University.
The late, great sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote eloquently of what he called “the sociological imagination,” which involved the ability to connect our own biographies to the wider currents of history, to understand the various social and cultural components of who we become. That was a major corrective to the highly individualistic worldview of Americans -- our strong tendency to view ourselves in a historical vacuum, as if our goals, beliefs and attitudes are not powerfully shaped by the social groups of which we are a part.
His invitation to a broader, more sophisticated view of ourselves was extended midway through the last century, at a time when Americans had a compelling need to come to terms with recent chaos and violence on a world scale, along with major ongoing evils in our own society -- racism prominently among them.
While we can consider some of the more extreme ills of racism a thing of our national past, others are very much still with us. Some forms of racial inequality have, in fact, been growing worse in recent years -- for example, the level of racial segregation in many of our public school systems, which is linked to the growing inequality of income and wealth in our society. Such inequality plays out at our colleges and universities in a number of ways, including admissions statistics, the daily experiences of students on our campuses and graduation rates.
As we think about which aspects of racism higher education institutions can most effectively address and how the sociological imagination fits into such a project, we might begin by noting that the word “racism” is often used rhetorically, particularly by college students, as a cover term for a range of things that differ significantly in their level of seriousness. Consider the following, for example:
Some white college students dress in racially insensitive costumes for Halloween.
The white presidential candidate of a major political party asserts that a Mexican-American judge cannot fulfill the professional and ethical standards of his vocation.
White police officers kill black men in incidents that are unlikely to have occurred if all parties were white.
Lumping these situations together under the general category of racism is hardly helpful in terms of what it will take to address each of them.
Institutions of higher education have sought to address racial inequality in a number of ways, including efforts to diversify their faculties, student bodies and staff. Their strongest suit would seem to be their potential for fostering robust communication across the racial and ethnic boundaries that divide members of what should be a community. For those who have not suffered from racism themselves, that will probably involve the risk of revealing some unattractive opinions or replacing denials of racism with the intention of making the racist unconscious conscious. For those who have suffered, it will involve forbearance and perhaps a taste for irony. It presupposes intellectual curiosity and emotional openness on the part of all.
A major obstacle to that has been a growing tendency toward what we might call “identity fetishism,” or seeing a specific dimension of social identity -- race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity -- as a terminus rather than a point of departure. American colleges and universities thus risk becoming places where the sociological imagination has gone to die.
The “safe space” movement, together with an it-takes-one-to-know-one mind-set, can operate to create barriers where there should be bridges. To be sure, it is good to spend comfortable, supportive times with those who are close fellow travelers through life. And achieving a deep understanding of those whose experience has been different in significant ways is a task to be approached with humility. But moving out from the familiar is a core goal of higher education.
Barriers between racial/ethnic groups in campus social life have had a curricular side as well. Separate departments or programs in African-American, Asian-American or Latin American studies, while offering belated, much-needed perspectives on groups that have long been hidden from historical research and teaching, have had the downside of not forcing a fuller, multiperspective approach to American studies itself. The use of the label “ethnic studies” as a cover term for these more group-specific programs, moreover, has been an unfortunate choice: are some people “ethnic” and others not? Was not the upshot to leave European-Americans an unmarked category of just plain folks? Some have sought to correct that with proposals of white studies programs -- hardly the best solution.
Ethnic studies programs are understandably of special interest to the respective members of the groups themselves; they have thus had something of a self-segregating effect in terms not only of students but also, to some extent, of faculty members -- an effect amplified by a tendency to merge the goals of faculty diversity with those of curricular diversity. The result can be a typecasting of faculty members of particular ethnic-racial groups. While an African-American historian can make distinguished contributions to scholarship and teaching in the field of African-American history, another can certainly make distinguished contributions to the field of medieval European history.
And, speaking of faculty, a general question is where have they been in the increasing diversity-related troubles we see playing out on our campuses? Some have been constructively engaged. For example, in the aforementioned Halloween costume example, faculty colleagues came to the public defense of a lecturer who found herself in the eye of a student activist storm by suggesting that we should not overreact to such behavior -- an episode that attracted an extraordinary amount of news media attention. Others have been part of the problem rather than part of the solution -- for example, by making ill-considered, even trollish statements in online media. Fortunately, that will sometimes be an occasion for pushback from their colleagues.
For the most part, however, faculty members have simply been missing in action when it comes to dealing with campus upheavals around race and racism. Students seem to be stepping into a leadership vacuum that pits them directly against administrators.
As we know, faculty members have more than enough problems of their own these days, what with increasing adjunctification and presidents who come to their jobs without understanding the business they are in -- to name just a couple of the most obvious misfortunes. But intellectual leadership is an essential faculty responsibility.
For openers, faculty members can bring the intellectual capital of their respective fields to bear on current debates. Those of us who are anthropologists, for example, have chosen a vocation based on moving beyond the stance that it takes one to know one. Though requiring a self-critical perspective on how well one can know an “other,” it centers on a quest to understand as much about others as we possibly can. Moreover, what we might call the anthropological imagination also presumes that an outsider’s perspective offers its own advantages; at the same time, a detour through another world is a path toward better understanding dimensions of our own, which would otherwise remain below our self-conscious reflection.
Beyond our own particular disciplines, departments and programs, faculty members are also part of a wider academic community with a shared dedication to core educational values. Those of us who believe that diversity is not just about social justice, as important as that is, but is also tied to the intrinsic goals of a liberal -- and liberating -- education have our work cut out for us. Outlines of that work can be found, for example, in the contributions of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, especially through its LEAP initiative (Liberal Arts and America’s Promise). Essential learning outcomes associated with that initiative include cross-cultural sophistication and civic responsibility.
In brief, we need to help make our colleges and universities ideal places for cultivating the sociological imagination. That means exploring with our students not only where we have come from but also where we might be going.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and president and professor of anthropology emerita of Barnard College.
Over the last few years, there has been no shortage of news coverage and commentary remarking on the seemingly real or perhaps only greatly exaggerated death of the liberal arts in American higher education.
We are not alone in thinking that the debate about the relevance of the liberal arts is tired and simplistic. To our minds, the liberal arts are as relevant as ever -- as a means of enriching lives, developing engaged citizens and nurturing foundational professional skills.
But if the public, rightly or wrongly, is becoming increasingly skeptical of the value of the liberal arts -- and enrollment trends at certain institutions would suggest that they may be, at least in some measure -- then schools of liberal arts will have to accept some share of the blame themselves.
Undoubtedly, public pronouncements arguing that we need “more welders and less philosophers,” as former presidential candidate Marco Rubio claimed late last year, irk many in the liberal arts -- and not solely because of Rubio’s poor use of grammar. This notion that liberal arts graduates are terminally unemployable is achieving a kind of -- to borrow Stephen Colbert’s famous neologism -- truthiness. And that kind of misinformation can be particularly frustrating to faculty members and students who have devoted their energy and enthusiasm to these fields of study, and enjoyed successful careers as a result of it.
The fact is, as researchers in the field of employability will tell you, a great many organizations have a real interest in hiring college graduates possessing communication and reasoning skills blended with technical expertise and strong character. In an Inside Higher Ed commentary from early 2016, Burning Glass CEO Matthew Sigelman argued that his firm’s research on labor demand has shown that many of the fastest-growing jobs are hybrid in character, requiring “people who can bridge domains and synthesize ideas.” Few would argue that the liberal arts don’t have a contribution to make in producing these sorts of graduates.
Still, frustrating though they may be, news headlines and political commentary aren’t the real obstacles to sustaining the future of the liberal arts. That challenge has less to do with media perceptions or careless politicizing than with the traditional organizational structures and curricular approaches of schools of liberal arts themselves. Here’s what we mean.
Departmental structures can be inflexible and inhibit creative responses to changing market expectations. At a number of liberal arts institutions we work with, faculty express great interest in interdisciplinary work and other forms of innovation. In some respects they find organizational structures -- the proliferation of schools, departments, divisions, units -- just as frustrating and inhibiting as administrators do. But when faculty become uneasy with the tenor of the public debate about the contribution of the liberal arts and feel threatened, they often rely on these structures as a bulwark against change. Others may resist on principle any movement that might be perceived as moving in the direction of vocationalism or focusing on work readiness associated with linking the liberal arts to professional programs.
In both cases, the result can be the same: faculty hunker down. They look at the growth of faculty lines in engineering or business and argue that their departments would grow, too -- if only similar investments were made in their faculty. Of course, increasing capacity doesn’t automatically increase enrollments. Yet for those individuals, the fight for resources is viewed as a zero-sum game, and some faculty members and department chairs would seek to preserve the structures that they know rather than risk reorganizing in ways that merge departments or explicitly require collaboration with the professional disciplines -- even if such changes might deliver more value to students. But of course, such mergers and collaborations are possible where adjacent disciplines complement one another -- such as writing and English programs or communications and performing arts. Restructurings of these sorts can not only avoid unnecessary redundancies in staff positions and other organizational overhead, but also foster the development of a more contemporary curriculum and enrich the student experience.
Departmental structures can constrain the evolution and effectiveness of general-education curricula. As the volume of majors in the liberal arts disciplines continues to fluctuate, general education programs may be seen as an increasingly powerful mechanism to promote traditional liberal arts values. But they can also offer students new forms of interdisciplinary intellectual exposure via minors or other ways of bundling sequences of courses.
For departments with declining majors, general-education course enrollments are frequently seen by faculty as crucial evidence of their value. As a result, there is often resistance by faculty members and department chairs to restructuring general-education programs in ways that might deviate from the more immediately measurable performance models based on numbers of department majors -- even if such restructurings may lead to more relevant and flexible curricula for students. For example, while the contemporary student may derive significant value from experiential learning components and interdisciplinary capstone courses, their inclusion in general-education programs is often met with resistance by faculty as they fall outside the traditional disciplinary or departmental structure.
Departmental structures can necessitate organizational workarounds, such as the creation of interdisciplinary liberal arts centers or institutes, to find a home for innovation. While interdisciplinary centers or institutes can serve as vital catalysts for innovation and collaboration across the disciplines, merely establishing them will not necessarily overcome the force of decades of departmentally focused priorities. As a result, these interdisciplinary centers can sometimes evolve into isolated interdisciplinary silos. Indeed, the lack or perceived lack of incentives for faculty involvement, a misalignment with departmental promotional criteria and the absence of clear expectations with respect to the roles that particular departments or disciplines are meant to play in these centers can all contribute to their eventual marginalization and failure -- which can make it even more challenging to recruit and retain high-potential faculty. Paying lip service to interdisciplinarity isn’t sufficient. In fact, it just exacerbates tensions between units and can make numerous departments less productive. What’s required is a commitment to interdisciplinarity and the centers that promote it as hubs of cross-discipline engagement, for faculty and students alike.
Our view is that the liberal arts matter. Why? Because they prepare students to reason and solve problems, because they develop critical communication skills, and because they teach students how to engage in a process of discovery -- whether it be intellectual discovery, self-discovery or professional discovery. If schools of liberal arts put these same skills to work in examining their own efforts and organizational structures, the liberal arts might well flourish.
Such schools would be more apt to bring together data analytics and the study of literature, or revolutionize the way they think about the role and contribution of general-education programs, or promote liberal arts minors for engineers and biologists in lieu of fighting for more majors within the liberal arts. They might, in other words, rethink the longstanding organizational structures that have housed -- and for many years nurtured -- the liberal arts, but which have now begun to constrain and limit their impact.
Peter Stokes is a managing director and Chris Slatter is a manager in the higher education practice at Huron Consulting Group.
Around this time 20 years ago, I met an elderly gentleman who’d had what sounded like an exceptionally interesting and unusual dissertation-writing experience. A couple of recent coincidences bring the encounter to mind and so inspired this little causerie.
His name was Harmon Bro, and he was in his late 70s when we met. He’d spent the better part of 50 years as an ordained minister and Jungian psychotherapist. If anyone ever looked the part of a Jungian archetype, it was Harmon, who personified the Wise Old Man. In 1955, the University of Chicago Divinity School awarded him a Ph.D. after accepting a doctoral thesis called “The Charisma of the Seer: A Study in the Phenomenology of Religious Leadership.”
It was based in part on work Harmon did in his early 20s as an assistant to Edgar Cayce, “the sleeping prophet.” Despite minimal education, Cayce, it is said, could give long, extemporaneous discourses in response to questions posed to him while he was in a trance state. Among these “readings” were medically sophisticated diagnoses of people miles or continents away, as well as detailed accounts of ancient history and predictions of the future.
Cayce died in 1945, but he left a vast mass of transcripts of his “readings.” By the 1960s, publishers were mining them to produce a seemingly endless series of paperback books extolling Cayce’s powers. Insofar as the New Age can be said to have founding figures, he was one of them.
Harmon was clearly a believer in Cayce’s miraculous powers. I was not (and am not) but have always enjoyed the legends by and about him. As a schoolboy, for example, he would put a textbook under his pillow and absorb its contents while asleep. He graduated (so to speak) to the Akashic Records -- an ethereal library documenting life on Atlantis and in ancient Egypt, and much else besides. He could also see into the future, but the track record is not impressive: China did not convert to Christianity in 1968, nor did Armageddon arrive in 1999. Cayce also predicted that an earthquake in the 1960s would cause California to sink into the Pacific Ocean. It remains attached to the continental United States as of this writing.
Harmon didn’t take skepticism as a threat or an insult, and anyway I preferred listening to arguing. He stressed how very improbable Cayce had been as a subject for serious scholarly attention in the 1950s -- at the University of Chicago, no less. It took three or four tries to get his topic approved; by the time the dissertation was finished and accepted, it felt like every faculty member concerned with the history and psychology of religion had weighed in on it. He happily lent me a copy (when anyone expresses interest in a decades-old dissertation, its author will usually have one of two responses: pleasure or horror), and from reading it, I could see that the scrutiny had been all for the best. It obliged him to practice a kind of methodological agnosticism about Cayce’s powers, and he demonstrated a solid grounding in the social-scientific literature on religion -- in particular, Max Weber’s work on prophetic charisma.
But by 1996, Harmon Bro was not at all happy with the institutions routinizing that charisma. The man he’d known and studied had an ethical message -- “love thy neighbor as thyself,” more or less. The New Age ethos amounted to “love thyself and improve thy karma.” You didn’t have to share his worldview to see his point.
The timing was fortunate: we grew acquainted during what proved to be the final year of Harmon Bro’s life. His obituary in the Chicago Tribune in 1997 made no reference to Cayce, but looking it up just now leaves me with a definite feeling of synchronicity: Harmon died on Sept. 13, which is also the date I’m finishing this piece. A message from Harmon, via the cosmic unconscious?
Probably not, although it was another and even more far-flung coincidence that reminded me of him in the first place. On Friday, the journal Nature Communication published a paper called “Terahertz time-gated spectral imaging for content extraction through layered structures,” which the science-news website EurekAlert kindly translates into laymanese as “Researchers prototype system for reading closed books.” Not by putting them under a pillow and sleeping on them, alas, but it’s impressive even so.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Georgia Tech Institute of Technology collaborated in developing a system that uses bursts of terahertz radiation (“the band of electromagnetic radiation between microwaves and infrared light,” says EurekAlert) to create images of the surfaces of individual pieces of paper in a stack. Ink in a printed letter absorbs the radiation differently from the blank page around it; the contrast between the signals reflecting back are fed into an algorithm that identifies the letter on the page. The prototype can “read” the surfaces of up to nine pages in a pile; with more work, reading at greater depths seems possible. The story quotes one of the researchers as saying, “The Metropolitan Museum in New York showed a lot of interest in this, because they want to, for example, look into some antique books that they don’t even want to touch.” The signal-sorting algorithm may yet enable spambots to defeat captchas. (Which arguably represents grounds for halting research right away, though that is unlikely.)
The train of association between breaking technological news from last week and the memory of one of the more generous and unusual people to cross my path is admittedly twisty and random. On the other hand, reading by terahertz radiation seems like another example of Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”