Same Old, Same Old: Banality in the Chronicle of Higher Education

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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An article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education (October 16, 2004). It's called Higher Education Isn't Meeting the Public's Needs, by Frank Newman, Laura Couturier and Jamie Scurry, and it begins:

Over the past five years, we at the Futures Project have analyzed the new competition in higher education and have determined that unchecked market forces are changing colleges and universities significantly and eroding the longstanding but unspoken compact that governs the relationship between higher education and society. We propose a renewal of that agreement, clearly defining higher education's role in serving societal goals and the public's support in return. We have identified seven critical areas in which the growing gap between the public's needs and the performance of colleges and universities calls for a new compact:

The need to take responsibility for learning.
Ninety percent of college graduates have reported that their degree was useful in getting a job but did not prepare them with the necessary skills to succeed in the workplace. Employers also are concerned about students' lack of critical thinking, the ability to write clearly, and other skills. Despite the overall value of a college education, growing evidence suggests that students are not gaining the knowledge that they need in crucial areas.

Could the problem actually be that students are being allowed to graduate without gaining the knowledge that they need in crucial areas? That we are certifying them as qualified when in fact they are not?

Much has been learned, for example, about how the brain functions….

And the most critical discovery is what we have all known for years; the most effective learning happens when students take ownership of the material. We can facilitate that up to a point, but ultimately every simulation and lab exercise is someone else's idea, not theirs. If they are not willing to invest the time to engage in independent contemplation of the material, nothing an outsider can do will facilitate learning. It's their brain, and we have no power over it.

Some students learn more by tackling a concrete problem, others by a discussion of abstract principles, still others by visualizing the subject in some form.

Where exactly is it written that students have to be limited to one learning style? Instead of passively accepting that a student has one style and that's just the way they are, why can't the concrete learner also learn to think abstractly, or visually? That way they'll be able to learn from instructors of every style. And they'll be able to learn subjects that require learning styles other than the one they're most comfortable with. Maybe we could even train right- and left- brained thinkers to use both sides of the brain.

Through new software technology, students can participate in simulation exercises that increase their comprehension, and faculty members can tailor course work to learning styles. But while many of those advances are now widespread in corporate or military training programs, little has changed in most classrooms.

Wow! Experiential learning! We can use all these empty rooms in Lab Sciences with the shiny gizmos for this! And we can even take them outdoors to see things in the field. A trip to the field. Let's call it a "field trip." How come nobody ever thought of this before? This sort of stuff is so banal it boggles the mind. Every author thinks he's discovered things that everyone in academia has known, and applied, for decades.

My wife recently went through a teaching course, designed mostly for non-educators who would be teaching at a local technical college. The text touted the marvels of less didactic, more experiential learning, and had an impressive list of examples where the method had radically improved learning while cutting time. Upon closer inspection, every example was either trivial (fire extinguisher training) or mechanical (learning how to fill out forms, process claims, or run a software application). Not one involved teaching complex subject matter.

And the reason these methods are so useful in industry and the military is that most of the tasks are simple, manual, or mechanical, plus traditional instruction in both industry and the military has been incredibly wasteful and inefficient. Typically someone in charge, often many levels removed from concrete reality, would decide training was needed and assign a block of time to do it. The block of time would usually be completely unrealistic, designed either to demonstrate concern over the seriousness of a problem, or merely to fill in blanks in a schedule. Often it would be two hours on how not to fall off a stepladder. My own campus has a defensive driving course, as do many other places, and are any of them demonstrable improvements over asking people if they know enough not to hit other vehicles? So having students actually climb a ladder cut the training time to 15 minutes. But don't worry; neither the military nor industry will actually achieve real savings from the training advances, because neither will do the one thing that will make the acceleration meaningful: allow students to be released once the training is done (Looks unprofessional to have all those soldiers or employees wandering around free during duty hours. This is 21 years' experience in the Army speaking here.). It looks like you don't care if you only spend 15 minutes teaching students not to fall off a stepladder. How will it look if an employee gets in an accident and the other driver's lawyer finds out the institution didn't put its driver through an extensive safety course?

The need to move beyond access to attainment
Twenty-nine percent of African-American students and 31 percent of Hispanic students who enroll in college leave before completing their first year. Our goals must now include improving completion rates for all students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

1. Is this really radically different from the rates for white students in many places?
2. How exactly are we serving minorities by permitting them to finish high school unprepared to enter college? If we really want to serve minorities we will do it by demanding academic rigor at the elementary and secondary school levels.
3. Without in the slightest minimizing the unfairness of run-down schools (heresy: might we have been better off if Brown vs. Board of Education had ruled that separate schools were permissible, but they had to be equal?) consider this: if you go to the most decrepit school in America, where there are library books that still say "someday man will go to the moon," and a student learns everything in those books, he or she will still be better educated than most Harvard graduates.

The need to be more efficient and productive
Institutions also use revenues from popular and relatively low-cost programs, like business, to support costly and low-volume programs, like classics. Yet there has been little analysis of whether such cross-subsidies help institutions make or save money or support activities that meet the public's needs.

You need to analyze this? Of course these subsidies won't help the institution make or save money. If classics could make money they wouldn't need a subsidy, and not paying the subsidy will save more money than paying it, just like not paying my electric bill will save me money. And remember, this is the fruit of five years worth of study!

Are we talking here about public needs or public wants? The success of diploma mills indicates that lots of people "need" a degree but don't feel they "need" to study for one. Does anyone doubt that colleges could cut their programs to two years (no General Education) and get rave reviews from a lot of people?

And how exactly does this point square with the lament in the opening paragraph that universities are increasingly subject to "unchecked market forces?" It sounds like this is a call to become more subject to market forces.

The long-overdue need to support elementary and secondary education.

I suggest the most important problem is the long overdue need of elementary and secondary education to support higher education.

The need to serve as society's critic.

The need to rebuild political involvement to sustain democracy.

Ironically, to do this we have to be undemocratic. After all, nobody elected these authors to make these statements. And serving as society's critic implies we somehow know what is beneficial to society, which is very undemocratic indeed. The idea that society needs us to fulfill this role is not just undemocratic but positively elitist.

The list of fissures between higher education's rhetoric and its performance is, in fact, long and growing. The rhetoric describes devotion to student learning while, in reality, the student bears principal responsibility for learning and the failure to learn.

Read it and weep. These people actually regard it as a problem that universities put the burden of learning on the student. News flash: in reality, the student does bear principal responsibility for learning and the failure to learn. If there is one central quote in this article that embodies the worst thinking in modern education, this is it.

Educators are complaining bitterly about the burdens imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act. But for fifty years we have been hearing the sophomoric mantra that children don't fail, schools fail. Were educational theorists really so arrogant and complacent as to assume they wouldn't eventually be held accountable by their own standards?

The rhetoric calls for broader access to higher education while merit-based financial-aid programs are increasing at a greater rate than need-based programs, and institutions recruit the best and wealthiest students.

O-kay. We want to encourage learning but not to the extent of offering financial aid based on merit. Recruiting the wealthiest students makes lamentable sense; those students can pay their own way and free up funds for less wealthy students. Nothing typical students can do will enable them to pay their way through a private school, but every student can make himself or herself more competitive for merit-based financial aid.

I'd go so far as to argue that need-based programs make the learning problem worse by severing the link between learning and outcome, and fostering a sense of entitlement that carries over into expectations of easy courses and automatic good grades.


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Created 21 January, 2003,  Last Update 30 August, 2011

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