Emptying Content from College Courses

These comments were delivered at the 2015 Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation Symposium on “The Future of Higher Education” June 3 in Washington D.C. The event was co-sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and National Affairs. The full transcript of the symposium is here.

Some conservative critics say that the main problem in American higher education today is that tenured faculty don’t teach enough. It would be better if their lazy self-indulgence could be controlled by more accountable cost-cutting administrators.

Tenure from this view is a kind of union and faculty governance akin to collective bargaining. But the union-taming critics don’t understand that our administrators have already been achieving what the critics want. The truth is that the number of tenured and tenure-track faculties is rapidly diminishing as a percentage of our instructional work force. People with tenure and on tenure track now are still fairly unoppressed and, I admit, an often fairly clueless minority.

Buying Off Tenured Faculty

There are doubtless good reasons why in some places tenured and tenure-track faculty should teach more. It would be better if more students had their personal touch. But given how cheap adjunct faculty are — they work for less than subsistence — it is a big mistake to believe that tenured faculty taking on an additional class or two would produce a significant savings.

It’s often even the case that our administrators would rather they not teach more. At some places, at least, the situation seems to be that administrators are buying off tenured faculty with low teaching loads and various research perks. That incentivizes them to become compliant with the transfer of instruction to adjuncts and other temporary faculty. It also helps them accept the emptying out of the content of general education, those courses required of all students.  Requirements focused on the content and methods of the academic disciplines such as history, literature, and philosophy are being replaced by those based on abstract and empty or content-free competencies such as critical thinking and effective communication.

Make Way for Competencies

Unfortunately, it is often not so hard to convince career specialists to surrender their concern for merely general education or at least to convince them that the imperatives of the marketplace and the increasingly intrusive accreditation process demand that the value of their disciplinary contributions be reconfigured in terms of competencies.

That way they are led to believe they will be able to hang on to their curricular turf. The study of history or philosophy or whatever can be justified after all as deploying the skills and competencies of critical thinking, effective communication or whatever.

One problem, though: the faculty members end up seeing or experiencing is that those skills or competencies can be acquired more easily other ways, ways that are aren’t saddled with all that irksome historical or philosophical content. And when the disciplines of liberal education are displaced by competencies, institutions tend to surrender the content-based distinctiveness that formed most of their educational mission.

So the biggest outrage in higher education right now is not this or that report of students or administrators whining about micro-aggressions or being insufficiently trigger-warned. Notre Dame might be about to surrender the requirement of courses in philosophy and theology for all students in favor of competency-based goals.  If you want to worry about an outrage, worry about that.

Keeping the Classy Brand

As institutions surrender their liberal arts substance while sometimes retaining their classy liberal arts brand, they become identical in terms of their educational goals. Lists of competencies always seem to me kind of vague and random but somehow they turn out to be the same everywhere.

So what the idea of a competency denies is that the dignity of thinking and communication must have something to do with what is being thought and what is being communicated. The how of thinking about who or what a man or woman is way different from figuring out how to rotate your tires or even maximize your productivity. Communicating information is very different from winning friends and influencing people or persuasion or manipulation and is way, way different from communicating the truth through irony or humor or verse such as through the poetry or parables of Revelation or the dialogues of Plato.

Like Panera Bread or Amazon

So as the low but seemingly solid goal of competency becomes about the same everywhere the delivery of education can become less personal or quirky or unreliable or brilliant and standardized according to the quantitatively validated best practices. Courses can become more scripted and then delivery can be increasingly open to the use of the computer screen. So the intellectual labor of college administrators— the number of whom is bloated and the perks of whom are coming to resemble those of corporate CEOs — is directed in much the same way as it is in other sectors of the economy.

So what is going on in colleges and universities is not so different from what is going on at Panera Bread or the Amazon warehouse.

The Amenities Arms Race

As colleges become identical in their competency-based curricula, the question that continues to obsess a college president is how to make his or her institution distinctively attractive in the intensely competitive marketplace for the increasingly scarce resource of the student. So there is increased sensitivity to the student as consumer.

One result is the amenities arms race. Few institutions dare opt out. So there is a proliferation of hotel-style dorms, health club gyms, gourmet food in the cafeteria, more and more non-revenue generating Division III athletic teams and student affairs staff that function like concierges saving students from that dread disease of boredom.

It goes without saying faculty have nothing to do with these innovations at all. The excellent scholar Glenn Reynolds is so disgusted by such developments that his modest proposal is for campuses to be honest and market themselves as luxury cruises.

That means spend and spend more on amenities. And cut and cut more the cost of actual education by reducing the ranks of the career faculty and replacing them with various forms of online instruction and MOOC. No college or university is going quite that far but some are pretty far down the road. And even the small colleges that talk up the presence of real faculty because they can’t get rid of them have begun to describe them as agents and advocates for students. In a way, just another amenity offered to the discerning consumer.

And add to the amenities arms race all the increasingly intrusive and usually stupidly counterproductive compliance requirements of the federal government and accreditation agencies and all those administrative politically correct initiatives that have little to nothing to do with real education and it is easy to see where most of the so-called bubble in college cost is coming from.

It is not faculty compensation or the cost of instruction that is going up much more rapidly than the rate of inflation when my salary is not going up even at the rate of inflation; the cost of instruction is often going down and in ways that is making it worse. Now there are ways to cut the cost of instruction in higher education in general that would cause the quality actually to get better but that would require a renewed focus on the real point of higher education.

Institutionalizing PC

Well, you might say putting the focus on competencies at least has the advantage of banishing at least some politically correct blathering from the classroom. Exactly the opposite is true. It institutionalizes political correctness. Some competencies are always attitudinal about appreciation of diversity and all that so students learn that sensitivity is displayed not only by having correct opinions but having the right kind of enthusiasm, or as they say, “engagement” about them.

In the discipline of philosophy, the question of what justice is allows a genuine diversity of thoughtful and plausible answers. In the era of the competency, the question of justice has been answered and all that is left to do is to be engaged in the right way in promulgating the final solution. So the world of the competency mixes techno vocationalism with dogmatic social liberalism.

Don’t forget that political correctness has morphed from being a radical challenge by socialists as such to American capitalism promulgated by tenured radicals to a kind of cloying sensitivity to the consumer demand that every nook and cranny of a student’s life on campus in thought and deed be a safe and comfortable space. The effect, it often seems, is to make the campus a virtual reality above all, as some say. It is too much like the bubble. The virtual reality is that young people spend too much time losing themselves in in front of a screen.

A Noble Goal

So those conservative reformers who really mean it when they say that they want the classrooms of our career liberal arts professors to be filled with as many students as possible have a noble goal. I’ve explained why that goal doesn’t really have much to do with saving money necessarily. But if their reform intention is seriously personal, or as we say these days, “reform conservatism,” then they should oppose every effort of our administrators to displace respected professors with proletarianized adjuncts as well as to reduce as far as possible the place of the competency and the screen in figuring out what kind of general education, what kind of content-driven literacy is at the core of generally higher education.

Respected professors, it turns out, are a part of the indispensable content of higher education.  For now, we dissident professors are all about resisting standardization and surveillance of all kinds if it comes from the government. We resist it when it comes from the Obama administration and from the Republican Senate. And we, of course, resist all the intrusiveness and stupidity of accreditation associations. We want to protect the genuine moral and intellectual diversity that is the saving grace of American education.

The Accreditation Problem

One great thing about our country is that there are islands of liberal education, sometimes in unexpected places. Not only that, anyone in our country who wants a genuinely higher education can find one, and here is something we don’t emphasize at all, often at a surprisingly affordable price. So we dissident professors applaud those institutions aiming to wean themselves from government funding. And I hope that weaning is a prelude to dispensing with what is the worse and useless process of accreditation.

Because it is impossible to dispense with branding altogether in our world here is my idea. Let’s replace the idea with competency with the idea of literacy, and we want to do so with the real job market in mind. It turns out that the main complaint of employers today is not that college graduates lack this or that fairly minimalist techno competency that could after all be readily learned on the job. Their real complaint is that our students, our graduates don’t have the level of literacy, the good habits, the sense of personal responsibility and the fine manners that we used to count on most college graduates and, to tell the truth, most high-school graduates having.

The main problem with focusing on competency in higher education is that it allows our colleges and universities to be content with producing graduates who are functionally illiterate.

Sure, they can read for information and entertainment and they are quite adept at texting with their friends and playing games on screen. But their reading is too literal or non-ironic, and they can’t enjoy the way authors deploy words to play with ideas and take the light and the wonderfully imperfect and endlessly revealing ways words correspond to the way men and women really are. So our graduates can’t read attentively and they can’t think well as beings born to know, love, and die.

One thought on “Emptying Content from College Courses”

  1. I have said for years that education in the US is being flushed down the toilet to produce graduates who can’t or won’t think for themselves. Course content has been so watwered down that it took my sons two semesters to cover the material content that we covered in a quarter when I was in college. It also allows the university systems to take 5 years to cover what for generations was covered in 4, thus making more money for delivering degrees for a watered down education. As a manager for a state agency we would get 200+ applications for positions that were announced. Generally 1/3 of the applications were incomplete when received. Of the others which met the basic criteria, which by the way were covered in the job announcements, and were given a prescreening phone interview (which was a way to evaluate manners, conversations skills, and the basic needed communication skills) we usually would have about 30 candidates that made it to personal interviews. Having taught high school for years before I became dissolutioned by the way education was heading in the 1980s I left teaching. Over the next 20 years I witnessed the degradation of education year by year, as well as seeing many very good teachers getting away from teaching because they were no longer allowed to teach in ways to prepare students for life, college, and work by being forced to teach for testing and competencies. Of the applicants who received a personal interview, about half would show up inappropriately attired and lacking the personal skills of communication, and manners, but most disappointing was to have them say they were proficient in areas that when tested showed a complete incompetence, as well as inable to compose an intelligent response to a given scenario which would pop up in most situations of dealing with the public in general. It was not only exasperating, but depressing to think that these recent college graduates would be running things, or voting for to those who would be running things in my golden years. I continue to mentor and tutor students, but am dismayed by what is being submitted for a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation – my only thought is that it is deplorable what government, and education bodies have done to education in America.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *