All posts by James Patterson

James Patterson is a visiting assistant professor at Duke.

Remembering a Great Teacher:
‘I Am the Messenger, Not the Message’

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In 1999, I was a sophomore at the University of Houston when Dr. Ross M. Lence invited me to participate in a small, graduate seminar entirely dedicated to John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government.  It was an experience I will never forget. During the first few weeks, I found myself utterly unprepared for the rigor and patience required to read and discuss the material. By the end of the first month, I grew so frustrated that, during a seminar, I lashed out at a graduate student. The room went silent. Ross slowly turned to me, stared for what felt like an eternity and said, “Mr. Patterson, in this course, I will think hard about what Mr. Locke says. Will you be doing the same?” When the class ended, he told me to come to his office immediately.

Once there, he ordered me to spend more time studying the course material. He also made me talk to him about the material before and after each class. In time, I became one of the students who congregated in his office, and even met at large gatherings at his home. At first, we followed him out of fear of failing his course, but we eventually followed him to understand why he told such unusual stories in lectures and how they reflected long-standing political or even existential problems. Later, we did it because he was a great friend and mentor.

Continue reading Remembering a Great Teacher:
‘I Am the Messenger, Not the Message’

Arthur Brooks is Wrong on Cheaper Higher Ed

American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times defending online higher education by appealing to his own experience with distance-learning and correspondence schools. As a nontraditional student, he enrolled in Thomas Edison State College, a distance learning university, and he also received college credits through correspondence schools. As a result of his hard work and initiative, he received a B.A. without stepping foot onto a college campus and paying a fraction of what students at “brick-and-mortar” colleges fork over every year.

Brooks has led an interesting life. His parents were academics. He spent his early life working as a professional musician and, later, a music teacher at a college conservatory. He left music, cobbled together a bachelor’s degree of his own design, and then moved into more conventional education for his graduate work in behavioral economics.

Presumably, Brooks learned in his graduate education the importance of generalizing from too small or self-selected sample. Too small a sample increases the possibility of erroneous results, while a self-selected sample suffers from being unrepresentative of those with an equal chance of selection. Yet Brooks commits both errors in extremis. He is his self-selected sample of one, specifically the sample with the highest degree of error and most likely to be unrepresentative of the broader reality. Brooks is not a typical result but the exception.

Brooks grew up in an academic home, practiced the fine arts, and acquired adult skill sets necessary to organize, participate, and succeed in an otherwise very difficult learning environment. Most nontraditional students are not so well situated. What do we know about these students? Well, mostly nothing. What little we do know is that what Brooks accomplished is uncommon because the situation is far more complex than he makes it out to be. Brooks should know that he was on the very extreme of the right tail of the bell curve, when X = Upbringing + Skill sets + Exposure to Academic Life. Most nontraditional students work full or part-time jobs, raising a family (often on their own), come from academically modest homes, and lack the intellectual foundations for academic work. Worse, they are usually unfamiliar with the academic system, since they do not have regular contact with all the norms and practices someone raised in an academic home might take for granted.

Since nontraditional students will struggle in these courses, the universities will feel pressured to reduce standards for students in order to meet bottom-lines. Additionally, they will enroll new students just as unlikely to finish in order to replace the ones who dropped out. In other words, Brooks inadvertently advocates debasing the B.A. as a signal into an arbitrary transaction. The B.A. simply means that a person paid $10,000 and four years of their life to open up job opportunities, not that a student spent hours a week engaging in difficult intellectual work, thus securing both personal discipline and a maturing perspective of the world. 

We Can’t Fix Higher Ed Through Public Policy

Is it true that only some recipients of student loans are getting their money’s worth–those with “majors closely aligned with actual occupations” such as engineers or computer scientists? Daniel Foster of National Review Online makes that argument in The American Spectator. These students, he says, are more employable and earn more upon leaving college than Humanities majors. Based on existing economic data, the engineer can more reliably pay back the loan. The unemployed and newly indebted Humanities graduate can’t realistically expect to do that. Nor can the federal government expect to collect from that graduate.

Therefore, Foster wants federal loans granted not on neediness, but on the likelihood of a student to finish college and get a good job. He quotes his colleague Jay Hallen at the National Review Online, who wants “to implement a sliding scale of loan rates that favors students committed to majoring in fields such as computer science or nursing, where the demand for new employees exceeds the supply. For fields where employment demand is weak, loans would be progressively more expensive.” The outcome Foster hopes to achieve is to “push marginal college prospects into vocational schools and other career paths, reducing demand for higher education, and thus tuition inflation.”

There’s a problem here, however. Foster is proposing right-wing social engineering, and the problem with all social engineering is the classic inability to anticipate how individuals diverge from predicted behavior. The first hint of trouble appears when Foster denounces the “dangerous fantasy of college as ‘supervised adulthood’ that leads too many prospective undergraduates to choose their ‘dream school’ based on amenities, the social scene, or any of a hundred other variables that have nothing to do with bang for the buck.”

But there’s a reason why such amenities exist and how closely related they are to “supervised adulthood.” Students expect a given set of attributes from their college–a bucolic campus, a fitness center, palatial dorms, and–soon enough–nap pods. The arms race in amenities is an effort to achieve a high ranking, and students peg their station in life on the ranking their college reaches.

Once a college has admitted the most competitive students it can attract, administrators create an insulated world for them. As Mitchell Stevens explains in Creating a Class, part of what the high tuition buys, in addition to the credential, is the collection of surrogate parents housed in administrative offices. “Parents can go to sleep at night knowing that their children’s potential friends and lovers have been elaborately screened,” he writes. In other words, parents want their children to buy supervised adulthood, and to get it, they are willing to pay a premium or put their children into debt.

The reason has to do with rising in social station. As Stevens explains, admissions officers obsess over admitting the right mix of students, and that mix depends on the right students applying. If all goes well, then students achieve a station that allows them to identify their place in American life, and that station enables graduates to marry a partner of equal educational background and fit into a social scene among peers with similar educational backgrounds, and–most importantly–their parents can put “Duke” or “Stanford” stickers on their SUVs.

Students use loans in higher education to join a class of people they otherwise could not. If incurring six-figure debt means graduating from Cornell, then students (and parents) anxious about their standing might attend, despite having a full ride at a state college. If the possibility of rising in station begins to shrink and, with it, the opportunities to belong to the right social class, many students and their parents will take the risk of going into debt if it gives them a better shot. Tinkering with incentives won’t work. Indeed, to call such loans “investments” at all is no longer true. They are gambles, and Foster is right when he says that the odds are increasingly not in anyone’s favor.

We can’t underrate the importance of social status embedded in rock-climbing walls and vegan menu options. The solution is not in rejiggering Sally Mae, since economic incentives do not reach the heart of the issue. No policy can, because the solution is in the hands of the students: they can take the gamble, attend the less prestigious but more affordable college, or they can exit.

Here’s How the Scholar Disappears

Political scientists Gary King (Harvard University) and Maya Sen (University of Rochester) recently produced a working paper titled, “The Troubled Future of Colleges and Universities.” Everyone interested in higher education should read it. The paper is instructive for those who want to understand how little most academics understand the crisis universities face. The problems with the paper are numerous, but I will just focus on one–their ambivalence about learning, or what they call “education.”

King and Sen uncritically assume that “education” is a unit of computer data. They define the purpose of the “modern university” as the “creation, preservation, and distribution of knowledge,” like how computers produce and distribute data to consumers. University research generates knowledge, and professors then distribution that knowledge in university classes which, until recently, were “the most sought way to get educated.”

However, the university is experiencing competition from the Internet and for-profit schools, and it may lose its ability to provide knowledge, especially considering how the University of Phoenix has apps (apps!) that put that knowledge on smartphones. Imagine the efficiency of getting educated in between rounds of Food Ninja.

The metaphor completely misrepresents how learning works; it is not a piling up of data until amount equals the common measure for “educated.” What King and Sen do reveal is their ambivalence about education itself. They say nothing of how the financial troubles of universities might deprive generations of a liberal education, as Joseph Epstein fears. Their ambivalence explains the relatively low esteem with which Harvard holds teaching, as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus detail. Harvard faculty place greater emphasis on research, largely for professional and institutional reasons. As a result, we should not be surprised that teaching suffered, since it amounts to an obstacle to research. Unsurprisingly, King and Sen recommend that traditional universities compete with Internet-based alternatives by putting undergraduates to work in faculty research projects, which is something University of Phoenix Online and Udacity cannot offer.

The solution is strange. It is hard to imagine luring students into college with promises of data coding, regression analysis, and grant-writing; worse, this solution is simply admitting defeat–universities are no longer places of learning but training facilities in quantitative methods. As Martin Heidegger prophesied in “The Age of the World View”:

The decisive development of the modern business character of science, therefore, forms people of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is replaced by the individual engaged in research projects. This, rather than the pursuit of scholarship, gives his work its keen atmosphere. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Besides, he is always moving about. He does business at meetings and gets information at congresses. He contracts to work for commissions from publishers, who now help to determine what books must be written.”

On a final note, the recommendation that undergraduates simply start apprenticing as research assistants comes at an unusual time for those like King and Sen, who advocate quantitative social science research. NassimTaleb, Jim Manzi, and Emanuel Derman are part of growing movement of former “quants” skeptical of the attempts to quantify human behavior and afraid of the dangers that come from living and governing as if such quantification were possible. Increasingly, the moment seems right for a heartfelt defense of the university as a place of learning, tradition, and contemplation. There is no app for that.

Big Troubles Ahead for Online Learning

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I
recently wrote here about the unwarranted optimism that the dawn of distance
learning brought to higher education in the 1990s. That trip down memory lane
might–and probably should–throw cold water on the enthusiasm about online
education today. Arguably, the troubles with online education now are no
different from those of the old distance learning approach, beginning with the
fact that virtual instruction is still a far more costly proposition than most
people suppose.

To be sure, employing the Internet as a
transmission medium eliminates a bevy of costs associated with 1990s-style
distance education, but these were just the tip of the iceberg. Still required
are expensive and dedicated broadcast facilities, trained technicians, and
camera operators. To the former costs, we must add those of programming,
maintaining, and securing a school’s online presence at a level comparable to a
leading e-commerce site. Worse, today’s “customers” are the product of an
entertainment media explosion that has heightened their expectations of
hypermedia quality. Most universities do not possess the needed expertise – and
it doesn’t come cheap. 

Continue reading Big Troubles Ahead for Online Learning

Higher Ed’s Non-Revolution of the 90s

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Think back. What was the revolutionary technological advance of the 1990s that we thought pointed the way to the future of higher education?  It was “interactive television,” of course!

Interactive television was at the center of the revolution in education called “distance learning.”  It would connect classrooms within a city, state, or even (with some delay) across the continent.  Employing satellite technology, it had the potential to change utterly the way students learn. With more students learning at once, one could hire fewer teachers, thus reducing costs. Naturally, schools would have to make substantial technology investments to make distance learning possible, but after the initial cost increases, the savings would kick in.

Continue reading Higher Ed’s Non-Revolution of the 90s

Why Many Conservatives Got It Wrong on UVa

uva.jpgBy any ordinary standard, Teresa Sullivan is the kind of
university president conservatives love to hate. In 2010, after the Board of Visitors
unanimously elected her the first female president of the University of
Virginia, one of her first acts was to endorse and publish the UVA Diversity
Council’s statement expressing commitment in–what else?–diversity. Sullivan had co-authored two books on middle-class
debt with none other than Elizabeth Warren, who famously exploited informal
racial quotas at prestigious academic institutions by falsely claiming Native
American ancestry on the sole basis of her high cheekbones. In short, Sullivan
appeared as a diversity hire interested only in campus diversity at UVA and who
has worked with another diversity hire to produce diversity scholarship. It is as if Sullivan was not born but rather fashioned out of the politically correct
clich