This Is a Bold New Plan for Higher Ed?

Mark C. Taylor’s Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (Knopf) is neither as bold nor as innovative as he would like us to believe. What purports “to begin a national conversation about transforming our institutions of higher learning” merely continues the postmodern assault on higher learning that began in the 1960s and aims to dismantle, if not end, traditional liberal education as we know it.
Taylor’s thesis is basically this: higher education is failing because colleges and universities are too fragmented; professors contribute to the fragmentation because they care more about overly specialized research and protecting their interests than they do about teaching; in consequence, students are being neither educated nor prepared for the great world. “This endless fragmentation inhibits communication across departmental and disciplinary boundaries, the university dissolving into an assemblage of isolated silos. The curriculum lacks coherence, integration and overall purpose.”
Taylor’s solution: more interdisciplinary studies, more multicultural education in an age of “globalization,” more technology. As the world moves “toward greater interconnections and interdependence,” it is increasingly necessary “for people to learn more about other societies and cultures.” Higher education exists to “serve the greater social good,” but its more important goal is to produce “informed citizens who are aware of and open to different cultural perspectives and are willing to engage in reasonable debate about critical issues.” Therefore, “colleges and universities have an obligation to provide an education that will broaden students’ horizons, helping them to resist the temptation of oversimplification and bias and to sift through misinformation in a world that is ever more complex.” Summing up this point a little later in the book, Taylor writes: “An education that does not provide students with the knowledge, background and perspective to understand the practical impact of ideas and actions is woefully inadequate in the global society that is now emerging.”


But that’s precisely what traditional liberal education can do. As broad instruction in the liberal arts—literature, history, art, music, philosophy, mathematics, science—it takes us beyond the present by inviting us to listen to and participate in the great conversations of the ages. It not only enlarges our perspectives, it strips us of our provincialism, our smugness, and our naive self-sufficiency which keeps us from imaging that people in other places and times might live and think differently from ourselves. It serves modern society and democracy by countervailing mass society, or mass culture, and the tendency toward overspecialization; by preparing us to live as thoughtful and virtuous human beings; and by liberating us from vulgarity, which for the ancient Greeks meant a lack of experience in beautiful things. In short, it produces free and cultured human beings, who, as Wayne C. Booth put it, can think their own thoughts, experience beauty for themselves, and choose their own actions.
There’s nothing bold or innovative in calling for professors to become more interdisciplinary—which is simply inflated language used to describe someone who used to be called liberally educated. As a historian, for instance, I use literature, art, music in all my classes, not only because they keep my teaching fresh and shed new light on my subject, but also because they enable me to reach out and draw my students in with a variety of materials that they can relate to and understand. Even technical subjects like physics or economics can be made more appealing to the young, as William James discusses in Talks to Teachers, if they are taught “with reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being.” Teach subjects historically and they will take on humanistic value. “Not taught thus,” James continues, “literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures.”
Traditional disciplines and methods of teaching are perfectly suited to achieve the kind of “global education” Taylor envisions, provided that professors take time to instruct their students by giving them the attention they both need and deserve, as one student taking my survey courses on Western Civilization affirmed in an e-mail (if Taylor can use examples from his own experience then so will I): “I have learned more about how the world works from past to present compared to any other class I have taken in my entire life.”
In other cases, in spite of my students’ educational goals, I have succeeded, as another student wrote, in getting them “to open their minds, and come to conclusions based on facts not fiction.” In a course evaluation, he wrote that I am the kind of professor universities need because I challenged him and other students “to do our own research so that we could come to class with thoughtful conclusions based on the material we were studying. This also went beyond the classroom,” he added, because the experience allowed him “to start opening my mind to other corners of how the world works, and how I question what is true from what is not. I noticed the same sentiment from other students around me. It was the first time I ever had a teacher who cared enough about the subject he was teaching along with his great concern that his students learned how to effectively learn new information.” Most importantly, he “learned much about the subject, and even more about myself” because of the way I urged all “students to expand our minds.” In fact, my student was willing to write all this, even though I “demanded a lot from us as a class.”
There’s a crisis on campus because students are unchallenged and bored; most think their general education classes are useless and that undergraduate education is irrelevant to their lives. Yet Taylor fails to address the correlation between the current crisis—which he correctly points out began in the 1960s—and the erosion of standards and rigor in the curriculum that followed in the 1970s and 1980s because “new faculty and different students” were “determined to rewrite the traditional curriculum.” The underlying assumption of the book is that traditional liberal education is as much defunct as the current structure of colleges and universities is obsolete.
For example, in chapter 6—the core chapter of the book—Taylor writes that colleges and universities need to be “more flexile and less standardized.” Typical courses—lectures, discussions, seminars—are not only of the same duration and time, but “sequentially numbered and ordered hierarchically.” More to the point, “the control of the structure and content lies in the hands of the professor.” That’s Taylor’s real gripe: college education is about power: the power that professors have over the curriculum; the power that they have over their courses; the power they have over students.
Taylor would not only eradicate hierarchy, he would give students more power to shape their education—like buying music from iTunes: “People could take the whole course or, customizing, select parts of different courses and combine them in different ways.” Even better, “students no longer will have to take an entire course, but will be able to take or, in more precise terms, to purchase, any portion of a course—a single session, a few weeks, the entire semester. In education, as in other networked media, mass production is going to give way to mass customization in which students will have considerably more freedom of choice and power.” He believes that once courses “are composed by connecting and layering other courses or parts of courses,” they will “begin to assume the structure of hypertexts,” thus forcing professors to become interdisciplinary to adapt to students’ needs—in much the same way digital technology forced record companies to change how they sell music.
This is the perfect postmodern prescription: no more hierarchy, no core curriculum, no shared knowledge or common experiences so that students can actually communicate with each other. Education is open-ended. As each individual course is “embedded in the constantly expanding and changing web of courses that constitutes the curriculum,” higher education will become as decentralized as the Internet and the World Wide Web. And why not? Both have exploded “old centralized broadcast networks” and replaced them with “new decentralized networks in many ways that are important for how media and information are produced, communicated and consumed.” Of course, students will still need guidance, so the role of professors will change to one that is less authoritative; they’ll become “counselors” who are “considerably more collaborative” (italics added).
I agree with Taylor that the challenge facing modern academe “is to build on the strengths of traditional methods while at the same time exploiting the possibilities of new technologies.” Technology is a great resource that should be used in every classroom. Properly used, it makes teaching vivid; it can make abstract subjects concrete and therefore more memorable and relevant; and it is a medium that students understand, like to use, and learn from—like television, music, and movies. I use the Internet in all my classes and create my own web sites for each course. I have found Moodle, Blackboard, and Angel to be effective and have integrated them successfully into my teaching. I have also used such web sites as BookGlutton.com, which has transformed the way my students read and discuss certain texts. Above all, like online education, technology makes higher education accessible to greater numbers of people and encourages curiosity and helps students to learn.
But to claim that as “people become more closely connected” through technology, “their differences often become more obvious,” thereby reducing misunderstandings that “lead to conflict,” is simply naive. In the first place, the WWW has led to greater fragmentation and isolation than most people suspect or like to admit. It’s created the “age of vitriolic bloggers” and “oversimplification and bias” that Taylor bemoans at the beginning of his book. And recent studies by John T. Cacioppo, a neuroscientist with the University of Chicago, and by Michael J. Bugeja, a professor of communications at Iowa State University, suggest that modern digital technology gives people a false sense of connection, and that it may even increase feelings of isolation and loneliness (Cacioppo, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, 2008; Bugeja, Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age, 2005). Not only has the Internet failed to create a closer global community, as promised, writes Bugeja, it has succeeded in producing an “interpersonal divide” when people spend more time in virtual communities than they do interacting in the real world.
In the second place, it is naive to assume that technology and the WWW will impress upon students “the urgency of learning other languages and studying other cultures in all of their diversity and complexity,” or to “develop the linguistic ability, historical background and cultural awareness that will enable them to interact with people from every kind of background and from counties all over the world.” That’s not happening now, even though students have access online to great books, complete libraries, masterpieces of art, information about other cultures and societies, classical and world music. For the overwhelming majority of young people technology is used and valued for entertainment and social networking.
True, “new media and communications technologies have triggered explosive growth in the amount of information to which people have ready access. Not only is the quantity of information growing, its substance is also changing.” But all the information available at their fingertips is worthless if they lack judgment and the ability to use it appropriately. Besides, there is no evidence to suggest that Taylor’s iTunes educational scheme will change students’ behavior. If anything, the opposite is likely to occur. As students rely more on cyberspace, our inability as instructors to control the learning environment makes it almost certain that they will not achieve the full educational experience that activities like classroom discussions provide, or that they will not learn what we are trying to teach them beyond accumulating information to pass a course and get credentialed or a degree.
Also, it is naive to assume that by allowing students to customize their education they will cultivate the habits of thought and mind and the skills that are necessary to succeed in the great world. Taylor might say that I’m missing his point. After all, he states very clearly that it is “essential for young people to learn how to read carefully, write effectively and think critically.” But then he lets the cat out of the bag with what he writes next: “reading, writing and critical thinking, like knowledge itself, change with the times. With the development of sophisticated digital technologies, the resources for writing expand beyond the printed word to include animated images, sounds and graphic designs that allow for creative interaction between producers and consumers” (my emphasis). And young people “need to learn different ways to express themselves in other media as well.”
Despite paying lip service to reinforcing critical thinking, reading and writing or supplementing traditional methods with new technologies, Taylor redefines what all that means, as this example from one of his own classes illustrates:

Last week a junior major in religion at Columbia came to my office and said, “I’d like to do a documentary film on Muslims in southern Russia rather than write a fifty-page paper for my senior thesis.” I responded, “Then do it; but make sure your ideas are well thought out and rigorously developed and your work is carefully crafted to shed new light on the questions you probe.”

My first reactions after reading this was: is this student really interested in expressing herself in other media, or is she is just trying to get out of writing a fifty-page paper? My second reaction was: is Professor Taylor simply accommodating her? After all, when it comes to digital technology, students “have much to teach their teachers,” and it is actually faculty members who “should work with undergraduates and graduate students to develop additional opportunities for creative expression fostered by new media.” How is that teaching? Or rather, who is teaching whom?
Yes, I’m skeptical, but not because I oppose using alternative methods of instruction or technology in my teaching. I’ve let students do similar “projects” in lieu of formal papers. In another class, after students and I discussed Montaigne’s essay “On some verses of Virgil” and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, I gave them the option of choosing the format—a story or a dialogue or a short play, for instance—to explain how old-man Montaigne would respond to Romeo and Juliet. One had Montaigne and Romeo and Juliet appearing on “The Oprah Winfrey Show;” another pretended that Montaigne was a marriage counselor being visited by these two adolescent lovers; another rewrote scenes of the play inserting Montaigne in key parts; and yet another student submitted a DVD recreating a radio talk show hosted by Montaigne in which Romeo and Juliet were guests.
I’m skeptical because as an experienced teacher I know that students don’t like to write papers—let alone one that is fifty pages—and they will do just about anything to get out of an assignment. The student who submitted the DVD received an “A” for his project but a “D” for the class because he still couldn’t fulfill the other requirements of the course: writing essays, critically reading primary sources, completing a mid-term and final exam. Allowing students to submit alternative assignments because they feel more comfortable expressing themselves that way is simply pandering. Our job as educators is not to keep students in “mental swaddling clothes,” as Harold Laski once said, but to remove ignorance, impart knowledge, and develop intelligence—in a word, to promote intellectual maturity. We do a great disservice to our students by failing to teach and enforce the skills that will enable them to compete with their peers and advance in society. Granted, my student was not as gifted as most Columbia students, but then, neither are most undergraduates in college today.
Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of Crisis on Campus—like most books on higher education these days, including Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education? and Martha Nussbaum’s Not For Profit—is that it fails to address the real crisis in higher education: poor teaching. True, Taylor discusses the creation of a National Teaching Academy—ironically advocating the sort of a centralized system that he denounces throughout the book—but he says nothing about the nitty-gritty aspects of teaching that would benefit most of the rest of us who are slogging it out in the trenches on the front line. He not only fails to address how teachers should be trained, he fails to show professors that what we teach and how we teach are inseparable from the object we promote. Would he rely on the schools of education, which have contributed to the current mess in higher education, or to the latest scholarship of teaching and learning, which has proven to be largely ineffectual, as I discussed in a previous essay? These and other questions are left unanswered.
There’s a crisis on campus because higher education lacks the unity of purpose that is found in traditional liberal education—and even in, say, college sports and the sciences. There is little continuity in the curriculum and little or no connection between the courses students take. Subjects don’t reinforce the varieties of knowledge, the skills, and the habits of thought and mind that will turn them into free and cultured human beings; and they certainly don’t collectively cultivate the qualities that most professors say are essential for undergraduates to possess: the ability to communicate, critical thinking, moral reasoning, preparation for citizenship, living with diversity in a global society, breadth of interests—all of which traditional liberal education fosters.
Until academics like Taylor start offering realistic schemes and practical guides that will be useful to teachers, until professors are models of the liberally educated themselves and show students through example how practical and meaningful liberal education can be to their lives, higher education in any guise will become increasingly irrelevant and eventually obsolete.

J.M. Anderson

J. M. Anderson is author of The Skinny on Teaching: What You Don't Learn in Graduate School.

2 thoughts on “This Is a Bold New Plan for Higher Ed?

  1. Did J.M.Anderson actually read “Higher Education?”
    One of the central points of the book is that college teaching is ignored and downgraded by current priorities.
    In fact, we have a whole chapter, “Teaching: Good, Great, Abysmal.”
    When my students ignore clear and obvious facts in order to make a predetermined political point, I lower their grade.
    Moreover, I would fail a student who reported on a book that he obviously hadn’t read.

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