All posts by J.M. Anderson

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


Like many commentators and candidates, Fareed Zakaria, the eloquent host of CNN’s GPS, has turned out a new book on higher education. In Defense of a Liberal Education laments that today’s students are pressured into thinking of college as a time to prepare for the global marketplace, discouraged from dreaming big, and told to acquire the skills they will need for the workplace. It is “openness” and “the ability for the mind to range widely and pursue interests freely” that Zakaria not only took advantage of as an undergraduate at Yale, but that he also sees as being “inherent in liberal education.”

Despite his aversion to the vocational drift of higher education over the past several decades, Zakaria’s recommended version of liberal education seems just as instrumental—a means to employment and viability in the new “global economy.” He maintains that what it does best is teach students skills—critical thinking and communication skills—how to write (which for him is a process of thinking), how to speak, and how to learn. It teaches them “how to read critically, analyze data, and formulate ideas.” It teaches them new methods and approaches to problems “of the world we live in.”

At one point he sounds like an admissions counselor for a liberal arts college, claiming that fields like art history and anthropology are not a waste of time because they “require the intensive study of several languages and cultures, an eye for aesthetics, and the ability to translate from one medium or culture to another.” Such skills “could be useful in any number of professions in today’s globalized age” because they force a person “to look at people and objects from a variety of perspectives” and make him or her “more creative and aware.” He then pays customary tribute to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who studied Greek in high school and psychology at Harvard. So art history, perhaps the study most heavily derided as pointless these days, turns out to be unexpectedly useful for future employment.

Zakaria praises the “open-ended exploration of knowledge,” yet this exploration keeps showing up as a useful component of job training. “Technology and liberal education go hand in hand in business today.” So college graduates “have to be at the cutting edge of design, marketing, and social networking. . . . You can make a sneaker equally well in many parts of the word. But you can’t sell it for three hundred dollars unless you have built a story around it.” In other words, they should use liberal education to serve “capitalism, globalization, and technology.”

This argument is bound to grate on those with a less commercial view of liberal education. At its best such education cultivates intellect, judgment, good character and disposition, and above all else awareness of one’s ignorance and limitations. It is more concerned about asking the right questions than it is in finding the right answers–the antithesis of the outcomes-oriented, results-driven American mindset. If done well, it puts people on the path toward leading a good life. As Mark Van Doren wrote more than sixty years ago in Liberal Education—a more learned and convincing defense of the subject—its “prime occupation” is “with the skills of being.”

These skills are very different from the instrumental skills of writing, speaking, and learning that Zakaria maintains is the end product of a liberal education. I am not suggesting that they are unimportant; rather, that they are requisite for a liberal education and should be obtained in high school or through general education—which Zakaria confounds with liberal education.

To write well, students must know how to think; to learn to think, they must know how to read; to learn to read, not for amusement or for paltry convenience, but in “a high sense,” as Thoreau says, as “a noble intellectual exercise” they must possess curiosity and the desire to see and think beyond their immediate surroundings and concerns. Only then will they have been properly prepared and primed for what a liberal education has to offer: nuance, complexity, beauty, alternative models and examples of how to live one’s life.

The fact that today’s students are not “animated by big arguments” or do not “make big speeches about grand philosophical issues” or “stay up late arguing about Nietzsche or Marx or Tolstoy,” doesn’t bother Zakaria. “Their lives are more involved with these economic and technological forces than with ideology and geopolitics. And that means there is less scope for grand theorizing, fewer intense late-night bull sessions, less stirring eloquence at the student forums and political unions”—which for Zakaria is the chief difference between the “complete experience” of a liberal education and taking “pre-professional and general education” courses in a MOOC.

Today’s students are simply products of our time—and it’s not their fault. They might be writing apps instead of poetry, “but that’s just an adjustment for the age.” Their icons are “entrepreneurs, technologists, and businesspeople. Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are far more important symbols than any politician today, and they occupy the space that iconic political figures did in earlier eras. The young reflect today’s realities.”

Unfortunately these realities are the bourgeois concerns and values that dominate American life: making a living, creating a home, raising a family, worshipping technology, progress, and advances in medicine that make life comfortable and prolong our lifespan. Zakaria asks, “Are the issues that students today think about less important than those of war and peace? Are their heroes inferior to those of past ages?” Students who have never read Homer or Thucydides, let alone Nietzsche, Marx, Tolstoy, will never know. The idea of liberal education once meant taking students out of the cave. In Zakaria’s version, it is the cave.

J. M. Anderson is dean of the School of Business and Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Cobleskill

The Problem with Dual-Credit Programs


College is becoming the new high school–and in many respects, already is. Colleges and universities are remediating more and more students in basic skills, and increasingly teaching them content material that they should have learned in high school. The proliferation of dual-credit/dual-enrollment courses has helped to accelerate this trend while further blurring the distinction between what high school is and what college should be.

The program, now in all 50 states, lets students take college-level courses at their schools during their junior and senior years for both high school and college credit. According to a recent NCES study, nearly 15,000 public high schools (82%) offered more than 2 million college courses during the 2010-11 school year, up 71% from the last NCES study in 2002-2003.

The study also showed that 77% of dual-credit/dual-enrollment students took these classes at their high schools, and most were taught solely by high school instructors. In other words, they were getting college credit without setting foot on a college campus or being taught by a college professor.

 Why They Are Popular

Students like dual-credit/dual-enrollment classes because they can knock out most, if not all, of their general education requirements before leaving for college. Parents like the program because it can save money and spare their children heavy student-loan debt. Community colleges are especially fond of these classes because more students taking their courses means more revenue from the state and more credit for serving the community. High school administrators gain enhanced status, and can claim a more continuous education system for students, particularly as the Common Core State Standards Initiative is set to go into effect.

So in principle, dual-credit/dual-enrollment classes can be a good thing– elevating and improving the quality of secondary education. In fact, one of the reasons that the National Commission on the High School Senior Year called for the expansion of the dual-credit/dual-enrollment program back in 2001 was that there was little connectedness between K-12 and higher education. It also found that most high school students were blowing off their senior year because they felt it was a waste of time. Dual-credit/dual-enrollment classes could be a serious alternative to the rubbish pushed on students in high school today–as two teachers recently noted (see here and here).

The program could essentially turn the last two years of high school into the first two years of college and reduce the amount of time and money it takes to undertake advanced work. That’s why politicians and policy makers enthusiastically support expanding the program. For example, in his 2014 budget request for the Department of Education, Secretary Arne Duncan asked for $300 million for a new High School Redesign program–of which dual-credit/dual-enrollment is a major part.

But there is a downside, as Mark Bauerlein noted in the Minnesota StarTribune (see here and here). For the vast majority, dual-credit/dual-enrollment is not about broad instruction in the liberal arts or deep learning. It is about getting college credit and putting students on the pathway to an advanced credential for vocational or paraprofessional training. That experience can be narrow. Because students never leave high school, they do not benefit from the influence of being someplace other than where they are accustomed to being and doing what they are accustomed to do. They do not encounter other people (especially professors) who are not like them and who will engage and stimulate their intellectual curiosity. In short, they are under no real pressure to change. If anything, they are more likely to have their provincialism reinforced.

This is compounded by the fact that most dual-credit/dual-enrollment courses are taught by high school teachers who themselves are locals and products of mediocre and sub-standard graduate programs. They are supposed to be qualified. And agencies such as the NACEP allegedly work “to ensure that college courses taught by high school teachers are as rigorous as courses offered on the sponsoring college campus.”

But in my experience, as a former dean at a community college, this hasn’t always been the case. Until recently, for instance, several high schools were teaching a semester-long math course over the entire school year but still claimed that it was being taught at the college level with same amount of rigor. When I asked one principle why that should be allowed, he said that the course was too demanding on students’ time and took away from the high school experience–by which he presumably meant sports and other extracurricular activities. We insisted that the course be taught in a semester. The high school no longer offers it.

A Catch-22

A recent audit of the high-school teachers teaching these courses uncovered several who were marginally qualified and four who lacked appropriate credentials or were not qualified. The job of one of those four–who, incidentally, has been teaching our dual-credit/dual-enrollment courses for about ten years–was to teach them exclusively at his high school.  Even those who are technically qualified had difficulty transitioning from high-school teacher to college-level instructor. They relied too heavily on textbooks, gave multiple-choice exams almost exclusively, and lacked the depth of knowledge to encourage deep learning.

The college was accountable for those classes, but I was not even allowed to observe the high school teachers in the classroom or evaluate their performance (like I do with my own full-time and part-time faculty) because they were protected by their unions. When I asked how I would know if they were doing their job, I was told that I had to assume that they were and could only intervene if I had some indication that they were not. Of course, not being able to observe them, I never got an indication, and could never find out.

Even community colleges–which offer the bulk of dual-credit/dual-enrollment courses–are doing pretty shabby work, according to a recent study by the National Center on Education and the Economy concluded. There are “disturbingly low standards among community college instructors” across the board, and most students fail to meet even minimal expectations, writes Marc S. Tucker, president of the Center. (Also see here.)

Given the current state of higher education, expanding the dual-credit/dual-enrollment program is the wrong way to go. We should just let high school be high school and college be college. Even better, we should simply eliminate the last two years of high school and give students a meaningful general education curriculum instead.

What the Internet Is Doing to Us


Toward the end of Phaedrus–Plato’s masterful dialogue on rhetoric and erotic love–Socrates introduces an interesting argument with implications for us centuries later.  The argument is that the written word promotes superficial understanding because reading erodes discussion and the habit of discourse. People will come to believe they know much, but “for the most part they will know nothing.” They will also “be difficult to get along with” because “they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”

The parallel between Plato’s passage and today’s digital world is uncanny. In the age of Wikipedia, MOOCs, Ted ED, and the like, we, too, should consider whether unguided–and often misguided–access to seemingly limitless information can promote genuine knowledge, or whether it is really only promoting superficial understanding. Continue reading What the Internet Is Doing to Us

A Cautious Word about MOOCs

By J.M. Anderson


MOOCs are all the rage. Not a day goes by without someone extolling how they will transform and rescue higher education: they will democratize it; they will revolutionize it; they will make it more affordable. In an essay here yesterday, Richard Vedder outlined their promise of positive impact.

At the same time, critics question their effectiveness and fear that they will harm American higher education. For instance, Lester Lefton, president of Kent State University, goes so far as to claim that they will devalue what colleges and universities have been especially good at creating–“a real diversity of thought.”  Whether colleges and universities promote genuine diversity of thought is questionable, as readers of this site well know, but the current debate about the quality, cost-effectiveness, and viability of MOOCs is misguided. It’s simply too soon to say.

What we can say is that MOOCs–whether you love ’em or hate ’em–undermine what has traditionally constituted education at the college level through the Massive Online Outsourcing of Courses.

Continue reading A Cautious Word about MOOCs

Why Common Core Standards Are Likely To Fail


argued yesterday that the Common
Core State Standards Initiative
(CCSSI) is both necessary and a good
thing–but I must add that it just can’t work now.

It has the potential
to transform American K-12 education, but the plain fact is that it is destined
to fail because current teacher education programs neither prepare nor equip
grade school and high school teachers to teach the Standards.


Whether students
learn–and what they learn–depends largely upon what happens inside the
classroom as they and their teachers interact over the curriculum. “Skillful
teaching,” write Deborah
Loewenberg Ball and Francesca Forzani
, “can make the difference
between students being at the top of the class or the bottom, completing high
school or dropping out.”

Continue reading Why Common Core Standards Are Likely To Fail

Common Core Standards Can Save Us

reading anderson.gif


It’s no secret that
most high school graduates are unprepared for college. Every year, 1.7 million first-year
college students are enrolled in remedial classes at a cost of about $3 billion
annually, the Associated
recently reported. Scores on the 2011 ACT
college entrance exam
showed that only 1 in 4 high school graduates
was ready for the first year of college.

Continue reading Common Core Standards Can Save Us

The Hidden Cost of University 2.0

university 2.0.jpgWe have entered a new digital era that appears to have made the traditional trappings of higher education–e.g., fixed curricula, going to lectures, even physically attending a college or university–about as necessary to getting a college degree as the telegraph is for sending messages. Out with hierarchy, structure, and the top-down approach to higher education. In with collaboration, more student input, and above all else, greater interactivity.

Let’s call this disruption University 2.0, which promises to be every bit as revolutionary to higher education as Web 2.0 has been to the Internet.

In the old days (Web 1.0), the Internet was largely a passive medium through which users viewed web sites created by others and had little or no input on content or design. In the new era of Web 2.0, users interact, share information, add or modify content, and collaborate in communities, such as social networking sites, blogs, Twitter, and wikis.

Continue reading The Hidden Cost of University 2.0

One Vote Here Against For-Profits

office-cubicles-for-profit.jpgIn his recent book, Rebooting for the New Talent Economy, Andrew Rosen writes: “It’s rare for anyone to lay out a clear case as to exactly what the problem is with private-sector education.” Ok, here it is. The problem is not, as Rosen says, that the pairing of the words for-profit and education makes advocates of traditional education like me squeamish; it’s that most for-profits work from a model that undermines the essence of what higher education is about.Is Rosen right that most traditional colleges and university have abandoned the mission of educating students for the great world? Absolutely. Have inferior colleges lusted for too long after the prestige of the elite universities (what he dubs “Harvard envy”), spending more time, money, and energy than they should on research and scholarship than they do on teaching and learning? No disagreement here. Have they also attempted to keep the supply-line of students flowing by pumping millions of dollars into luxurious residential halls, fitness centers, water parks, and cafeterias–“Club College” at its best? Spot on again.Rosen’s also right that community colleges, which he admires for servicing nontraditional and under-served students, are failing because they try to be everything to everyone and, like their four-year counterparts, are “stretched across myriad constituencies.” Overburdened, excluding students, refusing to raise tuition, they follow an economic model that subscribes to the idea that “paying for education is primarily the responsibility of taxpayers, with students to be shielded from cost to the maximum extent.” Are Teachers Just Hirelings? But is more private-sector education the big change that we ought to embrace? Only if students are customers and professors mere hirelings who have less academic freedom in a curriculum that is more centralized, standardized, controlled. For Rosen, the virtue of the for-profit model is twofold. First, it is driven by tuition and fees and forces for-profits to keep costs (not necessarily tuition) down. Second, “private-sector educators are able to tailor their education to specific, identified learning outcomes and measure performance against those outcomes.” They can “focus almost exclusively on students (both recruiting and educating).” How so? By operating “in a far more centralized fashion”–meaning a single syllabus mandated in each course; the same readings from class to class; written assignments, quizzes, and exams that assess the same content; supervising faculty more closely to provide a uniform level of quality; designating learning outcomes in class that come together into a set of program-level outcomes across all courses in a given major. Faculty are treated as hirelings–not as experts in their field–who are basically given a syllabus and a textbook and told, “Teach this class.” At the for-profit where I taught, I wasn’t even allowed to assign additional (i.e. real) books or primary sources. That’s not how genuine teaching and learning work, but it doesn’t trouble those who are engineering education at for-profits: “By refusing to cede complete control of course design and learning assessments to each individual faculty member, it’s possible for proprietary colleges to be better able to make sure learning actually happens.” The alleged tradeoff is that this “standardized, closely evaluated process” will “hit the mark consistently. More importantly, by standardizing the curriculum, it is possible to measure outcomes and make continuous improvements that will ensure that each term of students is getting a better learning experience than the term before.” But by Rosen’s own admission for-profits are only graduating 38.1 percent of their students. This abysmal showing is corroborated by other studies–for example, a 2010 Education Trust report by Education Trust found that only 22 percent of the first-time, full-time bachelor’s degree students graduate within six years, compared to 55 percent at public institutions and 65 percent at private nonprofit colleges. The powerhouse University of Phoenix Online is one of the worst offenders, graduating only 5.1 percent of students in six years (fewer than 1 percent of its more than 253,000 students) in its B.A. program at its biggest campus. Rosen dismisses such studies, claiming that they compare apples to oranges, since students at for-profits are more likely to have kids, or full-time jobs, or be very poor–unlike typical students at traditional four-year colleges and universities. But a recent apples-to-apples study shows that graduates of for-profits also lag behind their peers in earnings and employment. Rosen gives the impression that while students at Club College and Party U are guzzling beer, eating sushi, rock-climbing, or working out in the gym, all the real studying is going on at the for-profits. Nearly halfway through the book, we finally hear about academic rigor. Patricia Feggins, a fifty-three-year-old student, was “impressed by the academic rigor of the Kaplan classes–even if, at times, she was slightly overwhelmed by the number of research papers and essays her professors required her to write.” I don’t question the sincerity of this student; I question whether she is qualified to judge what is appropriate college-level rigor. At the for-profit where I worked, I typically stopped teaching my subject every second week because I had to teach students basic skills: how to read a textbook, how to take notes, how to follow an argument during a discussion, how to write. The problem was compounded because they were expected to do in ten weeks what most students do in a sixteen or seventeen-week semester. They showed almost no interest in learning how to think; they wanted to be told what to think so that they could pass the class and move another step closer to the job their recruiter promised awaited them once they got their degree. This mindset is reinforced by educational model designed to equip people for the marketplace rather than produce human beings who are adaptable, curious, questioning, and capable of learning new concepts. Somehow technology is supposed to change this by making “education more responsive, engaging, and interesting. Imagine simulations that enable students to experience how blood courses through the body, how a volcano erupts, or how change in the price affects all competitors in a marketplace. Imagine robots and avatars that enable a student to travel to Germany in the age of Bismark, to Craig Venter’s lab as he worked to sequence the human genome, to Washington’s headquarters on Christmas 1776, or to the Enron boardroom.” Education as easy as watching TV or browsing the web. Never mind the effort of learning about these great achievements through reading documents, analyzing sources, and working through them to come to one’s own understanding. That’s so old school. Everything must be visual, literal, and available to students with a click of a mouse–hence the popularity of Wikipedia and the Khan Academy. Toward the end of his book Rosen predicts what the higher education landscape will look like by 2036: more mobile, more disaggregated, more personalized, more focused on learning outcomes, more accessible, more global, more cool. I predict that it will be all of these things much sooner than that. By 2036, higher education will be so career-driven, technocratic, standardized, centralized, efficient, and soulless, people will be clamoring to change it back to the way it was in the good old days.

How To Bridge the Educational Divide

In an essay in the Wall Street Journal plugging his new book “Coming Apart” (which I haven’t read yet), Charles Murray writes about a new American divide: “We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.”

Conservatives like Richard Vedder see this as the inevitable result, not of a system rigged to favor the elite, but of bad government policies, particularly in education: because of government-sponsored grants and students loans, too many people are in college who shouldn’t be there; decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and other legislative actions have virtually eliminated employment testing, which paved the way for certification inflation and the need for a college degree; laws protecting labor unions have virtually allowed them to put a choke-hold on the K-12 public school system.

These points have merit. But will less (or no) government support and more “vouchers and other pro-competitive measures” at all levels of education reverse the decline of real opportunities that Professor Vedder finds so disheartening? Should the free market determine who has access to higher education and can advance economically, culturally, even socially?

Continue reading How To Bridge the Educational Divide

A Test Where ‘Good” Means ‘Terrible’

As a dean at a rural community college in Illinois, I
recently served as a judge for a history fair for seventh and eighth graders at
a local school–an assignment that involved a real surprise. When the Social
Studies teacher gave me the grading rubric, I saw only three categories: Superior,
Excellent, and Good.

I asked the teacher what I was supposed to do if a
presentation was bad or poor. She looked at me and said, with a straight face,
“Good means poor.” “How so?” I asked. “What kind of semantic gymnastics is
that? Does that mean that superior is above average, and excellent is average?”
She didn’t answer the question, but said that the students worked really hard
on their projects and the school didn’t want any of them to feel discouraged.
If they scored in the 70s, then their presentation was considered bad. “But
you’re telling them that it is good,” I said.

Continue reading A Test Where ‘Good” Means ‘Terrible’

The Many Problems of Online Education

Gates Foundation.jpgOne thing we learn from the new Babson report is that the number of students enrolling in online courses continues to grow, and apparently there’s no end in sight. In fact, “the number of students taking at least one online course has increased at a rate far in excess of the growth for the overall higher-education student body,” according to the report, which is based on responses from over 2500 colleges and universities. Another thing we learn is that most chief academic officers have “a more favorable opinion of the learning outcomes for online education” and rate the learning outcomes for online instruction “as good as or better” than face-to-face instruction–67%, to be precise, up from 57% when this study was first conducted in 2003.

That sounds good, but are chief academic officers–presidents, chancellors and other high-level administrators of colleges and universities–in the best position to know that learning outcomes are “as good as or better” than face-to-face instruction?

Continue reading The Many Problems of Online Education

Three Cheers for Useless Education

classroom full of students.jpg

Several years ago Harper’s Magazine ran two articles on “The Uses of Liberal Education.” One article, subtitled “As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor,” was written by Earl Shorris, and describes how poor and underprivileged members of our society were eager to study the great books and benefited from them. He devised a course of study in the humanities for people aged 18-35 from the lower east side of New York City. His goal was to prove–both to the students and to himself–that the great books of the Western tradition belong to everyone, not simply to a few rich people in selective colleges and universities.

The other essay, subtitled “As lite entertainment for bored college students,” was written by Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia, and pretty much speaks for itself. Edmundson describes privileged students who have access to a first-rate education at a top-notch university. “What my students are, at their best, is decent. They are potent believers in equality. They help out at the soup kitchen and volunteer to tutor poor kids to get stripes on their resumes.” More than anything, Edmundson adds, is that they “seem desperate to blend in, to look right, not to make a spectacle of themselves.” In one instance he writes about students who would come to his office to tell him how embarrassed or intimidated they felt when he corrected them in front of other students in class. When he asked one of them if he should let a major factual error go by so as to save the student discomfort, the student said that it was a tough question and he’d have to think about it.

Continue reading Three Cheers for Useless Education

Beware the “Outcomes and Assessment” Movement


For yet another glimpse of what’s wrong with higher education, read “Teaching Them How To Think,”  the story of George Plopper, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. After attending a conference on teaching and learning in 2004, Plopper had an epiphany of sorts, and now uses Bloom’s Taxonomy to assess student learning in his two upper-level courses at RPI. According to the article, this “has dramatically changed his approach to teaching and to determining what his students learn. No longer content to lecture from the front of the room and convey a series of complicated facts about cancer biology and extracellular matrix interactions, Plopper now makes the process and expectations of learning an explicit part of the syllabus.” All this “has changed his teaching, and made assessment part of the learning process–for both himself and his students.”

If he has found a technique that has made him a better teacher, bully for him, but modern academe’s tacit and unquestioning acceptance of pseudo-scientific techniques like Bloom’s Taxonomy to “measure” and “assess” appropriate “student learning outcomes”  is very bad news indeed. Such techniques have already choked the K-12  system and have now begun to put a stranglehold on higher education, stifling the autonomy of college teachers and subverting the aims of liberal education.

Continue reading Beware the “Outcomes and Assessment” Movement

Let’s Hear More About Teaching

In my last essay here, “This Is A Bold Plan For Higher Ed?”, I commented in passing that most books on higher education these days – including Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education? – fail to address the real crisis in higher education: poor teaching. That prompted Ms. Dreifus to ask if I had actually read her book. In an e-mail to her – to which she never replied I told her that I had, with great eagerness and interest. I also told her that I agree with most of what she and Professor Hacker say. What they describe not only matches my experience, it voices what many of the younger generation in the profession actually think but almost never say. It also supplies invaluable data to enable us to generalize our personal experiences with more confidence.
True, Chapter 5 (“Teaching: Good, Great, Abysmal”) identifies the conflict that exists between teaching and research (and we all know that research is winning out, resulting in lots of bad teaching). But it doesn’t change the fact that overall Higher Education? says almost nothing of practical value that will benefit professors who are in the trenches on a daily basis.
The book contains thirteen chapters (271 pages) but only one (a mere seventeen pages) is devoted to teaching. Within that chapter, only eight pages discuss the activity of teaching – the others address the need for good teachers to be active researchers, how the emphasis on publishing subverts teaching, and how some schools have tried to remedy the teaching problem.
Teachers exist “to stir intellects and imagination, to open students to universes they had never known before,” but “far too few students are being encouraged to discover and develop their talents.” Michael Sandel of Harvard, an example of someone who does, observes that teaching “is about commanding attention and holding it.” Great teaching, add Hacker and Dreifus, is “a rare talent, partly cultivated, and to some degree innate.”

Continue reading Let’s Hear More About Teaching

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.”

Continue reading This Is a Bold New Plan for Higher Ed?

An Open Letter to New Professors

Dear Assistant Professor:
Congratulations on your new job! Whether you’re a visiting professor or on the tenure-track, consider yourself among of the lucky. As someone who ran the academic treadmill for eight years—I taught at a community college, at two four-year liberal arts colleges, and at a state university until I landed a permanent position at a private university, where I am also Director of General Studies—I can appreciate your accomplishment more than most. Like many in the profession, I went to graduate school bushy-eyed and idealistic (a real-life Mr. Smith goes to Washington) so that I could become a professor and continue thinking about important questions. I wanted to inspire others to think about big ideas and to experience the transformative power of liberal education, as my professors had done for me.
Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that teaching is not that important. It won’t get you a job, and it certainly won’t get you tenure or promoted, even at most so-called “teaching colleges.” Chances are that it will not be as intellectually stimulating as you expect, and that after doing it for a few years you will become frustrated if not disillusioned or burnt out. Most college students believe that education is an entitlement and only care about grades and getting a degree. They are indifferent to courses that don’t bear on their majors or won’t help them get a job or into graduate or professional school. Having been coddled by parents at home and by teachers in grade school and high school, they are demanding, think they have a right to your total attention, and believe that you must always be there for them.
Most of your colleagues will see undergraduate teaching as a burden to escape from whenever possible, but one that must be endured because it’s their bread and butter, their meal ticket to do research, which is what they really care about. Research leads to publications, and publications to tenure and promotion and to advancement and recognition in the profession. No one ever gets rich or famous being a teacher. So they exploit the system and resent their students for not taking their courses seriously and interfering with their work. No college or university today, let alone any department, would proclaim what the University of Chicago proudly proclaimed at the beginning of last century: “We come to teach.” Professors who come to teach today do so at their peril.
Unfortunately academics don’t seem to care how this attitude affects undergraduate teaching and liberal education as a whole. It was, I think, William James who first warned about its corrosive effect more than a hundred years ago. In his essay, “The PhD Octopus,” James describes how a brilliant student of Philosophy in the Harvard Graduate School took a job as a teacher of English Literature at a sister-college. When the governors of the college discovered that he didn’t have his PhD, he was told that he must get the degree or the appointment would be revoked. The quality of the man and his ability to teach literature meant nothing to the school; the PhD meant everything. The college wanted to see those three magical letters behind the young professor’s name. James understood that the PhD, relatively new in his day, was created to stimulate original research and scholarship proper; but he also understood that the fetish for this “sacred appendage” was a “Mandarin disease” that would lead to “academic snobbery” in the profession. “Will any one pretend that its possessor will be successful as a teacher?” The whole thing, he adds, “is a sham, a bauble, a dodge whereby to decorate the catalogues of schools and colleges.”

Continue reading An Open Letter to New Professors

Why the Professor Still Can’t Teach

In 1977 the great mathematician and teacher Morris Kline published an indictment of academe in a book aptly called Why the Professor Can’t Teach. Kline not only blamed “the overemphasis on research” as the “prime culprit” for the poor quality of undergraduate education, he also blamed professors—especially tenured professors—for ignoring their “moral obligations to students” and offering courses “that reflect their own values at the expense of student needs and interests.” Little has changed in three decades.
The open secret in the profession remains that professors are paid to publish, not to teach. Most consider teaching a distraction from their research, which is what they really care about, while administrators keep pressuring faculty to publish, even at liberal arts colleges, and increasingly at community colleges, where teaching is supposed to be the most important thing they do. Never mind that there is no evidence that professors who are doing research are better undergraduate teachers because of it, according to Burton A. Weisbrod, economics professor at Northwestern University (also see Mission and Money, 2008). Never mind that in 2006 the magazine Teen Talk noted most students choose their particular institution based on the availability or strength of their preferred major, the ability to get a good job or accepted into a good graduate school, and whether faculty are good teachers or mentors—not the numbers of books or articles they published. Of course publish or perish is not new (“publish, and the students perish,” Kline quipped), but until we stop grumbling, and actually do something about it, liberal education will continue its gradual demise.
But that’s only part of the problem. The other part is that most graduate students and new college professors are not prepared to teach. Postsecondary teaching is the only profession I know of for which no formal training is required—not even the expectation that one must be prepared. True, most institutions of higher education—even community colleges—expect their faculty to have PhDs, but that only proves the absurdity of the current situation. The PhD is a research degree whose recipients are highly trained specialists. Most colleges and universities are teaching institutions, despite what faculty and administrators like to maintain. Yet the myth persists that if a person has a PhD, he or she can teach. This is nonsense, of course. And most people know it, including the administrators of colleges and universities who fund the Centers for Teaching Excellence (or something like them). These are typically directed by tenured faculty whose job it is to promote the latest “scholarship of teaching and learning” through seminars, workshops, and discussion groups.

Continue reading Why the Professor Still Can’t Teach

Why the Great Books Are the Answer

In his recent essay, “Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer,” Patrick Deneen is correct about many things. He is correct to criticize conservative supporters of great books like Allan Bloom and William Bennett who see them as a throwback to the “good old days” of liberal education. He is correct to point out the shortcomings of advocates like Anthony Kroman who view them as a means to combat postmodernism and keep relativism and political correctness at bay. He is also correct to point out that these books “contain a wide and ranging set of debates over the nature of the good and best life, the good and best polity, the good and best economic system, and so on.” Even a superficial reading of them will show that they are rent with discord and do not indoctrinate.
I agree with most of what Deneen says, but unfortunately he misses the point about the great books. Like most liberal critics of the canon—and even many conservative supporters—he writes about these books on political and philosophical, not pedagogical, grounds. As a result—again like most critics and many supporters of these books—he fails to address their primary value as tools of instruction that must be central to the undergraduate curriculum because they are the best and most efficient means to achieve the aims of liberal education.
True, the great books preserve a tradition and connect us with the past, as Bloom and Bennett have argued. But equally important is how they educate us as we read them; how they reinforce the varieties of knowledge, the skills, and the habits of thought and mind appropriate to free and cultured human beings; above all else, how they teach us to “read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit,” which Thoreau reminds us “is a noble exercise” that “will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem” and “requires a training such as the athletes underwent.” The great books are the answer because they promote continuity in the curriculum, reinforce the connections between the courses that students take, and foster genuine synergy of learning in the classroom.
The great books connect us with the past because they invite us to listen to and participate in the great conversations of the ages. “Great books of every civilization,” says Thoreau, “are the voices of human experience and as such worth reading and pondering.” They are a form of travel in time and space, allowing us to experience vicariously what others have thought, felt, and even seen. They enlarge our perspectives and strip us of our provincialism. They can free us from our self-imposed nonage and transform us, as Candide was transformed in Voltaire’s story, a modern version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

Continue reading Why the Great Books Are the Answer