[xmca] Quality of Higher Ed

From: Mike Cole <lchcmike who-is-at gmail.com>
Date: Thu Apr 12 2007 - 16:37:33 PDT

I recently tried to attach and send an article by Andrew Delbanco in the NY
Review of books on several books about higher ed.
Most of the article was about social class inequalities in access. It is
obtainable if you are interested an www.nybooks.com (I
believe, but it may be just subscribers).

Anyway, I am a subscriber and THIS section is about the quality of higher ed
once you get in. The problems mirror things I have
been seeing, so I append directly below as part of this ongoing thread,
since it is in higher ed where most of us teach, wherever
else we may study teaching and learning/ education/instruction/ ........
fyi and'or delete now.

None of these books—whether by outside critics or inside administrators —has
much to say about the interior lives of young people eager for intellectual
and aesthetic excitement, learning to examine old ideas in light of new
imperatives. If—as Bowen, Golden, and Michaels variously insist —it is a
scandal that so few disadvantaged students are able to attend our most
advantageous colleges, it is also urgent, in the words (the italics are his)
of Donald Levine, former dean of the college at the University of Chicago,
to notice that

*the scandal of higher education in our time is that so little attention
gets paid, in institutions that claim to provide an education, to what it is
that college educators claim to be providing.*

In *Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America*,
Levine has written a fascinating history of curricular debates at the
University of Chicago, reaching back to its founding more than a century
ago. It is a story of serious teachers responding to continuous change in
the world and in their particular academic disciplines while always keeping
in view the enduring goal of liberal education, which Levine succinctly
calls "the cultivation of human powers." To reach this end requires first of
all the recognition that it is unending, in the sense that "the purpose of
school education," as John Dewey put it, "is to insure the continuance of
education by organizing the powers that insure growth." It requires the
student to become informed about past and present—to learn, that is,
something substantial about history, science, and contemporary societies in
order to bring that knowledge to bear on unforeseeable challenges of the
future. It requires teachers and students collaboratively to develop (as Bok
recommends) analytic problem-solving abilities, but also, as the great
Chicago humanist Richard McKeon wrote, to study literature and the arts in
order to cultivate "appreciation of artistic, cultural, and intellectual
values, as opposed to the random associated reflections which frequently...
pass for appreciation." And it requires the university to make clear to its
students what it expects while expecting its faculty to work as educators as
well as researchers.

Levine shows how one great research university has struggled to sustain and
refresh these standards and goals. He describes how faculty from different
disciplines have collaborated on "Big Problems" courses on themes such as
"Evil," or "Language and Globalization." He discusses the University of
Chicago's brief experiment with awarding degrees only upon successful
completion of difficult comprehensive examinations rather than merely for
the accumulation of course credits. And he describes how one famous Chicago
professor, the biologist Joseph Schwab, in a course dealing with
philosophical texts eschewed "class discussions where voice flits around the
room while impulses of exhibitionism, excitement, or puzzlement jump from
one student to another" in favor of "structured discussion" by putting "one
student in the hot seat for a while and working that person as thoroughly
and creatively as possible" before moving on to another.

In contemporary universities, this kind of intimate and intense education is
threatened and already rare. One Chicago alumnus, Lee Shulman, president of
the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, recalls that
sitting in Schwab's classes "fostered clammy hands, damp foreheads, and an
ever-attentive demeanor." Today, a student with those symptoms would
probably drop the class for fear of a poor grade, and the teacher would risk
a poor score on the end-of-semester
if any "general education" program is to succeed, professors need
to be tough not only on their students but on themselves—willing to plunge
into subjects and texts with which they may not have engaged since they
themselves were students, or which they may never have encountered at all.

Unfortunately, most incentives and rewards, especially in prestigious
institutions, line up today against this kind of teaching and learning.
Large classes are far more cost-efficient than small ones. An increasingly
specialized faculty is likely to give only sporadic attention to general
education, and is unlikely to reach consensus about what it should be. Even
for those who care, spending time on undergraduate teaching is ill-advised
in a world where publication and research are the routes to promotion and
higher pay. For students, taking intellectual chances is risky as they
compete for places in professional schools that regard grades as
all-important. As Harvard's former dean Harry Lewis sums up the matter:

Universities affect horror when students attend college in the hope of
becoming financially successful, but they offer students neither a coherent
view of the point of college education nor any guidance on how they might
discover for themselves some larger purpose in life.

It is certainly a good thing that fresh attention is being paid in books
such as Bowen's, Golden's, and Michaels's to the question of whom education
is for. But there remains the fundamental question of what it is for and
what it should consist of. One way to bring these questions together would
be to ask how well our colleges reflect our best democratic traditions, in
which individuals are not assessed by any group affiliation but are treated,
regardless of their origins, as independent beings capable of responsible

Opening wider the admissions doors is a necessary step toward furthering
that end, but it is by no means a sufficient one. Colleges will fulfill
their responsibilities only when they confront the question of what students
should learn—a question that most administrators, compilers of rank lists,
and authors of books on higher education prefer to avoid.
xmca mailing list
Received on Thu Apr 12 17:53 PDT 2007

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Fri Mar 21 2008 - 16:41:48 PDT