Sunday, March 15, 2015
Public Matters: A Response to Kevin Carey
- Higher education serves multiple purposes, each of which conflicts with the others. The big three are job training, scholarly research, and liberal arts education.
- Historically, the emergence of the research university that also teaches undergraduates was a contingent, but relatively successful, way to paper over the conflicts among the goals.
- The vast postwar expansion of public higher education was a largely unthought-through case of “institutional isomorphism,” in which new and lower-tier entrants aped the structures of elites, whether they made sense or not. The awkwardness of fit didn’t matter when demographic tailwinds were strong, but they’re apparent now.
- Teaching gets short shrift in what Carey calls the “hybrid university” model. Professors are not hired or evaluated for teaching ability, and idiosyncratic grading and the elective system have defeated attempts at curricular coherence or assessment.
- Most undergraduates don’t actually learn very much, and the incumbent providers would rather not focus on that, for obvious reasons.
- Colleges systematically ignore the findings of psychology and cognitive science on how people learn. Academic freedom and the elective system benefit incumbents, and they will use both to defeat serious efforts to change how teaching is done. The existing mode of educational production is artisinal, and artisans will fight to protect their autonomy, even at the expense of productivity.
- Until recently, there were no practical alternatives to traditional higher education. But the internet has changed that.
- A bevy of internet startups are using the insights of cognitive science to teach more effectively at scale, and at much lower cost.
- As those internet startups mature, they will develop a more robust system of recognizing student achievement -- “badges” or whatever else -- which will quickly gain traction.
- As higher education loses its monopoly on certification, most non-elite institutions will die. That will be unfortunate for the people who work there, but a net gain for society as a whole.
Much of what Carey covers is hard to dismiss. He notes the bait-and-switch by which bright undergraduates are lured to research institutions with the implied promise of rubbing elbows with great scholars
One thing I've noticed, however, is that very, very few traditional undergrads in the 18 – 22 demographic know this. People like you and me and Carey do, but few high school grads do, or seem to, at least from what I can observe.
So the Liberal Arts Bachelor's is not a good degree. The AA in liberal arts is actually a great degree; it trains you to be a functioning human being. The engineering Bachelor's is a great degree; it trains you to be an engineer or keep going and be an even more spectacular engineer, both of which are good.
It doesn't take a huge amount of change to solve this problem. Improve the high schools a bit, make the AA rather than the BA the requirement for most pink collar and management jobs, and let SLACs trim down to their original purpose; training scions of the wealthy, rather than people who are literally replacable by spreadsheets.
We can actually do this. We're not going to, because Edmund Dantes, but we can.
Before seconding what Punditus said, perhaps with a different framing, I will agree that there is some truth to #3, but less so in #4. I worked closely with professors as an undergrad student at a major state research university, and they put a lot of emphasis on teaching. (Carefully inflicting the ones that could no teach onto the grad students.) A department cannot stay alive if bad teaching drives away the students. And I see the same today in a very different place, but (a) it doesn't kick in until you are at an upper division level and (b) the squeak wheel gets in while the passive learner never even knows what is going on. Finally, there is a lot of work on #6 and #5 is nonsense in the context of, say, physics or engineering majors. The surveys and tests used in major studies don't ask "real" questions.
I would argue that many developing nations made a huge mistake trying to emulate either the university system of their colonial overlords or the late-20th research universities in the US. I know they did, because their leaders got higher-ed degrees in the US. The smart ones emulated what those universities were like a century ago: land grant research and teaching colleges with just enough electives and general education that their graduates knew there was a world out there. The rest was math, science, locally relevant agriculture, and locally relevant engineering.
Like Punditus alludes to with the engineering reference, the electives during the first two years are classes like calculus and chemistry and physics and computer programming. The liberal arts classes are just the required ones, and those are considered important for the reasons you and your local employers mention.
PS - The reason "most" undergraduates don't learn very much is either (a) they already know a lot from high school and generally paying attention as an autodidact or (b) they don't want to learn very much. That last detail is why one friend argues that you should give them a degree, let them take a job, and THEN get them to take classes!
Beyond that...I am entirely in agreement with your critique of Carey's book (which I probably won't read; I gave up on DIY after about 30 pages).
They were there for the prestige, and for the networking opportunities that come with a big university. As long as that degree means something to employers and grad schools, students will come.
As a student, I just didn't get the sense that teaching quality made any difference in my future success. What mattered was having a degree from a "good" university.
And the reaction to my degree has been universally positive. When people see the name, they are impressed. They assume that I'm smart. They don't say, "But you probably had TA's. How much did you really learn there?"
But in my case, my career path (and major) changed because of one incredible class taught by the most singular prof I have ever encountered in my life. Yes, I learned more than they taught in 99% of the cases, but that one made all the difference in the world.