Sunday, March 15, 2015


Public Matters: A Response to Kevin Carey

“We are headed for a time of brutal unmasking” - The End of College, p. 249

Back in the 90’s, there was a brief flurry of interest around the demise of the “public intellectual,” who was informally understood to be the sort of person who wrote about Big Ideas in accessible language for general readers.  Public intellectuals bestrode the planet for decades, the story went, before being sucked into the careerist and jargon-ridden quicksand of academe.  While many of the Big Ideas championed by public intellectuals were badly flawed, if not loopy, their disappearance didn’t bring about a new age of enlightened discourse.

Kevin Carey’s new book, The End of College, has some of the trappings of the old public intellectual model, except that it puts academe at the “before” part of the story, rather than the “after.”  It’s a sprawling book with a loose narrative and a broad topic, clearly intended more to start debates than to settle them.  It has the appeal and the flaws of the form.  

Its argument runs something like this:

  1. Higher education serves multiple purposes, each of which conflicts with the others.  The big three are job training, scholarly research, and liberal arts education.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Most undergraduates don’t actually learn very much, and the incumbent providers would rather not focus on that, for obvious reasons.
  6. 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.
  7. Until recently, there were no practical alternatives to traditional higher education.  But the internet has changed that.
  8. A bevy of internet startups are using the insights of cognitive science to teach more effectively at scale, and at much lower cost.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Along the way, Carey notes in passing that the most rapidly developing countries with the largest ascending middle classes aren’t replicating the American system.  It’s too clunky, expensive, and inefficient.  We shouldn’t assume that institutions born in another time are automatically relevant to this one.  As it happened, Sweet Briar College announced its closing on the day that Carey’s book was released, as if to illustrate his point.

The “hybrid university” model is Carey’s focus; the book spends comparatively little time on community colleges, liberal arts colleges, or small private niche institutions like Sweet Briar.  The larger political economy goes almost entirely unmentioned in the book, except to the extent that Carey notes the rapid rise of tuition since the 1980’s.  

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, only to find themselves taught instead by barely-prepared graduate students, overstretched adjuncts, or professors who minimize time on teaching in order to focus on the research that actually matters for their careers.  The observation may not be original, but it’s largely true.  Carey’s contribution is to note that with the new emergence of actual alternatives that draw upon the science of learning, the bait-and-switch will become harder to sustain.  No one institution will be able to pretend to be all things to all people anymore; the path to survival will instead come from focusing on what it can do better than anyplace else.  The “brutal unmasking” of the next few years will make the grand bargain of the hybrid university model unsustainable.  When the bundle is unbundled, cross-subsidies will become impossible.

At the same time, though, Carey’s treatment elides the larger political economy in which these changes may be happening.  The massive buildup of state college and community college systems within about a twenty-year window in the mid-twentieth century was a response to a political and economic imperative to open up pathways to the new middle class.  They were public responses to a public need.  That’s not true of most of the new forms emerging now.  Some are for-profit, albeit of a different stripe than Phoenix or DeVry.  Others are foundation-driven, or offshoots of existing elites.  

That’s not just a difference of bookkeeping; it’s a difference of mission.  Carey rightly celebrates the thirteen-year-old in Mongolia whose talents rise to the top in an EdX MOOC.  But he doesn’t note what happens to the student who, like he did, got a B.  B students are not the point.

Yes, existing public institutions can be faulted for a level of sameness in how different students are treated.  (One of the defenses of the elective system is that it’s an attempt to address that.)  That sameness can lead to a certain mediocrity.  

But that sameness also serves as a minimum.  This is not to be dismissed lightly.

As with Anya Kamenetz’ DIY U, which Carey’s book resembles in some ways, there’s a strange reluctance to address what “unbundling” does to the non-elite student.  Yes, it’s great that the hidden prodigy in another country now can rise to the top.  But most people aren’t prodigies, and a system that requires them to be is set up to fail.  

Institutions are prone to pathologies, yes, but they exist in the first place to lower transaction costs.  The “bundling” that may seem inefficient to the high-achieving autodidact is a life support system for the average student.  If we want average students to succeed, we should think long and hard before attacking their life support systems.  

It’s possible to use some of Carey’s points to make a very different argument.  The entire “Guided Pathways to Success” (GPS) model championed by Complete College America assumes that there’s some truth to the critique of the elective system, but responds by advocating a more directive role by institutions.  And there is warrant for that.  Carey spends very little time discussing the “job training” part of the hybrid role, but if he did, he’d notice that employer advisory boards often wind up championing the very liberal arts skills (communication, most notably) that they’re usually assumed to reject.  The “dev bootcamp” nine-week crash course model works best for people who already have full degrees behind them.  

And from the perspective of someone working in the community college world, I have to take exception to any claim that the major drivers of increased cost are faculty research and lazy rivers.  In my sector, that’s simply false.  The major driver of increased cost to students -- not increased spending, which has been flat for a decade and a half -- has been public disinvestment.  Using the “hybrid university” model as a synecdoche for all of higher education gets other sectors importantly wrong.  Tarring teaching-intensive institutions with that critique may be brutal, but it’s not unmasking.  It’s mystifying.

Carey’s celebration of the new alternatives is troubling mostly because he doesn’t look closely enough at why they exist.  MIT use EdX, unapologetically, as a form of talent-scouting.  Coursera uses MOOCs to make money.  Those are both fine, as far as they go, but neither is ultimately about achieving a public purpose.  For that, you need public institutions.

To the extent that we can create or re-shape public institutions to take more thoughtful advantage of technology and cognitive science to provide better education for the many, I’m fully on board.  But replacing public institutions with private ones, tech-savvy or not, means replacing a public mission with a private one.  The latest hot startups in Silicon Valley may only be interested in the top one percent of programmers, and that’s their prerogative.  To the extent that they develop tools to find the folks they want, so be it.  But as a citizen in a representative democracy who cares about a large and open middle class, any system built to pluck out the prodigy from the pile misses the point.  We need to raise the pile.  

Carey’s analysis never addresses the public as a public.  It implicitly accepts Margaret Thatcher’s famous line that “there is no such thing as society,” and assumes that we can infer public preferences from the aggregation of individual ones.  That’s the kind of category error that the old public intellectuals rarely made.  Sometimes to a fault, they understood that the whole isn’t just the sum of its parts.  Absent that understanding, it’s easy to miss the point.

Tech tools are great, but they’re no substitute for mission, which is the sort of thing that public intellectuals used to address.  What kind of society do we want?  How should we live together?  The “end” of college could refer to its conclusion, or it could refer to its purpose.  If we want a society of ever-increasing economic and epistemic polarization, we can replace colleges with apps.  But to the extent that we believe that average people matter, we need institutions that make it possible for them to succeed.  Community and state colleges have their flaws -- longtime readers may have seen me mention one or two -- but they have a public mission.  To the extent that the new tools enable educators to serve the entire public better, bring ‘em on.  But if we’re just looking to liberate needles from haystacks, well, I’ve got some brutal unmasking to do.

Public intellectuals do still exist: but they hang out at, and they're more likely to be people like Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, and Geoffrey Miller. You may love or hate any or all of them individually, but it's impossible to miss the fact that the person bringing ideas from academia (and elsewhere) to the public is mostly in the social sciences and sciences now, rather than in the humanities.

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.
The original purpose of the Liberal Arts Degree was to train colonial administrators and middle management, two categories of jobs that don't super-exist any more (thank goodness, and ok in that order).

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.

Wow, no snow to shovel so you put your weekend to good use! What an essay.

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!
Holy cow, Punditus, I totally agree with you.

The sound you hear is hell freezing over.
I used to irritate my liberal arts colleagues (note: I attended a small, private, liberal arts college, majored in economics, etc.) by pointing out that university education has *always* been dominated by vocational training. Always. It's just that the "vocations" have expanded. ("Use of the word "vocation" before the sixteenth century referred firstly to the "call" by God to an individual, or calling of all humankind to salvation, particularly in the Vulgate, and more specifically to the "vocation" to the priesthood or to the religious life..."

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).

I went to a research university and briefly taught at one, and my sense was that the students were there for the name, not for the quality of teaching. They certainly would have liked more interaction with their professors (instead of TA's) and better teaching -- but they didn't regret attending the university.

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?"
Which part do you agree with, Edmund Dantes, the part where I'm completely right or the part where you and your cohort are the primary reason why my complete rightness will never be implemented ever?

^^^ My thoughts also, Punditus!
What CL said at 3:31PM definitely applies to my wife, who got a job in an area only vaguely and peripherally related to her BS degree simply because of the name of the university she graduated from. Her future boss got his degree there also.

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.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?