Tuesday, July 11, 2017


Wisdom and Knowledge

Okay, part of the reason for the title of this post is so I could see the publication of “Wisdom and Knowledge, by Matt Reed.”  Henceforth, I can call myself the author of “Wisdom and Knowledge.”  

I can hear your eyes rolling.  It made me smile, anyway.

But it’s also a way to think about a new report from the Urban Institute that tested the impact of sharing knowledge on local labor market outcomes of various majors with entering students.  As the summary noted, “the rollout of the tool had no detectable impact on students.”  

I wasn’t shocked by the finding.  It’s of a piece with findings that, despite the apocalyptic warnings of certain political figures, students’ own political views are largely immune to their professors’.  Or that despite earnest entreaties from long-suffering adjuncts, students keep going to grad school.  Or that voters who are shown, conclusively, that their side’s view on an issue is simply wrong may concede the point, but won’t change how they vote.

There’s knowledge, and then there’s wisdom.

As the parent of two teenagers, I see the distinction every single day.  We’re lucky to have two great kids; they’re healthy, happy, smart, and sweet.  (The Boy might cough at the last one, but he is.)  They’re good at school, and they’re able to handle some pretty sophisticated arguments.  But they’re teenagers; they haven’t lived a lot of life yet.  At this point, I don’t have much more knowledge to offer them, but I’ve lived a lot more life than they have, and can offer perspective.  Before TB broke up with his previous girlfriend, he asked me what he should say, and started to present a list of grievances, as if he were prosecuting a case.  I told him to take the high road, because no matter how cathartic it might feel in the moment, nothing good would come of the complaints later.  Tell her you want out, wish her the best, and don’t attack.  He followed my advice, and later thanked me for it.  No sense in salting the wound.  That’s the benefit another thirtysomething years of life offers.

The most compelling argument I’ve heard against outcomes assessment as it’s often practiced is that it tends to focus on knowledge over wisdom.  Knowledge is easier to measure, and to impart quickly.  It’s at the core of what we do, and it should be.  Measuring wisdom is harder.  

As an industry, I see community colleges starting to gain a little bit of wisdom.  They’re starting to revise some longstanding practices and assumptions on the devastatingly valid grounds that they don’t work very well.  What the CCRC calls the “food court” model of a curriculum works really well for students who know what everything means and know exactly what they want.  But we’ve learned, over time, that most students aren’t like that.  Most students want guidance, and they need some sort of explanation of the difference between, say, anthropology and sociology, or between an A.S. degree and an A.A.S. degree.  That’s not because they’re stupid or defective; it’s just because most of them haven’t spent years absorbing this stuff.  

We’re starting to question the wisdom of long chains of remedial courses, too.  It’s a little embarrassing that it took so long, but that’s kind of how it works.  

If we give students information for which they lack context, it won’t stick.  And that context requires deliberate construction.  We’re starting to figure that out; the whole “meta-major” movement is about that.  Help students discover what they like and don’t like, and which paths lead where; after that, hit them with labor market data.  Then it’ll mean something.  Out of context, it won’t.

We can’t impart lifetimes of experience in a year or two, of course, but there’s no reason not to apply the wisdom of our own experience to our own practices.  Students are telling us with their feet what works and what doesn’t.  They’ve been doing that for years, but we lacked the wisdom to listen.  Maybe we’re finally wising up.

Here is my take on the social capital needed to figure out the options at a CC: Do you think a freshman entering, say, Rutgers knows the difference between a BSN and an ASN nursing degree, and the immediate impact on job prospects? I don't. How about the difference between a BS and a BA, let along between either of those and an AAS or AS degree? Nope. Even if their parents gave them enough social capital to know the difference, they don't need to know it!

CC students face much greater complexity. Heck, CC faculty face the same challenge. I had never heard of any of those specialized 2-year degrees until after I got hired and started getting some advising training.

BTW, I liked the flexibility to do whatever I wanted for my gen ed classes (I was in a special Honors program) as long as there was a plausible connection to the general topic, but I am not my students. They need guidance. Choices are OK as long as they are limited within groups and the course descriptions are clear, but we can't afford to run 100 different humanities classes like a university does. They can easily get 30 students in ANYTHING, because they have thousands making the choice. We don't.
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In response to " Choices are OK as long as they are limited within groups and the course descriptions are clear, but we can't afford to run 100 different humanities classes like a university does. They can easily get 30 students in ANYTHING, because they have thousands making the choice. We don't."

That varies with community colleges—many of the California ones have substantially more students than UC campuses. For example, one of the community colleges that does a lot of transfers is De Anza. They had 21,251 students in Fall 2016, far larger than the 16,328 undergraduates at UCSC (some of the other, larger UCs have even fewer undergrads, because they have so many more grad students). Even the local community college (Cabrillo) had 11,841 students in Fall 2016, so the individual cohorts are still larger at the community college than at the University.

What keeps these community colleges from offering huge numbers of humanities course is the cost of developing and teaching that many courses, not the number of students available to choose them. (Of course, there are also much smaller community colleges, whose curricula are constrained by the number of students.) Community colleges can offer a wide variety of courses, if there is demand—I believe that Cabrillo College offers more art and music courses than UCSC does, despite the high cost of teaching such courses.
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