Thursday, October 04, 2018

Philosophy of Higher Education

I’m quite taken with Elizabeth Lehfeldt’s recent piece suggesting that administrators should be asked about their philosophy of higher education.  It’s a relatively common question to ask of prospective faculty, but in my experience applying for various administrative roles over the years, it doesn’t come up often.  It should.

I can see a few upsides to bringing up the question.

At a really basic level, it would help filter out the folks who don’t really have one.  Reflectiveness can’t be assumed, no matter how educated someone is. In this context, the ability to see the big picture matters a lot, because these roles feature no end of surprises.  Circumstances present themselves in which you have to make quick decisions based on limited information. That’s when you fall back on what feels like instinct, but which is really the bedrock set of assumptions with which you work.

I’ve noticed, too, that the most bitter and persistent conflicts usually occur when two sets of assumptions crash into each other.  To the extent that you’re able to place initially-puzzling reactions into larger contexts, you’re probably better able to get past unproductive conflicts.  Alternately, you’ll be better able to recognize conflicts that just don’t lend themselves to solutions, and not waste your time in quagmires.

For example, if you see higher education as an individual good, you will make different decisions than if you treat it as a public good.  If you see it as the guardian of the timeless truths of high culture, you’ll prioritize differently than if you see it as the personnel office of the economy.  If you see it as weeding out the untalented, you’ll have different priorities than if you see it as helping everybody reach their potential.

Most of the time, people take sides in discussions like those without even realizing that they’re doing it.  They just take their position as self-evidently correct. That leads to issues when they land in circumstances that require a different perspective, or work with people who hold different unspoken assumptions.  

Take dual enrollment, for example.  (For present purposes, I’ll define that as colleges offering courses to high school students, with the students getting simultaneous credit for both high school and college.)  For the “guardian of nearly-forgotten wisdom” school, dual enrollment can look like selling out or watering-down. The same may be true for the “weed ‘em out” school. But for the “help everyone” school, dual enrollment can be a positive good.  

Student failure offers another case.  Is a high fail rate for a given class a regrettable sign of “kids today,” a useful sign of a fixable institutional problem, or a heartening sign of academic rigor?  Most of us would probably answer “it depends,” but most of us also have a default position. If a college adopts reforms to increase its graduation rates, is it doing a better job for its community by arming more students with the tools to succeed, or is it watering down the value of its credential in the name of filthy lucre?  Your default answer to that will indicate the direction in which you will tend to lean as circumstances change.

As longtime readers know, I’m a product of the “weed ‘em out” school who switched sides after exposure to the world.  Now I’m very much along the lines of “help everyone reach their potential.” That means that I take achievement gaps by race as offensive signs of institutional failure, rather than regrettable byproducts of rigor.  I assume that “merit” is a loaded term, often reflective of pre-existing social capital and an increasingly polarized economy; I take it as given that talent exists in every economic class. Not everybody agrees. My approach might not gain traction in an exclusive institution, but it fits community colleges pretty well.  It sometimes puts me at odds with faculty who see themselves as the tragic heroes of a narrative of cultural decline, who see gatekeeping as their major contribution to the culture. I get that; I came up in a system that taught that, and for a while, even believed it.

To Lehfeldt’s point, though, the contents of the philosophy is less important, in some ways, than the ability to articulate one.  Even better, showing the ability to position it against others that actually exist. The ability to do that offers hope for the ability to find ways to build consensus -- finding the parts of the Venn diagram in which different schools of thought overlap -- and to get disparate initiatives to reinforce each other.  If you don’t have a thought-out perspective, you will be susceptible to fads, or to inadvertently pressing the accelerator and the brake at the same time. Knowing what you’re doing increases the odds of doing it well. That doesn’t stop being true when you move into administration.