In today’s Pope Center piece, Ron Trowbridge (whose career covers jobs ranging from English prof to college VP to chief of staff for Chief Justice Burger) writes about the response that the higher education establishment in Texas has launched against ideas for making it more effective and efficient in teaching undergraduates. The reformers have been met with a full-scale counter-attack that includes a big PR firm.
In the recent book by Clay Christensen and Henry Eyring, The Innovative University, the authors contend that many colleges and universities will be left in the dust unless they figure out how to adapt, much as companies have crumbled when innovative technologies hit their markets and they couldn't rapidly adjust to it.
In the past few weeks, terms like "rigor," "core curriculum" and "traditional humanities courses" have acquired new respectibility following publication of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift, a book which bluntly describes the dismal state of Amercan undergraduate education. There's been a great deal of dismay and hand-wringing in higher education outlets, but surprisingly few outright denials insisting that everything's really OK.
NAS is uniquely positioned to influence higher education for the good. As a non-profit organization, we are outside academia, free of its entanglements and able to provide a detached point of view. As a membership association, we are inside the university, with thousands of our members as professors on campuses all over the nation.
In this week's Pope Center Clarion Call, I review the new AEI book The Politically Correct University. I recommend the book highly. It provides an excellent analysis of the problem of ideological imbalance and politicization that besets our higher education system and the closing chapters explore the prospects for change.
In this week's Pope Center Clarion Call, Jane Shaw discusses ideas for change in higher education that she has come across in several recent conferences. The common thread is that the ideas she likes all have a "bottom-up" character rather than "top-down." I strongly agree that good change is apt to come from the "little platoons" rather than through higher ed's generals seeing what's gone wrong and then implementing constructive ideas. The generals are for the most part too busy with a) fundraising and b) the diversity mania to do much good.
Those of us laboring for academic reform often feel like Sisyphus, rolling a rock up the hill only to have it come crashing down again. The gods of academe seem to have condemned higher education to inevitable decay. That thought came to me as I read about the demise of an institute (at Hamilton College) that did everything right, yet the overlords of Political Correctness purged themselves of enemies and "deviationists." I use these terms because the notion that all-is-political, enemies-must-be-destroyed is linked so strongly to communism and its close cousin national socialism. In the above unhappy story, Mark Bauerlein tries to see a silver lining by noting that the Institute survives outside the college. Students can go there and read books for which they receive no academic credit, of course. If ever there was a case study in how much the Left prizes control of higher education, this is it. The next time you are tempted to think that much of what happens is a "misunderstanding" or "good intentions gone awry," please banish the thought. When push comes to shove, there are those who would put a bullet in your head if this were a different place and time. Instead, they kill ideas by depriving them of air space on campus. No institute, no nonconformist faculty. Or, as Stalin put it: "no people, no problem." We, the few, will retire some day and then there will be nobody to speak out against the barbarians. That is our problem. Postscript: Robert Weissberg nails the problem(s) exceptionally well in this article.
Thomas Edison State College, based in Trenton, New Jersey, offers online courses for adults (the average age of students is 35) and accepts credits from all regionally accredited institutions. Advisors work with each student to create a customized program plan that fits him best. Here is a video that tells more about TESC and how it provides “higher education for adults with higher expectations.” I wonder if this type of learning will be the future of higher education. What do you think?
Over on Phi Beta Cons, Fred Schwartz ("20 Reasons Why Campus Learning Is Better Than Online") cites my predictions about a “Great Transition” in which higher education will move from in-person campus-based institutions to mostly online instruction in the coming decades. He dislikes the prospect and disagrees with how likely it is. I don’t especially like the prospect either, but that’s neither here nor there. The important question is whether something like the “Great Transition” could happen. My answer is yes, it could. That’s because, though our current institutional basis of higher education looks robust, it is highly vulnerable to small shifts in public esteem. My article, The Shape of (Academic) Things to Come, wore its satirical colors openly. I described people, places, and events twenty years into the future and attributed my detailed foresight to scientifically-enhanced precognition. It says something about the level of fear that online education strikes in today’s academics that a fair number wrote to me to protest this leap of imagination, as if, like Prospero, I could conjure it out of thin air. Don’t blame me. If something like the Great Transition were to happen, it won’t be because I set it in motion. Nor do I think that my fellow seer, Jane Shaw, can be blamed. Fred Schwartz provides 20 reasons why campus learning is (or “can be”) better than online college education. Most of his reasons sound right to me. He starts out, “Not every subject lends itself to online learning.” Entirely true, at least with current technology. Looking at the last twenty years, I wouldn’t exactly rule out the possibility of dramatic improvements in the years ahead, but the more important point is that the subjects Fred cites as better learnt in person—“those that require laboratory work, clinical practice, studio learning, musical instruction, live performance, agricultural work, etc.”— do not require a university. Historically, each of them was taught in a non-university setting. Music conservatories and independent art schools still thrive. Science grew up outside the university and has a vigorous life in independent institutes to this day. Moreover, the decoupling of undergraduate education from more advanced studies already has models such as the Rockefeller University. I won’t go through all twenty of Fred’s reasons, but most of them fall into this pattern. He makes a valid point about the attraction of or benefit to be had from residential colleges, but the point has no real bearing on the larger economic and social forces at work. Yes, it is nice to retire to a college town (point 3), but are we going to keep colleges going in order to provide enhanced retirement options? It seems unlikely. At the end of his post Fred allows that “most of these problems are surmountable,” but sees no positive reason why American society would want to surmount them. In his view, “the college campus is not an expensive anachronism.” I wish that were true, and, even if it isn’t, I wish Americans would continue to believe it true. But as my article suggested, it is a fragile hope. For some fifty years, Americans have had drilled into them that higher education is mainly about getting the credentials to get a well-paying job. If a technology comes along that offers much the same thing at a fraction of the cost, many people will choose that option (there’s “our friend the free market” for you). Online education is that technology, and it is late in the game for higher education to turn around and say, “Residential education is worth a premium price because college, after all, is really about the intangible aspects of shared culture, access to civilization, moral elevation, personal associations, and the richness of life.” I think such claims happen to be true, but I don’t expect them to outweigh career ambition for the great majority of students or their parents. To the contrary, the American public has drunk in the utilitarian calculus that college is a launching pad for lucrative careers. And that public has also grown canny about the undergraduate degree becoming a merely intermediary step on the path to the credentials that really count. To this we have to add the widespread recognition that in-person higher education is an enormously expensive and vainglorious enterprise that frequently produces meager results. This adds up to vulnerability. Fred believes the risk is an illusion. He cites (point #10) earlier claims that “printing, the telephone, sound recording, radio, movies, television, and various generations of computers,” would “revolutionize education and make all our schools and universities obsolete!” That’s a pretty misleading “and.” Most would say that printing, at least, did revolutionize higher education. The other technologies on the list have had considerable consequences for higher education too. It might be useful to think of online education as the synthesis of all of them, perhaps as the gasoline-powered automobile combined and synthesized a host of technologies that had already been invented, and spurred the invention of still more. We can visit Lancaster, Pennsylvania for reassurance that automotive technology did not render horse-powered agriculture and transportation “obsolete,” but the equine economy isn’t what it once was. I repeat, I am not eager for the rise of an online dominated form of higher education. The cultural losses would include some that matter to me profoundly. But I have yet to see a solid argument why the Great Transition won’t happen. “I’d regret it” isn’t an argument.
NAS welcomes a new web-based effort to reform higher education, CampusReform.org:
Historically, conservatives have favored the ways of the past—which is why they sometimes fall behind the left in using technology to get organized. But Campus Reform breaks out of the mold to help give this generation’s conservatives a forward-thinking cause. NAS, "Campus Reform Looks Forward"