Tuesday, November 29, 2011

In memoriam: Dorothy Day

The Catholic social activist Dorothy Day died 31 years ago today. We usually don't celebrate the 31st anniversary of anything, but there are at least four good reasons to pay attention to her legacy today.
  1. For the impact she had during her life, Day is one of the least-remembered social activists of the 20th century, even among civic engagement professionals, and this in spite of her impact as an organizer and as a thinker.
  2. Her approach to civic engagement--which blended deep religiosity, a passion for community, clear-eyed views of human nature and the complexity of solving social problems, and skepticism of the power of government--is a good match for American culture today, where mistrust of government is rampant.
  3. Her response to poverty, racism, and inequity--the creation of houses of hospitality and the Catholic Worker movement--would be important examples to both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement if they wanted to turn their frustration into a positive program.
  4. Her political philosophy rooted in Catholic social teachings of distributism, subsidiarity, and solidarity should inspire thinkers and activists interested in local solutions to economic, community, and family challenges.
The best entree to her life and work is her autobiography The Long Loneliness  and Robert Coles' biography Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion.   A bit of my own thinking about how her legacy could influence contemporary city planning is here.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Can private student loans lead to learning?

I've written here, here, here, here, and here about opportunities for social entrepreneurs to support student learning and make a profit on education. By noting these opportunities I don't mean to suggest that only the market can improve higher education.  But there are ways for creative folks to improve learning and make a living at it; opportunities that are currently being missed.

Here is another--loan money to students to pay for education.  Of course I know that this is an old idea, and  I of course understand that the federal government does most student loan lending, having taken over control of the industry only a few years ago.

Student borrowing is currently at the leading edge of the critique of higher education, with story after story of students borrowing huge sums of money and either not graduating, or graduating and being unable to repay their loans.  These stories share two characteristics--students who borrow at high rates, and who make bad educational decisions.

And the stories are right: student loans are expensive--the going rate being 6.8%, and the rate for PLUS loans and other private loans often being higher.  You can borrow money much less expensively for many things--a house and a car, for example.  And savers park money in accounts--be they savings accounts, money markets, treasuries, or other bonds--that pay a much lower interest rate, simply because they want secure returns in an uncertain market.

So here is the market opportunity: establish an organization, modeled on micro-lenders like the Grameen Bank, that loans money to students, advises them on how to succeed in school, and teaches them how to succeed in managing their money.  (The LDS Church does this on a small scale in the developing world through its Perpetual Education Fund.)

There is plenty of space between the rates that savers get on their savings, and the rate that the government charges on loans, to set a loan rate that is both more affordable and profitable.  And there is plenty of space in the market to attach training to these lower-cost loans, so that borrowers successfully move to graduation and support each other in pursuing employment, repaying loans, etc.  This is, after all, the micro-lending model: groups of borrowers support each other, and in so doing also improve loan repayment.

Who will be the first to enter?  Credit unions could, since they maintain close relationships with local communities, many of which are also home to community colleges.  Crowdsourced loan and donation organizations like Kiva.org that raise money for social enterprises could move into this space.  And microlenders have the experience and models in place to move quickly as well.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Inside leader/outside leader

The search consultant leading the hunt for Westminster's next President was on campus today.  In the meeting with him that I attended, he asked a standard question; "Does the college need an inside president or an outside president?"

I know of no other organizational type where the inside/outside dichotomy exists.  It has some value in higher education, I suppose, if only to indicate where a leader (it needn't be a President--the question was common during the recent Gore School of Business Dean search as well) will schedule his or her time.  And it can elicit a view of a candidate's sense of priorities among problems: a self-described "outside leader" thinks a campus needs more fundraising or prestige lifting; an inside leader thinks the curriculum needs work or peace needs to be won between the faculty and the administration.

But the inside/outside way of thinking hides a major truth--that the leader is one person, and as one person, the leader's approach to the outside and the inside will bear each other's hallmarks.  A President  comfortable with hierarchies will pursue the wealthy and powerful off-campus and communicate mostly with the  Cabinet on-campus. A relationship-builder will win donations with a handshake and a dinner while seeking face-to-face solutions to campus challenges. An indispensable leader will want to touch nearly everything regardless of where it takes place.  A collaborator wants more committees on-campus and more advisory boards off-campus.

The problem here, then, is ultimately that the inside/outside dichotomy hides from campus the sort of person taking on the leadership role.  If the campus is seeking an outside leader, or if the candidate says "I lead inside" the conversation stops exactly where it should start.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Can learning outcomes be Good?

Having learning outcomes is better than not having them, and if they are measurable and agreed upon, a set of learning outcomes significantly improves a student's learning.  By this I mean simply that a course or a curriculum designed to help students towards certain ends--the ability to think critically, or communicate well--is better than one that aims simply for an increase in knowledge, or understanding of content.

But I sometimes hear the value of learning outcomes put more starkly--that they make it possible to create an education that focuses on what a student can do, not what a student knows.  Here I have two concerns.  The first is obvious.  Education is about both what a student knows and what a student can do.  Learning is not content-neutral; communicating well in one discipline does not mean that a person can communicate well in all disciplines, in the same way that being smart about philosophy does not guarantee that you are also smart about biology. This objection is largely, I think, about the rhetoric of the learning outcomes movement, not about its actual approach to education.

My second concern is this: that learning outcomes may make an education more practical, more demonstrable, and better.  But they may not make it Good. Education, at least in its traditional sense, is not only about what a student knows, or does.  It is ultimately about what a student becomes.  And if a school is interested in its students becoming something--engaged citizens, moral human beings, disciples of a god, whatever--then learning outcomes aren't enough.  The school needs a mission, and a culture, that talk about the ultimate value of education, about what is Good, not simply what is good.

In the absence of that, learning outcomes become techniques or skills.  They are useful things to be sure.  But highly skilled people without a sense of what is Good have done a lot of damage in this world.  And college campuses, for all their rhetoric about making a better world, developing leadership, and transforming learning, are no better than the communities that surround them.  In some ways, they are worse.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Great speeches: The generosity of Terry Tempest Williams

I've heard four great speeches in the past two weeks--three of them at the  Federation of State Humanities Council conference that concluded this evening. The speech and its classroom cognate the lecture, have settled into a period of disrepute, and rightly so.  Speeches are often given without regard to the audience, and without concern for the learning of the people present.  At many events they are simply an opportunity for someone who is rightly famous for something else to remind us why they are not famous for speaking. (Think, for example, of every awards ceremony you have ever seen on television.)

But done well, a speech is powerful.  More than many "active learning" pedagogies, speeches have the power to convey an emotion that advances an argument.  The activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams does this better than most, using generosity to buttress her view that the only viable future is one based on empathy between humans, other species, and the planet.

Generosity shaped her Federation speech in three ways.  First, while her speech included portions of stories she has told many times before, it was clearly assembled during the first day of the conference, and reflected the discussions, concerns, and hopes of the conference.  This meant the speech was ragged, but it also demonstrated Williams' humility and concern for the well-being of the event and its attendees.  Second, she made sure to acknowledge and thank more than a dozen members of the conference audience with whom she had spoken briefly.  The thanks did not come at the beginning, as they do in the ritualized awards ceremony  speech.  Instead they were sprinkled throughout the speech, and used as supporting evidence for her thesis that active citizens can influence the direction of society for good.  Third, she gave a gift to each member of the audience--a lily bulb to symbolize that love for living things could return humans to right relationships with nature and each other.

I've met Williams several times (she is a Utahn).  Generosity is essential to her nature.  And so the gestures in her speech, which might seem disingenuous coming from other speakers, are natural coming from her.

Generosity is particularly powerful against the dogmatic friends and foes of environmentalism.  It reminds supporters that dogmatic positions are inhumane because they lack generosity.  And it demonstrates to dogmatic opponents that environmentalists can love people as much as they love the land. In both of these acts Williams' generosity makes deeper engagement possible. Put another way, small acts make a passive genre--the speech--into a spur to activity and learning.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Should affordability efforts pay attention to individuals?

Many of the efforts to improve college affordability focus on systems and institutions--on ways to reduce tuition, or increase aid, or speed time to graduation, for example.  While these paths to lowering cost have different aims and results, they share an assumption--that  the effort to increase affordability should ignore individual cases in favor of making decisions based on demographics (family income, for example, or first-generation status, or enrollees) or market forces.

At this point in the year, though, many enrollment offices are making decisions about affordability based on individual cases.  In the past two weeks alone, three students have come to our financial aid office to ask for individualized attention--additional scholarships for an international student whose family now faces severe financial difficulty, more work-study money for a student whose income has dropped this year, an exemption to policy on scholarship award timing for a student-athlete trying to graduate early.

These cases have left me wondering about how to think about cases in the context of affordability.  Cases matter for morality, because the cases represent real people with specific needs, opportunities, and talents.  Should they matter for policy though?  And if so, how?  I'm not sure I know, but I am confident that policies and rules that do not attend to individual cases fail both in reaching their ends, and in respecting the liberty and skills of the people they are meant to serve.

So, should individual cases matter in efforts to reduce the cost of higher education?  If so, how and when?