Monday, December 26, 2011

The virtue of holding something back

American culture today (and throughout much of its history) has made a virtue of holding nothing back. Occasionally this is an act of democracy, for keeping secret what shouldn't be is a bad thing, and keeping power in the hands of a few rather than sharing it broadly is another.

But by holding nothing back, I am talking about a cultural tendency to extravaganza, extremism, and violence; to an economic tendency to spend as much as possible, to keep interest rates near zero, to seek growth for growth's sake; to a political tendency to let the winner take all, to propose grandiose responses, to police much of the world; to a personal tendency to want more, to work more, to imagine that doing more is the answer to any challenge.

When the economy is poor, or the future uncertain, this holding nothing back is tinged with desperation, as if throwing everything we have at it must certainly be the solution to the crisis before us.  It makes our culture mean; not solely in the sense of being unkind (though that is certainly the case when a person says whatever is on their mind about an opponent), but also in the sense of being sordid or crass.

For an illustration of what I mean, go see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Get there early to watch the previews. You will see trailers for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, John Carter, and Battleship, among others.  These are all essentially the same movie, with only variations in locale, accent, and the faces of the bad guys accounting for their different names.  In each, some big organization or network hatches an evil conspiracy to destroy the world.  The people you would expect to stop this sort of conspiracy are either involved or so incompetent that a small band of fighters are the only ones who can stop it.  Fortunately the fighters are strong, violent, smart, and possessed of massive destructive capacities (or able to steal them), and so in the end the good guys win by holding nothing back.  No act of violence, no trickery, no weapon is too much.  When, in Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson uses a howitzer to save Holmes' life by toppling a light tower which guards an arsenal built to plunge the world into total war, you know that you long ago escaped the world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and landed right in America, 2011.

So, now, in praise of holding something back.  Whatever you think of Christianity today, the origin story, celebrated during the same season as the release of blockbuster action films, is all about holding something back.  God holds back, placing the hopes and fears of all the years, in an infant born in modest circumstances to modest people, in a backwater town in a backwater portion of the Roman empire.  The story of Jesus' life is similarly modest,  with his service and teachings being directed at the lowly, and with him regularly reticent when asked about his power and purpose.  It is telling that the temptations Jesus overcomes are of wanting it all--his immediate desired gratified, control of all earthly power and finally the power of God. He resists them by holding back what he already knows about himself--that he is god.

The story of Buddha is similarly modest.  He could not become enlightened as an extremist, be it one of wealth or one of asceticism. But his modesty and endurance ultimately led him to awaken, after which modesty remained the hallmark of his preaching and his community of followers. No great buildings for him, no self-aggrandizement (in fact, no self at all).  Distrust of dogma and solutions.  Just consistency, temperance, and the openness to learning that comes from humility.

We can learn from these stories that holding something back is at the basis of human obligation one to another.  To hold something back is to not say the thing that is true but hurtful, it is to ponder things in your heart, it is to have enough in reserve (be it  money, or time, or energy, or love) to be able to feed a person unexpectedly hungry, to welcome strangers, to adjust course in light of new insights, to give a bit more when it is needed, to take less than is offered, to demand less than you might wish, to learn rather than simply to know.

Holding something back, (call it what you will--modesty, temperance, prudence, humility, moderation) is a personal virtue.  It seems to be an imperative if someone wishes to live satisfied and get to know the transcendent better.  It is an educational virtue, for it puts learning not certainty at the heart of schooling.  And it is also a civic virtue, lying at the center of people's ability to govern themselves, to solve problems, to imagine a community built on something more than geography, wealth, and power, to trust others.

We could use more of holding back.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In memoriam: Vaclav Havel

For maybe an hour the big news Sunday was of the passing of the Czech playwright, dissident, and President Vaclav Havel.  Then Kim Jong Il died, and Havel's passing slipped out of the news and into the margins.

That is a shame, for Havel's life and work teach two important lessons that we will never get from the death of the North Korean dictator.

Havel was a humanist who retained his humanism as President. While it is increasingly rare for people with humanities backgrounds to ascend to political leadership (unless one retains a romantic view of the law as a humanistic discipline), it is almost unheard-of for them to keep the perspectives of the humanities while in office.  Consider, for example, Newt Gingrich, who though once a historian, eschews all of the tentativeness, contingency, and love for questions that makes history a discipline that matters for humanity.  In its place he inserts the vague, laudatory references to a few leaders of the past that suggest only that he has read more than we have, so we best shut up. Havel, though, never allowed his political power to eclipse his commitment to the humanities.  Perhaps this was because the humanities had cost him so much, getting him imprisoned and leading to scorn during Czechoslovakia's communist period.  Or perhaps it is because the humanities are so easy to come by in America today--mandated in schools and less challenging than science--that we have forgotten how valuable they are in leaders.

Havel was also a politician who remembered that there are things more important than politics.  In this, his background as a playwright and essayist served him well, and while the rigors of political leadership pressed him he continued to call for space and time in public life to assert the importance of non-political things.  In the US we rarely hear this sort of thing from anywhere in public life.  One is either encouraged to believe that politics are the most important thing out there, or that much of the rest of life is essentially political anyway, and distinguishable from electoral politics only in the way that power is allocated.  For Havel, though, and for   a few conservatives and people dedicated to the notion of a good life that extends beyond the political, human life and social relations are much bigger an more satisfying than politics.

We would be wise to recall this fact, and to demand it. When communism flourished people in the West could suggest that it was the only political system that threatened to consume all of public space. But in the aftermath of its fall, it is clear that organized politics, regardless of their ilk, look to seep into those parts of life that are best kept apart from politics--the home, the civic organization, the church, the book club, and the other third places that develop the perspective, patience, discipline, joy, and maturity to keep people free.

My favorite non-fiction works from Havel are Disturbing the Peace and Summer Meditations,  the latter written while he was President, but calling for citizens to recall the importance of morality and civility even in the face of political systems that threaten those virtues, either by destroying them or by claiming them as the realm of politics.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Can higher education be anti-poverty?

Among the disheartening bits of news yesterday was this: that according to the Census Bureau, half of the population of the US is poor or low-income. While there is debate over the definition and meaning of the statistics, they are simply the latest to indicate that income disparity and poverty in the US are high and rising.

One wonders what colleges and universities can do.  On the one hand a college education still, on average, is worth a significant amount of money through the life of the graduate. Unemployment is lower among those with degrees than among those without. Many community colleges are deeply committed to job training. And college access as a pathway to economic opportunity is a major issue in higher education.

But job training and access are not the same things as working against poverty.  And understanding and reducing poverty are rarely found among college's desired learning outcomes in the way that critical thinking, leadership, sustainability, civic engagement, or understanding diversity are.

Given the ways that colleges and universities work, there do seem to be some clear first steps to mounting an educational attack on poverty.  Place the reduction of poverty on the list of a college's goals.  Study poverty  and work as part of the curriculum, both in majors and in general education.  Focus on the application of learning in the workplace. Ensure that entrepreneurship programs are open to students in all disciplines.  Guard against the assumption that poverty is solely economic or that wealth is the alternative to poverty.  Establish a poverty center that looks and acts like diversity and civic engagement centers.  Establish micro-lending programs to aid students.  Track poverty as part of alumni surveys.  Establish pay scales that narrow the gap between the best-paid and the least-paid employees of the institution. Link poverty reduction to the campus' mission.  And keep the issue at the center of the publications, speeches, web content, and reputation of the institution.

Can small colleges support a small future?

Bill McKibben is among the many people arguing that a decentralized, localist future is our best bet for economic well-being, environmental sustainability, and democracy. Mark Mitchell's summary of McKibben's most recent essay on the topic highlights a couple of interesting trends--a small increase in the number of farms (almost entirely led by an increase in small farms), for example--that suggest that a decentralist future may be in the offing.  There are plenty of other economic trends pointing in the same direction.  Small-scale production is easier and more common than in the past, locavore restaurants are spreading, entrepreneurship is spreading, charter schools allow a more localist K-12 education, and with the failure of national government on many fronts, state and local politics is more significant now than before.

Taken together these trends (or hints--who knows if they will be trends) suggest a move towards the small-scale in a number of sectors.  It is ironic then, that while much of the culture and economy is opening to the small and local, higher education is moving in the opposite direction.  Small private colleges and universities are struggling to stay alive.  Many of them are pursuing a national strategy to do so, recruiting students from all over the US (and the world) and mimic-ing the curriculum, offerings, practices, faculty roles, and aspirations of large universities and prestigious private schools with national reputations. The particular is out in higher education; the global is in. Put simply, while much of the economy is organizing around small and local enterprises, small, local colleges and universities are trying to get bigger and more national.

The reasons why are clear.  Many small colleges are in small, rural locations, where there simply aren't enough potential students to fill the classrooms.  Many sectors of the curriculum favor the general, abstract, and cosmopolitan over the particular, local, and concrete.  And the PhD programs that train faculty are overwhelmingly in large universities with national/global reputations and orientations. It may be the case, then, that a localist, decentralized future will lack a higher education component to support it.

There are a couple of hopeful signs.  Municipalities in Arizona have started funding new colleges in the face of declining state support. These city-sponsored schools, unlike existing big city systems like CUNY, are committed to meeting the needs of the municipality.  Localism is spreading on the internet, often impelled by professors (like those writing for Front Porch Republic and Anamnesis). And academic attention to the meaning of place continues apace.

Right now global studies programs are emerging on campuses all over the US, and study abroad programs are increasingly popular. If small colleges and universities are interested in remaining relevant in a localist future, one would hope that they would pair programs in particularism with those on globalism, that study at home would be as important as study abroad, and that their leadership, faculty, and commitments are as strongly to the well-being of the communities they call home as they are to the broader world.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The future(s) of religious higher education

I have an ongoing interest in the intersection between religion and higher education for many reasons that readers of this blog might have noted--I'm religious myself (or perhaps religiously confused might be more accurate), I'm convinced that some spiritual practices have great potential for secular higher education, and I'm beginning to suspect that faith-based institutions do a much better job on institutional vision and the development of students than their secular counterparts do.

To these reasons let me add one more:  that current and historic practices in the creation of churches might provide some insights into ways to respond to challenges facing higher education.

Carol Howard Merritt's post "Ten Church Models for a New Generation" neatly summarizes emerging practices among people wanting Christian churches to flourish.  There are five themes that run through them.

  • First, the church, like higher education, has moved away from the needs of its congregants, either by succumbing to the temptations of largeness and prominence or by remaining complacent while the world changes around it.  
  • Second, that successful innovations are coming in small settings, where the trappings of religion--big buildings, formal worship services--are less important than building a sense of common purpose among those who are participating.  
  • Third, that these new forms of congregations have, in many instances, developed new funding models as well, where the congregation is funded by proceeds from a coffee shop, say, or where the pastor is an entrepreneur.
  • Fourth, these newly successful congregations emerge from the efforts of a few people who plant a new congregation and nurture it while it grows into something sustainable.
  • Fifth, while in some new versions technology plays a central role, in most technology is secondary to the broader mission of the organization.
In this list one can see suggestions for institutions of higher education.  Particularly intriguing to me is the possibility of college-planting, where institutions of higher education select a couple of people to open what is essentially a store-front version of the home institution, dedicated to the particular needs of the people  who live nearby.  In a higher education landscape where even small colleges have hundreds of students, and where campuses are nearly always set off from their surroundings, store-front schools would be a place both to reach new participants, to innovate in education, and to build the sorts of relationships between learners and teachers that result in powerful learning.

Given that the trends that Merritt summarizes are emerging from the church, it may be that church-affiliated institutions are the first to move in the direction of small, emergent colleges.  But no school should overlook the potential of emergent churches to suggest ways to reach new communities of learners, explore new models of revenue, and reinvigorate the human relationships (and the understanding of those relationships) that were once at the core of what it meant to be an educated person.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Where enrollment management and the curriculum meet

Three quick stories about the interaction of curriculum and enrollment decisions.

Story 1
At each Board of Trustees meeting the chair of the faculty gets to make a report.  At the last Board meeting our chair, the chemist Paul Hooker, noted that it seems like his classes have become bi-modal, with a group of students performing better than ever, and another group less well-prepared to succeed in Chemistry than he has seen in his career. As a result he and his colleagues are spending more time working with struggling students and are starting to think about revising course content to better serve the entire class. Though Paul wouldn't have known it until we spoke after the meeting, his observation matches changes in our freshman class.  Years ago its academic profile was shaped like a bell curve, with the majority of students being solid but unspectacular.  Now, our class follows almost a perfect quintile shape, with about 20% of the freshmen falling into each of five categories of academic preparation.  No bell curve, but a much broader distribution of academic preparation.

Story 2
Four years ago Westminster started an innovative project-based degree completion program in business.  In it, students who have an associate's degree and at least 6 years of work experience can enroll in a program that convenes groups of students for short residencies a couple of times a semester.  The rest of the work the groups complete on-line, with faculty acting as coaches to the teams. The program is rigorous, aimed at people who want to be executives. The original research suggested that there were thousands of people who met the associate's degree and work experience requirements.  Since the program began, though, we have always struggled to fill it, because people with at least 6 years of work are generally not in a position to go back to school, while people who are completing associate's degrees generally don't have the required work experience.  Those who do have the combination of interest, education, and experience, take much longer to enroll than a regular student because their lives are so much more complicated.

Story 3
Our Liberal Education (LE) program looks like it will undergo revision at some time in the next couple of years.  Our current program has two distinctive requirements--the completion of a speech class and a diversity requirement--that aren't often met in associate's degree programs at community colleges.  For that reason, students transferring to the college rarely come in having completed the LE, and our ability to offer a 2+2 program is greatly diminished.  The discussions to date about revisions of the LE, though, have focused on surveying the faculty about their views of LE.

None of the stories above is an example of a disaster.  In each instance we have, or will, find a way to work through the difficulties born of a system (which is common throughout higher education) where enrollment management and the curriculum rarely meet. But it is worth thinking about why that is the case.

Decisions about the curriculum work their way through faculty committees under the aegis of the Provost.  Decisions about admissions and financial aid emerge from those organizations. Those decisions are shared at the President's cabinet, and through the regular conversations between faculty and admissions staff. It is not the case that the two sides of the institution never interact.  It is true that they mostly interact in the aftermath of decisions.

There are a couple of results of this lack of connection.  The first is that there are often inadvertent but not unpredictable results of decisions.  In the first instance above, the growth in the number of very strong students is driven by an increasing prominence, and more recently enrollment, in our honors programs, which for revenue purposes is matched by an increase in students with weaker academic credentials but a greater ability to pay.

The second result is to reinforce the divide between enrollment and academics.  In each instance above, since key decisions were taken by one side only, it is simple to believe that that side holds the responsibility for the outcome.  And where responsibility isn't shared, it is more difficult to share work.

This is a problem without a solution.  In most institutions, the work of the academic side and the work of the enrollment side are far enough apart, and effective enough when operating separately, that there isn't a lot of reason to change.  But we could make a small move in the direction of better communication if there was an enrollment manager, the Director of Admissions, let's say, who was an ex oficio member of the curriculum committee or the faculty senate.  And similarly it would go a long way if a faculty member served a year-long fellowship in admissions and financial aid--sitting in on discussions about recruitment and contributing to decisions about scholarships.  That small bit of shared work could go a long way towards making decisions where the results are not just predictable but predicted, and where the problems that do result get worked on jointly, not attributed to one side or the other.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Can you innovate and focus at the same time?

You can't bump into an education sage or a political pundit without hearing that the United States needs to be more innovative.  Steve Jobs was hailed as a heroic innovator at his death, Arne Duncan is calling for innovation in fixing college costs, Colorado's Governor John Hickenlooper has created an innovation initiative, and President Obama has argued that America must innovate its way out of our economic doldrums.

Institutions of higher education are particularly susceptible to the innovation argument, because they are under fire for being irrelevant, because they are the major location for research in the American economy, and because they have an overwhelming desire to distinguish themselves from each other.  But there are at least four major concerns with pushing innovation as a major value in education.
  1. Confusion--though colleges and universities talk about innovation--renewing an older thing to make it better and more meaningful--they often are hoping for invention--the creation of something almost entirely new.  The conflation of innovation and invention means that small innovations often lack the appeal and funding they would need to get established, while big sparkly new things get the go-ahead on the basis of their inventiveness.
  2. Integration--as my colleague Ian Symmonds has pointed out, without integration, innovations will lose their luster, remain isolated,and eventually wither rather than change the institution.  But unless institutions are purposeful about integration, it doesn't happen. 
  3. Leadership--Often innovation is associated with a leader (think Steve Jobs again) rather than an institution or a set of processes.  But as with other large institutions, higher education leaders come and go.  If innovations are tied to them, or sparked largely in their offices, the spirit of innovation may leave with them, or take on their own idiosyncrasies.
  4. Focus--At the same time that schools are being called on to innovate, quieter voices are calling on them to focus.  There is logic in this call, since without focus, many schools on limited budgets will fail to allocate resources wisely or pursue risky new activities to their detriment.  And in a crowded market, institutions that lack focus will get lost. Unfortunately, higher ed loves the lack of focus (we even have a name for it--the university).  But as Jim Collins argues in How the Mighty Fall, lack of focus is one of the major sins that lead healthy organizations to collapse.
Can organizations innovate and focus at the same time?  Of course they can, but to do so, they have to have a particular sort of innovation discipline.  The sources of innovation--those institutions, ideas, passions, practices that the institution will apply to a new context--have to be focused as well.

Here is what I mean.  Innovation is essentially taking something old and reworking it to be something new.  If an institution goes to the same few sources as birthplaces of its innovations, it can count on the innovations having at least some focus at the end.  So if a religious university wants to innovate it should comb the memories, writings, speeches, and histories of its religious tradition, looking for some idea that is analogous to the current situation.  If a teaching college wants to innovate and focus it needs to go back to the same well again and again--the same philosophers of education, say, or the same peer institutions, or the same sort of pedagogy.

Here Apple and Steve Jobs are instructive.  They have few products, all with the same look, feel, and appeal.  They have been innovative to be sure, but their focus is even more impressive.  Few colleges and universities have that same sort of limited product line and common design.  Instead they work incessantly on creating a brand--a logo, a color scheme, a tagline--to somehow make it seem like their sprawling programs and new initiatives feel like they come from the same place.  Most brands cannot live up to that task.