Saturday, February 18, 2012

Can "community," not curriculum, be higher ed's best response to poverty?

It is a given among the policy classes that higher education is essential for economic improvement because people with college degrees earn more money than those without.  This view, while true as far as it goes, turns discussion of the value of higher education in two directions--cost and curriculum. So if a degree can be completed inexpensively, and in a field where there are employment opportunities, higher ed will have done its job by preparing students for economic well-being.

Ross Douthat's recent review of Charles Murray's Coming Apart makes a point that higher education leaders ought to consider in light of our increasing obligation to be engines of economic well-being.  Douthat writes that:

"Even acknowledging all the challenges (globalization, the decline of manufacturing, mass low-skilled immigration) that have beset blue collar America over the last thirty years, it is still the case that if you marry the mother or father of your children, take work when you can find it and take pride in what you do, attend church and participate as much as possible in the life of your community, and strive to conduct yourself with honesty and integrity, you are very likely to not only escape material poverty, but more importantly to find happiness in life."

Traditionally, colleges and universities have concerned themselves with some of the behaviors that Douthat cites above. But that attention has diminished over time, particularly as it has to do with making long-term commitments, finding fulfillment in work, attending church, and foregrounding values like honesty and integrity.  That higher ed should care about these things ought to be obvious from our roots in helping students to become something.  And it should be assumed in higher education's commitment to civic engagement.  But if we needed any additional impulse to favor these behaviors, let it be that they also contribute to economic well-being.  And inasmuch as the programs that attend to these concerns reside in the co-curriculum, then it is the co-curriculum--the site of community-building on most campuses--that deserves as much attention as the curriculum.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Larry Summers' next step into education, or being wary of the 'world's best thinkers"

It turns out that Larry Summers' recent NYT editorial about the future of education was a quiet hint about his new educational venture, the Floating University. (I blogged about it here; thanks to Jules Evans' great blog The Politics of Well-Being for the heads-up about the Floating University.) Summers, Steven Pinker, and other denizens of the America's educational upper-class (modestly self-described as "the world's best thinkers") are launching a new online educational venture, based loosely on the "best course model" of education.

I have no way of knowing how good or durable this initiative will be.  The launch video reveals little about how FU will work, preferring to offer snippets of the world's best thinkers passing on nostrums about the great ideas and the value of breaking down disciplinary boundaries.  But let me offer two observations:

1. The notion of low-cost online learning has now followed a predictable trajectory, from the first people posting videos about how to play rock guitar through the optimistic period of open learning into an entrepreneurial phase, where people from powerful institutions are competing with innovators to see who controls the market.  While it remains to be seen how influential the Floating University will be, the fact that famous professors from Harvard, Yale, and the like have a venture out there may mean that the space is closing quickly for non-powerful innovators.

2. I have nothing against great thinkers starting schools, (and am in fact a huge fan of Alain de Botton's School of Life). But I will confess to being a bit bothered at the vanity of "the world's best thinkers" calling themselves such.  The Floating University's teachers are in fact wise and world-renowned.  But it is not  the case that their wisdom is needed nearly as much as they think.  What we know about effective teachers suggests that it is relationships between the teacher and the learner (or whatever else you want to call that relationship) that matters for the student's learning and for her development as a human being. So while learning economics from Larry Summers is undoubtedly a good thing, learning economics with a real human being is a better one. Attribute it to my Intermountain West upbringing and my state university PhD and my decentralist politics but when something is sold to me based on the presence of Harvard, Yale, Bard, and Columbia faculty I have to think it should be opposed on those grounds alone. In the same way that bio-diversity is a good thing in the non-human environment, geographic diversity is a good thing in the human environment.

 (Now if only Wendell Berry and Rebecca Solnit would start a school....)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Can Democracy Upset the Structures of Higher Education?

I am just back from AACU's annual conference in Washington DC. I had high hopes for it, since its core focus was to be about the civic mission of higher education--something I've been passionate about for a long time.

The conference was disappointing--the talk of civic mission hasn't changed much since the 1980s when service-learning exploded in American higher education, and the examples of best practices were tame in comparison with the challenges--cost, access, mission drift, outmoded approaches to leadership, public skepticism about the value of a college degree--that face higher education.

(There were two bright spots: Eboo Patel's call for interfaith dialogue as an act of civic learning, and a few sessions on the intersection of creativity, entrepreneurship, and the arts.)

I've been reflecting on the causes of my dissatisfaction, and I think they come from a single concern.  Higher education will have to change radically to respond to the challenges I listed above.  The question is what will drive the change?  To be too simple about it, there are three potential impulses for change.

  •  Some campuses will change piecemeal, program by program, in response to seemingly discrete forces in the market.  Nursing programs, for example, will offer more Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees because there is a shortage of nursing faculty, because accrediting agencies demand it, and because healthcare providers need to find cheaper ways to provide care.
  • Other campuses will change wholesale in response to powerful outside forces--governments, big organizations, and corporations. We can already see the impact of this source of change in state higher education budgets, legislator critiques of "degrees to nowhere", and the impressive rise of for-profit institutions.  In some ways AACU's efforts to shape change fall here, as it tries to link its effort with the White House and other powerful national/global organizations.
  • Still others will harness the power of democracy as the source of change, in the same way that democracy is changing governments, organizations, and the social sector.
Of the three sources of change, the third is both the most inspiring, most in keeping with the tradition of higher education in the US, and the rarest.  And here is where my dissatisfaction lies.  For while civic engagement has changed courses, created centers, and influenced mission statements, almost no campuses have become radically different because of it. There have been no significant changes in tuition because an institution got together with its constituents and planned a new way to fund the institution.  Campuses haven't found ways to provide more access because real people have demanded it.  New majors aren't the result of crowdsourcing, assessment isn't based on public ratings, etc.

The thing that makes democracy powerful is not that it gets things right.  Democracy is powerful because it holds out hope that the people who are effected by decisions, systems, and structures, have the experience to identify problems, the wisdom to respond to those problems, and the humility to know that there is no solution to big problems, only an on-going commitment to trying to make things better. So we will know if we have found a way to a democratic future for higher education when we see more instances of programs, structures, curricula, systems, and whole institutions changing as a result of sustained engagement between the campus and its communities.  And until then, conferences like AACU's will continue to disappoint.