"But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution." -CK Chesterton.
Preliminarily, I'd like to thank Rachel for inviting me to guest-blog here once more. I've immense respect for her education writing and am honored to be a part of it. She's asked me to write a "response" to this article in The New Republic about Rick Perry's "higher education vision." The author of the piece is Kevin Carey, the policy director of Education Sector, a DC think tank. And he apparently thinks that Rick Perry has great ideas for the university. So let's do two things up front (besides reading the article): let's identify Perry's ideas, and identify why Carey thinks they're so great.
The article itself provides a link to Perry's "7 Solutions". Carey also provides this brief summary of the relevant steps:
Taken together, the seven solutions are remarkably student-friendly. Four of them focus on improving the quality of university teaching by developing new methods of evaluating teaching performance, tying tenure to success in the classroom, separating the teaching and research functions within university budgets, and using teaching budgets to reward professors who excel at helping students learn. The fifth solution would give prospective students choosing colleges more information about things like class size, graduation rates, and earnings in the job market after graduation. The sixth would make state higher education subsidies more student-focused, and the seventh would shift university accreditation toward measures of academic outcomes.So what's so wonderful about these efforts on Carey's account? Well, the long and the short of it is that both Carey and Perry share a vision of the role of the university in our society, a vision that has quite a grip on our collective consciousness these days. That vision has a few assumptions behind it: (1) that the role of the university is primarily economic; (2) that the university is part of the "social assembly line" that our elementary and high schools have become in which institutions produce citizens something in the way a screw machine turns out screws; and, (3) that college benefits (or should benefit) everyone who attends, and, specifically, does so through advancing their career prospects.
We can see these assumptions at play throughout Carey's article. For example:
A landmark study of college student learning published earlier this year by the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa of NYU and the University of Virginia found that “American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students, and persistent or growing [race- and income-based] inequalities over time.” Fixing this problem ought to be a bipartisan concern.That Carey assumes that these findings "should" be a universal concern convinces me that he doesn't even entertain two notions: (1) that university might not actually have as its mission teaching everyone equally; and, (2) that the university may not be a suitable a tool for eliminating at least some race- and income-based inequalities. These aren't implausible views, in my estimation, and they deserve at least consideration.
The balance of the article is really more about progressivism than it is about Rick Perry. (Although one might have guessed this by looking at the last sentence of the first paragraph, the traditional location of the "thesis statement."--Carey's doesn't mention Perry at all, despite the title and the picture.) His conclusion is, essentially, that progressives should be seriously committed to their goals of equality-through-social-engineering, that they should treat the university as a tool to accomplish those goals, and that they shouldn't allow party-line loyalty to interfere with their vision. Carey is, in other words, calling for a more consistent progressive idealism that pursues goals over political positioning:
Making college more accessible and affordable is, of course, the foundation of progressive higher education policy. Yet Democrats in Texas have almost uniformly denounced Perry’s plans.Running through much of this discussion is a common theme: that students aren't getting everything they should from college, that some professors are not great teachers, and that the university is failing in its primary mission to educate the population and prepare them for the workforce. And there's no doubt in my mind whatsoever that universities are, indeed, failing to prepare students for the workforce. Carey and I agree about that.
Where we disagree is that I question whether universities should be in the workforce-preparation business in the first place. That might seem like a bit of heresy these days, when the phrase "get a college degree" is almost ubiquitously followed with the words "in order to get a good job." But the fact of the matter is that while certain portions of the university are geared towards employment preparation--schools of engineering, education, law, medicine, and the like--the undergraduate curriculum is typically a curriculum in the liberal arts. That is, it is a preparation not for employment, but for life as a free, educated member of the civic body. The university has always had this split, since its inception: there was the arts curriculum on the one hand, and then there was advanced study in Theology, Medicine, or Law on the other.
The study of the liberal arts-- the preparation to live a civic life--is primarily about maturity, reflectiveness, and grounding in culture and philosophy. It's about the development of reason and the contextualization of experience, all so that one's "wider view" of the world might be brought to bear in the course of one's life. Public universities were established in order to make this sort of personal development more available to the populace, on the theory that an informed citizenry is a better citizenry, not necessarily a wealthier citizenry. (Please note that I am referring only to the more common programs at colleges of Arts and Sciences; there is a difference between the purposes of liberal arts programs on the one hand, and technical colleges such as Texas A&M on the other.)
Now perhaps this is something that we should hope for everyone, and maybe college should be more accessible, and cheaper. But if so, it's not because college is simply the last step in preparation for the workforce. The benefit of college (in the sense I'm talking about) isn't economic and the outcome of a college education should not be judged in terms of either economic outcome or economic parity.
This vision of the university does not see the professor as a content-delivery system. That is the role of the teacher in high school, which really is an institution developed and geared towards the distribution of foundational skills for use in one's economic life. Indeed, the K-12 system was developed after the university system, and can credibly be seen as a way to fill a foundational-skills void that the university system was never designed to address. A college professor is not a high school teacher; a professor is there because he or she ostensibly has a subject-matter expertise that makes him or her a resource for those who would like to learn about those things. The burden of learning, however, is on the student; the college student should be one who can teach him or herself, and who can use the professor as a resource in their own educational development.
The high school, by contrast, is an institution for imparting foundational skills that enable students to pursue their own goals and interests. If we see education as the project of providing students with the ability to lead good, flourishing lives, we can see high school as providing the student with the means, the capacities for action, while the liberal arts curriculum helps refine the student's goals.
Yet somewhere along the line--I suspect it was in the 60's--someone decided that college should become the new high school, that a college degree should be the natural continuation and culmination of the basic-skills acquisition that the K-12 system was designed to impart. Progressives like Kevin Carey see college as a way to level the playing field, to achieve their dream of economic egalitarianism. But I think it's the wrong tool for the job, and by leaving it to colleges to pick up the slack left off by a failing high school system that has substantially abandoned any attempt at hard and fast academic standards, we're asking colleges to deliver something that they are not originally equipped to deliver.
It's hardly a surprise that colleges fail at tasks for which they are, by design, incredibly ill-suited. That failure may be a problem, but by proposing seven-point reforms like those advocated by Perry, we're not "fixing" the university, but rather reshaping it into something else.
Now maybe that's really for the best. So far, I've been merely descriptive, offering an alternative vision of the university. It happens that, historically speaking, my vision is much more accurate than Perry's or Carey's. But that doesn't mean it's the best vision for our future. Nevertheless, I think that it's important that we understand what we are doing, and that we avoid the fallacy of Chesterton's Fence, that is, the reform or changing of institutions without regard to the purposes for which they were initially constructed. (Megan McArdle discusses that fallacy
I hope readers will excuse me if I'm not quite as eager as Perry and Carey to sprint down that road.