Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Remake the university? How about we understand its purpose first.

Today's piece is a guest post by Michael Lopez. Michael is a few of my favorite things: an attorney-philosopher-graduate student-educator. He previously guest posted here on our shared alma mater and he also guest posts at Joanne Jacob's blog, Linking and Thinking on Education. His own blog is Highered Intelligence.

"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 here. Please, especially read the block quote from CK Chesterton.) We have universities that provide a liberal arts curriculum for a reason--presumably because the society which attends to such things is a better society. If we "reform" the university, we do so at the risk of losing the benefit of that original purpose. To overstate the case somewhat, by transforming that which gives us a vision of the good life into that which gives us financial success, we risk pursuing money at the expense of our national soul.

I hope readers will excuse me if I'm not quite as eager as Perry and Carey to sprint down that road.


  1. Since I've already read this several times & I knew when it was going up, I can be the first to comment. Ha!

    Besides what you, Michael, state, one of the problems I have with Perry's approach, and as endorsed by Carey, is that it seems to be part of the growing movement to commodify all things, even those that aren't meant to be commodified.

    Sure, we exist in a market economy and sure, that's generally a good system for exchanging or buying and selling many products and services (though certainly not when it becomes crony capitalism). Sure, institutions of higher education, in particular, have to employ at least some business savvy. And certainly, I've met my fair share of college professors and graduate students who say they hate teaching (to whom I'd say, "Please find a new profession") and certainly, most research universitites don't give a rat's ass about quality teaching or pedagogical matters when it is their very business (no pun intended) to care about such matters.

    But. . . at some point education isn't a product and at some point we can't measure or quantify the value of knowledge or of a thought or of an idea. And, to me, the university is one of the only forums left in our country to produce, contemplate, and exchange ideas without the burden of trying to buy and sell them. When the goal is to make that a commodity (or just brush it aside) as a purpose of the university, as it seems Perry and Carey are advocating, I fear we'll lose any intellectual purpose of the university and with that a certain and vital type of freedom.

  2. Interesting post, and I agree with your reservations, but I would go much further in my opposition to the 7 solutions plan, which is not Perry's, but the brainchild of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.
    First, I am bothered by treating higher education as a monolith. The Arum and Roksa study was limited to 24 institutions, which is a lot, but not representative of the massive heterogeneous world of higher ed. A majority of college students are getting 2 year degrees. A majority of professors are not tenure track. Fighting against tenure track professors to me seems more about gaining culture war points than reforming the system in any meaningful way.
    Second, dismissing the research purpose of research universities is incredibly short sighted. What we have now is a number of research heavy universities which the financial incentives are almost entirely research-based (those that aren't football-based, that is). If we want to change that, fine, but don't claim that it is because professors are lazy and incompetent. They have tremendous pressure to perform in another arena, that Perry claims to not value now (like fruit fly research, for example, to cite another recent Republican politician).
    Ok, but if we are to state that universities are there to educate the students, and leave research up to the pharmaceutical industry and the military (who will focus on short term, specific benefits) this is still a very very stupid plan. It looks like what someone would design who hasn't actually given any thought to what education is and how it works. It is a remarkably naive and short-sighted view, that, to my opinion, represents a perverse and limited understanding of both free market principles as well as education. I am all for making education more student-centered. That is what I get paid for. But to make it dependent on some convenient test at the end (the CLA is not perfect or complete) and student evaluations (yes, tying tenure directly to student evaluations, someone who thinks that is a good idea has not had to read through hundreds of student evaluations).
    But this view of education (as serving career goals, satisfaction at the end of the course, and short term academic outcomes) ignores the various complex goals we have for education. Even if we only look at career goals, do I prepare my students to be the FBI agents they all come in saying they want to be (thank you so much, CSI, I really appreciate it) or do I prepare them for to be the teachers, social workers, school psychologists and researchers I know they will become? Do I prepare them for the careers that exist now, or those mythical 21st century jobs in the information economy that I keep hearing about?
    But I've gone too long already. TL:DR Basing our reshaping of education on what makes an 18-year-old happy is like basing our pediatric medicine on whether kids cry in the doctors office. We are already heading that direction, and if we must frame this as a customer-provider relationship, we should keep trying to serve the customer that is the 35-year-old, looking back.

  3. I think I mostly agree with you, Rachel, except that I think I'd draw a distinction between "commodification" on the one hand, and "capitalization" or its evil twin, "commercialization", on the other.

    Intangible goods like ideas and internal fulfillment can't really be given a numeric value through which they can be bought, sold and traded (mostly because they are particular in the extreme, such that my fulfillment simply cannot be transferred to anyone else because it is mine). That doesn't mean that they can't be conceptually isolated and "commodified" in the sense of turned into a product at the end of a process.

    That's what college is, after all: an institutional process designed to bring about the existence of certain intangible, unquantifiable goods.

    But that doesn't mean it can be reduced to a simple dollar value, such that its purchase can then be transferred into some other good and put to market.

    Think of it like a massage. The massage is a commodity. But once you purchase it, you can't capitalize it. It gets consumed in its very acquisition. I can't trade shares in my future massages, and I can't create a secondary market in massages. (Though you can, theoretically, trade in massage futures.)

  4. Well said, Michael. Unfortunately, I think we have exactly that, a secondary market in messages, in the CDO market. What else could you call it when the market is so divorced from the physical thing by several layers of "insurance" and gambling?
    I think you would like this recent article for articulating some of the same logic you voice above. It is a defense of private colleges, but I think quite effectively argues against treating colleges as just any other business:">Bullish on Private Colleges