28.3.06

THINGS THAT CHANGE, THINGS THAT STAY THE SAME. I recently finished David Riesman's Academic Values and Mass Education, a 1970 study of the evolution and travails of Oakland University and Monteith College at Wayne State University. A book is not old if it hasn't been read, and herewith Book Review No. 6.

Oakland University came into being as a Michigan State University project to create a high-powered undergraduate college serving a commuting population. In the Sputnik era, public recognition of a knowledge gap between U.S. youngsters and their overseas contemporaries (sound familiar?) led to public commitment of resources to develop more scientists and technocrats (before the cost-benefit ratios were known.) But rather than set up yet another Albion or Oberlin, let alone another land-grant university, Oakland's founders envisioned something at once elitist and accessible. For a number of reasons (Oakland admitted a local valedictorian whose college boards placed her in the third percentile nationwide being symptomatic of one, the temptations of suburban life providing another) the original experiment did not work well, and Oakland added dorms and athletic teams (their women's basketball team received the Mid-Continent Conference automatic bid Northern Illinois once earned during the time Northern Illinois reconsidered its ambitions to be a major independent) to become yet another suburban-specific public college.

Monteith College at Wayne was an application of the ideas of integrated liberal studies within an urban comprehensive university. Professor Riesman characterized the mindset of Monteith's creators and faculty as "anti-departmentalism." The idea continues to appeal ("The world has problems. The university offers departments.") The execution is another matter. Integrated liberal studies proved popular in the heady 1960s, when the reward to a college degree during the Great Society inflation was high, tenure was a matter of course, and anything-goes criticism of The System was in flower. By the time I arrived at Wayne in 1979, Monteith was being phased out as a college. In some ways the fate of Wayne since then has been a foreshadowing of the academy's fate elsewhere. My position as a specialist in public utilities and industrial economics followed Leonard W. Weiss and C. Emery Troxel. I may not have performed up to the standards they set. On the other hand, my colleagues made me look so good that Northern Illinois made me an offer I couldn't turn down, and in those days Northern Illinois had academic ambitions commensurate with their athletic ambitions. How quickly things change.

But what doesn't change is the questing for a mission for higher education. In 1970, Professor Riesman could still speculate on the end of the Vietnam War changing the educational treadmill, such that ambitious people with a blue-collar bent could prosper without spending the money or the time in college. He could cite legislators pressing for higher teaching loads to preclude professors from using their research time to foment revolution, and revolutionaries pressing for higher teaching loads to preclude professors from using their research time to support the military-industrial complex. Conflicts over curriculum and standards are nothing new, and the 1970 arguments are very much like today's. I found this passage depressing and illuminating.

Deans and presidents of primarily undergraduate institutions are constantly complaining that they have to hire Ph.D.s who have little experience of teaching and little interest in it. In the large universities that emphasize graduate training to do research, T.A.s are thrown into the (usually lower-division) classroom with little grounding in their subject matter and even less development of self-awareness as college teachers.

Currently, much propaganda and a few new structures are being devoted to the efforts to develop a greater interest in teaching on the part of prospective college teachers. One proposal is to create a new degree, the Doctor of Arts, which would be a teaching degree, as against the Ph.D., seen as a research degree. Conceivably, as its proponents hope, the Doctor of Arts degree would not be a second-class degree for those cooled out from Ph.D. programs, but a first-choice degree for those whose commitment would be to college teaching and whose doctoral program would be as demanding as but different from a more research-oriented one. It would include consideration of problems of teaching and learning, practice teaching, and work outside one's immediate field of specialization. Yet, unless major universities hire men, including their own graduates, with Doctor of Arts degrees, it is likely that in fact it will be a less valued degree, somewhat limiting the opportunities of its possessors. Moreover, while deans and presidents of colleges want to hire teaching-oriented faculty, a department chairman may be more ambitious for national visibility -- or vice versa. But beyond such considerations, we think that the emphasis on the purity and virtue of the college teacher who does no research can be overdone.

Whew. Summarize in one paragraph several Cold Spring Shops themes. On one hand, here appears to be a track to what Duke calls "Professor of the Practice of ..." On the other hand, here comes the College of Education bringing its untested notions of pedagogic cosmic justice into the practice of economics.

Some passages in the book tell me more about Professor Riesman than they do about the travails of the experimental colleges. The Monteith faculty were able to obtain cooperation more readily from social scientists other than the economists, although he notes that development economics offered a more congenial set of questions for the other social scientists to engage. The development economics of those days was a curious blend of technocratic statism that failed to deliver lasting prosperity anywhere it was tried, although it made wanna-be technocratic statists in other disciplines comfortable with their prejudices. (Other versions of technocratic statism, such as Russia's instant privatizations and Britain's fragmentation of the railroads failed to perform much better.) Elsewhere, he offers one interpretation of a set of facts that well might be interpreted differently. But overall, he leaves the impression that the current tussle over the role of higher education and the proper balance between teaching and scholarship, let alone access and excellence, is neither new nor likely to go away soon.

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