18.10.10

THE BONFIRE OF THE HUMANITIES. University Diaries extends the conversation.
In the Guardian, a philosophy professor distinguishes between training and higher education.
Instruction leaves a person trained and better informed – but otherwise unaltered. To stand at the threshold of an education, by contrast, is to stand poised before the possibility of an achieved formation and temper of mind which widens perspectives and matures the power of critical judgment. It is this that we commend when we commend education for itself. To be educated is to stand in a critical and creative relationship to ideas, crucially through contact with teachers, who exemplify in their words and demeanour the life of the mind.

If a university has a soul it is to be found here, in the engagement of teachers with their students, in the critical transmission of ideas, including ideas about human nature, that their students have to struggle with and grasp, a struggle that shapes their souls. But this education is becoming more fugitive and teachers less available through a terrible absence of mind, as the ideas that inform the policy and practice of universities slowly eat into their soul.
At University Diaries, the fact that education is not for everybody is a reality.
Not everyone wants it. It sounds weird, intrusive, unpleasant. Plenty of people want to go to football games and learn accounting, and professors aren’t proselytizers.
Some administrators see in the absence of interest in education a business opportunity.

The dean at Anonymous Community, a veteran of a proprietary college, reacting to Stanley Fish reacting to SUNY Albany's self-inflicted restructuring of the humanities, has the best response.
You can’t water down the bottles [an Eighties metaphor for concealing the disappearance of content] forever without fundamentally changing what’s inside them. Albany decided to toss some bottles to save the rest. It’s a debatable choice, but certainly a defensible one, and it offers at least the appeal of abandoning a strategy that has failed for forty years. It also offers the appeal of maintaining quality control -- and yes, jobs -- in the departments that remain.
That's an echo of an observation the Great Northern Railroad's Ralph Budd once made on the passenger train. It was the window through which the world viewed the railroad, and it should either be kept clean, or covered with a dark shade.

On the Great Northern, the choice of the window to cover reflected the cost of providing the service. Thus half of the Twin Ports trains came off, and the Red River, and the Dakotan, but the Winnipeg Limited and the Western Star lasted right up to Amtrak day. According to Doctor Cleveland, that approach doesn't work so well in higher education.
So, when you hear people talking about how the American university needs to be "transformed" and how outdated models need to be swept away, or how universities should be run "more like a business," remember that this is what is being proposed: a shift to the lowest-cost instruction available, and an emphasis on "productivity" in terms of easily measurable units, such as credit hours and credentials, rather than on difficult-to-quantify questions like student learning. Teaching students to speak another language is expensive. Certifying that they sat through a language class can be very cheap indeed.The operation of the free market, which will supposedly make universities innovative and forward-thinking, actually produces more old fashioned big lectures, in which a single faculty member can be paid to teach several hundred students at once. That format is enormously inefficient in terms of student learning; big lectures are clearly less effective than small-group teaching in every field, but when the lecturer is teaching history or economics schools can call the results good enough. This is about economics, rather than teaching economics.

A freer, more economically "rational" market does not produce higher-quality goods in this example, or lower prices. Rather, it leads to lower-quality instruction for increasing prices, with a few flashy deluxe items, such a spring semester in Milano for monolinguists, which exact a hefty price premium for the shopping experience. Welcome to the 21st century.
Economic analysis of those business decisions suggests the cost- and service-cutting will be a mistake, particularly at institutions in the middle of the prestige pecking order. The downsizing mania in business led to the extinction of institutional memory at major firms, a cost saving measure that worked right up to the day something happened that those eager young downsizers had no prior experience with. In the university, the value of the U.S. News rankings will increase, as people will flee to more highly rated institutions. Whether that strategy produces additional value is a matter for another day.

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