Monday, January 27, 2014

Thoughts on the future of education...

I had some time to think more about the future of college education this weekend. I thought I'd share some of my thoughts.

1. First, it seems strange, but I think some college professors can begin to think of their job as some sort of divine right, like a king. My job, they might think, is to school the masses. My task is to correct the faulty thinking of the pleb. My God-like task is to bring truth to the fallen mind. I am superior to the student in every way and, like a prison jailer, am justified to show these criminals how wicked they are.

I hope you have not encountered any egregious examples of the above (especially at any Wesleyan college) but, rest assured, they are out there. Nevertheless, I think some professors--without even realizing it--can find themselves behaving as if students are privileged to study with them. Even in ministerial training, seminary professors can behave as if their primary charge is to correct the paltry thinking of future ministers.

I'm thinking of the seminary professor at an unnamed school who (illegally, I think) required students to give him 20 dollars if they slipped up and used a masculine pronoun for God. That student transferred out the next semester to another seminary that is near and dear my heart (whose name I won't mention ;-).

2. Now there are students who will pay to be abused like the above. It becomes a rite of passage, like going through basic training. And of course, then when they graduate they may feel as if they now have the right to berate everyone else for how stupid they are.

I would hope, of course, that a college professor does know more about the subject they are teaching than the student. Otherwise, they certainly shouldn't be the professor. And there are many students who are interested in truth for truth sake. There are students who go somewhere to study with a particular brilliant mind. There will hopefully always be research universities that push the boundaries of knowledge. And I hope most colleges and universities will have a clear place for this minority of students--the ones I love the most.

3. But the previous paragraph is a minority report. Much more fundamentally, education is a business. Colleges are selling something, and students are buying something. Suffice it to say, a company that sells the opportunity to be berated by someone is not a good business model. A company that primarily sells getting to watch a brilliant person write to someone else (that is, to publish rather than to teach) is not a good business model. There are colleges who are selling prestige and that is as valid as the market for it.

But in the vast majority of cases, colleges are meant to sell a concretely better future for the student. Sure, they also sell four years of campus fun, like a four year youth camp. This is the product most students are buying. But parents are buying a better future for their children. They are buying the potential for a better job.

Most are not buying a better person. That is to say, they are not paying money primarily to improve the virtue or brilliance of their children. They are buying a future job. In many cases today, especially in Christian circles, they hope they are actually buying indoctrination, quite the opposite of what many professors are selling.

4. So education is a business, and the consumer is buying knowledge and skills that will help them get a job that will help them have a better life. What does this say in terms of who colleges should hire? It implies that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, colleges and universities should be hiring people who are good teachers, not good researchers. And, unfortunately, it is not just that they need to be good teachers but the consumer needs to perceive them to be such--the students need to feel like they are getting a good product.

Again, there are always those who are interested in truth for truth's sake. And a professor needs to have something to give. The knowledge needs to be there. But the primary task has to be teaching.

5. Now it is true that there is often a divide between what is popular and what is true. This is a challenge. The parent and student want to move toward knowledge that will lead toward success. I hate to say it, but knowledge can actually make a person less successful. Consider the following train of thought:
  • If the majority world thinks a certain way that is false.
  • And a student becomes educated to think in a way that is true.
  • The student may become less marketable in the majority world.
It is deeply ironic that education can actually make a person less marketable. Many institutions in fact exist in part to insulate children from certain ideas in play, sometimes those held by the majority of experts. From the standpoint of the student, even, there can be parts of a curriculum in relation to which they do not see the relevance or usefulness. I'm thinking especially of the liberal arts here.

In a business, it is more important that the consumer think the product is desirable than for it to actually be desirable. Accordingly, it does not matter that we know the liberal arts are useful. Colleges have to package them in a way that they feel useful or pleasurable.

This calls for great care in curriculum planning. In marketing, colleges and universities must emphasize the things that the consumer thinks are most desirable. Yet it is legitimate for experts in various fields to present new options and new ways of thinking. If those ways of thinking ring true, then some students of their own free will will choose them. It is very important in such cases that professors help students know how to hold unpopular ideas in a positive and influential way.

6. Finally, the liberal arts need to be sold for their instrumental value. Many of us believe they are valid in their own right. Good literature doesn't have to do anything but give pleasure to the reader. But in the business context of education, we have to show things like the following (and arrange those courses accordingly):
  • Philosophy makes students better thinkers, which makes them better employees. 
  • History helps students think in terms of causes and effects, which helps them deal with people and anticipate where certain decisions will lead.
  • Writing is so important in so many jobs. Many employers would love an employee who could write.
  • Literature enriches our bed-side manner. It makes us more than robots but people with feelings.
  • Psychology and sociology can help us get along with others, a key skill for an employee.
  • Math and science not only help us be better thinkers, but there are often certain kinds of skills in a job that require some sort of math skill.
  • Theology and Bible courses help Christians know the kinds of values that a person should have in life. Not only are these of eternal value but what employer would not want employees that have integrity?
7. To summarize, the successful college of the future will 1) create a campus environment that is full of pleasure and all the enjoyment we all associate with our college years--AND BE SAFE.  It will 2) primarily have good teachers (rather than just researchers) and not only good teachers but teachers that students perceive to be good teachers and enjoy (dare I say good entertainers should be part of this mix).

3) It will be very careful when the majority of experts think differently than the majority of the populace or its market. It must not force ideas on students but it should try to be salt and light, not confrontational. It should help students know how to hold unpopular positions in a hostile environment. 4) It should emphasize the usefulness and benefit of things like the liberal arts, not treat them as ends in themselves.

8. Of course I've had other thoughts before about the question of costs and competition. I have suggested that a BS could be a shorter version of a richer BA. I supported Keith Drury's sense that the competitive general education portions of college curricula may increasingly be online.

So there you have some more thoughts on the future of education in the US...


John Hawthorne said...

Ken: I hope you'll excuse a long-ish response. As you know, I've written a book that deals closely with the themes you're reflecting on so I've got my own visions as well.

1. I agree with you about the Special Professor. I've known people who seemed to want to be the topic of conversation in the cafeteria ("Can you believe that thing Dr. so and so said"). Higher Ed is confusing enough without having to tolerate acting out behaviors by middle-aged academics.

2. If education is a business and not a virtue-producer, then we're all headed toward credential selling. It leads to a natural race to the bottom. What makes institutions like yours and mine distinctive is that we think that the life-service of education is experienced as character. It's not the job but the kind of person holding that job. Some of that is better money than one could earn as a high school graduate. But more importantly, it's someone who can engage the broader world in true witness without relying on either pat answers or separatism. I'm not sure that students or parents articulate that well, but it's what they're looking for in Christian universities. It's incumbent on us to help them shift their value expressions from simple security (jobs and college debts) to character and impact (discipleship).

3. I was troubled by your use of the term "instrumental" in point #6. I understand the usefulness of the liberal arts and want to celebrate that, but it's not about useful attributes in a future job but about how to be an ambassador for Christ in a complex and religiously diverse world. That shifts the liberal arts from being "good to know" to being essential for pursuing holiness.

4. I'd only be in favor of outsourcing General Education to online or MOOC format if we have no real reason for thinking those courses have unique value. I think they're intricately connected to both institutional mission and Christian living, so I'll keep fighting on that front.

5. The issues of cost and debt come to the fore because of national reporting that we don't dispute. Heard on NPR last week a discussion of someone looking at an elite private college on the east coast. She said that tuition, room, and board ran $60K, which "was true for most schools". That's patently false by about $25K. But we've been so afraid to have conversations about value in Christian higher education that we've ceded the conversation to others.

Hope we can continue the dialogue. I've been chatting with folks along the I-69 corridor lately and am thinking we need some kind of big consultation to discuss stuff like this in person and across institutions.

becky thada said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
::athada:: said...

Huge distinction as you obviously know been the liberal arts crowd and R1 institutions. Speaking from my natural sciences perspective, ground-breaking research of any volume can't happen if you are teaching 9-12 credits / semester (at a high quality). 1-3 courses/yr with a host of graduate students at hand is more the rule. I like the idea of big endowments set up for the pursuit of knowledge - funding authors & researchers. Still an entire world of basic stuff we are ignorant of.

The value-added portion of my liberal arts experience at IWU was mostly the low student-faculty ratio (availability). You can't get that without giving up research time. Thus the majority of IWU/Taylor folks in the nat. sciences don't do research in any volume (among other reasons). That is not problematic, as they are not research institutions, as long as they are still engaging with the research community (conferences, papers, trends). A very few, however, still make great contributions in their area. They generally have 0-1 low maintenance kids, work long hours year-round, and are perpetually curios.

The increasingly utilitarian tilt will push hard in my area (field-based biology/environmental science) which does not pay back $60K+ in debt very fast. Enrollment-driven institutions are seeing biology as a pre-med tool. Personally, that GPA-obsessed environment drove me towards the flora and fauna (though of course I thank God for good doctors!). The economic argument is that having a marketable skill ($$$) is a sign that you are actually being useful to humanity.

::athada:: said...

I will say that there are a minority of profs who do neither research nor are helpful at connecting the dots to employment ("um... go to grad school like I did?"). You have that in any work environment, of course.