Thursday, August 12, 2010

What's the Answer to Higher Education, Gertrude?" "Alice, What Is The Question?*

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – And What We Can Do About It. New York: Times Books, 2010). 271 pp., index; $26.00 hardcover.

For those of you have aspirations to publish for a popular market, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s contribution to the contemporary national debate about higher education does a lot of things right. The title poses a question and answers it – enticing you into a text that proposes to tell you the details that link the two. It has been cannily released in what is normally a slack summer book season (in other words, after the Summer Reading List issues of the Nation, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker; and right before these same publications announce what should be on your agenda for the fall.) Best of all, it is designed to freak out all the parents who are about to write their first $25,000 check (or some combination of cash and I.O.U.’s) to the college of their child’s choice, and the parents of rising seniors who are about to begin the College Admissions Derby. Imagine all these parents buying this book to find out that they are, or will be, paying for – nothing!

Full disclosure: although I am not quoted in the book, I had a very enjoyable phone interview with one of its authors. Furthermore, like Jesse Lemisch over at New Politics, I found that many of its themes speak to real issues in the academy: the casualization of teaching labor, the lack of curricular direction, ginormous corporate salaries paid to top executives, the failure of faculties to reform their own practices, and the high cost – in dollars and mortgaged futures – are but a few things that deserve more attention than they are getting.

My problem is this: Dreifus and Hacker treat the diverse field that is higher education with such a broad brush, and are so vague as to what the structural causes of the problems they identify are, that it is hard to know what we should take away from this book, why it asserts the things it does, or who the authors think the agents of change for higher education are supposed to be. They offer a vast range of critiques – many of which are the topic of regular debate in the education literature – but the agenda for reform is vague except for the familiar, free-market notion that parents can create change by taking their education dollars elsewhere.

Higher Education reserves some of its harshest criticism for a few of the most selective schools (which are referred to as the “Golden Dozen,” a term I can honestly say after a lifetime of working in universities I have never heard) and spends less time than it should on public schools like Evergreen (Washington State) and New College (Florida), which are truly innovative, teaching-oriented and inexpensive. The authors have a tendency to compare the apples over here with the oranges over there, spreading their analysis of schools over all the chapters. Because of this, even a professional educator like myself ends with very little sense of what a formula for a good college education really looks like, or how I, as a scholar, might contribute to a reform agenda (except by giving up research and writing, and returning my salary.) Worst, Higher Education gives non-professionals very little sense of how the different facets of university life work might, and sometimes do, work together to produce a good undergraduate education.

Hence, the biggest point Higher Education misses making is that the flaws in, and expense of, an undergraduate degree have evolved as a result of a privatization agenda that shifts a variety of costs formerly undertaken by government and private industry (through taxation) to students and their parents. Without this larger context the book's most salient points (that an undergraduate education is nearly unaffordable, and that the liberal arts are being de-emphasized for undergraduate training that can be immediately converted to a paying job) are far less meaningful. Privatization explains the shift towards what the authors identify as "The Triumph of Training” in chapter 6: students believe that their BA’s should certify them for the career that will pay back their bank loans; and corporations can hire workers for low-level corporate jobs without the expense of training them.

(Short irrelevant question: did Barbara Ehrenreich and Jonathan Kozol read this book before they blurbed it? Or were they in a particularly ecumenical mood when they did? Because Hacker and Dreifus's argument is more or less the exact opposite of what Ehrenreich and Kozol have argued on behalf of for years.)

Higher Education’s most consistent point throughout is that a college education costs too much (I agree); that students graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in loans (I agree – although the authors should have devoted a chapter to the consequences of this); that administrators are being hired and paid on a corporate scale (I agree); that college faculties rarely explain why they do what they do, or what an undergraduate education ought to look like (I agree); and that colleges and universities are providing vast numbers of services, entertainments and extra-curriculars that are driving the cost of higher education up without improving the quality of education (I agree.) There’s also quite a nice chapter at the end of the book that remarks on schools that they thought were exciting, and that advises parents to “think out of the box” when helping their children put together a list of potential colleges. My one caveat is that while they mention the establishment of “honors colleges” at Arizona State and Ole Miss that offer a liberal arts experience at a public school price, my question is: what is so innovative about creaming off 20% of an incoming class and giving them something “special” – while letting the remaining 80% flounder? It’s called tracking, and it’s not reform unless everybody gets access to the same small classes and high standards.

But the things that I liked about this book were too frequently negated by discussions that I found hasty and ill informed. I found Hacker and Dreifus’s grasp of the state of affirmative action thin, particularly since they mostly address admission to the “Golden Dozen.” Their views about the role race plays in higher education more generally are partial at best and incoherent at worst. The way in which this subject is glossed without any reference to social class or a family history of higher education also leaves the false impression that all Black students need “help” of one kind or another in the admissions process; and opposes this to stereotypical notions of an Asian “model minority."

Another problem – given that the real focus of the book is on a consumer-driven model of education -- is that many of their discussions assume a more or less one-to-one relationship between tuition dollars and university spending on a variety of things that, they rightly argue, have nothing, or little, to do with the classroom. Interestingly, this mirrors the current Republican position on the national deficit, as if the national deficit and social programs have a direct relationship to each other that is separable from tax policy and military spending.

Without a more nuanced discussion of why university budgets operate the way they do, what student needs are, how services support classrooms, what drives the perceived need for administrative staff (particularly in student services), false assumptions about lavish spending on unnecessary frills leap out. For example, when they cite the high cost of scientific research, Hacker and Dreifus don’t make it clear that although the money for research is often frontloaded by universities, scientists are expected to earn it back in the form of grants (many of which are corporate) – and that not infrequently, patents from their work and overhead extracted from grants go back into the university’s coffers as profit. As a second example, many faculty members would agree that management is top-heavy and overpaid: but who exactly is going to handle the 10,000 + applications received at every liberal arts school? Who will support the mandate to provide accommodation for the disabled? Who will raise the private and foundation dollars to replace lost federal and state dollars? And who will manage the infinitely more complex budgets that result? While it appears that numerous faculty were interviewed for this book, it is rare that we hear from an administrator, except when s/he is doing something fabulous, like refusing a salary over 400 K.

Although Dreifus and Hacker both teach, they don’t dig very deeply into a variety of other reasons that higher education, particularly public colleges and universities, have become so much more expensive, and so much less invested in the liberal arts. The most important of these would be the end of the Cold War, which slashed funding for a variety of fields that were critical to the arts and social sciences, from Anthropology to Russian. Twenty years of other federal cuts to universities followed, cuts that have also been made by state legislatures even in the most flush economic times. At the same time, the same legislatures, and their State Boards of Regents, have amped up and failed to supervise lavish D-I sports programs that have a use ‘em and lose ‘em attitude toward students. For example, the New Jersey State Legislature just cut Rutgers University’s budget by 15% -- having authorized in the past decade the creation of a multi-million dollar football program, with a new stadium. As another example when, in 2009, Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun publicly gave Governor Jody Rell the finger in response to her request that he accept a 10% cut in his multi-million dollar salary like every other state worker, what politician – the governor included -- demanded that he accept the cut?

Those who follow Margret Soltan's University Diaries will be glad to know there is a whole chapter on why big-time college sports are a waste of money, but this chapter also misses crucial details. For example, Dreifus and Hacker never mention that athletics at many public schools are partly funded by a mandatory “student activity fee,” which every student must pay even if s/he is working 40 hours a week to finance her education and would never dream of going to a football game. They also do not mention that there are viable ways to keep a sport competitive and fun without tremendous expense to others: the club sport model, on which the school contributes a token amount and the athletes raise the money themselves. Or that to some of us, commitment to athletic excellence is a sign of character and often correlates with academic achievement, particularly in women.

Perhaps my greatest disappointment with Higher Education is that the authors are over the top disparaging about the work of most faculty, much as the collapse of the auto industry is often blamed on the greediness of auto workers, rather than the failures of management. This is also a place where collapsing all schools great and small, public and private, truly undermines their argument because their targets are salaries and research. Worse, it is faculty who – in many ways – need to be rallied to produce change, and the book does its best to alienate them. Hacker and Dreifus offering little, or selective, explanations for the following assertions:

Faculty members are, by and large, elitist and selfish, consumed with their research, and uninterested in their students. While Dreifus and Hacker offer a few good examples of faculty who are devoted teachers, the book emphasizes that indifference to students is the state of play. While Zenith didn’t make it into the “Golden Dozen” (thank God), I have to tell you – we are not that different from Amherst and Williams, who did, and the vast majority of us who work at small colleges care deeply about our teaching and our students. Some of us stay in our jobs despite our discomfort with the high cost of private colleges because our teaching is nurtured, rewarded and encouraged there. We don’t all agree on what “good teaching” is, it’s true – but on the other hand, neither do the authors. At the beginning of the book, they chastise faculty for not making contact with their students; towards the end they seem to think distance learning from adjuncts is a pretty good solution to ameliorating high tuitions. So which is it that we strive for, guys -- the magical relationship with the prof or the magical and thrifty relationship with a grader and a video monitor?

Faculty members are overpaid. This, I would have to say, stung, particularly in a year where I received a raise far below COLA, after having received no raise the year before because of the recession. Where Dreifus and Hacker got the idea that “education is a public service job,” or that faculty are all prancing around in designer clothes paid for with hard-earned tuition dollars, I don’t know. When they count the hours we “work” they count classroom hours: not the time planning classes, meeting with students, keeping up with our fields, writing lectures, grading papers (no, most of us do not have assistants who do this) planning and running majors, chairing departments – the list goes on. While there are a vast number of adjuncts who are -- as Carey Nelson the original Tenured Radical, would say – working for food, I don’t think $100,000 a year is too much to pay someone after ten years of education, eight years of probationary service, and between five and ten years at the associate ranks. And, although this is the salary that is cited over and over, the fact is that the vast number of full-time, tenured or tenure-track faculty make well below 100K. Gaps at rank at the same institution, and even within the same department, can be enormous. On what basis would our salaries be decided? That isn’t clear. And why should education professionals at the peak of their career be working at a wage that might otherwise be earned by a social worker, priest or Teach for America trainee?

Scholarly research is unnecessary. Hence, sabbatical and research funding is unnecessary (the sarcastic crack about spending a year that the bulk of us spend writing and doing research in Tuscany “recharging” was just nasty.) Where advanced knowledge in the humanities and social sciences is supposed to come from, who will support it if universities don’t, or what we will actually have to teach undergraduates twenty years from now if everyone with a Ph.D. stops doing research and writing, is not clear. The vast majority of us can’t get a commercial publisher to give us the time of day, so big advances like Higher Education got are out as a source of funding. Dreifus and Hacker’s suggestion -- that people interested in research should be at think tanks instead of teaching in a university, or that they can use their “three-day weekends” for their scholarship is, frankly, just thoughtless.

Faculties neglect the teaching of basic knowledge, teaching specialized courses out of their research so that they won’t have to work hard. It is simply not a fact that a departmental curriculum that offers numerous specialized courses is invariably neglecting its responsibility to core knowledges, offering students a variety of trivia instead that give them no clear view of the field. The authors do not even come close to proving that it is, or that students find this to be a problem. Two of the oddest critiques in this vein were the assertion that in an introductory English class students ought not to be asked to read a little Foucault (theory, in general, is perceived here as extraneous to the needs of an undergraduate); and the assertion that if one Chemistry class is required of an undergraduate, it should be a survey of the field – not the introduction that might lead students into the major.

I found these strange because both are highly arguable and other points of view are not articulated. Like him or not, Foucault changed the field of literature, and learning to read theory is a skill, just as calculus is, that is useful to pursuing a variety of majors. And as for Chemistry – most of us non-scientists would say just the opposite: make students take a real science course that does what other introductory courses are supposed to do, which is give a student entrée to a major. Don’t have them take one of those B$ “science for poets” courses that they know perfectly well is to “satisfy a requirement” and “make them well-rounded” – not to challenge or stimulate them. Students can see through this kind of curricular window-dressing in a second.

Because the book is so broad brush, the question Dreifus and Hacker never ask is: what would be a fundamental set of values to re-organize higher education around? How can we make it affordable? How can we restore the "public" in public education? Why does it matter to have private and religious schools in the mix, and what are we willing to do as a society to support that? What are curricular models that students and faculty, together, find powerful – and why? Why have the choices in higher education narrowed so dramatically in the past twenty years, and why have so many progressive colleges become so conventional?

And what would a greater national commitment to higher education look like that actually put the interests of students first?

*This riffs off of a famous, and probably apocryphal, exchange that is said to have occurred between between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein on Stein's deathbed in 1946.


Unknown said...

I appreciate your review--having read some of the early press & interviews, this is pretty much what I expected. It's not that I don't think there's plenty to critique about faculty, but to assume that all of us are interested only in research (and advancement) at the expense of our students is hogwash, and as a comp/rhet specialist I take particular offense.

Jeremy said...

Tuscany? Sabbaticals? 100K for full professors? Why, I believe the authors did not ever visit a southern public university, especially below the flagship level. No Tuscany jaunts here! But it is reassuring to know the authors will get paid to provide further ammo for administrators seeking to not offer COL increases. No raises here since 07...

Between this and the CHE piece on Bill Gates' vision of online lectures at the expense of face to face classes that could drive tuition down to 2K for a degree, it has been a depressing week.

Historiann said...

I was just talking with my department Chair yesterday about the pressure many at our uni feel to try to compete with the Kaplans and the U. of Phoenixes by offering online courses and "concurrent (high school) enrollment" for college credit AND grade transfer. She and I both agree that bricks-and-mortar institutions are idiots to sell their birthrights (as it were) and not to sell the value of what we offer versus online/distance ed and the like. But as she said, many consumers of higher education are very uninformed as to *why* it's worth more to attend a real university (and not a for-profit student-loan skimming flimflam operation). Sadly, this book will only stoke that ignorance.

I'm with Jeremy. No raises here since 2008. Zippo. Zilch. And can anyone tell me that what we offer at Baa Ram U. for $5,000 a year is somehow a BAD DEAL? And it's half price if you come from a family making less than $50,000/yr. (That would include many of our own faculty now, of course!)

Christ on a cracker. This book mirrors my observations about how easy it is to get a big book contract if you're a young woman who writes about how we no longer need feminism, or if you're explicitly antifeminist. Selling the message that higher ed is overpriced and frequently irrelevant sounds like a message meant for the rubes. Where exactly did the authors train? Where did they send their children to school? The American ruling class likes its monopoly just fine, and thinks higher ed is well worth the sacrifice.

Needlelover said...

You managed to sound astonishingly restrained even as your review drove me into a bloodletting frenzy (it's okay, I live somewhere pretty rural - little blood to let). Credit to you.

Historiann, The American ruling class likes its monopoly just fine, and thinks higher ed is well worth the sacrifice. - EXACTLY, and yet whenever you try to explain this to people their eyes just glaze over. What - is being successful (forget about learned) not a value in this country any more? (Don't ask me, I'm not from here.)

Anonymous said...

You cite Evergreen (Oregon). Do you mean Evergreen State College, which is in Olympia. Washington.

Anonymous said...

Two observations:
1) New College of Florida is a helluva place and maybe the best private college deal in America;

2) The University Scholars program at Ole Miss has been going on for at least 50 years (I was in it in 1960). I don't think that Mississippi has the means to provide this type of program to all students or that most students would even want it (it wouldn't pass the "How does it make me rich in the future?" test.)

Encouraging to see that you are aware of these programs, though.


anthony grafton said...

You're kinder than I would be. I felt that Hacker and Dreifus swallowed pretty much everything any president told them about faculty obstructionism, and that they responded to most faculty comments with an eye-rolling contempt reminiscent of Sarah Palin. Their comment on what the humanities are like now (a subject they deal with in one clause) was pure WSJ editorial: no research there. Not much anywhere, in fact: a lot of their footnotes are to articles they've clipped from the papers and CHE.

In the end, it seems to me, they want professors teaching all day, 50 weeks a year, for $50K. Not a gracious plan, coming from folks who occupy their place on the food chain.

So thanks for a fair-minded review; I'm going to reread and see if I was too harsh.

Prof in Humanities said...

Dear TR:
Excellent post, simply wonderful. It is too bad that you did not get to write the book that should have been written about problems (and suggestions for fixing them) in higher education. Hacker and Dreyfuss (the first one aptly named, it seems) are just spouting the same anti-intellectual rhetoric one hears in the media these days, or at backyard barbeques, etc. I am frankly quite sick about it and I echo the sentiments of your other respondents to this post... As a tenured Chair at a relatively prestigious east-coast university, I will not see 100K in my lifetime. I work hard to know my students, every one of them, whether they are super-genius or merely wonderfully smart, which all our undergraduates are. I do do research, and it only helps my students, since I am able (sometimes) to bring my new ideas into my classes and challenge my students to deconstruct my arguments and assumptions. They have all gained from these exchanges, as they will all say publicly, and I know this because I keep in touch with about 75% of them after graduation. I am able to bring in my research to the classroom, however, very rarely, since it is highly specialized. My teaching usually centers around general classes for the university and for requirements, and I am happy to teach these classes, as I enjoy them very much, since as an intellectually, I am actually interested in a wide variety of topics and subfields within my discipline. I have never once taught a whole course in my area of research. The most I get to talk about it "in depth" is for one day in an advanced seminar I do on a related topic. So where authors like Hacker and Dreyfuss get off on making these grand claims about professors really just baffles me.
But you and your other readers know these things already -- I only wish that somehow we could make our voices heard to the audiences of books like these....

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Shitte, TR. Your posts are getting longer and longer! Writte a fucken bookke!

Higher Education reserves some of its harshest criticism for a few of the most selective schools (which are referred to as the “Golden Dozen,” a term I can honestly say after a lifetime of working in universities I have never heard) and spends less time than it should on public schools like Evergreen (Oregon) and New College (Florida), which are truly innovative, teaching-oriented and inexpensive.

I have no idea what this "Golden Dozen" is, but the elite universities are doing a perfectly good job of achieving their goals. The problems lie in the public institutions that promise class mobility to their students.

shaz said...

Raise? I'll be happy to just not have a paycut.

Brilliantly said. Happy to see you are #2 when googling Hacker Dreifus. People will likely learn more reading your (free) blog than their ($26) book. I guess they are right, though: sometimes the expensive option just isn't worth the money...

Historiann said...

HA-ha to Shaz's observation, and hooray for the non-peer reviewed world wide timewasting interwebs. (But, I'm pretty sure the Hacker and Dreifus tome WASN'T peer-reviewed, either!)

JackDaniels Black's comment that it's "[e]ncouraging to see that [we] are aware of these programs is part of the problem we face. Why is it surprising to anyone that Professors actually know something about higher education? Why is expertise in education assumed to be something educators can't possibly possess? (And I'm not arguing with you here or picking on you, Jack. I think your surprise is representative of how most people would react to the ideas here.) We work in the field. We know people who teach at other institutions. We hear stuff. We read about things we don't hear about directly from our colleagues and friends.

This is all of a piece with the notion that career educrats--people with business experience and zero classroom time like Michelle Rhee, Michael Bennet, and Arne Duncan--are actually better equipped to manage educational institutions than educators. Why is education too important to be entrusted to the educators?

Anonymous said...

Having just finished the book, I feel rather like I've been caught in a bait and switch. I found myself agreeing with them …and then suddenly wondering 'huh'? Ah, the Palinization continues!

Anonymous said...

Historiann, I must take exception to your assertion that we need educators to be administrators in education. By this reasoning, doctors and nurses should administer hospitals, and an ex-assembly line worker should run Ford or Toyota.

In any case, Ms. Rhee does have classroom experience. From her Wikipedia entry:
Rhee taught in Baltimore, Maryland as a recruit of Teach For America for three years. According to her resume, over a two-year period she moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.

And God knows, the DC school system needed considerable shaking up, as do many of our schools. It seems to me that allowing incompetent educators at these schools does a big disservice to the poor and disadvantaged students who we presumably want to help.

Why should I be encouraged (I didn't say surprised, I said encouraged) that TR knew about the Ole Miss honors program and the New College of Florida? Because I have personally known many "educators" at elite and semi-elite schools who could care less about such things.

Jack Daniels Black

Tenured Radical said...

To follow the thread started by JDB and Historiann:

What is interesting about Toyota, of course, is the tremendous amount of authority assembly line workers do have. I heard an interesting interview on NPR about "stopping the line" which is apparently anathema in American plants, sometimes resulting in cars that won't even start at the end of the assembly process. Toyota workers (the guy interviewed was American and had previously worked at Ford) talked about how workers are *encouraged* to stop the line when something is wrong so that the problem can be fixed, traced back to its source, and the process be examined by management and workers together.

Similarly, workers are encouraged to make suggestions about how the workplace can be more efficient and comfortable. Workers have worked with efficiency experts to create special devices that allow them to be properly supported so that they can prevent repetitive motion injuries.

This is an example where education could learn from a well-functioning corporate model, in my view, since part of what is wrong with administration-faculty relations is the divide and mutual contempt that prevents reform.

As to public universities, my deep commitment to public education is perpetually frustrated by the lack of jobs available in them due to cuts in public funding. But yes, I admire these institutions enormously (Ole Miss has also done some amazing things to overcome its segregationist past that many schools, including my own, might profitably examine.)

Anonymous said...

The way Ole Miss "overcame its segregationist past" is interesting. The major changes were made under Chancellor Robert Khayat, who was a former Ole Miss student and athlete as well as a pro football player. It would appear that a football hero can get away with anything, even banning the Confederate Battle flag at football games, in Mississippi! Dr. Khayat also took measures to reduce student drinking at this notorious party school. Maybe college football isn't so bad after all, TR.

Jack Daniels Black

Frederika said...

"This is all of a piece with the notion that career educrats--people with business experience and zero classroom time like Michelle Rhee, Michael Bennet, and Arne Duncan--are actually better equipped to manage educational institutions than educators. Why is education too important to be entrusted to the educators?"

Well said. This is exactly what has happened in public education from K-12. So what if Rhee taught for three years? In reality, that is not enough time to allow for true teaching experience to set in. That is a mere taste of teaching.

The schools and staffs in my state are overwhelmed by the pressure and intimidation of the elite business community and "professional educrats"--to borrow your most perfect term. Teachers and teacher unions are cast as the problem and lambasted as obstructionist if we dare to stand up for students, for what we know works, or to oppose the on-going drudgery of testing and more testing.

Historiann said...

Sorry, Jack. I'm with Frederika. Three years in TFA = BFD. And by the way: the administrators who run hospitals are in fact frequently physicians and nurses. (At least they are around these parts.)

We get different outcomes when people with different values run our institutions. Me, I prefer to see K-12 schools and universities run by people with educational values rather than business values. I like to see hospitals run by people who value health care rather than bottom-line care for for-profit corporations.

Not everything that's well run is run like a for-profit business with its eye on the bottom line. In fact, it's the mindless adoption of the belief that business knows best that's to blame for 80% of what ails our institutions today. Career educrats never stick around long enough to live with the consequences of their "reforms" (or deck-chair rearranging on the Titanic while blaming the cabin stewards for the catastrophe.) We'll see how long Rhee sticks around--my bet is that she'll jump over to some high-paid libertarian or right-wing think-tank when it's clear that what she's done in D.C. hasn't accomplished enough to bottle and sell. After all, Abigail Thernstrom can't live forever.

There's only one thing that works w/r/t education, and we've known it for 200+ years: a challenging curriculum and small class sizes so that the students can be held accountable for their achievements. This is a much more difficult and costly plan when you're running the Washington, D.C. school district versus being headmaster at a tony prep school, because you can't count on your students coming to school at all, let alone with parental support, clean clothes, and full bellies ready to learn. It takes a hell of a lot of resources to educate kids at tony prep schools, even when the institution doesn't have to run a school breakfast and lunch program and a full-backpack on Fridays program so that the kids will have enough to eat. But somehow, the ruling class thinks investing that kind of coin is worth it for their kids.

You tell me why we don't think it's worthwhile to educate all children this way.

Anonymous said...

Historiann, I was not claiming that Ms. Rhee had lots of teaching experience; I was merely pointing out that you were wrong when you said she had none at all!

We pay a lot of money for public education in the U.S. and I think we're entitled to see results for it. We may not have perfect accountability yet, but thank God, George Bush, Ted Kennedy, and Barack Obama, we're moving in that direction!

By the way, I find it strange that the same college educators who such strong proponents of "expertise in education" eschew education courses in their own development; if education courses are so valuable for secondary teachers, why aren't they valuable enough to be required for college teachers?

Ms. Rhee may or may not fail, but at least she is trying and education at both the college and secondary level needs less complacency and more change agents like her.

Anonymous said...

Historiann, if I may add one final comment/question, why do you say that effective learning requires small class sizes? Do you have empirical evidence for this? I have taken a lot of classes in my day, from auditorium-size biology classes to intimate graduate seminars, and have learned well in both environments. Sometimes a large class is better, especially if the teacher is likely to be prejudiced against you if he/she gets to know you. A lot, of course, depends on the teacher. The class size debate reminds me of the debate about whether students are better off going to small liberal arts colleges or large universities. Again, a lot depends on the teachers to be found in each, as well as the psychological makeup of the student.

Jack Daniels Black

Historiann said...

Jack--at the college level, where all students are volunteers rather than coerced by the state, learning can happen in different environments. But in my experience, students have to be extremely motivated to learn well in the large classes you describe.

The day that Andover, Dana Hall, and Choate start selling large classes as a *plus*, then I'll stand down on class size as an important variable. But I don't think that's going to happen. Wealthy parents don't stand for kindergartens with 30 or 35 students in them--why should anyone else?

We pay next to nothing in this country for education, and we get the results we deserve. And now, I'm going to the beach! Have a great day, Jack and everyone else still reading this thread.

Lee Skallerup Bessette, PhD said...

You do in less words than I managed to do in five posts. Such a great review. I thought they missed so many opportunities to really drive home arguments or suggest improvements. Instead, they tended to just throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I am sick and tired, especially, with the tendency to call for the end of tenure. Because it would mean we would be paid less money? Because we don't deserve it? Oh, no, wait, because it doesn't actually protect academic freedom. Why don't we try shoring that up, rather than just doing away with it? Gah.

Anonymous said...

I left college because it was not education it was spoon fed indoctrination.You would not believe the anger that was directed at me for asking simple queswtions like? That's just a theory right? When a professor was teaching as if there were no other schools of thought on a matter.

TheRaven said...

After reading theAtlantic's interview with the authors, the NYT book review and your review, I'm sure that your assessment regarding generalization and broad-brush treatment is true. Yet you didn't mention (or perhaps I missed) the most important point: state universities with academic rigor close or equal to elite private universities are a superior value. This statement accrues from the radical notion of higher education as the new "2nd biggest purchase in the life of a consumer". Automobiles formerly held such honor, behind homes. Autos have been savagely displaced by three decades of tuition inflation that outpaced the CPI by a 2:1 margin.

Universities such as William & Mary (likely the best university in America on an academic/value basis), University of Virgina and UMBC are, for qualifying students in Virgina or Maryland, "the middle-class Ivy League". For a kid from Virginia, William & Mary is, quite literally, the ambiance, history and academic rigor of the Ivy League at a 75% discount. Higher Education? cites UMBC as another compelling value and my personal experience supports such claim.

America is trending towards 19th century wealth and income distribution. The richest 2/10's of one percent receive one-quarter of personal income. Elite private universities have morphed into a general system of hereditary control over wealth and power. There's a simple solution to balance national resources devoted to private vs. public universities. In a country that forgets old lessons in education that achieves breakthroughs, we'll never see it passed into law.

The best middle-class response is a turn to compelling value in undergraduate education. The extreme cost of elite universities is best reserved for graduate degrees, for those who can afford it.

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