Narrowmindedness in Higher Education

March 19, 2013

The following is an essay I wrote in support of an application for admission to a PhD program in the School of Education at the University of Arkansas, after the dean of that School unethically facilitated my removal from another PhD program there. The application focused on a proposed study of higher education reform. The application was rejected. But then someone evidently realized that, with my credentials, this rejection would highlight the dean’s personal vendetta. So then I was informed that the rejection was due to a clerical error, and I was accepted — but was informed that, alas, there would be no funding for me. (Upon rereading the essay, I have made a few minor post-submission edits and have added some links to other webpages. See also a separate post that notes similarities between educational narrowmindedness and religion.)

* * * * *

This paper supports an application to a doctoral program within an institution of higher education. The paper includes criticism of such institutions. While such criticism might be ill-advised in some PhD program applications, the available information indicates that this particular program entertains multiple perspectives on its subject matter. Constructive criticism seems timely, given pressures for change in higher education (e.g., King & Sen, 2013).

It may not be feasible to identify a single issue, or even a single cluster of issues, that encompass all possible ways in which higher education might be improved. At a certain level of abstraction, however, it appears possible to identify a concept that underlies a substantial number of such issues. This paper calls that concept “narrowmindedness.” It seems that a more broad- or open-minded university environment might yield improvements in a number of areas.

There is precedent for treating a relatively vague concept, like narrowmindedness, as a focus of policy attention. One such precedent appears in the area of discrimination on the basis of characteristics such as sex or race. Like discrimination, narrowmindedness entails a variety of behaviors and other phenomena; responses to it may involve educational, legal, and other inter­ventions; and end results may include victories, compromises, and reconceptualizations.

Discrimination at its worst may be more obvious and appalling than narrowmindedness. The latter has significant drawbacks nonetheless. The following discussion begins with several examples, to suggest some dimensions of the concept, followed by a rationale for focusing particularly on narrowmindedness at the level of doctoral training. Finally, it is suggested that the exploration of remedies within PhD education may best proceed on two tracks, with responses including standardization across programs as well as improve­ment within programs.

Examples of Narrowmindedness

Parochialism may count as a kind of narrowmindedness. Consider, in particular, the formation and use of knowledge. Human experience tends to provide a relatively seamless flow of information. In the university, though, this flow becomes frozen, chopped up, and appropri­ated in patchwork ways by various groupings of scholars. Interactions within and among such groupings tend to result in disciplinary walls, such that group members perceive more similarity with fellow members, and more difference from other groups, than the phenomena themselves might warrant. The parable of the blind men and the elephant comes to mind, wherein an observer with limited perception of the whole tends to characterize the data in forms peculiar to his/her vantage (e.g., Merrow, 2006). In perverse extension of that parable, people in today’s university may actually cast aspersions on those, looking beyond such walls, who recognize the potentially benighting effects of disciplinary silos (e.g., McBride, 2010, p. 76).

A different example of narrowmindedness arises in the context of “diversity.” That concept typically calls for deliberate inclusion of specified kinds of people. As such, diversity can seem the very essence of broadmindedness. Yet the devil is in the details: even the noblest concept can be misused. It is possible, for instance, to make oneself a champion of some oppressed group to such an extreme as to disparage others, contravening the egalitarian ethic on which diversity advocacy may depend (see e.g., Sommers, 2008). It is also possible to contend, ironically enough, that there is only one way to think or speak about differences among people. The best policy appears to be that all members of the university community are entitled to be present and to participate – that they are most likely to learn, and to contribute to the learning environ­ment, when they are free to put forth their views, or the views of their subcultures, in their own words, without fear of punishment for heresy (see Stewart, Crary, & Humberd, 2008).

A third example of narrowmindedness crops up in common attitudes toward students. Ours is a time of industrial production of generic student-unit outputs; it is not yet an era in which education designs student-person outcomes. Students, now, are cattle in a stockyard, progressing toward disposition; they are not clients whose varied needs evoke tailored responses steered by ethical codes, as in professions like law or social work (see Braxton, Proper, & Bayer, 2011, p. 168). Criticisms of students can display narrowmindedness in the sense that the critic may fail to look beyond his/her own perspective – may fail, that is, to practice empathy or self-criticality. For instance, reflection might suggest that the apathy of which some faculty complain may not entirely originate with students. Do professors themselves not convey indifference or fatigue – toward teaching, for example, as distinct from research, or toward undergraduates as distinct from graduate students? Frustration stemming from students’ failure to self-generate spontaneous enthusiasm may actually be frustration with an environ­ment that treats education as a chore. As students sometimes find, no subject is too exciting for some professor to render tedious (see e.g., Tze, Daniels, Klassen, & Li, 2013). Canned pedagogies consistent with bureaucratically convenient regimentation, administered by people who thrive in such conditions, can be hostile to the detours, delays, and false starts of exploration and discovery.

These several examples criticize certain mindsets that one can readily encounter among professors and administrators. The criticisms themselves seem to have merit – for example, it does seem that students are often treated as cattle – but the key point for present purposes is that the very contemplation of such possibilities is not de rigueur. Narrowminded­ness is not a matter of making mistakes. It is a matter of anosognosic bliss, wherein people cannot or will not imagine that such mistakes could occur or that they, themselves, might be the ones making them.

A Focus on PhD Education

In each of the three preceding examples of narrow­mindedness – disciplinary parochialism shaped in isolation by specialists’ preferences, an uncritical diversity orientation indulged to extremes, and a transmogrification of learning into a dreary grind – higher education has flouted marketing sense. Generally speaking, a business that would thrive cannot do whatever it wishes to do, in whatever way it wishes to do it, and it cannot stake its future on steady disparagement of its clients (e.g., white people, males), as many educators are inclined to do.

Countless good things, in diversity and elsewhere, have followed from academia’s monopoly advantages. And the university-as-business model certainly is no panacea. But to the extent that higher education is (and should be) obliged to justify its payoff, there are reasons for concern that the university is responding sluggishly and sometimes incoherently to rapidly changing conditions. Developments in recent years suggest some risk that large portions of today’s higher education could be just a few clever innovations away from obsolescence.

One area of rapid change has to do with the longstanding assumption of a lifetime wage premium for university graduates. This assumption appears tenuous in today’s economy. For instance, Loprest and Mitchell (2012, p. 17) estimate that 21% of unemployed workers who have given up looking for work have college degrees. Faith in higher education of any stripe seems to be transitioning to more circum­scribed claims high­lighting particular majors (e.g., engineering) – and even those majors are now subject to rapid declines in desirability within an increasingly competitive and volatile labor market. According to Carnevale, Cheah, and Strohl (2012, p. 4), “Unemployment in majors related to computers and mathematics [varies] widely depending on the technical and scientific content of the major”; similarly, the bright projections for nursing employment at the decade’s start have already run into reports of a glut severely impacting new graduates (compare Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012 (using 2010 data), with Kurtz, 2013). Wage premium calcula­tions also tend to rely on old assump­tions about student loan affordability and availability that now look shaky, given scant wage growth, continued tuition inflation, a hollowed-out middle class, and public concern about ballooning student loan debt. Not surprisingly, wage premium claims have lately tended to be less glib.

These remarks may imply that complacency, commercial incompetence, or self-indulgence could serve as alternate characterizations of what this paper calls narrowmindedness. The terms differ in meaning, of course, but for purposes of preliminary discussion, precision in nomenclature is not crucial. The central points are that, as presented here, higher education has become narrowminded (or perhaps complacent, inept, or self-indulgent) in multiple regards; that compre­hensive rectification of that failing may be imposed from without if it is not aggressively pursued from within; and that internal reform may require openness to potentially radical change.

Assuming such thoughts provoke an interest in change, where should it begin? In many places, no doubt. This writer’s experience, especially but not only over the past decade, points toward a particular interest in doctoral education. The training and certification of PhDs (some­times used, here, to refer to doctoral degrees generally) does seem preeminent, insofar as the doctorate is the standard entry credential for academia. Since many PhDs spend their careers in universities, a reformative effort at this level seems especially likely to have long-term effects on university cultures. It may also be easier to focus on key issues at the PhD level, given smaller numbers of students and faculty. The relative aptitude, maturity, and experience of these students may facilitate their advocacy for rational improvements. And while reformed doctoral education might take decades to change the entire professorial superstructure, influences and opportunities arising from such reform could become evident within just a few years.

There is a risk that personnel in a dysfunctional setting would not appreciate some strengths of better-trained PhDs. Suppose, for instance, that a certain PhD program began to produce graduates dedicated to an academic ethic emphasizing not only the broadmindedness advocated above (i.e., interdisciplinarity, egalitarianism, client-centeredness) but also selflessness, trans­parency, and a commitment to positive workplace environments. One might wonder how a graduate of such a program would fare, as a new hire in a department plagued by departures from such an ethic. For purposes of this preliminary inquiry, one can envision scenarios in which such graduates could find welcoming opportunities. For instance, certain universities might elect to join a consortium committed to the production and consumption of PhDs schooled in the suggested ethics. Or administrators in some universities might circumvent departmental barriers to reform through radical restructuring. In any event, immediate concern with such matters could be premature. It may turn out that a focus on developing a solid concept of PhD education reform leads seamlessly to workable means of implementation.

Two Tracks of Research
into Reform of Doctoral Education

This discussion has treated PhD education, so far, as a monolith. There is some merit to that treatment. Certain aspects of doctoral education – certain ethical or pedagogical principles or issues, for example – have the potential to apply across all disciplines and departments. One might emphasize potential. There may be ways in which PhD education could benefit from standardization that seems logical and, with effort, could become a part of ordinary practice.

As a simple example, consider the very label, “PhD.” It enjoys broad recognition, yet suffers from great ambiguity. In some places, it denotes brilliance; elsewhere, it is awarded to virtually anyone who manages to jump through prescribed hoops. Stakeholders (e.g., future students, employers, clients) often do not understand, or cannot deter­mine, the extent to which the degree may be primarily a testimony to the flexibility of the student’s doctoral committee. To rectify these and other problems, improvements spanning all disciplines could include an institutional commitment to certain virtues (above) and tighter regulatory and/or accrediting schemes (compare e.g., American Bar Association, 2010, with Anastas et al., 2003).

Yet general rules cannot fix everything that ails the PhD. Programs necessarily vary. In some instances, such variations derive from the underlying purpose, and may thus call for a different kind of degree, such as those designed for practitioners (e.g., PsyD, JD). In other instances, variations are unavoidable because of the subject matter, as when students must learn to conduct divergent kinds of research (e.g., laboratory, library, field). It may still be possible to manage some departmental variations in doctoral education according to transdisciplinary, subuniversal principles (governing e.g., all practitioners’ degrees, or all laboratory sciences). It may also be feasible to merge departments whose raison d’être depends largely upon a particular subject matter focus (e.g., gender studies) into others addressing similar topics (e.g., social work). Such measures notwithstanding, for the foreseeable future, it will probably remain necessary to address some aspects of PhD education on a program-by-program basis.

Problems in higher education may thus call for simultaneous treatment at universal and departmental levels. The foregoing examples of narrowmindedness demonstrate this for under­graduate and graduate programs alike: for instance, recherche disciplinary differentiations may endure thanks to acquiescence by university administrators. The same is true of certain issues arising specifically at the PhD level. For example, the compre­hensive exam requirement is commonly shaped by departments, but acknowledged or mandated by the university. This requirement is typically imposed – in doctoral education, of all places – without solid research demonstrating its efficacy and often, for that matter, without even a justification that a researcher might test (Walker et al., 2008, p. 43). Not even tradition provides a rationale: contemporary forms of the requirement tend to depart significantly from, and are often inferior to, the medieval forms (see Manus, Bowden, & Dowd, 1992, p. 678). As another example, departments and the university often collude in defective grievance systems that fail to protect students and other stakeholders from depart­mental misbehavior based on politics, personal attraction or dislike, and other factors unrelated to merit (e.g., Hawley, 2010; Woodcock, 2012).

Such dysfunctionalities discourage recognition and repair of broken aspects of doctoral education. In a sense, they amount to a shared preference, by universities and their constituent departments, for conditions yielding levels of PhD student attrition that remain inordinately high despite PhD students’ academic preparation and relative maturity (see Council of Graduate Schools, 2006; Walker, Golde, Jones, Bueschel, and Hutchings, 2008, p. 3; Bair & Haworth, 2004, p. 481). It seems, in short, that reform in higher education, particularly at the PhD level, must attend to university and departmental contexts simultaneously.

Policy Responses

The best response to narrowmindedness, summed up in a single word, might be awareness. The university houses large numbers of intelligent people, most of whom are presumably able to recognize undesirable conditions. It seems that employees of dysfunctional organizations often experi­ence divided loyalties, turning a blind eye to poor behavior and yet not entirely averse to its correction. In this regard, a key policy objective might be simply to send up a flag suggesting a change of regime, in some sense of the term. As a starting point, a simple but persuasive signal from administrators or, if necessary, from the public or the legislature, could suffice to stimulate herd motion away from some of the worst maladies in higher education.

A second proposed aspect of an appropriate policy response would focus on the concept of preparation. Overindulgence of the status quo – characterized here as a narrowminded failure to look beyond the familiar – can entail resistance to, or refusal to accept, desirable and even inevitable change. It seems, for instance, that many universities are being dragged, rather than leading, into the dawn of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Putting some weight behind preparedness as a virtue seems essential to inculcate a university culture that takes the initiative in rapid transformation of learning.

This paper has characterized narrowmindedness as a deeply rooted, multifaceted blight. The foregoing recommendations – to promote awareness and preparation – essentially propose two supersets encompassing many of the insights that a university might achieve in the wake of, say, a notorious sex abuse case (e.g., Rohan, 2012). So, for example, a formal ethical code of the type mentioned above, potentially holding doctoral educators to a level of professionalism, is not a simple, sure-fire answer to narrowmindedness. It is simply one measure – with numerous potential benefits (see e.g., Woodcock, 2011; Keim, 2010) – that may follow from an institutional commitment to awareness of narrowmindedness and preparation for change.


Lay language often summarizes complex entities (e.g., universities) using general terms (e.g., narrowminded). Greater specificity has the advantage of leading toward more precise diagnoses and responses, at the risk of straying from the general concept. This paper begins by using narrow­mindedness to characterize an indeterminate number of undesirable tendencies, and offers specific examples of a few. In the big picture, narrowmindedness, like discrimination, has the potential to raise problems across the university; like discrimination, it calls for policy responses to the broad culture that feeds a sprawling pathology.

This paper proposes to address narrowmindedness in the university by starting with a focus on the education of future PhDs. It appears that narrowmindedness crops up in doctoral education as surely as it does in other parts of higher education. If a change of culture cannot be achieved at the doctoral level, it may not be achieved at all; and if on the other hand such change does materialize at that level, it may prove especially effective in generating improvements across the university as a whole.

Antidotes to narrowmindedness in PhD education will probably have to be pursued on two levels, attending simultaneously to standardization and management of doctoral educa­tion across disciplines and to essential variations in such education among disciplines. Ideally, such efforts will yield a concept of PhD education that makes the most of the resources of the university and of its PhD students while minimizing waste and abuse.

This paper proposes an effort, beginning at the level of doctoral education, to promote awareness of narrowmindedness and preparation for a world in which medieval institutions (or, perhaps, contemporary caricatures thereof) have ceased to address actual needs – or, possibly, for a world in which longstanding failure of such institutions has become palpable. Those who love learning, and who value institutions dedicated to it, may hope that such measures, pursued diligently, will strengthen the core of higher education while shedding that which burdens and taints it.


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