Improving Higher Education: A Recap

January 3, 2014

The posts in this blog discuss a variety of issues in higher education, based primarily on my own experiences. As the posts indicate, those experiences have emerged over many years of experiences — in many cases, deplorable experiences — in undergraduate and graduate classrooms at Columbia University, the University of Michigan, Indiana University, the University of Missouri, the University of Arkansas, and elsewhere.

The emphasis in these posts is upon the negative. That is, the posts are more frequently critical than laudatory. One reason is that, as noted in the Tales of the Transcripts post, the fun and intriguing stuff from my own experience tends to appear elsewhere – in, for example, YouTube videos about leading groups on the ropes course at the University of Missouri – Columbia, and about my exploration of the historically black colleges and universities of Arkansas.

Another reason is that, frankly, the emphasis should be on the negative. Colleges and universities have been insufficiently self-critical. In today’s university, it is typically assumed that of course students are not particularly eager to attend classes, participate in class discussion, do homework, and otherwise behave as motivated, engaged people tend to behave. This is supposedly normal, and thus it becomes natural to imagine that we, the doctoral-level types, know best: we are going to tell students what’s important, and if they’re smart, they will listen and believe us.

It is no surprise that this defective arrangement yields pedagogical failure. Ironically, the very students who cannot master critical thinking in the classroom are quite adept at it for real-life purposes. They take one look at us and our subjects of interest, and they swiftly estimate that most of it will have little relevance to their own lives, except as a letter grade comprising a tiny part of a transcript’s record of putative achievement. Their motivation tends to be calibrated accordingly.

As is often the case with disaffected commentary, my negativity toward this state of affairs rests partly on a vision of alternate possibilities that I consider superior. Whether I am right is only partly relevant. Whatever the specific prescriptions may be, there is a pervasive problem that universities today are largely generic – that students generally cannot sample or choose among highly varied manifestations of divergent educational philosophies. Universities present themselves as enormously monolithic, institutional, constrictive, and tedious, in the manner of hospitals and prisons. There does seem to be room for greater openness to alternate possibilities.

One such possibility is that, ultimately, a person’s time is his/her own. This is the yet-undeveloped heart of my separate blog on leisure. The university extends a societal impulse to put children in school, to the point of similar institutionalization of adults in their twenties, thirties, and beyond. If there is no alternative, then perhaps it must be done – with some adults, for some specific purposes. That remains a far cry from the gross assumption that we are free to chew up tens of thousands of lives, for months and years on end, often (as my experience attests) without clear purpose or demonstrable positive effect.

A related possibility is that we should educate in ways calculated to engage students’ active participation, and to foster retention of what they might have learned. Why expect them to believe us, when we tell them that they will need to learn how to do a certain calculation, when instead we can put them into an apprenticeship, internship, or other learning situation where they will see its importance for themselves? Or if there are not enough internships to go around, are we fostering a delusion that their present efforts are likely to lead to actual employment in a related field? Certainly it can seem wasteful and tangential (and can undermine motivation) to educate masses of students in subject A, year after year, only to see large percentages of them repeatedly migrate to work in fields B, C, and D.

The topic of employment itself raises another alternate possibility: that, ultimately, “higher” education should be oriented toward people who want to learn, as distinct from people who want to get a job. A great deal of what happens in the university, even at the graduate level, is of a vocational nature, with a focus on specific techniques used in workaday practice. Other posts in this blog point toward examples from my experiences in such fields as law, business, social work, recreational therapy, and education. There are often profound motivational differences between those who find a subject intrinsically fascinating and those who are resigned to the need to learn something about it for purposes of employability. Mingling the two, in the university as distinct from a more vocationally oriented environment, has often made it unwelcome if not unsafe for a student to indulge a genuine interest within the contemporary classroom: the professor, trying to “cover the material” in some superficial sense, does not necessarily have time for expressions of wonder and curiosity, and classmates do not typically applaud such behavior.

Several posts in this blog advocate a client-centered model of higher education, as distinct from the “cattle” model that herds people around in undifferentiated groups. The alternate possibility underlying this advocacy is that teaching is a profession in its own right, neither derivative of nor subordinate to academic research, and as such should treat its clientele with the same individualized professionalism accorded to clients in other professions. There are educational interventions that can work for large groups, just as there are recreational interventions that can promote health for large numbers of people; but in the final analysis the student is an individual, and his/her educational progress is at its core a matter for careful, individualized inquiry comparable to that provided by medical doctors in the area of physical health.

These are examples of the positive alternatives hinted at in this blog’s posts. This blog takes the approach of arguing for such alternatives on the strength of my personal experiences. The style of argument is essentially case-oriented: it is not that any one individual’s experience is dispositive for numerous others, but a good case can illustrate key points to be taken into account. The full shaping of any such alternate possibilities would obviously have to draw upon much more than my own experiences. The emphasis here is upon confronting readers who may underestimate the problems facing higher education, and who may thus discount superior alternatives.

The excessively institutional nature of higher education today makes it overdue for reform. We live in an era when people are able to get adaptive solutions to many of their individual needs — and learning is a consummately individual matter. This blog will not convince every reader, but it does support some questioning of an overly homoegeneous and restrictive concept of what counts as education.

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