Student Expectations

An article in the New York Times this week reported on a study of student expectations that claimed they were a significant factor in grade complaints.  Students, it seems, have different expectations about what they should have to do to earn good grades. Some of the students quoted, for example, seemed to think that they should receive good grades based on their effort. One student said, "I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade…. What else is there really than the effort that you put in?” Truly an illuminating comment, I’m sure you’ll agree. To most of us the answer is obvious.

The article mentioned various efforts around the country to deal with these unwarranted expectations about grades. Apparently, at Wisconsin the professors tell students they need to  “read for knowledge and write with the goal of exploring ideas.” They have seminars to reinforce this idea and teach students what education is supposed to be about.

This last quote gets at a much more fundamental question about student expectations than whether they should be graded for effort. Namely, what is education for in the first place? What value does it have? What is college for? Many students value education only instrumentally. They think rightly or wrongly that a college education is a means to getting a job. Education in itself is valued only insofar as it leads to gainful employment. As a student once said to me years ago, "I’m going to be a farmer. Why do I need to take classes like this?" (The class in question was introductory rhetoric, in which the student was faring poorly.) Any response I could have given would have been lost on this particular student, because the student had such a drastically different understanding of what the purpose of college is than I did. He was going to get some practical agricultural training and maybe enough accounting skills to run the family farm. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it meant that he denigrated anything that didn’t lead to his instrumental purpose. For him, the purpose of a college "education" was to help him be a farmer.

Students like this must be truly bewildered when they enter almost any traditional college and they’re taught by people for whom knowledge is valued for itself and not for any instrumental purpose. This is true even in fields with practical applications, and not just in the liberal arts. Professors are professors because they like to learn. They are the types Aristotle was talking about when he said that man by nature desires to know. Philosophers by nature desire to know. Farmers desire to know how to run a farm. This is a huge and crucial difference. Students who seek only instrumental learning can’t even understand the love of liberal learning that motivates their teachers. Learning is valued for its own sake, and not for the sake of some practical goal.

This difference appears even more starkly in the humanities, which tend to have no instrumental value. If we study seventeenth-century Dutch trading patterns or ancient philosophy or French poetry, we don’t do so for pragmatic results. The result is understanding or knowledge, but not understanding or knowledge that we can apply to getting a job. Why study rhetoric or poetry or history or philosophy? Ultimately, the only reason can be the desire to know, and in this knowing to participate in a larger culture than we encounter in our daily lives. We may understand more about our world, we may even become more fully human in certain ways, but rarely are we going to be able to take this knowledge and go run a business.

One irony is that such a disinterested pursuit of knowledge can lead to practical results. Consider the study of philosophy. Studying philosophy developed my analytical skills in ways that other study wouldn’t have, and these skills have been useful for many things, including my job, but I wouldn’t have pursued the study and thus developed the skills were I not interested in the subject for itself. Studying history can develop in us an understanding of other people and other cultures and perhaps lead to sympathy with those unlike ourselves which might reduce tensions and increase world peace, but it doesn’t necessarily do this. This would be an unrealistic reason to read a history book.

Another irony is that the mis-expectation of the student quoted above, who believed he should get an ‘A’ for effort, is one expectation that has little to do with learning for its own sake or the non-instrumental value of humanistic study, but is instead an expectation completely at odds with the practical world he will encounter when leaving school. Imagine a performance appraisal for any job where it would be appropriate to ask, "what is there other than the effort you put in?" One of the most realistic and practical portions of higher education is the ultimate expectation of results–just like in the real world. Whether you’re repairing an automobile or preparing a sales presentation, no one cares about the effort you put in. People care about the finished product. The one way in which higher education indisputibly prepares one for the demands of the workaday world is the one this student finds the least understandable.

Problems of Part Timers

Another study (found via KUAL) has highlighted the many problems with a heavy reliance on adjunct instructors in higher education. This has been a controversial issue for a generation at least, and where I went to grad school it was discussed ad nauseum by the graduate students who were doing the bulk of the teaching in the lower level classes. They eventually unionized, though I’m not sure they’ve ever gotten much of a benefit from that.

What impresses me about the more recent entries in the debate over part time adjuncts is the emphasis on the problems caused to the students, not just the teachers. Rhetorically, I’ve always thought arguments that teachers were being manipulated had little effect on the public. If someone wants to earn a PhD in a field with few jobs and refuses to do any other kind of work, how sympathetic is anyone supposed to be that the person has to teach six classes at three different universities to make ends meet? Other adjuncts sympathize. The rest of us just think, why don’t you go do something else then? Or, stop being such a sucker.

The average parent paying for college probably doesn’t care about the status of the college instructors, but they should care if the reliance upon and poor treatment of adjuncts means their children are less likely to graduate. The part timers and faculty unions should have been pushing this agenda all along instead of complaining that part timers don’t have tenure or academic freedom. Most workers don’t have tenure or academic freedom, so why should that bother them.

I was looking back through books like Will Teach for Food and related tomes and couldn’t help but notice the sense of entitlement driving the eventual turn to bitterness regarding the unavailability of tenure track positions. I’ve run across this a lot over the years. It’s the idea that just because you finished a PhD in some field, the world owes you a job as a professor. As long as the arguments were based upon resentment that highly educated people didn’t get the jobs that the seem to think they were owed, it’s no wonder nobody was paying attention. The success of books like Tenured Radicals and others and the inability of the professoriate to make their case to the public has in practice meant that nobody really cares about the part timer problem in academia.

Some previous arguments I’ve read have tried to paint people like me as a problem, arguing that it’s terribly important for freshman writing teachers to have tenure track jobs and PhDs in any field whatsoever. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that that’s really the problem. The subject of a writing class is writing, and having a PhD in a field other than writing studies guarantees nothing.

It’s also that the shift in emphasis is no longer trying to make me out a villian for being a part-time writing instructor that I find attractive. The problem isn’t inherently that someone is part-time, or not tenured, or whatever. The problem for student development, according to some of these newer studies, is that the relationships with students that benefit their retention and graduation can’t be built when teachers are shuffling around between two or three universities to make ends meet. While I teach writing only part time, I’m fully a member of the university community, and in fact have more permanence than the full time writing instructors here, who are ineligible for tenure and have a maximum contract of five years. I’m not contributing to the exploitation of part-time instructors – even though I am one – because the university fully supports me and I have the time to devote to my students.

So for personal and rhetorical reasons, I’m glad for the recent shift away from complaining about the poor treatment of adjuncts – which in general is shameful, and the university administrators who treat them so badly should be publicly shamed – to showing how that poor treatment affects student learning. The problem isn’t part timers. The problem isn’t a lack of tenure. The problem isn’t that people resent not getting the kinds of jobs they think they’re owed. The problem is that the way higher education treats its part-time instructors destroys the community necessary for learning.

Some people these days seem obsessed with online univeristies and distance education. These education institutions seem more appropriate for dispensing facts and credentialing people cheaply. However, they can never replace the community that comes with student life on campus or engaging others in discussion in a seminar room. There is a level of education that requires more than the presentation of some facts and some online quizzes, and that more is lost when colleges and universities become like businesses and the instructors become like day laborers. Nobody outside of academia cares that some PhD can’t get a cushy job. They might care when the complete lack of cushy jobs means that their children aren’t graduating.

Learning and Unlearning

One of the most difficult things for me as I grow older and presumably more experienced is unlearning what I have learned, or at least being aware of what I have learned since adulthood so I don’t make unwarranted assumptions about student knowledge. This might be the sort of thing the Beloit College Mindset List tries to do in a general way, but that list seems more to indicate what Boomers think is important that new college students have never heard of. I’m talking more about what the students themselves will eventually know about processes that will become common tasks for both the students and ourselves.

I was thinking about this in a small, specific way last week when I did an introductory research session for juniors about to begin what are most likely their first independent research projects since their first year writing seminar. Among other things, I discuss using WorldCat as a discovery tool because it shows so much that isn’t in our library as well as lets us easily distinguish between books, journals, archival resources, etc. Every year I ask who’s heard of WorldCat. Every year almost no one has. Afterwards, the professor expressed some surprise that they hadn’t, because for him, as for me, it was the first stop in any search for books. He joked that we have all these assumptions about what students know, even though the purpose of college that they come out knowing them rather than come in knowing them.

Something like knowing about WorldCat is minor compared to all the things I have to unlearn. It’s very easy for people well versed in the research process to forget that new college students aren’t. I’ve become much more minimalist in my instruction over the years, because I’ve come to believe that students have to learn how to do research by doing research, and trying to get them to memorize a treatise on library research for their first 10-page essay is folly. No one learned that way. I’ve seen librarians in instruction sessions who are of the kitchen-sink philosophy of library instruction, apparently believing that college freshmen really need a 45-minute introduction to the OPAC.

These librarians are certainly aware of the knowledge gap between them and the students, but have forgotten what it might be like to have an adult talk ad nauseum about any topic, much less one as dull as the OPAC. They’ve also forgotten that what they think is terribly important probably isn’t that important for the students, either theoretically or practically. They’ve forgotten what it’s like to be eighteen, like the author of The Dumbest Generation. And some librarians seem to resent students for not knowing as much as they do.

Many of us could spend hours talking about the research process. Some of us, like my colleague Mary George, write books on the topic. A lot of us even do some of it. For me at least, it becomes more difficult over the years to remember what would be most useful or relevant to new college students and also to remember what they don’t know. Part of me has to unlearn everything I’ve learned to go back to that previous state and see the library through the eyes of a novice.

I’ve had similar experiences teaching. Last year I taught an essay on feminist political theory for the first time at Princeton. After eighteen years or so of feminist awareness, it never occurred to me that the new college students would have had no exposure whatsoever to feminism. The concept of gender was foreign to them, so naturally someone arguing that a complete theory of justice would require a society without gender confused them somewhat. What are they teaching in the schools these days, I almost said to them. I went into the class with a lot of assumptions about what people "just know" about feminism or gender and ended up having to deliver an impromptu lecture on the feminist movement. (This episode is fresh in my mind because I’m teaching the same essay tomorrow, this time prefaced by an encyclopedia article on feminist political theory.)

Assuming we can accomplish this unlearning – and I’m not at all sure we can – how would we do it? If only I could offer a bulleted list of techniques, I could probably start selling myself on the library motivational circuit. Some of it is relatively easy. When students ask the same questions year after year, those are the things they don’t know. This is why I prefer minimalizing my contribution and responding to students as much as possible, so I can remain somewhat aware of what they don’t know.  I try to assume the minimum amount of knowledge while respecting their intelligence.  Some of it may be more difficult. Can we ever look at the library through fresh eyes?

There’s one place where I at least can’t unlearn. Once I finally drank of the Pierian Spring, as Pope puts it, I’ve tried to drink as deeply as I can, which would explain why I do the sort of job I do instead of some job without access to a large library. I doubt most of the students have the same assumptions I have about the centrality of learning, but I try to assume that if everything goes well, the spark will ignite, and they will discover the thrill of the life of the mind. Here is perhaps where I can’t unlearn but only try to model.

For the rest, I try think of how I might remember what it’s like not to know what I know, to remember how I felt the first time I worked in a library with ten million books or so, how daunted I was by the sheer size of everything and the scope of all I didn’t even know I didn’t know.  Then I remember why the Delphic Oracle considerd Socrates the wisest man in Greece, because he was the only one who knew he didn’t know anything. To put it more mildly, he was aware of how much he didn’t know.

This makes it a little easier, I think, for me to look through fresh eyes and avoid the jaded cynicism of the old and experienced. Everyone’s ignorant about most things, but it’s always easy for me to see how little I know even about subjects I’m interested in. However much I might know, I always have the feeling that it isn’t nearly enough. Achieving that humility is a first step. We’re all novices in most areas, and perhaps that common ground makes it easier for us both to strip away our assumptions and not to mind so much that yet again we’re going over the same material we’ve covered a hundred times for students who seem to change only in that they always look younger than they did the year before.

The Dumbest Generation?

“Students, even of college age, have had very little conscious experience of life or books and it is no wonder their minds are bone dry.” Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America, 1945.

I’ve been meaning to write about The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future [Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30] for weeks, mainly because it has such a pithy title, but also because I mentioned it in a post a few weeks ago but hadn’t read it yet. Time passes, though. I got back from a week’s vacation to find a ton of work from both the jobs I work in the Fall plus a dead hard drive on my office computer, then classes are starting and along with them the many presentations and whatnot. Life seemed very busy all of a sudden. And then there’s the problem that I just couldn’t make it through the book, and not because I was too depressed by how the digital age has corrupted us all.

Now I’m even more belated, because yesterday’s A & L Daily linked to a twopart column by my favorite CHE columnist on stupidity in these kids today which mentions Bauerlein’s book among others. I haven’t had time to read those, either, and definitely feel that I’m falling down in my obligation to stay informed. Nevertheless, I want to forge ahead and just mention some things that struck me about The Dumbest Generation.

I wanted to like this book. I’ve written before that I’m a sucker for any hypothesis about the world going to hell in a handcart since whatever bad thing happened: Eve eating the apple, Caesar destroying the Republic, Luther destroying Christendom, European settlers killing indigenous Americans, Yankees defeating the Confederacy, Hitler killing everyone in sight, or the latest tragedy–the advent of the “digital age.” I always have a suspicion that the historical period I’m living in is the worst one except for all the historical periods that have preceded it.

And with the sole exception of movies, I’m definitely something of a cultural and intellectual snob, so I’m happy to look down at the hapless masses and say with the cultural critics, “oh yes, you can’t possibly have a worthwhile life if you haven’t read X author or aren’t familiar with Y artist or can’t hum the introductory movement of Z symphony.” Everyone seems to have different standards of snobbery, but for argument’s sake I’ll suggest the complete works of Shakespeare (check!), Albrecht Durer (check!), and Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (check!). There, ain’t I cultured. But it could be Joyce’s Ulysses (check!), Picasso (check!), and Bruckner’s seventh symphony (check!). I have this pathological desire to know everything about history, literature, philosophy, politics, religion, music, and art, but I’m willing to admit that not everyone shares my passions and that doesn’t mean they’re dumb. They’re just hard to hold conversations with.

As I said, I wanted to like the book, and there are many good things about the book, but I couldn’t accept the argument.

First of all, as I wrote in the previous post, I’m skeptical of the whole enterprise of evaluating 18-year-olds by the standards of middle-aged college professors. Partly, that’s because I remember what I was like at 18, and partly because I haven’t noticed any drastic difference in students, though admittedly I see a limited number of them. However, I started teaching freshmen at the University of Illinois in 1992, and out of the few hundred students I taught there, I recall only a couple who had the sort of intellectual curiosity that one might find in graduate students or faculty. They were very ordinary 18-year-olds, and most of them were intellectually mediocre. And this was in the days before iPods and laptops, when professors were still suggesting their students “word process” their papers, when I assumed anyone with a cell phone was a doctor or a drug dealer.

Let’s also consider just ordinary people out in the world when we start thinking about the kind of intellectual curiosity and engagement with ideas and culture–or lack thereof–that some people complain about. Is it that college students are getting dumber? Or that most people are already dumb, and that more of them are going to college as standards lower? I don’t have an answer, but it’s a legitimate question. If we take a look at the most popular television shows, movies, games, magazines, websites, etc. for every age category, are we intellectual snobs going to find much to impress us? I live a pretty sheltered life these days. Just about every adult I know has at least a master’s degree, and often two or more or a PhD. I just don’t meet many uneducated people. What are they like? Most people don’t even go to college, so I have no idea what the ordinary person is like. Have we always been in decline because most people have never heard of Shostakovitch or can’t explain the Monroe Doctrine?

Some quibbles aren’t with the premise, but with some of the arguments in the book itself, though. For example: “Even if we grant the point that on some measures today’s teenagers and 20-year-olds perform no worse than yesterday’s, the implication critics make seems like a concession to inferiority. Just because sophomores 50 years ago couldn’t explain the Monroe Doctrine or identify a play by Sophocles any more than today’s sophomores doesn’t mean that today’s shouldn’t do better, far better” (30). So, in some ways the kids aren’t getting any dumber at all, but because we’re so much more advanced now and they spend so much time in school and have computers and such, the kids should somehow care about the Monroe Doctrine more than their predecessors. Why is that exactly? Because they more access to cultural information, they thus have a reason to take advantage of that access? I just don’t see the connection. Teenage culture is what it is. I think my previous question still stands. When you’re a teenager, if you can play the blues on a Strat, what difference does it make to you who’s on the Supreme Court?

Or consider the interpretation of the results of the National Survey of Student Engagement, which showed that from 2003 to 2005 (which seems like a small time frame to me) college freshmen and college seniors seemed to be reading slightly more books. This is a “disappointing improvement” because their college experience hasn’t turned them into scholarly people, like all those scholarly people running around everywhere in past generations (55-56). “Compare this attitude,” Bauerlein suggests, “with that of young Frederick Douglass.” “Or that of John Stuart Mill.” Comparing the intellectual engagement of the majority of college students or even American citizens with brilliant and eloquent men like Douglass or Mill hardly seems relevant. What do we learn by saying that most people don’t have the intellect of such men? We learn that the people who make those comparisons have spent a lot more time reading great books than they have paying attention to what most people are really like. I myself would feel most at home in a world of Douglasses or Mills, but that’s not how life is, and it’s even less like that when one leaves academia.

The book has a series of these irrelevant comparisons. “If cognitive talents rise correspondingly with the proliferation of screens and the sophistication of shows and games, why hasn’t a generation of historically informed, civically active, verbally able, and mathematically talented young adults come forth and proven the cultural pessimists and aged curmudgeons wrong?” (92). This is a typical move in the argument. Some foolish group claims that such and such technology is making everyone smarter. Obviously it isn’t. Thus the kids are somehow dumber. But this isn’t a problem with the kids or even the technology, but with the hype. The criticism shouldn’t be directed against kids and adults who do the same unintellectual things they always have–only now with shinier gadgets–but instead against anyone stupid enough to believe that a child is going to learn better or know more because their information comes from a computer rather than a book. Criticizing techno-hype isn’t as much fun, apparently, as claiming that we’ve just raised the “dumbest generation.” I don’t get the impression that Bauerlein believes the hype, though. It’s just a way to score points. However, just saying the kids aren’t as smart as some people claimed they would be doesn’t make them dumb, or even dumbest.

He asks his students to sit down with their friends at dinner and and as an experiment use some big words to see what happens. They balk at this, thinking their friends will avoid them, or more likely think them pretentious jerks. This “demonstrates that the social settings of adolescence actually conspire against verbal maturity” (155). That comes as a shocking revelation to anyone who has never been an adolescent, but should it for the rest of us? Isn’t there something to be said for discourse communities? Adolescent boys don’t talk like college professors. Neither do grown men sitting around drinking beer and cheering a football game. Neither does anyone else for that matter. Most people don’t have very large vocabularies. That’s just a fact. Most communication takes place with a minimum of words. Unless one wants to be able to articulate sophisticated thoughts or critical insights, or is in love with language, or perhaps just wants to impress other academics, an extensive vocabulary just isn’t required. Blaming teenagers because they don’t sound like educated college professors just seems like another irrelevant comparison. I can feel his pain (I once cringed when someone teaching at Princeton pronounced the “ch” in “inchoate” as the “ch” in “church”), but it doesn’t mean most people have or ever have had large vocabularies.

Finally, I couldn’t finish the book. It’s a quick read. Bauerlein is a fine writer with, I believe, good and serious intentions. There were more statistics and studies quoted, but I just couldn’t get past what seemed a flawed premise: that because teenagers today aren’t as intellectual as college professors, despite their increased access to culture through digital means, they’re somehow dumber than teenagers in the past or most adults today. The book is a great exercise in how to create an imagined crisis and boost sales, but I’m not sure it tells us about any significance between today’s college students and the allegedly smarter generations that have come before.

To Read or Not to Read

I seem to be reading a lot lately about how people don’t read anymore, especially these young people. On my recent flights, there sure seemed to be a lot of people reading books, but maybe airline travel is restricted to the especially literate, though that wouldn’t explain the four hours I once had to spend listening to the woman next to me extol the virtues of Boyd’s Bears as she traveled to a Boyd’s Bears convention. And you thought library conventions were bad.

It’s a good thing I’m not worried about the kids not reading today, because I’m putting together my syllabus for my writing seminar, which begins all too soon. The reading list isn’t especially heavy in terms of page count. I always considered such courses torture because I’m such a slow reader. In a Victorian novel course I took in graduate school, I’m not sure I finished any of the novels except The Mill on the Floss, and that’s because I had to present on it. It seemed I’d get a third of the way through one of Dickens’ interminable tomes and we’d start on yet another one. Even The Mill on the Floss I had to read so quickly I remember almost nothing about it. I think someone dies.

So the pages are relatively small in number, but dense, especially the Rawls. If you’ve ever read any Rawls (John, not Lou), then you know what a tedious writer he can be. It’s a pity someone so brilliant couldn’t write more gracefully. Still, if the prevailing views of students are correct, whatever are we to do with them? Just now I was trying to decide between a Philip Pettit or a Quentin Skinner essay to represent the republican position. I decided on both, but if these kids today don’t read, perhaps I should just teach neither. Perhaps we should abandon research and writing altogether. Why bother if the kids are so incorrigibly dumb?

From a professor at Illinois who’d obviously been around a while even then I heard about some of the protesting hippie teaching assistants teaching rhetoric in the late sixties. Instead of essays, they’d have the students make collages and such. Maybe we could abandon reading and writing completely and just do that in class. Collages have the advantage not only of looking prettier than essays, they’re also much easier to grade while stoned.

The touchstone of the new aliteracy for some seems to be that the kids today aren’t reading literature anymore. Capital L Literature apparently used to be important to the culture, and everyone who was anyone ran around discussing T.S. Eliot or Allen Ginsberg while drinking cocktails or smoking pot (respectively), or ruminating on the supposed complexities of Beckett or Sartre. The kids just don’t do this anymore, and it bothers some people.

Let’s hope the students get a smattering of great literature during their college years, but otherwise, is it so bad if they don’t read novels for fun? Some of them no doubt will go on to be the educated intellectual types who will lament for the future because the next generation will be so ill read. But if most of them grow up reading nothing more substantial than news or blogs or the occasional magazine, will they be that much different from how most people have always been? Did we ever really live through some literary golden age when masses of people read more not because it was what they wanted to do but because there wasn’t much else to do.

The nineteenth century in England and America seemed to be a relatively literate time, but was there not perhaps a large difference between those who for enjoyment read the John Stuart Mill or Matthew Arnold and those who read the serial installments of The Old Curiosity Shop and flocked to Dickens’ celebrity tours of America? When literature was entertainment, were we any better off as a society? Now that literature is less popular, doesn’t there still seem to be a lot of reading going on? And is the person who daily consumes another genre novel somehow more critical and analytical than the rest of us, more fit to be a citizen than those who skim headlines on Google News or read political blogs?

Perhaps, though, the curmudgeons and naysayers are correct, and somehow this year the students will be worse than they were last year. The dumbest generation goes to college. Apparently I’m not even protected here in my ivy league ivory tower, since if William Deresiewicz is to be believed, one of the disadvantages of an elite education is that it is “profoundly anti-intellectual,” and it also offers too many temptations to mediocrity.

I hope I don’t end up with all the mediocre, profoundly anti-intellectual students in my class. No use fretting I suppose, because there’s not much I can do about it anyway.

On Liberal Education

Assaults on the liberal arts always seem to come from people who don’t understand what liberal education is about.

Being a product and proponent of liberal education, I suppose I should take issue with this article: Liberal Arts Colleges: A Dying Breed? (found via the KUAL). The gist of the story is that liberal arts colleges are dying out because they’re not practical enough. It’s odd to focus just on liberal arts colleges, since most universities and colleges have undergraduates who study the liberal arts. Perhaps all those vocational students attending the universities subsidize the liberal arts students.

However, I couldn’t take issue because I found some of the comments so irrelevant to the issue of liberal education, though perhaps relative to the financial security of some liberal arts colleges. Consider this quote:

If liberal arts colleges are a dying breed, not everyone is in mourning. Career-based education is simply more practical, some experts believe.

“First, we all need to realize that the ‘liberal arts curriculum’ has never been proven through empirical research to be superior to the ‘career college education,’ or even ‘self-teaching,’ for that matter,” says Marc Scheer, Ph.D., author of a soon-to-be-released book about higher education, No Sucker Left Behind: Avoiding the Great College Rip-Off.

I’m not going to make a case for the practicality of a liberal education, though one can certainly be made. Instead, I find the entire statement bizarre, and hope it was taken out of context. What exactly would an empirical study be like that could “prove” a liberal arts curriculum is superior or inferior to vocational education, which is really what “career college education” is, though for some reason the person doesn’t want to use the term. Even vocational “education” is a euphemism for what many would prefer to call vocational training.

The only way the statement makes sense is if we add a purpose. Superior for what purpose? If the purpose is to leave four years of college and immediately be able to do some practical work, then perhaps vocational training is superior to liberal education. I’m assuming that is the context of the person’s thought, because otherwise the remark doesn’t mean much. The assumption seems to be that the purpose of a college “education” is to prepare one to immediately perform some practical job somewhere.

But of course that’s obvious, because the purpose of liberal education and the liberal arts has rarely been to prepare people to perform specific jobs. The liberal arts are liberal because the purpose is to create free human beings knowledgeable about their world, capable of critical thought and sophisticated communication, and poised to develop their human potentials. I know this makes me sound like the unrepentant humanist I am, but it doesn’t take any empirical research to show that a good liberal arts curriculum would go further toward this aim than any vocational training.

The critic of liberal education thinks the problem is the snobby professors.

“Liberal arts colleges need to add some more practical content to their coursework and encourage their instructors to do so. As it stands now, many faculty members have basic contempt for career training. They view it as beneath them. They don’t think career training is part of their job. However, it’s clear that both employers and students want more career training at all colleges. So colleges need to change their long-held contempt for this kind of training, and actively attempt to integrate practical material into their coursework.”

However, I think even here the statement is problematic because of the faulty assumptions. I’m not sure any faculty members at liberal arts colleges have any “basic contempt” for vocational training, but that’s just not what they do. I would bet that a lot of professors believe that a lot of the students that are in college now probably shouldn’t be there because they have no interest in developing their intellects and themselves as free human beings and only want to get a job. If it really is “clear that both employers and students want more career training at all colleges,” then the solution may be for liberal arts colleges to die off, though I hope that doesn’t happen. However, if that really is the case, then it shows only that employers and students don’t really want educated people, not that colleges should start offering more vocational training.

How exactly would one add “integrate practical material” into a seminar on literature, philosophy, or history? What does “practical” mean in this instance? All liberal arts classes aim to develop the critical and communication skills of students as well as understand a topic better. Are these not “practical” skills? The answer is probably in the forthcoming book, but I think I’ll be too busy reading impractical philosophy and literature this summer to have time.

Even here, though, I can’t agree based on my own work experience that vocational training is superior to a liberal arts curriculum. In my experience, those without a liberal education are perfectly capable of performing specific tasks, but often less capable of thinking about the broader context of their work as well as less capable of understanding other perspectives. This certainly isn’t always the case, because intelligence and capacity can make up for a lot, and I’ve certainly known products of liberal arts colleges who were intellectually and conceptually substandard. Still, a liberal education teaches one to examine issues past the surface, to place ideas and actions in context, and to appreciate the diversity of people and motives. These things can come without it, and may not always stem from it, but those goals are parts of the purpose of a liberal education, and are typically not part of any vocational training.

Another odd perspective is that Scheer seems to think only in financial terms. For example:

“Yes, students at liberal arts colleges may recoup their investment over their lifetime,” Scheer says. “But based on my research and the research of others, they probably won’t ‘recoup’ their investment until the age of 33. In addition, students get the same financial payoff from college, whether they spend a lot on their degrees or not.”

However, from the perspective of the liberally educated, this statement means next to nothing. How does one “recoup” an investment in reading a poem or a book or philosophy, or for that matter studying pure mathematics. The “investment” in liberal education cannot be measured in financial terms, but only the liberally educated can appreciate that. Attackers of liberal education think colleges should train employees; defenders think colleges should educate human beings. The financial interest for the individual person may dictate vocational training, but the human interest of the person as well as the social and political interest of the whole require a good dose of the liberal arts.

More on the Humanities

Steve Lawson left a comment on my Some Things Don’t Change post that I tried to respond to in another comment, but the comment started to get away from me, so I decided to make it a post. As you’ve no doubt noticed, I have trouble writing briefly. Sorry about that. Thanks for reading anyway.

The comment:

“I agree with many of the things you say, especially about not simply assuming that students are different and that they humanities must change to accommodate their perceived characteristics.

But, like Dan Cohen, I feel like digital collections and tools will make humanities scholarship different in the future, at least for some scholars. (An important difference is that Dan Cohen is actually helping this to come about, while I’m mostly looking on from the sidelines.) Do you not think that humanities scholarship will change significantly? Or do you think that such scholarship won’t be truly humanistic?”

First, thanks for introducing me to a new blog that could be interesting.

Regarding digital collections and tools, I definitely believe they are already changing the practices of some scholars. One thing I’ve been thinking about is the relative ease of collaborative work now and whether that will ever have much of an effect on scholarship, since humanists tend to discuss in public but write alone. The pirate post was discussing how the practice of the historian might have to change to accommodate some digital collections, but I don’t see it is a huge change in the underlying mission of historians. It’s still trying to interpret texts to understand and tell a story about the past. If digital tools increase our ability to do that, so much the better. The result will still be a modern and humanist sort of history that considers texts in context and as part of a linear history, unlike the medieval historical worldview and more like the break with it that came with events like proving the Donation of Constantine bogus.

Things I see as essential to the humanities that haven’t changed since the Renaissance: a concern with texts and arguments trying to understand the human condition and guide us to appropriate behavior; an understanding of history as a linear development; a commitment to the development of individual character, rationality, capacity, etc; and a belief in the centrality of language to what makes us thinking beings.

There are now and have always been large swaths of human belief that go against this. There are, paradoxically, anti-humanist humans. Just confining ourselves to America, there are apparently huge numbers of people who believe in a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis and that the earth is about 6,000 years old. I don’t actually know any of these people, but the fear they seem to inspire in others seems to indicate that such people must exist somewhere. These pre-modernists still have the theologico-historical worldview that began to disappear from intellectual discourse about 500 years ago. They see the world more like Augustine saw it than like any modern thinker would. For them, texts are not part of contexts and history is linear only to the extent that it moves from creation to apocalypse.

Obviously, there also exist trends and behaviors that go against the individuality inherent in the humanities. Humanists have always valued developing the capacity of individual human beings–their critical thought, their artistic abilities, etc. The goal has always been to create intelligent and thoughtful individuals, and not to immerse the individual into the group. The renaissance man, as it were. We still respect this goal, and are rightly impressed with people who are accomplished in many areas. A concern with humanity and the larger world is always part of this education, but not the whole of it. However, there are many who believe that the goal of education should be to produce competent and compliant workers, or compliant subjects of a particular political regime, or something like this. Such indoctrination (one hesitates to call it education) is at odds with the individualism inherent in the humanities, which should strive to create individuals who maximize their own potential while understanding themselves as beings in the world. There are all sorts of collectivist notions that are unremittingly anti-humanistic.

Some writers argue that children today are growing up in a visual culture that is at odds with the traditions of humanistic education. These kids, we are told, spend all their time playing video games, watching television, texting their friends, posting photos to Facebook, and all at the same time. They don’t read. They don’t write. That’s just not important anymore. However, the mass of humanity has always been like this (as in not reading or writing, rather than playing video games and Facebooking). If you want to see a great example of a visual culture with little literacy, take a look at the Middle Ages. The extravagant windows and carvings of medieval cathedrals are the medieval equivalent of the television documentary, a way to deliver a message to people who won’t or can’t read. Illiteracy (either inability or unwillingness to read or write) has always characterized the greater part of humanity. We’re no different today except that we have more distractions that move more quickly. But the humanist contends that to think critically, to understand ourselves and the world we inhabit, to communicate with each other meaningfully, to merge our shared understandings of existence in fruitful ways, will always require language and writing. There’s only so far one’s thoughts can progress without some sort of language, whether this is ordinary human language for most things, or a specialized mathematical language for others.

So, to make a short comment long, I think that as long as people are trying to understand and interpret texts in context, focus on the development of the individual person within the larger world, and communicate their ideas through language and writing, then they will be practicing humanistic scholarship. Obviously there are all sorts of other worthwhile human endeavors, but if the humanities disappear completely the world will be a darker place.

A Vision of K-12 Students Today

There’s a Youtube video “A Vision of K-12 Students Today,” that seems to be the junior version of the vision of college students today video, only with less whiny students. At least college students have some choices, whereas most K-12 students are forced through the involuntary factory of public education.

The complaints are a bit different. All these students want to be “engaged,” of course, and engagement is apparently always the responsibility of the teacher and never the student. In many ways I’m quite sympathetic to these students. I’m sure many of their classrooms are boring and their teachers dull. I spent my pre-college years wondering whether the educational system was designed to do anything other than bore me into submission. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t. I’ve struggled to make sure my daughter doesn’t suffer the stultifying effects and methods of the typically dull educational system.

What I’m not particularly sympathetic to or impressed by is the assumption that the problem with all of their schooling is that they don’t use “technology” enough. It seems to be a tragedy that most of their teachers haven’t used blogs or wikis, because, you see, these students are “digital learners.” They hold up signs saying “If we learn by doing” and “What are we learning sitting here?”

But what does that mean, we learn by doing? Is that always the case? One learns to be a historian by “doing history,” I suppose, but that’s not necessarily the way one learns about history. It’s how one learns to write poetry, but one doesn’t need “technology” for that. It’s not necessarily how one learns to be a citizen. It is how one learns to make a wiki, but is making a wiki at all difficult? As a sometime teacher as well, I question this logic. I teach writing in the context of political philosophy. Whether I know how to use blogs and wikis is irrelevant to this activity. Class discussion of difficult texts doesn’t require “digital engagement,” and yet they are a cornerstone of a liberal education.

One student asks, “How do you learn?” A better question might be, what are you learning? “What kind of education would you want me to have?” “If I were your son?” “Your Daughter?”

I can answer this one quite easily, since I in fact have a K-12 daughter. What I want for my daughter is a sound liberal education, because I believe that liberal education will prepare her best to be a satisfied human being, a concerned citizen, and a person eminently capable of adapting to the changing circumstances of the world. What I want might be partially understood by referring to Common Core or in this text, Beyond the Basics, or Dorothy Sayer’s “The Lost Tools of Learning,” or just a good liberal arts curriculum. This video seems to imply that the various digital technologies they want to use are at all difficult to use, as if anything that doesn’t use digital technologies is somehow inadequate for them. I’ve had no trouble adapting quickly to technology or changing circumstances, but I think that’s best explained by a long and rigorous liberal education. Using technology for these “digital natives” is all fine, but what are they using the technology to teach? A bigger problem with their education is probably the aggressive standardized testing they’re subjected to and their relatively insubstantial curriculum than the fact that they can’t make a wiki for class.

Some of the comments seem odd. For example, we’re told that soon the largest English-speaking country will be China, and then that there are more honor students in China than there are people in North America. Okay. I wonder if all those honor students in China are buckling down with their laptops and iPods, and that’s why they’re learning so much English. Really, I don’t wonder at all, because I don’t see the connection between this and anything else in the video, especially the very next frame where the sign reads “But only 1/2 of us will graduate from high school.” The “But” implies that somehow this is related to the previous statements on China, as if there being so many honors students in China somehow leads to half of American students not graduating from high school in some sort of bizarre intercontinental zero-sum high school graduation game. I also wonder where they got these statistics. According to the census data, in 2001 the number of high school graduates per 100 17-year-olds was 72.5, not great, but not 50% either. And according to this census study, the percent of Americans 25 and older with a high school education in 2003 was 83.2 and is projected to be 87.3 by 2028, and this is the “low projection.” The high projection is 91.0. I have no idea whether this is correct, but I’m at least citing the source.

This confusion may be designed to put the next statements into perspective: “Teach me to think.” “To Create.” “To Analyze.” “To Evaluate.” “To Apply.” All of these actions are necessary to take the statements on China and American high school graduation rates and make any sense of them whatsoever. But then comes, “Teach me to think. Let me use the WWW.” I posit that using the WWW and learning to think have no necessary connection with each other, and that in fact the conceptual clarity and analytical agility that these students need would be better served by a strong liberal arts curriculum or a good course in logic, and they don’t need computers or digital cameras for either of these.

If there is any sense to the comparison of China and American high school students, what might it be? One relation might be increasing globalization or cultural diversification, or perhaps the need to be able to communicate with and understand those of different countries and cultures. What makes this sort of communication or understanding more likely: being able to manipulate digital images, or a grounding in world history and foreign languages? Or perhaps they’re trying to imply that Chinese students just work harder than American students? That might certainly be the case, but what does this have to do with being digital learners? Who wrote the script for this thing, anyway?

Sometimes I hesitate even to make arguments like this, because opponents will too easily assume that anyone who doesn’t fall in line with the “digital learning” argument is somehow opposed to such technology. This is hardly the case for me. I’m immersed in digital technology at work and at home. My daughter’s school has a classical curriculum and no computers. She loves it, and somehow, shockingly, she manages to learn. Videos like this imply that something like a miracle must be occurring if this is so. Does this mean she won’t grow up sufficiently “digital” to make her way in life? I doubt it. She’s got the family desktop, her own OLPC laptop, her iPod, and various other playthings. She spends plenty of time on various digital activities. These are easy things to do, which is why an 8-year-old can do them so easily.

Education is certainly about more than conforming the students to No Child Left Behind, but it’s also about more than “digital learning,” and learning can take place without the digital. There are numerous problems with the public education system, but whether the students are digitally engaged is a lesser problem than the content of the curriculum, the control of teachers over the classroom, union opposition to pay for performance, or various other things. Students need to learn to read and do math, but they also need to learn about history and the arts. They need to know about their own and other cultures. They need to learn to speak and write effectively. And of course they need to learn to think, create, analyze, evaluate, and apply. It’s very possible that they would develop these skills more in debate class than they would in any number of “digital media.”

Digital learning or digital nativism have little to do with the many problems facing American education today. If students can’t think, create, analyze, evaluate, or apply, the problem is most likely not that they are “digital natives” and that all their old fogey teachers don’t know how to make wikis. That argument implies that children today are incapable of learning unless they are learning “digitally,” but this argument can be turned around. If students are incapable of learning by reading books or engaging in discussion or approaching difficult subjects logically as well as analogicallly, this isn’t necessarily the fault of the teachers of the educational system. It just shows that these students aren’t very intelligent or adaptable, which is probably not the case.

They note in the video that their parents use email, but that they IM and text. So be it. But if these students are as unadaptable as this video implies, and are incapable of adjusting to the common world and communicating across generations, it might be surprising if they don’t graduate from high school, but it will hardly be surprising if they don’t finish college or get jobs. Part of a liberal education is learning what has come before, especially the best that has been thought and said, and adapting it to changing circumstances. As Heidegger noted, we are thrown into being, and as Wittgenstein argued, there is no private language. We are immersed from birth in what has come before, and struggle to adapt ourselves to a culture, history, and language that precedes us. To imply that because children today text while their parents email we are encountering some sea change in what it means to be a human being and that the newer humans we call students can’t adapt to a common world that preexists them and we can’t communicate properly with them is to do both the students and ourselves a disservice.

As academic librarians, we face the recent products of the educational system every year. What would make it easier for students to be able to do library research? More digital learning, or a good liberal education. Are those two things incompatible? Certainly not. But I’m skeptical that the discussion seems to be around the medium and not around the content, as if introducing more blogs, wikis, and digital media into classrooms would somehow solve our educational problems.

Visions of Students Today

I ran across this YouTube video: A Vision of Students Today (found via It’s All Good). It came out of an intro anthropology class at Kansas State University. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to learn from it. Based on a collaborative semi-survey, students hold up signs talking about their lives, with the overall point (I think) that university education isn’t “relevant” to their lives. Students have been chanting that mantra since at least the 1960s, but now the education is irrelevant in different ways.

It seems to me that one of the biggest criticisms is of the large lecture format, and I couldn’t agree more. One student holds up a sign saying her average class size is 115 students, and another that 18% of her teachers knows her name. It’s no wonder that students get discouraged in this environment. I’ve never taught a lecture class, but I did used to TA for one on early British literature, and it was deadly (except for my discussion sections, which of course were delightful). Right now I teach 12 students, and know all of their names, but I know that even here some of the students have very large lectures and grow bored in them. The large lecture format should probably die, but there never seem to be enough teachers and money to teach everyone in small seminars.

Some of the other criticisms seem more like whining and less like constructive criticism. One student sign reads “I complete 49% of the readings assigned to me.” What are we to make of this? Lots of students don’t read course materials. Lots of students also don’t make good grades. How is that the fault of anyone but the student? Or is she saying that the professors assign readings irrelevant to the subject? That could be a problem. But she then follows that sign with another saying “only 26% are relevant to my life.” To which I would want to respond, so what? Is a university there to teach only classes relevant to the lives of late teens, or there to broaden the knowledge and understanding of those teens by trying to educate them?

Another students signs that she “will read 8 books this year, 2300 web pages & 1281 Facebook profiles.” Does that mean that professors should no longer assign books, but instead teach the content of Facebook?

Another signs that she will “write 42 pages for class this semester but over 500 pages of email.” I teach writing, but don’t see the relevance. Those 500 pages of email have no obligation to be clear, thoughtful, and coherent. They don’t necessarily teach you to order your thoughts about a complex subject and make a compelling argument. I don’t know what kind of writing there is for this course, but writing 40 pages of argumentative prose is very different from writing a lot of emails, unless you write long emails arguing difficult questions with lots of citations and careful analysis and use of evidence.

Several students hold up signs saying how much time they spend on various activities each day: 2 hours on the phone, 1.5 hours watching TV, 2 hours eating, 3 hours listening to music, 3.5 hours online, 7 hours sleeping, etc. It adds up to 26.5 hours, and there’s not even any mention of drinking or hooking up. Another sign reads, “I’m a multitasker,” then “I have to be.” But one doesn’t have to talk on the phone for 2 hours or watch TV at all, and I’m not sure listening to music while surfing the web should count as multi-tasking anyway. Still, I agree that educational methods that encourage students to sit in a lecture hall while IMing and listening to music are problematic. The solution is smaller classes that engage students in the content of the course, but also students who want to learn. (Based on my experience, I don’t think online classes are any answer. I had to take one in library school because no one on campus would teach gov docs. The fact that I could eat my dinner, play my guitar, and still participate in class didn’t impress me with the format much.)

Another signs about having a job after graduation that probably won’t exist today, leading another student to hold up what I think is a Scantron sheet with writing on the back saying, “Filling out this won’t help me get there.” In some ways I sympathize with the student. Filling out bubbles on a test sheet won’t get the student a job. I would be more concerned, though, that it won’t help the student get an education. I balk at the notion that the goal of a university is strictly to get people jobs. That seems to be a common factor with many students, but the failure isn’t that of the education, but of their understanding of the purpose of that education. The students frustrated that not all the readings are relevant to their lives and not all the classes will help them get jobs might be more happy with vocational training. No wonder they’re bored out of their minds in these classes. Colleges need to engage students more, but students need to want to learn. Both are necessary for the best college experience.

If they’re so bored, and if so much is so irrelevant to their concerns, then why are they there? Why don’t they quit and do something else? I know why they don’t, because they believe that a college degree is necessary to get a job that will allow them to almost have a decent middle class lifestyle these days. I think they’re right, but it’s not the presence of the degree that will fit them for challenging and constantly changing knowledge economy, but the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that come with learning.