Friday, July 27, 2012

Educational Wisdom (IV)

Unlike previous posts in this sequence, which have been century-old observations that seem very fresh today, this one seems hopelessly anachronistic, alas.

Like the captain of industry, or the political ruler, [a university president] must have skill, capacity, and knowledge; must be inventive and constructive in his thinking; and must welcome care and responsibility. His inducements to laborious and responsible service are, however, different from those which are effective with other sorts of leader. A high salary, or the prospect of luxury for himself and his family, will not tempt him. These inducements will not draw the right kind of man into university administration any more than into teaching or research. Hie cannot be induced to do his best work by offering him any money prize, and he will manifest no desire whatever for arbitrary power over masses of human beings, or for what is ordinarily called fame or glory. The effective inducements will be the prospect of eminent usefulness, public consideration, the provision of real facilities for his work, enough relief from pecuniary cares to leave is mind free for invention and fore looking, long tenure, and income enough to secure healthy recreations. He will not wish to receive a salary so high as to distinguish him widely from his colleagues the professors, except so far as the proper discharge of his functions involves him in expenditures from which they are exempt. He will want to work with a group of associates whose pecuniary recompense and prospects are not very unlike his own. -- Charles W. Eliot, "Academic Freedom," Science, Vol. XXVI, No. 652, pp. 1-12 (July 5, 1907)
It cannot be inconsequential to the health of the academy that university presidents by and large do not fit this pattern today.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Educational Wisdom (III)

Some interesting resonances here!

John Dewey, reflecting on the growth in the bureaucracy of the university and the way it interferes with teaching and learning:
The university must expand in order to be true to itself, and to expand it must have money. The danger is that means absorb attention and thus possess the value that attaches alone to the ultimate educational end. The public mind gives an importance to the money side of educational institutions which is insensibly modifying the standard of judgment both within and without the college walls. _ The great event in the history of an institution is now likely to be a big gift, rather than a new investigation or the development of a strong and vigorous teacher. Institutions are ranked by their obvious material prosperity, until the atmosphere of money-getting and moneyspending hides from view the interests for the sake of which money alone has a place. The imagination is more or less taken by the thought of this force, vague but potent; the emotions are enkindled by grandiose conceptions of the possibilities latent in money. Unconsciously, without intention, the money argument comes to be an argument out of proportion, out of perspective. It is bound up in so many ways, seen and unseen, with the glory and dignity of the institution that it derives from association an importance to which it has in itself no claim.
This vague potentiality, invading imagination and seducing emotion, checks initiative and limits responsibility. Many an individual who would pursue his straight course of action unhindered by thought of personal harm to himself, is deflected because of fear of injury to the institution to which he belongs. The temptation is attractive just because it does not appeal to the lower and selfish motives of the individual, but comes clothed in the garb of the ideals of an institution. Loyalty to an institution, esprit de corps, is strong in the university, as in the army and navy. A vague apprehension of bringing harm upon the body with which one is connected is kept alive by the tendency of the general public to make no distinction between an individual in his personal and his professional capacity. Whatever he says and does is popularly regarded as an official expression of the institution with which he is connected. All this tends to paralyze independence and drive the individual back into a narrower corner of work. 
Moreover,  new type of college administration has been called into being by the great expansion on the material side. A ponderous machinery has come into existence for carrying on the multiplicity of business and quasi-business matters without which the modern university would come to a standstill. This machinery tends to come between the individual and the region of moral aims in which he should assert himself. Personality counts for less than the apparatus thru which, it sometimes seems, the individual alone can accomplish anything. Moreover, the minutiae, the routine turning of the machinery, absorb time and energy. Many a modern college man is asking himself where he is to get the leisure and strength to devote himself to his ultimate ends, so much, willy-nilly, has to be spent on the intermediate means. The side-tracking of personal energy into the routine of academic machinery is a serious problem. -- "Academic Freedom," 1902.
Harvey Silverglate, commenting on reactions to the NCAA sanctions against Penn State in the Sandusky matter:
But morality, not to mention common sense, plays little part in the functioning of our modern universities. The role of academic administrators these days - and this has been true for much of the past 25 years - is to prevent criticism of the institution. This has resulted in the growth of huge public relations infrastructures that team up with fund-raising ("development") infrastructures. General Counsels have taken charge of much that goes on at the modern university. At their order, universities operate largely on this theory of "risk reduction" - that is to say, things are done not because they are right, nor because they enhance the institution's educational or scholarly missions. Instead, they are done to protect the institution's reputation, to protect the jobs of the administrators (for whom general counsel works), to keep the institution from losing government funds, and to keep the institution from getting sued. Truth, principle, and the education and welfare of young people have little to do with it. … The modern administrative university is a business machine without a soul. It is an administrative fiefdom that operates outside of the sights and controls of its governing boards or its alumni, with the primary goal of avoiding criticism. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Educational Wisdom (II)

These two come from papers delivered at a convention in New York City in 1830, which was considering the formation of what became New York University.

On student evaluations of faculty.
To refer a Professor solely or chiefly to his popularity with the students for his supper would be dangerous in all branches, which are not of a very positive and distinct nature, as, for instance, anatomy. A Professor of history might make his lectures popular, nay, he might treat generally parts of history, which are more entertaining than others; but whether he would thus most contribute to the purpose of his appointment is a very different question. The best is not always the most popular. Indeed, I have seen students fill a lecture room for the mere sake of entertainment, because the Professor interspersed his lecture (by no means the best of the university) with entertaining anecdotes. I recollect two such instances. However, taking the principle generally, would it not be making the students the judges of the professors? … I do not deny, indeed,m that the intense study found in the German universities is owing in a great measure to the liberty of choice left to the students, because liberty produces activity; but I do deny that it would be safe, to let the support of the Professor depend upon the judgment of the students. Have the greater men always been the most popular among the students? By no means. (Francis Lieber, 1830)
 On academic freedom.
All restrictions upon the moral and literary freedom of the students, are injurious to the free development of science. The heroes of German science and literature, as Kant, Kaestner, Leibnitz, Ernesti, Haller, Gronovius and others, were all educated in the German Universities, when they enjoyed the greatest freedom. The despotism of the German governments, for centuries past, suffered and sanctioned this unbound liberty of the students, while all other classes of society were chained, for they were sensible of its importance to themselves, as the means to be prefaced with able men to fill their offices. Experience proves this. Austria has for some time past confined the moral and intellectual liberty of her students, and has turned her Universities almost into schools. What is the result? her seats of science are barren of all, which has no recourse to speculative branches of knowledge and philosophy; the exact sciences only continue flourishing there.
The feeling of liberty and independence in youth, is a prominent feature and an adorable characteristic of this county; and if this feeling is with difficulty controlled in boys, as has been stated by several gentlemen of the Convention, and has been intimated to me by some of my friends; how much more difficult will their be in young men of eighteen or twenty years of age, while constitute, I hope the greater number of our students in the New University. All kinds of restrictions in this age have a tendency to defeat themselves.  (J. Leo Wolf, 1830)


Educational Wisdom from Other Times (I)

I have been doing some reading about higher education and am again struck (as I was while writing Excellence Without a Soul) how the same problems keep coming around, rephrased every thirty years or so as new discoveries and new insights about the state of higher education. And even the same solutions! I am going to post quotations every now and then as I run across them.

From "Quack-Doctoring the Colleges," by William Bennett Munro (Professor of Municipal Government at Harvard), Harper's Magazine, September, 1928. "Many things are wrong with our colleges," he begins, and lists a series of complaints, each matched with the opposite complaint, which has also been articulated. "I have positive information that the colleges are no longer educating anybody, and I have equally emphatic assurance that they are educating a lot of youngsters who ought to be left illiterate for the benefit of the unskilled labor market." (A bit more extreme than the sequence that led up to Santorum's "snob" comment, but along the same dimension.)

Munro then lists some proposed solutions to colleges' ailments, all quack medicine as far as he is concerned. "The Job-Analysis Serum" sounds like "Running Higher Education Like a Business": Clarify your objectives, conduct surveys of students and alumni to determine whether you are accomplishing them, and respond accordingly. The "Orientation Ointment" is about wrapping actual education in heavier and heavier layers of meta-educational sessions, programs, advisers, and so on--and also about the shallowness of general education courses, which were starting to appear in the 1920s. But one really hit me hard because I had just finished writing a piece for Harvard Magazine about the experience of creating an "active learning" course, CS 20, to respond to changes in students' learning styles.

Then there is Nostrum Number Three, the abolition of the lecture system and the substitution of active participation by the student in the classroom exercises. The usual academic lecture, we are asked to believe, is a process by which things pass from the notebook of the professor to the notebook of the student without going through the heads of either. So let it be amputated from the curricula. Anyhow, the lecture is a survival of scholasticism, a medieval hang-over out of keeping with the genius of the twentieth-century American youth. It its place let us have creative participation by the student--creative participation, that is the newest phrase, and it has an alluring sound without meaning much.
No more shall some ex cathedra dogmatist deliver his pontifical discourses from the rostrum with no opportunity for the benches to hit back; but teacher and pupil will exchange ideas, like Socrates and Plato. Encourage the freshman to assume a "challenging attitude" towards everything which the instructor may say, be it an assertion that the earth is a sphere, or that the poles are cooler than the equator, or that the Dutch have captured Amsterdam. Develop his spirit of criticism, his propensity to disagree. If this does not make the undergraduate a more intelligent citizen, it will at least qualify him as a municipal reformer.
And so on. Munro's bottom line is that teaching is intensely personal and there is no one best way to do it. "It is men, not methods or measures, that determine whether a college shall be first-rate or second class. Or, to put it more accurately, first find the men and the methods will take care of themselves." I can't disagree with that, and in the modern university that speaks to the hiring, incentive, and reward system for faculty, about which more another time.

But the resonance of this passage with the active-learning craze is almost embarrassing (see, for example, Twilight of the Lecture in the current Harvard Magazine). No, I'll go further. It IS embarrassing. In my own piece, I reproduce the Mark Twain quip about the brains of professor and student, and use the phrase "anachronism of the lecture era." Everything I say is still true, and I hope you will enjoy the piece when it comes out in the next issue of the Magazine, and will learn something from it. It just isn't very original!