New Student Convocation Address 2015

Faculty keynote address delivered at the inaugural UNC Charlotte New Student Convocation, 24 August 2015

Questions That Matter

I’ve been told that I can give you some advice about how to succeed in college. But I won’t do that. You’ve gotten more than enough advice from the folks at SOAR and from your relatives and your friends; more advice than you can possibly remember.

So instead, I’d like you to think with me for a few minutes about a story told by one of my own teachers, Robert Launay, an anthropologist who lived and worked for several years with the Dyula, a Muslim trading people who live in the northern part of the Cote d’Ivoire, the Ivory Coast in West Africa.

Ivory Coast Map 2

The Dyula, Launay said, have no common generic word for “brother” or “sister.”[1] When talking about your siblings you always use specific words indicating their relative age, “older sister” and “younger sister,” “elder brother” and “younger brother.” Your older brother is your koroce and your younger brother is your dogoce. Your older sister is koromuso and your younger sister is dogomuso. Sometimes people drop the gender marker ce for males and muso for females, and refer to their siblings simply as koro and dogo, older and younger.

The words describe a relationship of authority. So for example, younger brothers owe their elder brothers loyalty and obedience, and do work for them, such as running errands. In turn, older brothers help provide for their younger siblings and take care of them.

Now, this naming tradition raises an interesting question. If you have to refer to siblings as either older or younger, what do you do with twins, siblings born on the same day? Which one do you call older?

Well, clearly you know from the birth order, the Dyula said. One twin is always born before another; that’s how you know who is koro and who is dogo.

Ah, Launay said, as he wrote this down in his notebook: the twin who is born first is the koroce, the older brother.

No, corrected his Dyula friends. That would be ridiculous! The second-born twin is obviously the elder.

Now, the idea that the second-born twin is older might seem strange to us. But it comes from local perceptions of the authority relationship between siblings. You see, the Dyula explained, when it’s time to be born, the unborn elder twin sends his younger brother on an errand, as older siblings often do. “Go out into the light of the world,” he says, “and check things out. And if everything looks OK, let me know, and I’ll come out when I’m ready!”

So for the Dyula, you don’t get to be the older twin by being first into the world. The relationship between elder and junior is already set before birth, already part of the order of the world. Birth order doesn’t create the relationship of elder and junior. It doesn’t determine the relationship of authority. Birth order simply reveals the relationship, brings it to light.

Now back up.

Half a minute ago, I said that this strange-sounding idea depends on local practices and understandings of authority. The way the Dyula name twins makes sense as soon as we place that practice in the context of other parts of their culture. But if that’s so, then the same must be true about our own instinct to frame the elder-junior relationship in terms of who has more clock time in the world. Our assumptions about the connections between time and status are neither more natural nor more logical than Dyula assumptions. We’re just used to them.

So here we face a choice about how to interpret the story. We can learn an important lesson about cultural difference–the Dyula do this, and we do something else–and just leave it at that.

Or, we could ask whether perhaps the Dyula understanding of status might be more perceptive than our own. The Dyula perspective on twins seems to imply something that social science is still trying to come to terms with: that each new life comes into being in the midst of a world already in motion, and that in many ways the place of each new person has already been set long before their birth. This idea bothers Americans, because we believe that our paths through life should be primarily the result of our own individual efforts, what we’ve done with our own clock time in the world. But nobody really lives this way. Our own paths through life are always shaped by something bigger: existing social structures, economic systems, political institutions, cultural expectations, environmental opportunities and constraints, and so on, even down to unpredictable influences like the unique constellation of personalities that surround us in our families.

Take the example of Isidor I. Rabi, who used to teach physics at Columbia university in New York City. Rabi won the Nobel Prize in 1944 for his work on nuclear magnetic resonance. According to Donald Scheff, a friend once asked Rabi why he became a scientist rather than a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman like the other immigrant kids from his neighborhood. ”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it,” he replied. “Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions -made me a scientist!”

Let’s think about what makes asking good questions possible.

The best questions are the ones we don’t have answers to yet, questions that push us to look beyond what seems like common sense. To pursue an understanding of what is invisible and to put it into words (or into the language of mathematics or the language of images or the language of music)–to bring the unknown into the realm of description and understanding–that’s a real and enduring kind of success.

But like the Dyula twin, whose status is set before her birth, these arts of questioning are traditions that have existed since long before any of us was born. You’ll hear a lot of people say that college is about jobs, and what employers want from college graduates is “critical thinking skills.” What they usually mean by this  is that they want women and men who can solve the practical problems their bosses give them. Those are good skills to have, and you’ll pick up some of them along the way.

But real critical thinking is something more than that. We don’t want you just to be able to solve the problems someone else gives you. Our goal is to help you become people who can decide what are the questions that matter. We have brought you here because this is a place where you can start to build a better way of understanding the world. This is not an easy thing to do. It will take years of hard work and practice on your part. But it’s the only good reason for you to be here. We don’t know where the jobs will be when you graduate, but we’ll always need people thinking not just about how to answer the questions given to them, but thinking about what the important questions are in the first place.

Chancellor Dubois has told you about buildings in bricks and mortar, and Michael Wilson has told you about building your own futures. But there is another building behind all this, a vast structure of multiple traditions of questioning that stretch back thousands of years in thousands of places around the globe, some of which now find their place here. And like the Dyula twin, you will have to learn how to work and to create with the tools your traditions provide, in this case traditions of inquiry, of thought and debate, of criticism and rejection, of modification and further exploration, which are tools for you to help create the future.

We are not giving this tradition to you. It doesn’t work that way. And you are not purchasing it with your tuition. That’s impossible. There is no idea more stupid than the idea that what universities do is merely to transmit information to their students, selling them ready-made boxes labeled “Chemistry” and “History” and “Nursing” and “Engineering.” These fields are not boxes of facts. If they were, you could get your education for free at the public library. These fields are called disciplines, and they’re called that for a reason.

We have brought you here, your teachers and families and neighbors have brought you here, the State of North Carolina has brought you here, to introduce you to these disciplines not in the form of crates stuffed with facts, but in the form of a heritage, a genealogy of thought, a network that extends outward from where we are now to connect different places and times. Just as my teacher Robert Launay learned how to be an anthropologist from his teacher Jack Goody at the University of Cambridge, who learned from his teacher Meyer Fortes, who learned from the great Polish ethnographer Bronislaw Malinowski, who studied at the London School of Economics with Charles Seligman and so on back; and just as each generation creatively adopted and reacted against and added on to the discoveries and concerns of its elders, so you will be taught by women and men whose own skills and habits of thought have been shaped by having worked closely with previous generations.

You’re coming into the middle of conversations that those generations have been having over the course of centuries: Conversations about the characteristics of time and matter; about the nature of justice and the problem of human suffering; about what beauty means; about the operation of complex systems and the mechanics of life all the way from the molecule to the biosphere. You’re becoming part of an institution dedicated to furthering the arts and sciences of creativity in order to build a world we can all live in more responsibly.

We have brought you here to take your places in these conversations between generations, in this meeting place of researchers and teachers who have converged here from Moscow State University and from UNC Greensboro, from the universities of Oxford and Tennessee, from the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Shiraz in Iran; from Wuhan University in China and Cornell in New York, from Wisconsin and Bombay, Toronto and Minnesota; from Georgia to Argentina and from Lagos to Cairo and from Yale to Salt Lake City. And even a few from Chapel Hill.

And each of these institutions were in turn the centers of immense networks of thought and endeavor reaching across time and space, networks of exploration within which your task is to find a place.

So as you become UNC Charlotte students and join these conversations and begin learning how to think about what questions matter, the first question I have for you is this:   

Are you ready?



[1]  Launay told a version of this story in either Peoples of Africa, or Social Organization, both of which I took in the early 1980s. I’ve used it over the years off and on in the kinship section of my Introduction to Anthropology class. But in preparing this talk, I could not find anything like this information in his published work. So I wrote to him. Verifying that I had it more or less right in my memory more than thirty years later, the Elder provided the actual kinship terms, but nevertheless qualified my claim by saying that  “It is not technically true that there is no generic term for ‘brother’. That would be ‘balimace’ (the c is pronounced tch). But this is not common usage. For one, balima is sort of generic for kinsperson of any sort (a sister would be balimamuso). But introducing someone as your balimace in Dyula would be rather like introducing them as ‘my sibling’ in English! Not even anthropologists talk like that, at least in normal life.”


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Convocation Address 2014

19 August 2014

UNC Charlotte Faculty and Staff Convocation

Thank you, Chancellor Dubois, for the kind introduction, and for the opportunity to talk a bit about the Faculty agenda this year.

I took my first anthropology class thirty-five years ago this semester, as a freshman in college. And in the long time since then I’ve learned a lot, and come to some conclusions about human beings, the most important of which is this:

People are nuts.

Don’t get me wrong; one on one, most folks are delightful. But when you put us together in groups, bizarre things happen. We come to take so much for granted as normal, that we lose sight of the fact that in our daily lives we often strive after contradictory goals. Sometimes those contradictions come together in ways that let us see them again for what they are, and these are opportunities to see our culture at work. For example, at the very beginning of last April’s Faculty Council meeting, the UNC Charlotte faculty presented a well-deserved formal commendation to Athletic Director Judy Rose and Coach Brad Lambert, for their outstanding implementation of our new football program. The consensus was that it just could not have been done better. But later on in that same meeting, Dr. Robert Jones, a sports physician and the Director of our Student Health Center, talked to the faculty about the problem of Traumatic Brain Injury among our students, pointing out that even minor concussions can inhibit learning for days or even weeks.

So here we are, a university that wants our students to learn, but at the same time we systematically–and enthusiastically–expose some of our students to the possibility of Traumatic Brain Injury, which inhibits their learning.

Now, this is not a criticism of football. Football is an honorable American cultural institution, and an important feature of the collegiate experience. As a demonstration of skill and strength and masculinity, football is certainly no more strange than the traditional Afghan sport of buzkashi, a mounted game in which riders compete over the possession and movement of the carcass of a goat. Really the strangest thing about football, when you think about it in comparative context, is that it has nothing at all to do with goats and revolves instead around the possession and movement of a small bundle made out of fragments of the carcass of a cow.

Our pursuit of incompatible goals is not a new problem, and it’s not an American problem. People have been doing this for more than ten thousand years, and it happens everywhere.

In Middle Eastern folklore, there are dozens of stories about a character who goes by different names in the Persian, Turkish, and Arabic traditions. In Arabic-speaking countries he’s usually known as Juha or Goha.

In my favorite story, Juha is going with his young son–the cutest little five-year old boy you’ve ever seen–to the market. Juha is riding on his donkey, and his son is walking along beside. They pass a group of people, and Juha hears them whispering–“Oh, what a heartless man! How can he ride on that donkey while his poor little boy walks in the dust? What a bad father!” Juha is embarrassed, so he gets down off the donkey and lifts his son onto its back instead. They continue on, but when they pass another group of people, Juha hears them scoffing– “What is that man doing, walking along while his son rides on that donkey like a spoiled prince? How is the boy ever going to learn respect for his elders?” Juha blushes, and decides that it would be best if they both walked. So he takes his son down from the donkey and they both walk along beside it. But after a little while, people start to laugh–“What idiots! Here’s this fine strong donkey, and these lamebrains walk in the heat rather than riding on it!” Juha, realizing how foolish this is, climbs back up on the donkey and pulls his son up in front of him so they can both ride. But then the people scold–“What a monster! Can’t that man see that his poor donkey is overburdened with two riders? It’s about to collapse! How can he be so cruel?” And so poor Juha sighs, and does the only thing left to do. He dismounts along with his son, and then Juha ducks down and heaves the struggling animal up onto his shoulders, and stumbles off toward the market carrying the donkey, while the whole crowd jeers at how stupid he is.

Juha is the perfect model of the university. No matter what he does, it’s just not right. Here at the university, the problem is that we’re too easy on students, and they learn nothing. The problem is that we’re too hard on students, and they flunk out. The problem is that we teach them irrelevant nonsense, and so they’re unqualified to find jobs. But the problem is that we concentrate far too much on job training, instead of teaching critical thinking skills, which are much more important. Universities fail because they refuse to concentrate on teaching the enduring western cultural heritage, and instead they latch onto every passing intellectual fad. But the problem is that universities are stodgy and risk-averse, and too slow to change.

And because we obviously don’t know what we’re doing, we need to be held accountable, so we’re told to measure our productivity and write regular assessments of what we’ve done and what students have learned, in order to prove that we’re actually earning our pay, and if what we do is not readily reducible to numbers and formal rubrics, then maybe we just need to change the way we work so we can generate the right kinds of records.

We’ve picked up the donkey, and we’re staggering under its weight.

So here’s what I hope we can all do this year. I’d like us to take some time to think about how to put down the donkey.

In the past two years, at least four different College Deans at UNC Charlotte have requested full-time EPA staff positions to deal just with the burden of assessment, and it keeps coming. In addition to those we already have, we’re about to get more accountability requirements from General Administration. We’ll be implementing a state-mandated test of critical thinking skills, and working out a new post-tenure review process which will require every tenured faculty member to develop a five year career plan with specific benchmarks that her chair can key to the annual review process. And the Deans will be responsible for evaluating and approving these plans, too. And everyone involved in the process will be required to undergo special training. And the Provost will have to certify that the procedure is being followed properly across campus.

But the more effort we spend on assessing ourselves, the less genuine productivity we have to assess. The more reports we are told to write, the less efficient we become. And I would argue that every new reporting process imposed on the university from the outside is a theft. It’s a theft from you, a theft of your time and attention. It’s a theft from our students. It’s a theft from the progress of our disciplines; it’s a theft from our leaders and from our talented professional staff all the way from administrative assistants and department chairs to the Provost and the Chancellor. It’s a theft from the people of the State of North Carolina.

The job of the faculty is to do four things:

To discover

To create

To teach

To serve.

Faculty Council will have its normal load of decisions to make about bread-and-butter policy issues this year, its normal load of reviewing new curricula and student credit hour requirements, and so on. That won’t change. But this year I would like to provide the Faculty Council with the time and the opportunity to talk with each other about how to put down the donkey that’s been forced onto our shoulders. Working together with Provost Lorden, with college Deans, and with other members of the UNC Charlotte community, in fact with all of you here, staff and students and faculty, I hope we can find ways to lighten the great braying load that is weighing us all down and hampering the university’s ability to do those four central things: to discover, to create, to teach, and to serve.

Because together, those four activities are unique to the university; together they are things that the state cannot do; they are things that NGOs and churches cannot do; they are things that corporations and markets cannot do. And for all their inconsistencies, they are in the end what we as a university have to contribute to humanity.

Let’s all have a good year doing just that. Thank you.

Gregory Starrett, UNC Charlotte Faculty President 2014-2015

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What UNC Charlotte Is All About

Recently, the school of Business Administration of U.N.C. reported on replies to questionnaires sent 73 leading business and industrial leaders. Here is one reply:

“We believe every graduate should possess a familiarity with other fields such as arts, science, and humanities, which will help him embark upon his career with a sense of humility and a capacity for understanding and growth.”

Mary Rebecca Denny, Charlotte Collegian, 11 October 1960, p. 3

At the official ceremonial opening of UNC Charlotte’s beautiful new PORTAL building  (the acronym stands for “Partnership, Outreach, and Research to Accelerate Learning”) on the 28th of February this year, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory spoke in glowing terms about the linkages between the university and the city of Charlotte. Recalling his own role in supporting the plan to extend the city’s light rail system to the university campus while he was Charlotte’s Mayor, Governor McCrory contrasted the rail line’s mere physical connection between the university and downtown, with the much broader reach of PORTAL.

PORTAL incorporates a sophisticated and much-expanded successor to The Ben Craig Center, the university’s venerable business incubator, and according to the Governor, it is

“about connecting this university to the private sector throughout the rest of the world. And that’s what UNC Charlotte’s all about. It’s connecting academia with jobs. And one of my major challenges and one of my major goals, and one of our major challenges must be to connect academia with commerce and with people making money–because that’s what it’s all about–so that we can build future buildings just like this throughout North Carolina, and put food on the plates of hardworking families throughout North Carolina.”

It’s fascinating to think about the many different things UNC Charlotte might be described as being all about: advancing science, conserving and creating great literature and art, exploring ideas, teaching students different ways of analyzing and understanding the world, improving health care, finding ways to protect and conserve resources for the future, keeping governmental and corporate bureaucracies staffed with individuals with particular kinds of technical skills, nurturing upward mobility.

In her remarks on the goals of the university quoted above in Charlotte College’s student newspaper more than half a century ago, English Department Chair Mary Rebecca Denny added to this list of what the university might be for: the cultivation of the ability to make wise decisions, furthering the individual’s “personal enrichment–both intellectual and spiritual–and his social responsibility;” “self-discovery, self-discipline, and the power of independent judgment;” and, quoting John Milton’s 1673 Tractate on Education, teaching men “to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the duties both public and private of peace and war.” The list might go on and on.

Given these complex potential goals, it’s useful to hear once again how some of the most powerful individuals in our state appear to have honed their notion about the idea of the university to one fine, single, keen point: to “connect with commerce and with people making money.”

These days, the North Carolinians making that money are very, very few in number, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the majority of the hardworking families in the state to put food on their tables or to provide their children with educational opportunities, in part because of deliberate policy choices being made by those responsible for the welfare of the state. One begins to wonder about who the main beneficiaries of our Governor’s purified notion of the role of the university are likely to be, and what will be its long-term effects.

If it’s true that “Thinking Matters,” this might be something we all should be having a conversation about.

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Academically Adrift with Molly Broad

REACH FURTHER. Global Competitiveness Starts Here. (motto on the letterhead of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, NC public school system)

It is precisely so as to be able to enter into competition with other states. . .that government [has to regulate the life of] its subjects (Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 1979:7).

academically adriftIt will be a great day when every prominent leader in higher education exhibits the kinds of creativity and critical thinking skills they laud as necessary for the success of contemporary college students. Sadly, that day has not yet come.

Early this year, for example, former University of North Carolina System president Molly Corbett Broad outlined some of the challenges facing American higher education at a meeting of the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents.[1] As the current President of the American Council on Education, a venerable organization which has labored for decades on behalf of higher education,[2] Broad is one of the primary faces of institutional higher education for the worlds of government and business.

And so when she turns to face the governing board of a major state university system, she speaks to them in language of business.[3] Broad outlined a number of trends, beginning with financial and demographic challenges to what she called the “Iron Triangle” of costs, access, and quality.[4] She reminded the Regents that Moody’s Investor Services had just downgraded the whole of the higher education industry because “U.S. higher education is at a critical juncture in the evolution of its business model, [and] even the market-leading institutions have diminished prospects for revenue growth, and most universities are going to have to lower their cost structure.”[5] The strategy of raising tuition “by ever increasing amounts” as has been done since the 2008 recession, is not a sustainable strategy, she said, particularly given the doubling of student debt since 2003, the first year in which revenue from state appropriations for higher education was surpassed by revenue from tuition.

The solution, she proposes, is innovation, including the embrace of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), data mining for enhancing student advising and placement, and more flexible certifications of competency. “The belief is,” she said,

“that you can’t increase quality unless you also increase cost. And you can’t expand access without increasing cost. Well, I think that all of that Iron Triangle issue is now being challenged in the face of all of these pressures. And it’s precipitating some very interesting innovations, and advances in the teaching and learning process that come from the advancements in information technology and computer science, and in cognitive science, and in other areas of universities.”

This shouldn’t be surprising, she continued.

“Our universities have been the cradle for the development of these advanced technology ideas, advanced networking capabilities, and when we think about it, it is some of those bright university graduates that went on to develop the companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, that have become the companies with the largest market cap[italization] in our country, and I guess we should say, is now the time that some of that expertise developed within the university should now be applied to the university itself?”

It’s a good question. Certainly universities and their graduates develop many wonderful things. Among them are the algorithms that allow us to shop online for Roomba vacuum cleaners or shark costumes for cats, and the software that lets us upload or search for videos of cats wearing those costumes while riding on Roombas, or even doing so while chasing ducklings.

But there are other things created by universities and their graduates–Revenue Center Management,[6] for example, or enhanced interrogation techniques, or napalm— that we might not generally like to see applied to them in turn. Sometimes this is because particular innovations don’t work very well in the university context. Sometimes it’s because these innovations do what they were designed to do, but in pursuit of faulty goals. And sometimes because they’re just altogether bad. One of the problems with Broad’s approach to education is that she is unable to distinguish between ends and means. Another is that she consistently misreads her sources.

According to President Broad, changing demographics and economic demands require changes to higher education’s “business model.” The growing number of “post-traditional” students who are not 18-22-year olds seeking four year degrees, require an educational experience that can help them improve their skills to compete in a labor market which demands ever higher credentials. Here, education is phrased as a response to students’ need for skills in a changing national economy.

In support of this idea, she cites a study by Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl of Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce,[9] from which the slide shown below was adapted:


slide_0023_640_480Her argument is that this chart shows that long-term shifts in the economy are creating more and better jobs in highly-skilled occupations, sparking a “race up the value chain” away from physical and routine tasks toward creative work in occupations such as research, development, marketing, and design. The lesson is that we need to produce more college graduates lest those positions go unfilled.

Value Chain(As an aside, Broad appears to have misread the report on education and international economic competitiveness from which her “value chain” illustration was taken. Published by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce in 2007, it dealt largely with revolutionizing the K-12 system, and recommended exactly the opposite of what she and most state political leaders are interested in, which is cutting costs above all. For example, rather than reducing resources for early childhood education, as has been the trend in most states, the report recommends full support for universal pre-Kindergarten programs. And rather than the “college for everyone” approach shared by everyone from President Broad to President Obama, it recommends well-designed high-school vocational tracks that will put  skilled workers into the marketplace by age eighteen.[10])

Actually reading the Carnevale report on the changing economy shows something different from massive change in the kinds of jobs available. According to the authors, two-thirds of the upward movement in educational requirements needed for future jobs is not due to shifts in the structure of the job market, but to the phenomenon of “upskilling,” in which the educational requirements listed for particular positions increase whether or not there have been actual changes in the skills required for them.[11] Although one element of upskilling may be the need for more skills in given categories of “traditional” employment such as auto mechanics, another large part is the increasing preference of Human Resources managers for filling even the most menial jobs with college graduates. This “up-credentialling” is independent of the actual need for more skills, and is the result of a poor economy as well as of the notion that college graduates are a better fit for their firms. In the words of one prominent Atlanta law firm’s managing partner, people with college degrees “are just more career-oriented. Going to college means they are making a real commitment to their futures. They’re not just looking for a paycheck.”[12] Going to college also tends to be unevenly distributed in the U.S., meaning that college graduates are far less likely to be ethnic minorities or members of the working class. Up-credentialling is a barrier to economic mobility that pretends that structural inequalities are actually the result of personality shortcomings in those without degrees.

In any case, the lucky new graduates’ commitment to their jobs as file clerks and couriers may be due more to the fact that they are quite likely to be so deeply in debt from student loans that they need a steady income source to avoid the legal complications of loan default. Interested in their paychecks every bit as much as young people without college degrees, they are more likely to remain underemployed and increasingly willing to work longer hours or under worse conditions for no additional compensation in order to keep their jobs. Contrary to Broad’s reading of Carnevale’s research, “The supply of jobs requiring college degrees is growing more slowly than the supply of those holding such degrees. Hence, more and more college graduates are crowding out high-school graduates in such blue-collar, low-skilled jobs as taxi driver, firefighter, and retail sales clerks.”[13]


Of course the financial crisis, the changing economy, and the demographics of our student body are not our only challenges as educators.

We just don’t seem to be doing a very good job altogether.

Broad repeated Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s shocking claim, in their 2011 sociological study Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press), that 45% of American college students make no significant gains in critical thinking skills in their first two years of college, an indication that our system of higher education has a quality crisis as well as a financial one.

“The evidence suggests,” President Broad told the Wisconsin Regents,

“that we are not meeting the traditional goals [of higher education] very fully, those goals of developing a broad range of intellectual skills, specialized knowledge in the major areas of a student’s concentration, a demonstrated ability to communicate in writing their knowledge and their ability to apply that knowledge in a real-world environment. . .We must do a better job of deepening learning and enhancing these results.”

Regrettably, the President of the American Council on Education again seems to have little understanding of the meaning of the data she presented. Despite the publicity surrounding Academically Adrift when it was first published—a notoriety due almost entirely to the ease with which the titillating 45% intellectual stagnation figure could be quoted in condemnation of higher education as a whole—the book employs all of its sophisticated statistical analyses of the sexy new Collegiate Learning Assessment instrument[14] in order to tell us exactly nothing that we haven’t known for decades. If we assume, for the sake of argument, that their CLA data are meaningful and their methodology is sound, here is what Arum and Roksa say:

First, higher education reproduces existing social inequalities (p. 40). Students whose parents have graduate and professional degrees perform better on the CLA than students whose parents didn’t graduate from high school (p. 38). White students score higher on the CLA than minority students (p. 39). Students with better academic preparation coming out of high school perform better on the CLA than students whose prior educational experience was poor (pp. 44-47). Students from socioeconomically disadvantaged households don’t perform as well on the CLA as students from privileged family backgrounds (p. 44). Students who attend highly selective colleges perform better on the exam than students who attend less selective colleges.  These different sorts of inequalities overlap in complex ways.

However, the top achievers on the CLA instrument come from all kinds of backgrounds and attend all kinds of institutions. What accounts for learning success if we control for the effects of background and preparation?  Unsurprisingly, students who work hard at academic tasks end up doing better on this test of academic skills than students who do not. Those who meet with faculty outside of class, and who spend a lot of time studying perform better than students who have little contact with faculty outside of class, and who engage in nonacademic extracurricular activities. In the end, Arum and Roksa found, the single most important factor increasing performance on the CLA was high faculty expectations. Controlling for all other background characteristics and college activities, students who report having taken classes which demand more than forty pages of reading per week, and requiring more than twenty pages of writing during the semester, are those who make the most progress on the CLA’s test of critical thinking and analytical writing skills (pp. 93-96, 115, 119, 122, tables A3.3, A4.1, A4.5).

The hysterical, uncritical, and uninformed media coverage of Academically Adrift repeated the 45% intellectual stagnation figure over and over as if it were the book’s most significant finding. For Arum and Roksa, though, it was this 40/20 standard—forty pages of reading per week and twenty pages of writing per semester—that was repeated again and again as a model of effective and proper academic practice. Despite the overwrought title of their book, the focus was not on the failure of higher education, but on identifying what kinds of college experiences lead to success. What leads to success, in the end, all other things being equal, is students reading and writing a lot.

Now, when one thinks of the kinds of institutions that provide freshmen and first-semester sophomores the opportunity for intensive reading and writing experiences (Arum and Roksa’s data measure only progress made during the first three full semesters of college (p. 35)), one immediately thinks of relatively small and selective institutions, the kind which often very purposely require students to take at least one small writing-intensive seminar class in their first few terms. One thinks of institutions which have the financial resources, the teacher-student ratios, and the admissions policies necessary to make this happen. And then it seems a wonder that as many as fifty-five percent of new college students do make significant gains in CLA scores in their first three semesters. In the highly stratified environment of American higher educational institutions, the vast majority of students have no such opportunity.

In the end, Broad’s presentation brings to mind former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s regrettable PowerPoint presentation to the United Nations in February 2003, in which he argued for the need to invade Iraq. Both of them tried to claim that the data speak for themselves. But one of the elements of critical thinking is the recognition that data never speak for themselves. They are produced and interpreted by individuals and groups with interests to further.

We need academic leaders at the national level who embody the intellectual skills they praise in their speeches. We need academic leaders who will stop telling the political and business elites who fund and who serve as trustees of American universities only what they want to hear:  that we can always do more with less by buying more computer software, or that we are committed to producing a cadre of engineers so vast that they will be willing to compete on price with their Chinese and Indian competitors. We need leaders who will tell the truth: that education is not merely about jobs. That not everyone needs to go to college. And that when they do, instilling critical thinking skills, or cultural literacy, or an appreciation of diversity, or a firm grasp of chemistry, or international experience, or a meaningful engagement with the idea of citizenship; anything really worth knowing, in fact, let alone the nurturing of any real creativity with respect to any of them, are extraordinarily labor-intensive enterprises that cannot be furthered on the cheap. Not even with the very best data-mining software or cognitive science that money can buy.



[1] The address was titled “Higher Education at a Crossroads: Multiple Challenges, Leadership, and Innovation.” See Sara Goldrick-Rab’s commentary on the address, “The Higher Education Lobby Comes to Madison,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. For an amusing survey of general trends in “education reform,” see .

[2] Among countless other activities, the ACE participated, for example, in formulating and commending to its member institutions the American Association of University Professors’ 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, which outlines the primary authority of faculty in decisions about academic issues.

[3] Like the governing boards of most universities, the UW system is overseen largely by bankers, insurance executives, corporate lawyers, and others who represent industries such as telecommunications, real estate developers, oil and gas interests, and so on. They are talented and successful industry leaders and power brokers, and they sometimes define themselves as such, e.g. the UW Regent who announces in his corporate profile that he has “a proven track record of introducing international and local entrepreneurs to federal, state and local leaders. These introductions allow his clients to gain a foothold and collaborate directly with these leaders” (p. 5). Given this fact, why would the leader of the ACE spend her time in front of the Regents simultaneously bemoaning the financial crisis and spinning happy-talk about doing more with less, rather than encouraging them to use their self-proclaimed political influence to increase state funding for a legendary university system?

[4] I had always been taught that an interrelated set of components in which change to one precipitated changes in the others was called a system, but what do I know. The phrase “iron triangle” seems to have been derived from political science, where it is widely used to describe the relationship between government bureaucracies, interest groups, and Congress. Its use with regard to higher education can be found discussed in a 2008 report by The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, “The Iron Triangle: College Presidents Talk About Costs, Access, and Quality.”

[5] See my previous post, “College Costs and Conflicts of Interest.”

[6] See the story of RCM’s application at the University of Southern California in chapter 6 of David L. Kirp’s useful book Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education (Harvard University Press 2003).

[9] Carnevale, et. al., Help Wanted.

[10] This chart comes from a 2007 report, Tough Choices or Tough Times,” by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce.

[11] Carnevale, et. al.,  Help Wanted, p. 127. See Paul Krugman, “It’s Been a Rich Man’s Recovery,” 14 September 2013.

[12] Catherine Rampell, “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk,” New York Times 19 February 2013.

[13] See Richard Vedder, Christopher Denhart, and Jonathan Robe, “Why Are Recent College Graduates Underemployed?  University Enrollments and Labor Market Realities.”

[14] For more on the CLA, see my earlier post, “Best Practices for Student Assessment.”


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Margaret Mead Discusses MOOCs, 1929

GrowingUpInNewGuineaThomas Friedman’s most recent New York Times column on education, “The Professors’ Big Stage,” (6 March 2013)[1] is a hymn to MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, and more generally to the promise of technologically mediated learning as the key to building the future. It is also an exercise in what Carolyn Foster Segal refers to as “magical thinking,” a tendency among the highly educated to think in utopian terms about how the Next Big Thing—a new curriculum, a new leader, a new technology, a new business model—will fulfill our dreams and solve our problems.

The last time we were all so excited about online learning was in the 1990s. This was before our attention was diverted by terrorism and war (which the ever-consistent Mr. Friedman also proposed to solve with better educational methods).[3] And it was before the spectacular failure of more than one attempt to make digital learning the Next Big Thing (remember the fancy consortium that put together Fathom, a scheme which cost Columbia University $25 million before it collapsed?)[4]  Back then, when the promise of online education seemed fresh and exciting, historian David Noble wrote a biting critique of the movement, demonstrating that instead of being something new, the idea of distance education was in fact a highly capitalized and even predatory descendent of the Correspondence School movement of the late nineteenth century.

Here, I’d like combine Segal’s reference to magical thinking with Noble’s historical perspective by providing some excerpts from Margaret Mead’s 1930 ethnography, Growing Up in New Guinea .

Mead was, if possible, even a greater idealist than Thomas Friedman. She was certainly a better thinker, in part because she was more self-aware, understanding that her own optimism was a characteristically American cultural trait. Much of Mead’s published work used her field experiences in small-scale cultures of the Pacific to illuminate her own social world and to help her educated, middle-class American audience think about their own experiences in a comparative context. She wanted to help people think about the rapid changes both the United States and the rest of the world were experiencing in the early and mid-twentieth century.

In discussing education, Mead wrote about “the characteristic American Faith in education as the universal panacea,” but warned that “the pleasant optimism of those who believe that hope lies in the future, that the failures of one generation can be recouped in the next, are given the lie” by the narrowness of our understanding of “education” as “technique” (p. 261).

Unfortunately, she continued, in the United States “the spectacular fashion in which sons of illiterate fathers have become literate has been taken as the type of the whole educational process,” a process which is in reality not confined to particular classroom techniques, but which involves the whole process whereby we learn to be cultured beings.

The continuity of our cultural life depends upon the way in which children in any event receive the indelible imprint of their social tradition. Whether they are cuddled or beaten, bribed or wheedled into adult life–they have little choice except to become adults like their parents. But ours is not a homogeneous society. One community differs from another, one social class from another, the values of one occupational group are not the values of those who follow some different calling. Religious bodies with outlooks as profoundly different as Roman Catholicism and Christian Science, claim large numbers of adherents always ready to induct their own and other people’s children into the social traditions of their particular group (p. 262-263).

But in the heterogeneous context of the United States, do the insights anthropologists might gain from studying socialization in small-scale societies really apply? “Does not education,” she asks, “cease to be an automatic process and become a vital question of what method is to be pursued?” (p. 263).

Undoubtedly this objection is a just one. Within the general tradition there are numerous groups striving for precedence, striving to maintain or extend their proportionate allegiances in the next generation. Among these groups, methods of education do count, but only in relation to each other. Take a small town where there are three religious denominations. It would not matter whether Sunday School was a compulsory matter, with a whipping from father if one didn’t learn one’s lesson or squandered a penny of the collection money, or whether Sunday School was a delightful spot where rewards were handed out lavishly and refreshments served by each young teacher to the admiring scholars. It would not matter, as long as all three Sunday Schools used the same methods. Only when one Sunday School depends upon parental intimidation, a second uses rewards and a third employs co-educational parties as its bait, does the question of method become important. And at the same time the process under discussion has ceased to be education and become—propaganda.

So, if education be defined as the process by which the cultural tradition is transmitted to the next generation. . .propaganda may be defined as methods by which one group within an existing tradition tries to increase the number of its adherents at the expense of other groups. . . .

America presents the spectacle of all three of these processes going on in great confusion. The general stream of the tradition—language, manners, attitudes towards property, towards the state, and towards religion—is being imparted effortlessly to the growing child, while the complex of minute and exacting techniques are being imparted to him arduously, through the schools. Here and there the propagandists range. Christian Scientists, Communists, vegetarians, antivivisectionists, single taxers, humanists, small compact groups in respect to religious or social philosophies, mere participators in the general American cultural stream in most other respects. And the rapid assimilation of thousands of immigrants’ children through the medium of the public schools, has given to Americans a peculiar faith in education, a faith which a less hybrid society would hardly have developed. Because we have turned the children of Germans, Italians, Russians, Greeks, into Americans, we argue that we can turn our children into anything we wish. Also because we have seen one cult after another sweep through the country, we argue that anything can be accomplished by the right method, that with the right method, education can solve any difficulty, supply any deficiency, train inhabitants for any non-existing Utopia. Upon closer scrutiny we see that our faith in method is derived from our assimilation of immigrants, from the successful teaching of more and more complicated techniques to more and more people, or from the successful despoiling of one group’s role of adherents by some other group of astute evangelists. In both of these departments method counts and counts hard. Efficient teaching can shorten the learning time and increase the proficiency of children in arithmetic or bookkeeping. A judicious distribution of lollypops, badges, uniforms, may swell the ranks of the Baptist Sunday School or the Young Communists. . . . By method it is possible to speed up the course of mastering existing techniques or increasing the number of adherents of an existing faith. But both of these changes are quantitative not qualitative; they are essentially non-creative in character. (pp. 264-265)

What interested Mead far more than the process of social groups poaching members from one another, or even being able to spread specific kinds of technical knowledge among broader and broader sections of the public, was the issue of educational quality, which both fostered cultural creativity and deepened the personality and experience of students. “The child will receive the general content of his culture no matter how it is transmitted to him,” she wrote; “he will absorb the content in any event, but he is hopelessly dependent upon the quality of that content” (p. 274).

Friedman also speaks about quality in his column on MOOCs. But for him the quality of education has to do with the issue of the most effective technique of transmitting knowledge. “We demand,” he writes, “that plumbers and kindergarten teachers be certified to do what they do, but there is no requirement that college professors know how to teach. No more. The world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor.”

Now, for Thomas Friedman, connections with the wealthy and the powerful, whether politicians or corporate leaders—or philosophers such “my old friend [Harvard professor] Michael Sandel”—fill the role that residence among the Samoans and Manus played for Margaret Mead. They are the sources of his factual knowledge, but also sources of his status within his profession, and of his self-image. It’s tempting to think about his approach, as well as that of other proponents of MOOCs and even earlier versions of e-learning[6] as a propaganda of technique reminiscent of the church propaganda Mead outlines in her example above. One can spread the gospel of the MOOC technique by means of threat or by means of enticement, but the goal is the same: to bring new paying customers to the revival.

Mead was not satisfied with a narrow focus on technique, because she knew that a merely quantitative approach—thinking about how many students could be taught most efficiently—betrayed an incomplete understanding of the progress of culture, art, and science. “The gradual change in human thought which produced Darwin’s type of thought instead of Thomas Aquinas’,” she explained, “took place in the library and the laboratory, not in the schoolroom. Medieval schoolmen and their deductive approach had first to be ousted from the universities before the inductive method could be taught in the schools” (p. 266). What Friedman misses in his love letter to MOOCs is that what college professors are hired to do is not merely to teach, but to serve the community by expanding the body of knowledge which can be taught. And in this they are certified just as surely as plumbers and kindergarten teachers.

“Our general neglect of content for method” in primary and secondary education, Mead continued,

our blind trust that all we need is a mechanical formula, is illustrated sharply in the kind of courses taught in teachers’ training colleges as compared with courses in the Liberal Arts. The prospective teachers are taught how to teach everything under the sun, but they are taught very little about the art, literature, history, themselves. A slight, ill-comprehended body of material is transmitted from teacher to pupil in a most elaborate and unrewarding fashion. In the training colleges, the “value of teaching with dates,” “the use of charts” takes the place of actually reading history. And thirty hours of pedagogy, courses in how to teach history or biology, are regarded by school boards as more valuable than academic distinction in these subjects. Prospective teachers, often coming from homes with a very slight cultural tradition, enter a college where they are given nothing to make up for their deficiencies. And yet we continue to depend upon the individual teacher to transmit the rich content of literary and scientific tradition which is available to us to-day. If we are to use these materials, if we are to have a richer culture, we must either abandon the dependence upon the individual teachers or give them a far better background during their years of training. If the teachers are to be the advance guard of civilisation they must first be given a genuine feeling for and understanding of that civilization (p. 274-275).

So we could train teachers differently, instilling in them a profound knowledge of and love for their subjects, a knowledge they would find many different ways to impart to their students, rather than certifying them in “how to teach.” Or we could take a different path.

And here we come to the Ancestral MOOC, Mead’s description of a bold possibility for harnessing modern technology for the purposes of shaking up the stodgy educational system and improving learning outcomes:

An alternative course is to relinquish our dependence upon the teachers and turn to other methods of diffusing cultural content. This method is symbolised by a recent educational plan of a large museum in an Eastern city. The museum sends out sets of slides to a series of city high schools. The children in each high school are then shepherded into the school auditoriums at a given hour, and a highly trained expert on the museum staff gives a radio talk which is illustrated by the slides. Even the signal for change of slides is given over the radio. Methods such as these, using the radio, the lantern, the motion picture and a far larger and more available supply of books, could be used to place great masses of good material before children. A comparatively small body of highly intelligent educators could direct the content prescribed and administered to millions of school children. Unlike the old text book, these new methods would teach themselves. The teachers would have to be little more than good disciplinarians and good record keepers. A dependence upon good material diffused mechanically, impersonally from remote but reliable centres is preferable to the present method in which a teacher who knows nothing of poetry herself is expected to interpret Shakespeare to her students. Such mechanical methods may be necessary to adopt as emergency measures, until we can revise the course of training in teachers’ colleges and provide for our schools teachers who can combine knowledge of rich materials with personal leadership.

So MOOCs are nothing new, at least conceptually. Remember this, and think of the bright promise of all the previous technologies brought into the classroom over the course of the twentieth century, each of which was promoted as the answer to our educational problems: radio, movies, film strips, television, videotapes, personal computers, DVDs, PowerPoint, SmartBoards, Smart Classrooms, and on and on. Now we’re told that we’ll all be better off if we ditch this publicly funded infrastructure altogether and ensure that students don’t even need classroom space. Only a computer and an internet connection (both of which they’ll need to provide themselves). All of these media have something in common, of course. Each of them is manufactured and marketed by companies that will profit from their widespread acceptance by faculty—or even better, their widespread imposition by administrators or governing boards or legislators—at the behest of relentless cheerleaders who understand the function of the Next Big Thing: to make money. Each of them is promoted as an indispensable pedagogical tool, only to be dismantled and surplused in turn.

But no unprecedented use of technology is without its costs. Mead cautioned that

In either case, those who wish to alter our traditions and cherish the Utopian but perhaps not impossible hope that they can consciously do so, must first muster a large enough body of adults who with them wish to make the slight rearrangements of our traditional attitudes which present themselves to our culturally saturated minds. This is equally true of those who wish to import part of the developed tradition of other societies. They must, that is, create a coherent adult culture in miniature before they can hope to bring up children in the new tradition—even if they expect them to be brought up by radio. Such changes in adult attitudes come slowly, are more dependent upon specially gifted or wise individuals than upon wholesale educational schemes.

Besides encouraging a most unfounded optimism, this over-valuation of the educational process and under-valuation of the iron strength of the cultural walls within which any individual can operate, produces one other unfortunate result. It dooms every child born into American culture to victimisation by a hundred self-conscious evangelists who will not pause long enough to build a distinctive culture in which the growing child may develop coherently. One such group negates the efforts of another and the modern child is subjected to miseries which the Manus child never knows, reared as it is with unselfconscious finality into a Manus adult. Not until we realise that a poor culture will never become rich, though it be filtered through the expert methods of unnumbered pedagogues, and that a rich culture with no system of education at all will leave its children better off than a poor culture with the best system in the world, will we begin to solve our educational problems. Once we lose faith in the blanket formula of education, in the magic fashion in which education, using the passive capacities of children, is to create something out of nothing, we can turn our attention to the vital matter of developing individuals, who as adults, can gradually mould our old patterns into new and richer forms (pp. 274-276).

Were she still with us, Margaret Mead would be excited by the new technologies we have available. She would be the first to use them in her own research, just as she was one of the first to regularly use still and motion-picture photography in the field in the 1930s. But the Ancestral MOOC was not the Next Big Thing for her. It was a stopgap measure, a transitional technique that might be used to improve learning for our students until we could arrange for them to benefit from real, face-to-face encounters with historical texts, works of art, and innovative thinkers. Such encounters are nearly always best done in person and on a relatively small scale rather than massively and online.

Mead might have cautioned us to think carefully about using our children as test subjects in creating a new world of commoditized and digitized information delivery systems, whether in the form of college-by-MOOCs, or laptops and tablets for everyday classroom use in the K-12 classroom. We risk victimizing our students by listening to the self-conscious and tireless evangelists of computer technology in education, who would have us force upon our students, in the name of efficiency or novelty or “access,” techniques we ourselves have not grown up in. Only once we have used these technologies pervasively on ourselves, and have sufficiently rearranged and remolded our own lives and professions, transforming our own expectations and sensoriums in their image; only then will we know enough to expect the next generation to do the same, or, more to her point, merely to copy us and to become what we have made ourselves. Until then, we’re simply talking about propaganda.


UPDATE April 2013: For an interesting outline of a different experiment from the same period, “Colleges of the Air“.

UPDATE November 2013: We shouldn’t expect Mr. Friedman to make much of MOOC provider Udacity’s admission of its own failure to do what it promised, and its retreat to the corporate training sector. For more on the apparent implosion of MOOCs, see the blog of technological historian Jonathan Rees .



[3] See his New York Times columns from the end of 2001, which earned him the 2002 Pulitzer Prize:,

[4] Ann Kirschner, who headed the venture for Columbia, now serves on the Board of Directors of The Apollo Group, parent company of the online University of Phoenix (

[6] E.g. John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems in 1999. “So,” Friedman reports having asked him, “now that commerce has moved to the Net, and the Net is moving into business, what comes after that? ‘’Education,’ said Mr. Chambers. ‘The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education. Education over the Internet is going to be so big it is going to make e-mail usage look like a rounding error’ in terms of the Internet capacity it will consume. What will drive it will be the demands on companies, in an intensely competitive global economy, to keep improving productivity. E-learning, insists Mr. Chambers, if done right, can provide faster learning, at lower costs, with more accountability, thereby enabling both companies and schools to keep up with changes in the global economy that now occur at Net speed. Schools and countries that ignore this, he says, will suffer the same fate as big department stores that thought e-commerce was overrated” (“Next, It’s E-ducation,”

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College Costs and Conflicts of Interest

Recently a number of newspapers around the country, including the Charlotte Observer, College Cost Containmentexcerpted parts of a commentary on higher education by the editorial board of the Washington Post. It focused on a report by Moody’s Investor Services, which warned of a “negative outlook” for the American education sector, based on predictions of “sluggish revenue growth.” The cause? Consumer sensitivity to rising student debt and to rising tuitions. And the cause of these rising costs? None other than the “sacred cows” of “heavy faculty involvement in governance, inefficient classroom instruction, [and] tenure,” according to the Post.[1] In other words, the usual suspects: university faculty.

There are certainly many causes for rising college tuition and student debt. But to identify important sources of increased cost in higher education, Moody’s and the Post need look no further than their own executive suites. Moody’s, we all remember, participated in the global financial catastrophe of 2008 either by overestimating the value of mortgage-based securities, or by colluding with large banks and lying about them.[2] The ensuing economic collapse not only harmed tens of millions of families directly, but reduced tax revenues legislatures rely on to invest in higher education. The response was further tuition increases to make up part of the difference, since the number of students we teach has only increased.[3]

In addition to its broader role in disfiguring the national and global economy, though, the case of Moody’s illustrates the systemic conflicts of interest that exist when the leaders of multibillion dollar corporations criticize schools and colleges for high costs. To take one small example, in 2012 Moody’s CEO, Raymond W. McDaniel, Jr., earned $136,700 in cash and stock as a board member of publishing conglomerate John Wiley & Sons.[4] Wiley, along with other publishers such as the Dutch-based Elsevier, participated in increasing the cost of academic journals by 40% between 2004 and 2008 alone. (In 2008, when Wiley took over the publication of journals in my own field, two of the most important titles—American Anthropologist and American Ethnologist—had their subscription price to libraries more than doubled immediately.)[5]

Now, the authors of the articles which fill scholarly journals, their peer reviewers, and occasionally even the editors who put them together, perform this work without being paid by the publisher, as part of their required research activity and as service to the profession. Their universities pay them for performing this work as part of their normal duties. In some disciplines authors are even required to pay “page charges” to have their work published, further subsidizing the profit of publishers with money from tax-supported research grants. Mr. McDaniel and others like him benefit financially from this faculty labor, whose fruits universities have subsidized but then have to buy back from the publishers at ever-increasing expense. (In 2010 the Nature Publishing Group—owned by Macmillan, which is owned in turn by the privately held Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH of Stuttgart—notified the University of California that it would raise the cost of access to its journals by 400 percent. These price increases are, in part, the result of major waves of consolidation since the 1980s as publishers buy each other up to create larger and larger international conglomerates, which demand ever-higher returns from their individual units.)[6] Meanwhile, the quality of education and research suffers as libraries are forced, year after year, to cut costly journal subscriptions and book acquisition, or raise funds from other sources to pay for staying current.

The Washington Post, in discussing the Moody’s report, [7] might be seen as providing an important service to its readers, as the 23-page report itself is available in full only to Moody’s subscribers (although it can be purchased for $550).[8] The Post editorial contains language from the report—specifically, the line about faculty governance, inefficient classroom instruction, and tenure—which are not included in Moody’s own public announcement. Despite having felt the sting of a Moody’s credit downgrade in August of last year, the WPC is a prime customer for their informational products as well as a valuable media outlet which can publicize those products in the form of “news.”

But the Washington Post Company is not a disinterested observer. It is an interested participant in the world of mounting student debt. The WPC understands the business model of profiting from public resources just as well as academic journal publishers do, because it makes most of its money not from newspaper sales, but from its largest subsidiary, Kaplan, Inc., a company that runs dozens of for-profit educational institutions. In 2010 nearly 62% of the WPC’s revenues came from Kaplan. In turn, more than 87% of Kaplan’s revenues come from federal student aid, including student grants, loans, and veteran’s benefits. Between 2006 and 2010, the company’s student enrollment increased by sixty percent. In the same period its profits tripled, from $74 million to $212 million. This profit represents more than thirteen percent of Kaplan’s total expenditures, in addition to the quarter of its revenue spent on marketing and recruitment in order to keep enrollment increases steady and student aid dollars rolling in.[9]

Like most other for-profit higher education ventures, Kaplan’s degree completion rate is far lower, and its student loan default rate far higher than traditional colleges and universities. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that private for-profit colleges have degree completion rates roughly half that of public institutions,[10] and Kaplan is particularly bad, ranking first in the percentage of its students (68%) withdrawing from its Bachelors degree programs.[11] Students at for-profit educational institutions default on their student loans at more than twice the rate of those who attend public colleges.[12] But the Washington Post Company and its CEO, Donald Graham, lobbies heavily with Congress on behalf of these ventures, ensuring that its cash cow can continue compensating its executive officers based on increasing enrollments and revenue streams, rather than on results as measured by student success.[13] So much for the idea that the WPC really believes that “inefficient instruction” is a cause of “sluggish revenue growth;” for them, the inefficiency of their instructional programs does precisely the opposite.

The money that keeps Kaplan and its parent corporation running flows quickly past the untenured teachers who have no say in institutional governance, to benefit the officers and directors of the Washington Post Company (including such luminaries as Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger, at $80,000 per year) and to deepen the pot of dividends diverted from federal student aid to its stockholders.

We can see the same dynamics everywhere we look. Standard & Poor’s, for example, another credit rating agency whose performance prior to the debt crisis was so outrageous that it is being sued by the Justice Department,[14] is owned by McGraw-Hill, once best known as an educational and academic publisher (McGraw-Hill is one of the primary financial beneficiaries of the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2001), [15] but which has recently decided to focus on its financial services businesses. In November 2012 McGraw-Hill announced the sale of its education division to Apollo Global Management, a private equity firm with primary interest in real estate and entertainment ventures.

“We are excited about this announcement and what it means for McGraw-Hill Education,” added Lloyd G. “Buzz” Waterhouse, President and CEO of McGraw-Hill Education. “Apollo is a leading global alternative investment manager and its affiliated funds have made significant investments in learning companies for more than a decade. McGraw-Hill Education’s expertise and premier brands coupled with Apollo’s resources represent a powerful combination.

“Larry Berg, Senior Partner of Apollo said, “With a longstanding track record of investing behind leaders in education, Apollo is pleased to be acquiring a marquee business that has been a pioneer in educational innovation and excellence for over a century. McGraw-Hill Education has a deep and impassioned management team, and we share their enthusiasm and strategic vision for the business. We look forward to leveraging the company’s leading portfolio of trusted brands and innovative digital learning solutions to drive growth through the ongoing convergence of education and technology on a global basis.”[16]

Note that the primary goal here is “to drive growth,” that is, to increase the value of owning or being able to draw on the profits of a product or service, rather than actually to provide education. The “ongoing convergence of education and technology” emphasizes the process of convergence itself, which is mediated by large capital investments. And these investments, in turn, must generate substantial and increasing financial returns to shareholders, managers, and directors. In the end, these returns are going to be provided by students who will increasingly be paying for temporary access to e-books rather than ownership of paper books; by universities who must constantly update their technology platforms to keep up; and by the continued move toward classrooms and online courses staffed by low-paid adjunct and part-time faculty on the Kaplan model, all of which increase the flow of money through “the educational sector” and toward its concentration in corporate coffers on the other end, because that is precisely what these processes are designed to do.

So, back to where we started. Instead of identifying the primary cause of rising college costs as “heavy faculty involvement in governance, inefficient classroom instruction, [and] tenure,” it might be more productive to ask about who benefits when powerful corporate interests accuse traditional universities of inefficiency and urge their reform. You can bet it’s neither students nor taxpayers. It’s the people who want to find more efficient ways to make a quick buck from the process.

UPDATE 20 February 2013:

For sharp observations on the shallowness of public discourse on the cost and future of colleges, see Sara Goldrick-Rab’s “The Higher Education Lobby Comes to Madison,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education:



[1] “Our Shrinking Law Schools,” Washington Post 3 February 2013, The editorial was excerpted on p. 6A of the Charlotte Observer on Tuesday 5 February (see

[2] Jesse Eisinger, “Vows of Change at Moody’s, but Flaws Remain the Same,” New York Times 14 April 2011.; Andrew Ross Sorkin, “Answers on Ratings Are Overdue,” New York Times 1 June 2010,

 [3] John Quinterno, The Great Cost Shift: How Higher Education Cuts Undermine the Future Middle Class;


 [5] Lee C. Van Orsdel and Kathleen Born, “Periodicals Price Survey 2008: Embracing Openness,” Library Journal 15 April 2008;

 [6] Jennifer Howard, “U. of California Tries Just Saying No to Rising Journal Costs,” Chronicle of Higher Education 8 June 2010,; see also Kathim Shubber, “Cash-strapped libraries threaten to end journal subscription deals over rising costs,”;; and Eric Pfanner and Amy Chozick, “Random House and Penguin Merger Creates Global Giant,” New York Times 29 October 2012,

 [7] Moody’s Investor Service, Global Credit Research, 16 January 2013, “Announcement: Moody’s: 2013 outlook for entire US Higher Education sector changed to negative,”–PR_263866

[8] If you can’t afford it, but want to see the kinds of things Moody’s is interested in, you can see one of their PowerPoint presentations on the higher education sector here:

[9] All figures are from pp. 543-568 of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions 2012 report, “For Profit Higher Education: The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment and Ensure Student Success,” (Harkin Report) available at

 [11] Harkin Report,  p. 75.

 [12] Harkin Report,  p. 115.

 [13] Tamar Lewin, “Scrutiny Takes Toll on For-Profit College Company,” New York Times 9 November 2010,; Harkin Report, p. 85.

 [14] Jean Eaglesham, Jeannette Neumann, and Evan Perez, “U.S. to Sue S&P Over Ratings,” Wall Street Journal, 5 February 2013, p. 1;


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Best Practices for Student Assessment

For well over a decade, universities, governments, and accrediting agencies around the world have been discussing new ways to assess and interpret the basic functions of higher education, including faculty productivity and student learning. In 2006, at the request of the University of North Carolina system’s general administration, the UNC statewide Faculty Assembly put together an Assessment Task Force. One part of the Assessment Task Force was charged with thinking about how best to assess and report information about student learning outcomes. Specifically, we were asked to evaluate two particular assessment instruments, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), and the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA).

A commission appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings recommended in September 2006 that:

The results of student learning assessments, including value-added measurements that indicate how much students’ skills have improved over time, should be made available to students and reported in the aggregate publicly. Higher education institutions should make aggregate summary results of all postsecondary learning measures, e.g., test scores, certification and licensure attainment, time to degree, graduation rates, and other relevant measures, publicly available in a consumer-friendly form as a condition of accreditation. (, p. 23)

What we found was that, although the idea of comparing student learning outcomes across universities sounds simple and straightforward, in reality such comparisons are difficult and potentially misleading.

Follow this link to our final report to the UNC General Administration, which includes both our thinking about assessment more generally, and our evaluation of the utility of the NSSE and CLA instruments:  Best Practices for Student Assessment. The full report is 22 pages long, but there’s a useful two-page executive summary up front.

UPDATE 1 September 2012:

There is progress in the world. In late June, Chris Jackson of the Council for Aid to Education ( wrote to me about changes in some of the technical features of CLA. The changes he outlines in the instrument are welcome, and many of them answer the criticisms the UNC Faculty Assembly articulated in 2006 (sadly, this was not a direct causal relationship!) Here is what Mr. Jackson wrote:

Greetings Dr. Starrett:
I wanted to bring you up to speed with information related to the CLA which was either unavailable at the time or has changed since you all wrote your report.
  • At the writing of the report, the assembly indicated that longitudinal data was not yet available. Findings from our longitudinal project may now be found here.
  • Your assembly found that peer group comparisons were not available through the CLA which, at the time, was true. Since then we have introduced peer group comparisons by: Institution size, Minority-serving status, Institution Type (Doctoral, Masters, Bachelors), and Sector (Public vs. Private). Please see this sample 2011-2012 report for examples (specifically pages 12-13).
  • In that same report (pages 9-10), you’ll also note that we’ve introduced subscore reporting in the areas of: Analytic Reasoning and Analysis, Writing Effectiveness, Writing Mechanics, and Problem Solving. The goal here being the provision of information that will assist participating institutions define specific areas for improvement. All reports that we provide to institutions are accompanied by an underlying data file, so that they have the opportunity to run local analyses to determine whether there are specific patterns (demographics, program participation, course-taking patterns, etc.) that lead to better attainment of the skills measured by the CLA.
  • The report notes—correctly—that in 2006, the CLA value-added model did not control for institutional effects. We have since moved to a hierarchical-linear equation, which does control for student characteristics that, to some extent, define an institution.
  • Finally, it is true that—at the institutional-level—CLA scores do correlate quite highly with the SAT and ACT. This, of course, does not mean that they measure the same thing (only that groups of students that tend to do well on one assessment also tend to do well on others, which may be a contribution of other factors, socioeconomic status not the least among them). Still, though raw cohort scores do correlate well, institutional value-added scores have no correlation with SAT or ACT, meaning that all institutions (highly selective and less-highly selective) have equal opportunity to contribute to student growth in the skills assessed by the CLA.
Again, I realize that this response was unsolicited. However, we do want you (and others) to know that we listen to participating institutions and are constantly working to refine and better our offerings to ensure that they have genuine utility.
Chris Jackson
Director of Business Development, CLA & CWRA


It’s worth noting that the increased sophistication of the data analysis and reporting may help universities make better sense of the CLA instrument if they choose to use it. But they do not affect the general recommendations in the UNC Faculty Assembly Best Practices report regarding the kinds of issues institutions should take into account when developing assessment policies.

Nor can they address the issue of student motivation to do well on the test in the first place. I’ve heard from some students that they regard it as just another hoop to jump through with as little effort as possible, on the way to priority registration or a gift card, two of the many sorts of inducements institutions now use in order to get students to spend three hours of their time on a test that doesn’t affect their individual academic record.

Nor, of course, can even the best testing instrument control for the irresponsible media coverage and political use of findings based on test results, as evidenced by the narrow, sensationalistic and utterly misleading coverage of the work of sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, University of Chicago Press, 2011) last year.

More on this later.

UPDATE 9/24/2013:

For an explanation of what Arum and Roksa actually said about their CLA data, see my subsequent post, “Academically Adrift with Molly Broad,” at

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What New Epistemology? Unreal Histories of Educational Change

In early 2009 sociologist Tim Clydesdale of The College of New Jersey wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Wake Up and Smell the New Epistemology,” (, which you ought to read. It argues, briefly, that today’s college students are impatient with the “elitist” notions of knowledge their professors bring to the classroom. Since they have the entire world of knowledge at their fingertips through the internet, he argues, the respect with which previous generations of students regarded their teachers has collapsed. The only reason students put up with us at all, he writes, is their practical judgment that, in the current job climate and in the context of the constant chorus from all around them that everyone needs a college education, they need to stick it out and graduate. If we are to do any good at all for these students, he concludes, we need to adjust our teaching to a new generation whom we must treat as partners in learning rather than naïve and uninformed raw material for us to mold. This sounds like great advice. But. . .

Perhaps it is the colorful party trope he uses throughout his article, or perhaps it is his own naïve assumptions about how instructors in general “traditionally” go about their business, but Clydesdale’s article has always rubbed me the wrong way. Primarily, I think the problem is that the contrast he highlights between the current generation of epistemologically confident college students and their deferential forbears is based on a pop-historical fantasy. Yes, today’s students know a lot. And yes, most of them have little patience for decontextualized bodies of knowledge that won’t benefit them directly. But why should we think that this has ever not been the case?

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, in her book Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present (University of Chicago Press, 1988), has pointed out that American colleges and universities have long been home to students with a vast range of attitudes toward knowledge, authority, achievement, success, and relevance. There were no greater anti-authoritarians than the original students at colleges like Princeton and Harvard, who several times during the late eighteenth century rioted against their institutions, sometimes destroying property and beating faculty and administrators. Those upper-class students, unburdened by respect for the college or the faculty, unconcerned and sometimes contemptuous toward learning, and untroubled by their economic futures, were later joined, as the number and variety of colleges increased, by more serious colleagues. Many of these were young men from rural areas who had found success in their country schools and were now studying for a professional career in ministry. In their study habits and cultural attitudes they provided a stark contrast to their better-off peers.

By the end of the nineteenth and the early parts of the twentieth century, these students were joined by new populations: women, the children of immigrants, and others for whom college study was a prerequisite for entering the work world and assimilating to the American professional mainstream. None of these changes replaced one sort of student with another; they simply complicated the demographic and intellectual landscape of higher learning in a way that Clydesdale ignores altogether. How can we ignore the considerable class, ethnic, or gender differentiation in the perspectives of “the student body” of today?

Even apart from such structural forces, the individual personalities and goals and family circumstances of students guarantee several different approaches to knowledge in even the most homogenous population. Dorothy Holland and Margaret Eisenhart divided the college students they studied in 1980s North Carolina into three broad groups: those who were in college to learn from experts in their fields of choice (these are always our favorites); those who are used to being high achievers—the A students in high school–for whom college is a continuing display of competence; and those—the vast majority, unfortunately—who see college as an exercise in credentialing, and who desperately want to be finished with jumping through meaningless hoops on the way to “real life” (see their book Educated in Romance: Women, Achievement, and College Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1992)).

How can Clydesdale hope to convince us of his vision of the worldly information-processor of today, in the face of other historical moments when we’ve seen the same thing? WWII veterans coming to college on the new GI Bill did not suffer kindly the faculty who had spent the war in the stacks in New Haven rather than the jungles of New Guinea. The college students of the decade between the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the evacuation of Saigon were nothing if not demanding of relevance. The students of the 1980s, desperate to take advantage of the Reagan revolution’s deregulation of the markets, helped accelerate a desertion of the sciences and humanities for the immediate promise of degrees in business and law, which might help them hold off the forces of downward mobility affecting the broad middle classes beginning in the 1970s.

Are today’s students all that different? Can it really be the case, as Clydesdale claims, that fifty or even twenty-five years ago students would arrive at college “in awe” of the faculty, “content” to receive instruction, and “happy” at faculty decisions about knowledge? Having entered college more than thirty years ago, I cannot recognize any of this in my recollections of most of my classmates at that time. Those of us who remained in higher education (most of us no doubt from the “learn from experts” school of thought), are the exception. The student who, according to Clydesdale, “cares little about the course work, the larger questions it raises, or value of living an examined life” is not, as he claims, a product of “this new epistemology” of confident information-processing. This attitude is a stable feature of American universities going back to their origin, a pattern in which most students are interested in a life and culture that has been carved out independent of the classroom (in addition to Horowitz, see Michael Moffatt’s Coming of Age in New Jersey: College and American Culture (Rutgers University Press 1989)).

More centrally for the strategic planning process and the issue of reform, have faculty as a whole (is there such a beast??) really remained mired in hopeless anachronism in our teaching and our relationships with students? Do we really “hide” from students our intellectual journeys and transformations, as Clydesdale claims? Do we refuse to meet students where they are? Do we betray elitist values and hold lofty opinions of ourselves, shunning “the public obligation that our privileged position entails”? Is it really true that the populace as a whole, and our students more specifically, are profoundly “skeptical” of us? While his data from the General Social Survey appear to support his position, we could play dueling surveys until the cows come home, and be no closer to agreement. Recent Harris polls, for example, show college professors as the fifth most trusted profession in the United States, with 75% of respondents expressing confidence in our trustworthiness (after doctors, with the high score of 85 percent, followed by teachers, scientists, and police). Educational institutions as such garner more public confidence than medicine, organized religion, politicians, or major corporations.

In the classroom and the laboratory, in office hours and in our other interactions with students, contemporary faculty are as varied in our approaches as the differences in our personalities and interests (and as the institutional pressures to teach more and publish more and bring in more money) allow us to be. Clydesdale’s prescriptions for transforming our teaching—“determining what our [students] already know, building from that shared knowledge, adapting pre-existing analytic skills, then connecting those fledgling skills and knowledge to a deeper understanding of the discipline” —are already well established.

So why the continued fuss? One of the constants of academic life is the recurrence of the discourse of “reform,” the idea that spoiled and stodgy faculty are immovable except through the most energetic efforts of legislators or administrators or alumni to jolt them out of their torpor and redirect their gaze outward to the requirements of “the real world” or “the public good,” or “public scholarship.” This critique is at least a century old.

In 1925 American novelist Willa Cather described the life and the professional trials of Godfrey St. Peter, a proud, old-fashioned historian of Latin America, in her novel The Professor’s House:

Both [Professor St. Peter and his like-minded colleague Robert Crane], with all their might, had resisted the new commercialism, the aim to “show results” that was undermining and vulgarizing education. The State Legislature and the board of regents seemed determined to make a trade school of the university. Candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts were allowed credits for commercial studies; courses in book-keeping, experimental farming, domestic science, dress-making, and what not. Every year the regents tried to diminish the number of credits required in science and the humanities. The liberal appropriations, the promotions and increases in salary, all went to the professors who worked with the regents to abolish the purely cultural studies. Out of a faculty of sixty, there were perhaps twenty men who made any serious stand for scholarship, and Robert Crane was one of the staunchest. He had lost the Deanship of the College of Science because of his uncompromising opposition to the degrading influence of politicians in university affairs. The honour went, instead, to a much younger man, head of the department of chemistry, who was willing “to give the taxpayers what they wanted” (p. 140).


So much for the presumed novelty of educational commissions (such as the UNC Tomorrow Commission, which pretend that finding out what the public wants in its college graduates is something novel, or that the public’s desires are a mystery. People want clean water. They want good art. But they also want jobs for themselves and their children.

This practical side of higher education is clearly winning. As Zachary Lockman of New York University pointed out in his 2007 presidential address to the Middle East Studies Association of North America, “every year U.S. institutions of higher education grant more B.A. degrees in parks, recreation, leisure and fitness studies than in all foreign languages and literatures combined.”

But despite the statistical preponderance and rhetorical victories of the practical-minded, the problems of the modern university are usually laid at the door of Godfrey St. Peter. The question becomes, what causes some faculty to turn their backs on that real world and to emphasize a hermetic scholarship over an applied one? Cather and Clydesdale imply, from very different points of departure, that it is the nature of academic disciplines themselves that create this conflict. For Cather, in her sympathetic portrait of Professor St. Peter, science and the humanities are important insofar as they represent “knowledge for knowledge’s sake,” and “the transformative power of the liberal arts.” These are traditions of which, as Clydesdale writes far less sympathetically, “[f]or decades, we professors and administrators drank deeply. . .paying little heed” to the changes around us. Cather’s vision of the proud guardian of knowledge gives way to Clydesdale’s warning against the stale self-reproduction of disciplinary traditions for their own sake.

But there are certainly other explanations of the troubles we face. Three years before Cather wrote about the last gasps of traditional scholarship, Upton Sinclair published The Goose-Step (1922), his muckraking report on higher education in the years following the First World War. For Sinclair, the insularity of university faculty and the influence of applied and business interests in those institutions are not at odds. Instead, he argued, they spring from the same source: the fact that “Our educational system is not a public service, but an instrument of special privilege; its purpose is not to further the welfare of mankind, but merely to keep America capitalist” (p. 18). His tour of the boards of trustees of the nation’s universities at that time is a genealogy of robber barons and their retainers, men who still had the ability to dismiss troublesome faculty at will. The alumni were no less interested in the curriculum, of course, as for them, the university “is an insurance agency for the business and social prosperity of his progeny” (p. 363), and any attempt by faculty themselves to make history current and relevant, to introduce new ideas to courses in literature or philosophy or the social sciences, was doomed to fail. The end product, according to Sinclair, was mental torpor at every level. Housed in its anachronistic gothic towers, the University of Chicago was, he sneered “a faculty of aged dotards, who set the tone of the place, and the young men try to act dotards to the best of their ability” (p. 244).

This dotage was not due to the faculty’s inherent investment in avoiding commerce with contemporary problems or concerns. It was due to the interference of state legislators and local business interests whom university administrations had no choice but to please through the top-down application of tradition. “The duty of one generation is to pass on to the next, unimpaired, the institutions it has inherited from its forbears,” announced Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University (p. 61). Such interference might be highly sensitive to discipline: “The trustees may not pay much attention to the teaching of Greek, but they watch the economics and history departments like hawks” (p. 108), keeping any but the most recondite material out of the humanities curriculum. But in any case, the result in terms of the transmission of knowledge was that “teaching is dominated by a vested class, which fears ideas, and forbids all thinking save what is certified to be harmless” (p. 89), lest they get the sack.

From the student’s perspective, Sinclair asks,

What is the final product of all this system we have been studying? It may be stated in one word, which is dullness. Some men are hired, and they are hired because they are dull, and will do dull work, and they do it. The student comes to college, full of eagerness and hope, and he finds it dull. He has no idea why it should be so; it is incredible to him that men should be selected because they are dull, and should be fired if they prove to be anything but dull. All he sees is the dullness, and he hates it, and “cuts” it as much as he can, and goes off to practice football and get drunk” (p. 61; also p. 89);


The authorities of the university know no vital thing for scholars to do, and are in terror of all genuine activities of the spirit; therefore they sentence men to spend their lives rooting in the garbage heaps of man’s past history, while their students go to hell with canned jazz and boot-leg whisky and “petting parties” (pp. 144-145).

Again, whatever happened to the “awe” with which Clydesdale’s wholly imaginary students of the past regarded the knowledge of their faculty? According to Sinclair, awe was a plant that could never take root in the climate of the academy, dedicated as it was to the accurate reproduction of the status quo.

On whichever theory one might have predicated the notion that teachers of the 1920s were out of step with contemporary demands of students—either that a narrow interest in disciplinary reproduction was to blame, or that the capitalist system was to blame—surely so much has changed in American society and American higher education over the last century that neither theory could apply to the alleged shortcomings of today’s universities. Tenure, one of the most important ways in which the principles of academic freedom have been institutionalized, reduces the ability of faculty to be dismissed for offending powerful interests. Public-private partnerships and research relationships with industry bring the academy closer to local businesses and state-wide economic development initiatives (but see Jennifer Washburn’s 2002 book University, Inc., for the seamy and sometimes fatal downside). New classroom technologies can engage students in ways plain lectures cannot. Student support services help integrate and mentor the alienated. Together, the enormous expansion of higher education services to broader populations, the eclipse of the manufacturing economy, and its replacement by “the fast-paced, knowledge-based economy of the twenty-first century in which every student needs to learn how to learn, in order to compete globally” (we can all reproduce the clichés effortlessly by now), all these changes have transformed activities in the classroom, the purposes of education, and the populations we are called upon to teach. We live in a different world altogether from Professor St. Peter.

But the discourse of the clueless teacher, and the more or less empty call for “reform” (see, for example, Robert Zemsky in The Chronicle of Higher Education, remains unchanged. What gives? Why, over the course of a century, has the critique of higher education remained so stable despite all the changes the profession and its social environment have undergone?

One answer concerns the nature of knowledge in complex societies as such. In 1943 Margaret Mead published an article on “Our Educational Emphases in Primitive Perspective” (American Journal of Sociology 48(6): 633-639). She wrote that the real difference between cultural transmission in our own society and that of contemporary “primitive” cultures is that the relationship between students and knowledge has changed. So far, this might come right out of Clydesdale. But what Mead had in mind was that, with the development of high degrees of social complexity there has been a shift from emphasizing knowledge that young people really desire to learn to conduct their lives (how to construct a fishing net, how to navigate a canoe, how to cook taro), to an emphasis on knowledge that some authority believes it is important to teach, but which it is not at all self-evident that anyone would want to know (calculus, Restoration literature, theology). The desirability of teaching comes to be emphasized over the desirability of learning. Hence strategic planning initiatives, which forecast and measure the manpower needs of society—how many chemical engineers will we need ten years down the road? How many park supervisors? How many poets?—and which examine the funding sources, political support, and institutional infrastructure needed to actualize such a future.

There is a complex relationship here between the idea of valuable knowledge and the broader social world. Knowledge is conceived as a hierarchy of superior and inferior possessions. “As soon as there is any attitude that one set of cultural beliefs is definitely superior to another,” Mead wrote,

The framework is present for active proselytizing, unless the idea of cultural superiority is joined with some idea of hereditary membership. . . .Thus, with the appearance of religions which held this belief in their own infallible superiority, education becomes a concern of those who teach rather than of those who learn. Attention is directed toward finding neophytes rather than toward finding masters, and adults and children become bracketed together as recipients of conscious missionary effort. This bracketing-together is of great importance; it increases the self-consciousness of the whole educational procedure, and it is quite possible that the whole question of methods and techniques of education is brought most sharply to the fore when it is a completely socialized adult who must be influenced instead of a plastic and receptive child (p. 635).


Furthermore, as soon as the possibility arises that education can be used as a tool for social mobility, it becomes apparent that it can also be used as a mechanism for maintaining the status quo. Education is marked as a mechanism for instilling or controlling social change:

In fact, the whole use of education to defend vested interests and intrenched privilege goes with the recognition that education can be a way of encroaching upon them. Just as the presence of proselytizing religions focuses attention upon means of spreading the truth, upon pedagogy, so the educational implications of social stratification focus attention upon the content of education and lay the groundwork for an articulate interest in the curriculum (p. 636).


So, in the early part of the twentieth century, Mead writes, public schooling had come to be seen largely as a means of educating “other people’s children,” socializing immigrants to a way of life they would not share with their parents (p. 637).

What we seldom remember as clearly as we should, is that cultural transmission and economic transformation often work at cross purposes, and that when they do not, seeking change and social mobility on the part of the individual or her family is most often achieved through engaging in social practices that reinforce the standing structure of power overall. Upton Sinclair expressed this cynical view in the most naked possible way, by pointing to the savage treatment of labor by corporate capital in the 1920s:

If you are a mine guard or strike-breaking gunman, experienced in shooting up tent colonies of striking miners, the corporations will pay you five dollars a day and board for your services. If you are a “prominent technical educator,” with a string of university degrees and titles, who can enable the great corporations to swindle the public out of tens of millions of dollars every year, then you can command a salary of a hundred dollars a day, with a percentage on the time of your assistants. That is what a college education is for (pp. 81-82).

If this seems exaggerated, consider Sinclair’s prediction for the future as he marveled at the catalogue of New York University in 1922, which listed “three professors of marketing, five professors of  finance, four professors of accounting, four of business English, three of management, one of salesmanship, one of merchandising, one of foreign trade, [and] one of life insurance.”

Of course, this new kind of education is yet in its infancy, and we must not expect perfection. Pick up this university catalogue ten years from now, and you will find its deficiencies made up; you will find a Professor of Stock-watering and an Instructor of Political Manipulation. You will find an eloquent statement setting forth the fact that the handling of labor has now become an enormous American industry; that there are hundreds of large agencies for the putting down of strikes, and salaries as high as twenty and thirty thousand dollars a year are paid to competent masters of such work; therefore the university is establishing a Department of Strike-Breaking. . . .Also there will be eloquent “advertising talks,” explaining that business men now spend most of their time keeping agitators out of their factories, and that the secret service departments of great corporations have come to be the most important part thereof; so the university is now establishing a Department of Espionage, with a Professor of Varieties of Bolshevism, and a Dean of Deportation Proceedings, and a Special Lecturer on Attorney-Generalship (p. 322).

This sardonic fantasy, quaint in its hyperbole, might have been written by Jonathan Swift or by the Charles Dickens of Hard Times. But it loses some of its humor and gains some edge when compared with a notice circulated by email to UNC Charlotte’s faculty not too long ago:


AGENCY: U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS); Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate; Office of University Programs

ITEM: Notice seeking proposals to research, create, develop, deploy, and evaluate innovative educational tools, approaches, and resources to educate and inspire the next generation homeland security workforce. Attracting historically underserved and underrepresented populations is a requirement of this initiative.

The underserved and underrepresented populations of the contemporary university will find their place in the social order by serving its interests. Students understand this. And this—not the internet and its effect on student epistemology—is what accounts most centrally for the indifference most of Clydesdale’s students exhibit toward an examined life. Self-examination is unnecessary, while credentialing is a must for the vast majority of students we serve. This is why the Godfrey St. Peters of the world, proud of their disciplinary expertise and eager to pass it on, suffer in their attempts to proselytize the neophytes that enter the gates of the university each Autumn, in comparison to the programs promising fat salaries for the management of hotels and political borders and information. Knowledge is not at issue, really; practical interests are.

Those of us in the humanities and social sciences are not faultless. We have allowed words like “innovative” and “inspire”—see the DHS notice above—to be taken over by those who are primarily interested in innovative ways to control and manage human action, and in inspiring philosophies of duty to standing structures of inequality on local, national, and international scales. One of the things that has changed in society’s evaluation of higher education over the long term is that a humanistic understanding of education—that it is about leading out and developing an essential inner self—has been eclipsed by a postmodern (some would say neoliberal) understanding of education, in which education is about “learning to learn,” or “life-long learning;” that it is about developing psychic flexibility and decenteredness. That decenteredness is an asset in the proverbial “fast-paced, knowledge-based economies of the twenty-first century,” in which universities are charged to train students who can “compete” on a global scale. This is because, while humanistic education valued the idea of education as a means toward perfecting the self, postmodern educational theories present us with no other goal than constantly training and re-training a flexible workforce that can be deployed to chase the whims of the global market. If, as Clydesdale claims, there is such a suspicion of “traditional academic authority” among contemporary students, it is not because these students “have the world at our fingertips—and the world has been at our fingertips for our entire lives.” It is because students live in a world in which the hope of finding the true self and living the examined life are tragically at odds with being prepared to have the fickle winds of the world economy and its ruling institutions sweep them up and carry them into the unknown. The problems college students face these days do not have primarily to do with mismatched epistemological relationships with their faculty. Their difficulties have to do with their fragile and uncertain futures out in the world.


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