Monday, April 08, 2013

What Professors Believe vs. What Students (and Parents) Believe

Some of my academic colleagues complain about the "corporatization" and the "credentialing" of higher education. The complaint is that education is no longer about learning and self-improvement, instead reflecting a corporate mindset that emphasizes credentials.

Exactly when was education so pure? Isocrates taught Greeks to argue the law. He also trained logographers, professional writers. The Sophists taught students for professional success - not some grand idealism. If the Greeks pursued education for practical purposes, then why should we be surprised that our students 2500 years later want practical skills?

Why do professors in the humanities, especially in rhetoric and writing, reflect a nostalgia for what never was? Credentialing is not new. The desire to resist change (call it "conservative") is not new. The complaints about watering down content are definitely not new.

To engage the public on matters of education, we must first accept that voters and legislators focus on state schools that receive taxpayer funding. The top-tier universities have endowments and powerful alumni networks, so they are generally free to spend time on "less practical" content. Small, expensive, liberal arts schools can teach anything — they serve a community free to indulge in such pursuits.

What do the taxpayers (voters) want? Consider the GI Bill and the Morrill Land-Grant Acts. Both represent an endorsement of creating a skilled managerial class. That's credentialing, no question about it. Universities with Ag and Mining or Engineering in their names had a clear career-focused purpose. These were not "liberal arts" institutions — they were meant to continue the Industrial Revolution into the Atomic Age and beyond.

I listen to a fair amount of old-time radio and watch classic films (pre 1950). Whether it is an episode of "The Saint" or "I was a Communist for the FBI" there are glowing references to Yale and Harvard, accompanied by the requisite insulting of "state schools" in the scripts. There has been suspicion of the public universities from the moment Land Grant institutions were formed — notably you can find "Wisconsin" mentioned as a home for radicals and progressives.

The implication in the pop culture of the time is that there are radicals in the state institutions, trying to corrupt the values of hard-working future managers and technicians. We will be protected by the elites at the Ivy Leagues, those well-rounded special people elected to higher offices.

Universities have always been about "credentials" and sorting the classes. A friend from France once told me, "Tell me a man's university, and I will tell you his future in France." There are some good articles about the leadership class in France and the power of the École normale supérieure. The NY Times has similar data on U.S. universities and later "success" in life — political, financial, etc. The "credential" might not be a standardized test, but it is the diploma with Latin phrases.

There is an old article I read about Yale's ending of Greek and Latin requirements. The alumni feared Yale was starting to be like those "state universities" that produced workers instead of religious and political leaders. It doesn't seem to have hurt Yale (or later Harvard), since most of our Supreme Court and many of our national leaders remain Harvard, Yale, and Princeton graduates.

We shouldn't look back at a time that never was. State institutions were created, funded, expanded, and continue to be industrial / technical (STEM) research centers.

My wife, an engineer, attended a U.C. campus for a credential: the Engineer-in-Training certification needed before you can work under a Professional Engineer (PE). Doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, engineers, et al, have attended universities for the last century to obtain credential or pre-professional clearances. Most teachers earn a "certificate of clearance" before a "clear credential" — education departments exist for credentials and how many colleges were "teachers colleges" or "normal colleges" before becoming universities?

Those of us working in education should understand and appreciate the historical position of public higher education compared to the elite private institutions. To believe public higher education was ever about the "journey of the mind" for 90 percent of students is idealistic — and inaccurate.

Most professors of rhetoric and writing loved being students. Actually, most professors in all fields were likely unusually dedicated students. My wife and I would take classes endlessly, if possible. But most students want to earn the credential, enter the workforce, and cheer on the school teams.

We were not "average" students and our views often reflect this disconnect from others. If you listen to parents and students, they remind me of the great philosopher Lewis Black, as Dean Lewis in Accepted.
Dean Lewis: Do I have to spoon feed it to ya? Look, there's only one reason that kids want to go to school…

Jack Gaines: Which is?

Dean Lewis: To get a good job! To get a good job, with a great starting salary!

Jack Gaines: I couldn't agree more.

Diane Gaines: It is so refreshing to have somebody approach education so rationally!
I assume the parents of Isocrates' students said much the same thing. Even the parents of students at those great elite schools with plenty of resources to study simply to learn probably say the same thing.

If we want to gain influence within schools, and then without, we have to be willing (however much it pains some people) to discuss how our courses help students develop life and work skills. Some people tune out when you start to talk about "the good life" and "learning for learning's sake."

We (professors) are not the average voter or legislator. We need to learn how they view things and what they value — so we can appeal to those audiences accordingly. Unfortunately, many of our writing programs haven't even managed to secure the necessary pull within our institutions — a much bigger concern for some of us than the world beyond campus. If we can't persuade other faculty about our value, I have no clue how to approach the "general public" outside education.

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