Legends of the Fall (of Universities)

A wonderful post on Ars:
Universities come with a mythical mission. But they don't fulfil it.
by Chris Lee - May 31 2014, 1:46pm EDT
Unlike most rants of this nature, I have no complaints about the modern standard of education. The myth of falling standards has been with us since the Roman republic decided that they wanted the south of France as their personal back garden. If they really were falling for that long, we would all be living in caves wondering how our fore bearers were able to create this thing called fire.

Indeed, I think that students today learn a hell of a lot more than I did in my day. Although I may mourn the fact that Lagrangian mechanics is now a footnote on the way to a physics degree, that is not a sign of falling standards, but rather tells us that it is more important to learn other things to obtain a relevant education.

No, my complaint is that universities do not fill the role that they were supposed to play, and they are very inefficient at fulfilling the role that they actually play.

The rose colored past that never was

Usually when people extol the virtues of universities, they discuss teaching people how to think, and how to critically examine evidence and ideas. The ideal role of this sort of university is to churn out well-rounded individuals who can think independently. Most people who despair of today's youth seem to think that these ideal universities are a casualty of the modern world. The young lads that universities used to produce—ladies being considered too delicate in nature to actually think in those days—were supposed to cast a jaundiced eye over society and to defend against iniquities of government, big business, and, in general, be superheroes without a secret identity.

My point here is not that this ideal was a bad thing, but that universities were never intended to be places to develop independent inquiring minds. And today, universities are ill suited to developing independent inquiring minds.

In the past, universities really only served two purposes. You can see this by examining who attended universities, and what those people went on to do. Traditionally, the university intake was dominated by young men who had attended private schools. That is, young men from rich families would be sent to Eaton or Rugby to learn their letters and look down on everyone else. After a smooth passage through these schools, they were sent on to Oxford or Cambridge to complete their education.

They didn't really go to university to learn anything much. Instead, the effect of going to private schools and university was to develop a circle of close friends who could be relied upon to continue to smooth each other's passage through life. That was the primary purpose of university: to give young men a chance to form bonds of friendship that would serve to secure and increase their family interests in the future.

— read more: Universities Can't Fulfil the Myth
Pretty much aligns with things I've been writing and saying for years. Education until the Land Grants existed to prepare political and religious leaders, by creating and furthering social networks. Yes, you had to learn French, Latin, and Greek, and you read the classics, but generally you benefited by spending time with elite peers.

Today, we talk about the "university experience" that never was. My undergraduate degrees? Vocations. How do we know? By the names assigned: "English Education" (teacher), "Journalism and Media Management" (publisher, editor), "Computer / Information Systems" (manager)… and my graduate degrees are the same. They were named for career paths. Maybe, if I had majored in "Personal Philosophy and Random Big Ideas" — but grad-level "Philosophy" at universities is geared towards Analytic, quantitative analysis in the Anglo-American models, with heavy emphasis on mathematical theory.

We might argue otherwise, but even in the humanities we create scholars who reflect our values, our ideals, and then declare them "Critical Thinkers" because they agree with us when they analyze an "issue" in some way we find acceptable. I've heard many opinionated, ideological, fallacious arguments that cherry-pick "truths" and "facts" among my rhetoric colleagues… but they are great about finding the weaknesses in the "other side" of issues. (That, by the way, is an issue neurologists and psychologists have identified: we are better at detecting biases in arguments with which we disagree.)

But if colleges and universities don't teach critical thinking, what can they do? They can't teach specific job skills, since the skills change in most careers — often before the current skills are part of a course syllabus!

The best universities can do, in their current form, is teach skills that support critical thinking and problem solving as the student evolves into a mature employee, manager, researcher, scholar, and citizen.

But, our universities are not teaching-centered. Our major universities value research, and, unfortunately, our "teaching colleges" don't always attract the best educators, either. Lee observes that…
…teaching at most universities is no different from open mic night at your local pub. You might occasionally get someone with the voice of an angel. But mostly you get Nickelback.
Even when we teach well, what we teach is fragmented, at best. At least in the old model, everything worked towards fostering a single "best" culture. Today, we talk of transferable skills, and generic critical thinking — two deeply flawed (mythical) concepts.

When a rhetorician (or any scholar) tries to tell me that the discipline teaches "transferable" skills, I cringe. That's misses how complex it is to analyze any given problem in a specific field.

Rhetoricians and composition instructors, in my experience, are quick to suggest they teach transferable skills that apply to all other disciplines. Though I agree that effective writing and basic, basic, basic argument skills are useful in any endeavor, the reality is that how a rhetorician approaches a problem is not the same as how a physicist must approach a problem involving sub-atomic particles or how a computer programmer must analyze the steps behind a process to develop useful software.

Sorry, but "critical thinking" is not universal across disciplines. How does the critical thinking involved in analyzing a famous speech relate to analyzing why the particles you expected to appear in a collider image did not? How does a rhetorical analysis of an essay on poverty relate to translating stochastic calculus into a model for financial forecasting?

What rhetoricians consider critical thinking and analysis is, appropriately, humanistic and philosophical. But when employers or other disciplines complain that students lack "critical thinking" skills they mean something different. They mean the ability to properly select variables, models, approaches, and other tools of their fields to seek solutions to problems… within that domain.

In other words, critical thinking is domain-specific. But, that's not how rhetoric and composition instructors understand the university mission, because they view all critical thinking through the prism of rhetoric.

I believe this mistaken "catholic" application of "critical thinking" within the humanities, explains why so many students interested in other fields ignore (or actively reject) the concepts (and ideologies) advanced in college composition and rhetoric courses. What my colleagues assume to be the one, right understanding of critical thinking is a gross simplification that does not transfer easily to other disciplines in terms of the works they produce.

Lee concludes:
We should recognize that teaching is a profession that requires training and career development, so we need to provide a path for such at higher education. We should be explicit in acknowledging that critical thinking skills, logic, and reasoning, are not sufficient — domain knowledge matters. And, just as importantly, we need to teach people to recognize when they run up against the limits of the domains they know well.
I agree. But, we don't do this within rhetoric. Instead, we do imagine our skills and our analytical methods to be universal. That self-assured view of our field and its utility is mistaken. We have value, but we shouldn't overstate it or confuse it with the ability to be a critical thinker and problem solver in another discipline.

Instead, our skills are more civic in nature. And that's something to be proud of… if we do it well and admit that's our role.
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