On Liberal Education and the New Economy

This week the Wall Street Journal published my review of two new books celebrating how a liberal education prepares one for the new economy. I repost it here.

A PRACTICAL EDUCATION

By Randall Stross
Redwood, 291 pages, $25

YOU CAN DO ANYTHING

By George Anders
Little, Brown, 342 pages, $27

 

College students returning to their campuses for more reading, writing and ’rithmetic may find they’re not doing all that much of the first two—unless you count messages that come in 140-character chunks or disappear soon after finding their recipient. Breadth of study and deep critical thinking, once thought to be the crowning achievements of American higher education, now strike fear into the hearts of many parents and policy makers, who view them as luxuries or distractions. Instead they clamor for a greater emphasis on quantitative reasoning, involving ever increasing amounts of data. Students and families worry less about being on the “right side of history” than about being on the wrong side of the great economic divide between winners and losers.

Undergraduates today often crave narrow specialization in fields that they imagine will be of immediate interest to employers. Although many still sign up for classes in literature, history and philosophy, the percentage choosing to major in the humanities or social sciences (apart from economics) has been declining. Looking at these trends, a contrarian might conclude that this is an especially good time to choose a major that allows for the development of skills and experiences that set one apart from the hordes clutching STEM degrees. Buy low, sell high.

Randall Stross’s “A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees” is meant to persuade recruiters to hire liberal-arts grads, while George Anders’s “You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education” is meant to inspire students to recognize how a multifaceted undergraduate experience can aid them in the workplace. Both books are filled with stories like that of Josh Sucher, a Bard graduate who translated lessons from cultural anthropology into market research for Etsy. Mr. Anders calls him an “anthropologist in action,” who uses his skills of observation to more effectively connect artists and potential buyers.

Mr. Stross’s book is based on a narrow sample: Stanford alumni with degrees in the humanities and social sciences. This elite university is among the most selective in the country, admitting less than 5% of those who apply. Sure, one might say, its graduates will do pretty well no matter what they study in school. If they have trouble landing in the very best private-equity firm or start-up, they can use the school network to make connections that lead to good jobs. Even the wealthy neighborhood is a resource. One story features Jessica Moore, who cultivated influential connections for jobs by baby-sitting in affluent Palo Alto, Calif.

Mr. Stross is well aware that his sample is narrow but presents his anecdotes about non-engineering Stanford grads as being meant to show “the skeptical what is possible.” Interspersed among these stories of enterprising young alumni are short chapters on the history of Stanford, highlighting the institution’s longstanding struggle to offer both a practical education and a broad, flexible one. People interested in the history of education will find these sections illuminating, but for many readers this, too—like the rest of the book—will prove too parochial.

That said, it’s certainly true that many people find ways to add value to enterprises that at first glance seem to have little to do with their undergraduate majors. They have learned to learn, to productively reframe stories, to cultivate teamwork and to communicate in compelling ways. Skills like these—“power skills,” in business-speak—are what students in the liberal arts develop, and this is why Messrs. Stross and Anders find so many examples of young people translating their studies in history, philosophy or political science into value for others—and impressive career trajectories.

Adventurous possibilities abound in today’s economy, says Mr. Anders. Sure, technology is eliminating jobs, and increased automation can be scary. But innovation creates the need for even more people who can imagine the ways in which technology can be put in the service of individuals and communities. “The big societal challenge for the modern world doesn’t involve how rapidly engineers create new technology,” Mr. Anders writes. “The great point of strain involves how rapidly the skeptics and the hesitant can absorb each new wave.” Liberal-arts grads, he suggests, will be especially adept at helping translate technological innovation into everyday uses because they have studied and practiced the “nuanced feat of changing people’s minds.”

Mr. Anders wants his book to be a practical resource and, like Mr. Stross, provides many instructive examples. Readers should feel permitted to sample them rather than plow through them all. And though I suspect that the authors would agree with bromides about the importance of failure, there are no real failures here. Instead they emphasize that the intensity students bring to their studies—combined with the ability to translate that intensity into other areas—is more important than choosing a so-called practical major. And it remains important for a lifetime. “Strong grounding in the humanities or social sciences,” Mr. Anders writes, “doesn’t have an expiration date.” As another academic year begins, these books are salutary reminders that what is learned on campus should have its greatest value beyond the university.

Stop the Trump Calamity

I published this opinion piece at Inside Higher Education this week. I take seriously the fact that a university should be a place where people from a very wide spectrum of political opinion can discuss their ideas in a context of non-violence. In the past, I have urged students to vote, but I have not played a public role in any election. This year is different, and I don’t think even a college president should be a mere “bystander.”

 

Over the past few years, Wesleyan University, like many across the country, has provided incoming students (and sometimes staff and faculty members) with classes in bystander intervention. The idea is simple, really. We want to give members of the campus community the tools to act in situations where somebody is at risk: when you see something amiss, do something so as to protect others from harm and make the campus a safer place.

I’ve been thinking about bystander intervention lately in the context of the presidential race. As the president of a nonprofit university, I am advised by legal counsel that I should not take public positions in elections. I know this makes a lot of sense, and over the 15 years or so that I’ve been a college president, I have encouraged electoral participation without being overt about where I stand in regard to any particular candidate.

This year is different. Donald Trump has been using the tools characteristic of demagogues and fascists to do the only thing that really matters to him: gaining power. He will say anything that he thinks will help him win, and there is no telling what he will do if he is successful.

Does he really believe that the “Mexican heritage” of a judge disqualifies him from a case? Does he genuinely condone “Second Amendment people” using violence to stop a newly elected president from making court appointments? Does he actually feel nostalgia for the days when you could beat up protesters?

He does affirm his intention to build a wall and ban Muslims from entering the United States, and he repeats a contention that Barack Obama is the founder of ISIS. You don’t need a fascistic theory of government to use the inflammatory tactics of fascism. It is clear enough: given his rhetoric and behavior, Donald Trump’s election would undermine the foundations of the republic and cause fundamental harm to the country.

Now, I can imagine that some readers will be rolling their eyes and thinking, “What a surprise … another liberal academic trying to use the university to push his own ideological agenda!” And I know that some people would prefer I not opine on politics at all lest I give the impression of speaking for the university and compromise institutional neutrality. Finally, in political matters, university presidents may have a megaphone but not necessarily, so the criticism goes, the relevant expertise.

I agree that my academic position gives me no special skills when it comes to electoral politics. Even though I am a historian, I don’t have much confidence in my profession’s capacity to offer sage counsel in contemporary political matters. But when we ask bystanders to intervene in an unfolding medical emergency, we are not calling on their knowledge of biology. We are asking them to call for help, to sound an alarm. When we ask a student to dissuade friends from binge drinking or other risky behavior that makes them vulnerable, we don’t expect them to be experts in a field. When we encourage people to stop a sexual predator from acting, we don’t need them to have law enforcement experience. We want them to be aware and feel responsible.

I also agree that many colleges and universities suffer from political biases that distort the educational experience of our students. At my left-leaning Wesleyan University, I have found it important to support Republican groups and faith-based clubs. Although I identify as a person on the left, I am developing programs to bring more conservative intellectuals to the campus to teach classes in a variety of fields and to present points of view not heard often enough in the liberal campus bubble. Intellectual and political diversity is a pressing problem in undergraduate education, and teachers have to be much more aware of the dangers of using their classrooms as a platform for ideology.

I do not believe that presidents or other university leaders should normally throw their institutional weight behind a specific public policy or a candidate. But despite my worries about institutional biases, this year I feel strongly that I need to intervene more directly, to join others in sounding an alarm about the grave danger to our political culture. I’ve done this in speeches and in the press, but I don’t think I am intervening enough, given the gravity of the situation. That’s why I am publishing this piece, and why I will continue to call out the dangers that the Trump campaign poses to our political ecosystem. I urge other higher education leaders to do the same. Some of the damage has already been done, as the bar for racist, hate-filled public discourse has been lowered in ways that would have shocked us just a few years ago. Even many who support candidate Trump are revolted by his intemperate, cruel and dangerous remarks.

When we teach students the skills for bystander intervention, we want them to feel empowered to make our campuses safer, more humane places. If faculty, staff or students see a dangerous situation unfolding, we expect them to act. After all, if someone on campus sees sewage spilling into a classroom, detects a noxious odor in a residence hall or simply sees a hallway filling with smoke, we don’t want them just to hope that someone with expertise and responsibility will arrive. We want them to feel responsible for bringing attention to the developing calamity. At the very least, we expect them to sound an alarm when danger threatens.

Donald Trump is a developing calamity for our polity. Whether from conservative, libertarian, religious or leftist positions, we should protect our culture from further Trumpian pollution. Even university presidents, as citizens, must use the tools available to us to sound the alarm as long as the danger threatens. And threaten it does.

How to Choose a (Our) University

The happy emails and web links have gone out (replacing those thick envelopes of yesteryear), and all those fortunate enough to have choices about what college to attend will make a big decision: picking the college that is just right for them. They are trying to envision where they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college, with a few revisions.

Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study. Our school is expensive because it costs a lot to maintain the quality of our programs. But Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to maintain only moderate (very close to inflation) tuition increases. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20% of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Pomona?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high-quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. That’s why hundreds of visitors come to Wesleyan each week and why there will be the great surge starting today for WesFest. They go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out their education: discovering what they love to do; getting better at it; learning to share it with others. I explain a little bit more about that in this talk to admitted students a few years ago:

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, especially this year with a record number of applications. But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping the fields in which they work. The commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior projects that we are seeing right now on campus.  We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.

 

What are universities for?

I recently reviewed two books on higher education for the Wall Street Journal, James Axtell’s Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University and Jonathan Cole’s Toward a More Perfect University.

Here are some excerpts from the review.

The claim is simple: Higher education is ripe for disruption. In recent years there has been a wave of publications expressing skepticism about the future of our colleges and universities—skepticism about the value of their educational outcomes, the deservedness of their social prestige, the sustainability of their business models. A sampling of titles tells the tale: “Academically Adrift,” “College Unbound,” “The End of College,” “Higher Education in Crisis.” No more, claimed the critics, would tuition costs continue to rise precipitously; no more would students accept packed lecture halls when they could watch star educators on their smartphones; no more would students clamor to get into a brand university without assurances that it would truly prepare them for life after graduation; no more would anyone assume that, just because a school was hard to get into, it must be worth a king’s ransom to attend. Economic, social and technological pressures, the story goes, will “disintermediate” traditional campus operations.

The titles of the two books under review here—“Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University” and “Toward a More Perfect University”—point to a different view of where higher education is today and how it got there… These two authors are not disruptors. Both believe that American higher education can be improved, but they are confident that this improvement will occur through the evolution of its capacity for producing new knowledge and disseminating it.

Mr. Axtell takes the long view, showing us the medieval origins of the university, beginning with the need of the Catholic Church for more men with advanced training in philosophy, mathematics and law. Twelfth-century Arab scholars in Spain inspired the rethinking of interpretative assumptions, leading to new specializations and to institutions that we can recognize as the forerunners of our colleges today…

“Wisdom’s Workshop” describes how Oxford and Cambridge became models that inspired advanced schools in colonial America. Henry VIII’s “bear hug” of Oxbridge “made it difficult for them to distinguish affection from coercion,” Mr. Axtell writes. Henry VIII protected his professors as long as they toed the line—a Cambridge chancellor who didn’t was beheaded. The two institutions grew in size, stature and social import. After visiting the impressive new Oxford library in the early 17th century, James I remarked: “If I were not a king, I would wish to be a University man.”

Mr. Axtell has much ground to cover, and he does so lightly…The author notes that our first six presidents favored the creation of a national university, but he doesn’t spend much time discussing the American aversion to an organized, central institution of higher education. By the middle of the 19th century, the United States had become a “land of colleges,” and Mr. Axtell emphasizes that all of them, “whatever their funding, fulfilled a public function, producing citizens of a democratic republic and responsive to multiple constituencies.”

…In the last part of the 19th century, higher education in the United States changed dramatically. American students flocked to Berlin and other academic centers to experience new methods of inquiry, learning there that specialized, published research was what set the modern educational institution apart from public opinion, religion and government. These students were mostly wealthy and white—though there were important exceptions, like W.E.B. Du Bois.

Led by Harvard, the older, prestigious American institutions would eventually follow the German model, and new ones, like Johns Hopkins, were created to bring modern Germanic productivity to higher education in the New World. The research university may have started off speaking German, but it would ultimately flourish in the United States like nowhere else.

….

Jonathan Cole’s last book, ​”The Great American University” (2009), argued that what has made our universities great is not so much the quality of their teaching (though he defends that, too) but the power of their research…In “Toward a More Perfect University,” Mr. Cole argues that we must restore trust among the government, the public and higher ed. He examines regulations imposed by Washington on universities and sees many of them as symptoms of the distrust between the public and those who value the free inquiry at the heart of the academic enterprise. As in the 16th century, today’s governmental interest in universities is often more about suspicion and coercion than affection and support. And, I would add, in the pursuit of specialization many universities have abandoned the tradition of pragmatic liberal education and failed to connect their academic mission to the public good.

Mr. Cole explains how, in the 19th century, the federal government’s two Morrill Acts—in the 1860s and 1890s—helped establish, with land grants, the great public universities that would educate large numbers of undergraduates while fostering high-level research. During World War II, universities saw funding soar for scientific inquiry that could aid the military effort, and after the Allied victory, the GI Bill of Rights ensured that schools across the country would be able to provide returning soldiers with access to higher education. In the 1950s, Cold War competition helped guarantee that Washington would continue to allocate extraordinary sums of money to maintain a scientific, even a cultural, advantage.

Today, Mr. Cole writes, “the federal government needs a plan as bold and ambitious as the Morrill Act and the GI Bill.” He proposes a “Morrill Act III,” with, among other things, coordinated academic efforts among prestigious universities to reduce duplication and to offer the best students increased access to the most powerful researchers—an Ivy League of academic cooperation.

Mr. Cole implores the great (and wealthy) schools to start playing more of a role in secondary education so as to model what kind of preparation would best serve high-school grads for advanced work in any number of disciplines. He also recommends expanding the number of students served by elite schools, reducing the number of graduate programs in fields where there are few jobs, and improving the curriculum and teaching in professional schools. Following on the work of Columbia economist Joseph Stiglitz, Mr. Cole writes that “unless Americans come to grips with the rising inequality of income and wealth among our citizens, we will fail to have the resources necessary for providing opportunity and access to higher education for many children of middle-class families.” Perhaps the greatest threat to universities today, in other words, is the inequality rampant in our society. And without the support of the middle class, public trust will never be rebuilt.

For all their faults, our universities have traditionally promised the possibility of social mobility through learning. They’ve served the wealthy, to be sure, but they have not just been about the accumulation of privilege. That is changing. In the beginning of the 20th century, Du Bois stressed that education was empowerment, especially for the disenfranchised, and pragmatists like Jane Addams and John Dewey described how teaching and research could be linked to the public good in ways that enhanced democracy rather than elitism. Mr. Cole is surely right that rebuilding the trust between the people’s representatives and great universities is essential—not just for the benefit of the happy few on campus but for the country as a whole.

In this time of anti-intellectualism—whether technocratic or populist—we don’t need more smug disruptors. We need more hopeful builders. They will remind us of the democratic aspirations of pragmatic liberal education while recalling that the ambitions of our finest universities help fulfill the dreams of our best selves as a people.

Higher Education — Two Reviews

Over the summer I finished a short book called Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. It will be published in the spring.  I also reviewed two interesting books on American higher education, one that focused on teaching and the other providing a broad overview of the sector. You can find my review of Why Teach? here, and of Higher Education in America, from yesterday’s Washington Post, below.

Today classes begin, and I am delighted to head back to the classroom. Last night we heard some of the amazingly talented students who sing a capella at Wes, and now we are finishing our syllabi and checking our reserve readings. I am teaching the Past on Film and am looking forward to meeting the students.

 

American higher education is the envy of the world. Students flock to this country from all over, and the most highly ranked schools tend to be here. We should be proud!

American higher education is a mess. With high costs, low graduation rates, unhappy faculty members and coddled students, our universities are about to be radically disrupted by massive, technologically driven change. A good thing, too!

How to reconcile these opposing views? At a time when ambitious business-school professors and salivating entrepreneurs predict the end of the university as we know it, and at a time when we have never been more in need of an educated workforce and citizenry, the task of understanding the evolving mission and performance of American higher education has never been more urgent. Thank goodness Derek Bok, a two-time president of Harvard and a judicious, learned analyst of education, has taken on this undertaking. His book is too long to be called a report card, but it is a detailed progress report on the challenges and opportunities facing our nation’s colleges and universities.

One of the first things to note about higher ed in the United States is its heterogeneity. The problems of Harvard are not the same as the problems of the University of Texas or those of Scripps College in California or of LaGuardia Community College in New York. Bok tries to address schools in all their multiplicity, and his book suffers somewhat from the clunkiness that also characterizes higher ed. The book’s five sections discuss instruction from undergraduate to graduate and professional schools, as well as the market forces at work at each level. After the introduction, there are five forewords and four afterwords — not including the short final chapter called “The Last Word.” Yet one forgives redundancies because of the thoroughness of the research and the measured judgment consistently applied.

After noting the variety in higher ed, Bok acknowledges the extraordinary inequalities in the sector. Public discussion of education often focuses on the schools most difficult to get into, but “no more than two hundred colleges regularly reject more students than they admit.” At most highly selective schools (such as the one at which I am president), students receive some subsidy from the institution — even those paying full tuition. Students enrolled at less-selective schools get a small fraction of that support. Public institutions have seen dramatic reductions in state support for universities, and many flagship campuses are scrambling for donations and out-of-state, full-tuition-paying students. Community colleges enroll dramatically more people than other parts of the sector, but most of these students will never earn a degree.

Bok shows that the current quip that universities haven’t changed their teaching styles since the Middle Ages is just an empty canard. Universities have adapted surprisingly well to massive changes in technology, in demography and in developing streams of support. But Bok is no Pollyana, emphasizing that “universities have been especially slow to act . . . in improving the quality of undergraduate education.” Professors often confuse their desire to teach what interests them the most with what undergrads need to learn, and students in recent years are spending far less time on their studies than in past generations. Bok shows how schools cater to students in order to attract more of them, often with little attention to how campus amenities provide distractions from studying.

Bok knows the governance structures of universities as well as anyone, and he realizes that true curricular reform has to be led by the faculty. The challenge, from his perspective, is to make the faculty (at least its leadership) more aware of the empirical work on student learning that has been done over the past decade. Professors may be focused on their research and distracted by committee work, but the evidence shows that they care deeply about teaching effectiveness.

“The key to educational reform,” Bok writes, “lies in gathering evidence that will convince faculty that current teaching methods are not accomplishing the results that the professors assume are taking place.” Once the teachers understand the need for change, they will rise to the occasion and create classes that are more effective at developing the capacities that most agree are essential in college graduates. They have done so in the past, and they will do so again.

Bok’s confidence in the faculty is characteristic of his approach in this book. He believes that our varied system of higher education is very much capable of self-correction. Do we need to bend the cost curve? Sure, and that is why experiments such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) are so interesting (and mostly led by university veterans). Is there a liberal bias on our campuses? Sure, and it has been there at least since the 1940s, but faculty members realize they need more political diversity. Do university leaders spend too much time raising money? Sure, but American schools — especially the selective ones — get much more support than schools in other countries. We may have the worst system, he jokes, but like democracy, it’s better than all the alternatives.

Bok underscores two areas in urgent need of improvement: increasing the percentage of students who graduate from college and improving the quality of undergraduate education. We must do a better job attracting low-income students to our best colleges and universities, no longer wasting financial aid on wealthy students with high SAT scores to improve an institution’s place in bogus rankings. We must also do a better job of stimulating curricular reform and assessment so as to be sure students are working hard to learn what they need to know — whether at a community college or a research university. Of course, reaching agreement on what students need to know is a great challenge, but that’s the core of the faculty’s responsibility.

Competition among schools produces benefits and causes problems. Most of the important ones are addressed in Bok’s helpful volume. I hope he is right that we already have the ingredients in place to make the necessary reforms. I know we need university leaders like him to help activate those ingredients so that American higher education can continue to contribute in vital ways to our culture, our economy and our polity.