Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Homo Genius

There’s an interesting piece in this week's Chronicle (under Popped Culture in the Online version) entitled A Very Long Disengagement and written by Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University. It depicts the University as two parallel worlds, the scholarly realm inhabited by the faculty and a social but intellectually dysfunctional world occupied by the students. Going through one metric after another, Baurlein observes the lack of interest students have in their courses, their poor performance in terms of knowledge in basic domains, and their “odd” form of interaction with peers via phone, instant messaging, or blog but not by face to face conversation, and when the last does happen it is disconnected with the classroom or other intellectual life on campus. This is a grim picture, but it is not fundamentally new. For example, it is essentially the picture depicted in Declining by Degrees.

Bauelein singles out the popular culture as a primary culprit for this decline. And in so doing, he indirectly is giving a warning to us who support IT in higher education. Be careful. Don’t embrace trends in student IT use merely because it’s popular to do so. Worry about the students becoming part of the campus community that is larger than themselves, that involves the faculty as well, and that at its base is intellectually driven because curiosity, dialog, and rigor are fundamental values that need to be supported. Don't feel on the the sidelines when making judgments about student cell phone and iPod usea and whether that is tied to the campus mission or orthogonal to it.

However, I don’t want to use this post as a soap box for that argument. I want to consider something else. The Declining by Degrees documentary made the point that things are different across Universities. (Amherst College in Massachusetts was depicted as an ideal place where there is strong faculty and student engagement.) In a similar fashion, I’d like to ask whether there is significant variation in student seriousness and engagement within an institution, such as where I work, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and if so what drives that variation.

Let me begin by pointing out some provocative observations made by Linda Hirshman in the American Prospect. (David Brooks wrote about this Hirshman piece in his column and said it was worthy of one of his Sidney Awards, but the actual winners were only males and espousers of a conservative view. Hmmm.) Hirshman did an informal poll of women she knows who had gone to the very best universities. The vast majority of them had for a while played important jobs soon after graduation, but they were now either part time workers or stay home moms, “opting out” of the more high stress and high paying jobs that they were presumably qualified for.

This gender/work issue may seem like I’m off on a tangent, so let me bring it back to home quickly. Hirshman says the women at these ritzy universities were studying humanities while the men were doing engineering or the natural sciences. Whether she is correct in her other conclusions, one wonders if seriousness in the student breaks down easily along these lines – the serious ones study engineering. Certainly Tom Friedman, in the World is Flat, makes the study of engineering and the achievement of engineering degrees as the measure of a country’s intellectual capital.

Are engineering students the way Baurlein depicts? And if not, why not?

One of my pleasures now is teaching a class in Economic Principles to Campus Honors Students. The class starts in a couple of weeks. The CHP program is a restricted club for our best and brightest students. When I taught the class the last time, the kids didn’t seem so much unlike me as an undergrad. They read what I assigned, were intellectually curious, and clearly did enjoy the in class discussion. I’m very interested to see how the 2006 cohort does. By the way, most of them the last time were engineering students.

Let’s say the correlation is true, that in the main engineering students are serious and liberal arts students are not and that this correlates with gender. What are we to do about the correlation?

At my campus the Engineering College has the highest average ACT scores for admission, followed by Business. Arts and Sciences is an easier college to get into and there students may very well be less challenged earlier in their academic career, taking large classes where they can get by and where they “learn” survival habits rather than intellectual engagement. While perhaps a bit stereotypical in description, this view says the differences were there before arrival on campus and the college experience reinforces them.

When I was at Cornell (I transferred there for the spring 1974 term and then stayed two years) I was a math major in arts and sciences and I believe it was the hardest college to get into, measured by the SAT scores that are used for such a metric. Humanities and social science were respectable areas to study and I don’t believe anyone felt those students were lesser in any way (other than that their lifetime incomes might be lower). And I’ve written before about how wonderful Cornell was for me because of the intellectual engagement outside the classroom and how that flowed seamlessly with my social existence.

Is that a diferrence between then and now or perhaps a difference between here and there? I really don't know. I suspect some of both.

Perhaps it is egotistical to envision that my undergraduate experience at an Ivy League school 30 years ago can be replayed at a public university now. But if not that, what else is there to do? Don’t allow students to major in the humanities or social sciences? Force more stringent performance requirements on the students so they can’t tune out? Require students to "apply for admission" prior to entry into their Junior year just as transfer students apply for admission?

I do think Baurlein is onto something talking about the student leisure time. If there is to be a move away from the disengagement he describes, we have to make inroads there. Does anyone have a plan?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Isn't another view on the disconnect to see if one can use the student "social" factors (and technology) to connect them to the "scholarly" world of faculty