Thursday, March 03, 2016

A Vision of a College Education Today with a Strong Historical Basis

I attended a lecture last Thursday given by Harry Boyte.  It was the fourth in a series of talks under the mantle Prioritizing Undergraduate Education.  I missed the third talk, not sure why now.  Among the other two that I did see, which were also visions of what students should experience in college, I liked Boyte's talk the most.  In what follows I will explain why, follow that with my understanding of Boyte's message, then segue into potential challenges of the ideas, and finally make some remarks about connecting this sort of education to what students do after they graduate.

One thing I've done in retirement that is a bit unusual is to pursue the undergraduate education in political science (and sociology and psychology) that ended after I left Cornell to go to Northwestern for graduate school in economics.  For people who might read this essay but are otherwise not regular readers of my blog, I transferred to Cornell from MIT in the middle of my sophomore year.  I left MIT because I was unhappy there, but once at Cornell I began to pursue this political science interest that had been unmet until then, though I remained a math major since I was so far along with that already.  I started taking upper level courses in political science without taking the pre-requisites, the first of these a course on Women and Politics taught by Werner Dannhauser.  And since I graduated after 3 and a half years of college, I got an incomplete view of political science at the time.  I also had insufficient background to understand some of the ideas I was exposed to, particularly on the conflicts within Christianity (I was raised in a very reform Jewish household) and how those conflicts played out in our national politics.

There is also that in the early to mid 1970s, when I was in college, the ethos of the time didn't seem to require anyone I knew to challenge their political views as they developed a sense of themselves.  This changed dramatically after Reagan became President, by which time I had become a faculty member at Illinois.  Since then I've mainly taught economics when teaching undergraduate classes.  As things are situated at Illinois a majority of the Econ majors have little intrinsic interest in the subject.  They are Business School wannabes, for the most part with lower standardized test scores and insufficient GPA to transfer into the College of Business.  Over time I've come to ask, how can college education be more meaningful for these students?  Some of my current political science interest stems from trying to answer that question.  Many of the posts in this blog bear elements of trying to provide answers.  And many of the things I read that form a basis for the posts are read from that vantage.

I will focus on two here.  The first is this essay by Albion Small, The Bonds of Nationality.  Boyte argued that one pillar of his vision was an abiding patriotism, a concern for society as a whole and the welfare of others entailed with that.  Small's essay, a fantastic read, explains what that really means and how people get educated to make patriotism a deeply held view.  Ironically, he considers churches rather than schools as the primary provider of this education, but that part of the argument may be time contingent in the writing of the piece (before America's entry into WW I).   I came to read Small's essay by first reading Eldon Eisenach's book, The Lost Promise of Progressivism.  I took a course on American Political Thought from Eisenach as a junior at Cornell.  It was a thrill for me to find his book in our Library at Illinois.  After reading it, I wrote a post called A New Progressivism?  In my heart, it is something I'd like to see.   It seemed to me that Boyte was arguing for exactly that.

The other work is Mary Parker Follett's Creative Experience, which gives a vision of the type of education Boyte talked about with that vision crafted when the original Progressivism was still a living memory.  (Eisenach argues that the Progressive era ended with Woodrow Wilson as President.)  I came to this work of Follett's in a very indirect manner.  Again as a junior at Cornell, I took a seminar on radical political groups.  (My term paper was on SNCC and I wonder to this day why Stokely Carmichael, in particular, is essentially ignored as a historical figure.)   One of the books the class as a whole read was Eric Hoffer's The True Believer.  So I was familiar with Hoffer's name.  Thirty plus years later I started to look for other things he had written.

Ultimately, I got a copy of Between the Devil and the Dragon from the Library, a collection of his essays and aphorisms.  He made frequent reference to Marion Milner's book, On Not Being Able to Paint, so I read that next, though it took me a while to feel ready to do so.  (Painting lies outside my preferred forms of recreation.)   In turn, Milner made lots of references to Follett.  Ultimately, I wrote about this in a post called Interweaving, an expression that Follett uses repeatedly in her book.  Follett argues that competing social views need to be argued out, over time, but the result is not the the triumph of one view over the other.  Rather it is something fundamentally new, with some bits and pieces of the earlier views from each side that are brought together into a coherent whole.  Our current national politics seem a far cry from Follett's view and it poses one sort of challenge about whether her view is tenable now.   The New York Times has a feature called The Conversation, that tries for what Follett wants, but does so in a tongue and cheek way only.  This underscores the challenge that Follett presents to us.  We may not be up to it.

I have belabored presenting my background coming into Boyte's talk to show that I was predisposed to be interested in his message and welcome it.  It makes me wonder about how other faculty who have strong interest in undergraduate education but who lack this sort of background would react to the talk.  What of such faculty in STEM disciplines or in the Humanities?  Boyte argued that science as it used to be done was consistent with the Progressivist view and indeed that science existed to advance social ends, but we have since moved to a world where scientists are experts and profess from a platform of expertise that the rest of the population lacks.  So there is a question of whether the genie can be put back in the bottle and whether that would be perceived by others as desirable.   It is a question that deserves substantive discussion.

* * * * *

Boyte argues that college education should be primarily about making students good citizens.  Such citizenship is exercised mainly not at the ballot box but rather at the place of work.  Good citizens do whatever is necessary to make the workplace highly functional and socially responsible.  Good citizens have agency, an expression Boyte used over and over again.  This means they can size up the situation to see what is required to make matters better.  Then they can act in a way that does improve things.

Boyte argued that education for good citizenship must train the head, the heart, and the hand.  Presumably this is done in a holistic way, for example in what is now called a service-learning course, which features both a classroom component and a practicum component and where the students interact with members of the community in the latter, so there is a triangle between teacher, student, and community member and feedback loops to make each vertex of the triangle a part of the whole.   At present, as I understand the way the campus works, comparatively few students get this sort of coursework, though they may get some experience working with the community by being part of a registered student organization (RSO) or as part of some faculty member's research project.   Further, service-learning, where it does happen, is often a capstone experience.  Boyte seemed to be arguing that we need much more of this sort of thing, when we have it then it must be quite intensive, and some of it needs to happen far earlier in the student's time on campus.

Boyte used a fair amount of terminology in his talk without giving precise definitions of the terms.  I don't mean that as a criticism of the presentation itself.  He had about an hour and used that time judiciously.  But afterward I started to scratch my head about some of these.  Here I will focus on agency, as when one tries to put one's fingers around the concept grains of it tend to slip through.  Even Boyte reported that his experiences entailed many failures.  Is there agency when ultimately there isn't success?

I want to start with some examples here, so I will consider my blogging and my teaching.  Blogger tells me I have well over 1300 posts, many of which are longish ones like this one.  Evidently I don't have difficulty in generating prose and enjoy doing so in my spare time.  (I've written elsewhere that if I had enough friends to argue with over coffee, then I wouldn't feel a need to write this blog.  But most people I know are too busy for that type of conversation.)  So my blogging would seem to be an example of agency.  But there are times where there is writer's block.   And there are other times of pure malaise, where I simply want to veg out.  I want to distinguish those times of malaise from yet a third time of needed diversion, because nobody can always be on and there is a need to recharge one's batteries.  The malaise periods feel like a lack of agency.  The writer's block, like getting stuck when try to solve a hard math problem, may reflect impatience more than a lack of agency.  Overcoming the blockage, when that does happen, not always but sometimes, may indicate that agency was present all along, though it was in a dormant form. The diversion time is just having fun doing something else.  This leads one to ask.  Is it that even those who do have agency only express it occasionally, for whatever reasons?

Teaching is different in this respect because the students have a say as to whether my teaching efforts matter.  I now teach one course each fall and have had that pattern since 2012.  Last fall I took a step or two back, though that was not my intent ahead of time.  I try for Socratic dialog in class but last fall it was a real struggle for me to generate discussion and attendance was down from what it had been the previous couple of years.  (Indeed I've opted for the fall only because senioritis seems too strong in the spring and dealing with that I've found is demoralizing.)  Also, even for those who do come it is difficult for me to gauge whether I'm getting through to them at all or not.  And I have more feedback from them than most instructors because I do have them write weekly blog posts and read all of them (that come before or if afterward then reasonably close to the deadline) while writing extensive comments on these posts as well.

My sense is that what I do matters in a significant way to a handful of students in the class, but not much at all to the rest.  (Incidentally, I had this same sense back in the early 1990s before I got involved with learning technology, but then I was teaching mainly intermediate microeconomics, which is required of Business students and which they are disposed to dislike.  In that respect it is like how pre-med students view organic chemistry.)  Now most of my students are Econ majors.  The challenge has been how to make the course matter to the majority of the class.  In that, I've largely failed, though I continue to modify my approach over time to better tailor the class to the feedback from the students that I do get.  Is this agency or not?  I'm not really sure.

I am also somewhat fearful of how Boyte's ideas might be cherry picked by politically Conservative students and faculty, embracing some pieces while rejecting others, with that resulting in something quite different from what Boyte has in mind.  For example, ask yourself whether Tea Party members of Congress have agency.  Their goal is to shrink the federal government.  Their tactics are to render that government non-functional.  They clearly don't embrace Follett's idea of interweaving.  Indeed they won't negotiate even with more moderate forces within the Republican Party.  They seem to be on a crusade.  Is that agency or misguided closed mindedness?  Who gets to determine the answer to that question? 

Let me close this section by noting an obvious impediment to Boyte's ideas will come from such Conservative students and faculty, if they perceive that what Boyte is advocating for is trying to convert them into Liberals.  In the current climate of national politics, I don't see how this particular obstacle can be transcended.  If and when our national politics calms down and the rhetoric becomes less inflamed, it will be necessary to discuss how Boyte's vision can be both effective yet non-threatening to Conservatives and whether that is actually possible or not.

* * * * *

Here I want to take on other potential obstacles to Boyte's ideas - whether students will embrace these ideas, the role of private non-profit universities, and whether students have the right skills coming in to take advantage of such education.  I don't mean that taken together these are mutually exhaustive of the possible impediments Boyte's ideal would face if there were attempts to implement it broadly.  Rather, I mean them simply as gateways into a larger discussion about these particular issues.

Let us begin with the rampant credentialism that now plagues Higher Education and indeed begins much earlier, with the excessive and destructive competition to get into one of the top colleges.  In the abstract, it might be possible to get some agreement that education has been invaded by a species that neither nurtures the student nor invigorates the student for the sake of learning itself.  Instead, school  is perceived as all instrumental for what should come after college.  One might think, then, that an alternative approach would be welcomed by the students themselves (and their families, especially if the parents are paying the tuition).  But that should be thought through rather than simply assumed. 

Among the students I see these days the population is bi-modal.  There is a smaller group of over achievers who spend much of their waking time at the Library when not in class.  For these kids, they are engaged in an act of juggling.  The goal is to have as many balls in the air as possible.  Breadth is the way to get a killer résumé.  Depth in learning is sacrificed, even if that is not perceived by the students themselves.  GPA rules.  This is triumph of the Spence model view of college.  Further, there is a cognitive bias that puts excessive focus on the getting the first job after graduation, rather than considering how the education might impact their employment, say 10 years out. 

In my class on the Economics of Organizations, I teach students that eventually co-workers and supervisors learn about the productivity of an individual, so human capital does matter down the road.  It matters for promotion decisions.  It matters for the reputation the person develops in the market.  (Non-economist readers might prefer the expression learning-to-learn skills to the economics jargon, human capital.  The argument is essentially the same, regardless of what you call it.)   Nonetheless, the focus is on grades, because that is what signals when applying for that first job.

The other mode, which is larger in my class and may be larger for the campus as a whole, after all Princeton Review named Illinois the #1 party school last year, applies to many of those kids who are part of the Greek System - they live in a fraternity or a sorority - as well as those kids who live in apartments and then frequent the bars, not just on Friday and Saturday evenings, but earlier in the week as well.  I begrudge nobody in having a good time, with the caveat: moderation in all things.  But I am frightened about the underlying world view that drives this behavior in our students.   I believe that world view can be encapsulated as follows.  Since school itself is non-nurturing and since once they enter the world of work they will have to bust their chops, college is the time to partay.   There is excessive hedonism in this as well as a pessimism that there is no such thing as a reward from doing good works for itself.

It is easy enough for the faculty to be paternalistic and argue that the students at both modes need to change.  But would the students themselves agree?  I have some evidence about students at the first mode, from extensive discussions with a few of them.  In spite of some recognition of the issues, they expressed contentment with the path they are currently on and a great reluctance to depart from that.  And as for students at the other mode, one might consider their behavior the triumph of procrastination.  Defeating it will not be easy.

There is a different way to get at this issue, which looks at the students more from an emotional perspective.  I believe it helpful to consider this alternative as well.  Hoffer is very good on the following point.  In any endeavor, past success is no guarantee.  Failure is always possible.  The fear of failure is great.  So students will go to lengths to avoid experiencing it.  Indeed, all of us do this sometimes, though I hope that part of growing up is taking on that next endeavor squarely much of the time.   The good citizenship that Boyte champions requires strong soft skills.  But soft skills are hard to develop and perhaps harder to measure.  Many students prefer technical skill acquisition, precisely because it is far more transparent that one is in possession of such skills.

Further, there is an important difference in how students display their soft skills depending on whether they are outspoken or very quiet.  The outspoken ones are apt to put on an act.  They don't show their inner selves as they go through their spiel.  They can readily perform in front of others and are not self-conscious that way.  But they are nonetheless guarded.  They may give the appearance of agency, but that is confounding agency with salesmanship.

The quiet students are quite different here.  In the last decade, or so, there seem to be many more of them.  I'm not sure why.  The quiet students are noticeably shy, for the most part and they are aware of their own reluctance to speak in public.  Part of this may be an ethical makeup that refuses them to put on an act.  Another part may be a lack of confidence in being able to negotiate through on matters that they do care about.  I've had multiple experiences with this sort of student, for example consider this one from a couple of years ago (note that the students blog under an alias to protect their privacy).  Shyness can be overcome.  And some education may be useful in expediting the process.  But ultimately the pace will need to be controlled by the individual student and it may be many years after college has ended before the student feels comfortable with the public speaking part of good citizenship.

Large campuses like Illinois may exacerbate the problem because in many classes students feel anonymous rather than part of a community.  Some years ago the then Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education advocated strongly for Living and Learning Communities as a solution.  Perhaps that works well for the members, though I'd argue that there is selection bias in who joins them, so it is hard to know whether it would work nearly as well for the quiet students I'm talking about here.  But it is clear that the solution doesn't scale particularly well.  We need a solution that does.

Let me push on and turn to private universities, which Boyte didn't mention in his talk, though he did say that we know a big public university like Illinois can't address all the issues by itself.  There are too many interconnections with the outside world that need to be accounted for.  If the land grant colleges are to take on Boyte's recommendation and embrace good citizenship as the organizing theme around an undergraduate education, but the private colleges and universities do not, what then?  I really don't know, so I will content myself here with making some rather obvious points.

First, most faculty have their primary loyalty to the discipline, not to the university where they are presently employed.  Disciplinary mores will dictate their views about how undergraduate instruction should take place.  Second, their own experiences as students, both as undergraduates and particularly as graduate students, will go a long way to shape their views about what good instruction should be like.  If as I did, they got their college education at a private university, that will matter.  Third, many of the current faculty will view the possibility of working at a private university in the future as a realistic possible alternative.  Their current teaching experience at a public university must then prepare them for that possibility.

Then, from the student perspective,  there is of course the matter of paying tuition/incurring debt and wanting to recover that expenditure thereafter.  While there is a substantial amount of price discrimination at private universities, given both merit aid and need-based aid, full boat costs these days run roughly a quarter million dollars for four years of college.  That magnitude tends to concentrate one's attention.  While 20 years ago one could reasonably argue that the biggest real cost of attending college was the opportunity cost of the student's time (measured by the earnings foregone as a result of being a full-time student) nowadays the direct financial costs dominate.   And while full boat in state tuition at a public university is far less than its private school counterpart, in real terms it is higher than the tuition my parents paid when I went to Cornell.  So unless we move to some alternative funding regime where some third party bears the bulk of the financial costs of college, this linking to the consequence on future earnings seems unavoidable.  I don't know that in itself that will doom the good citizenship approach, but clearly it is a factor that the good citizenship approach must contend with. 

All of this is to say that while each campus might have a bit of idiosyncrasy in how it goes about undergraduate education, departures from the norm can't be too large and the underlying model for undergraduate education can't be that different throughout all the R1s, public or private, which in turn sets the tone for undergraduate education throughout the rest of Higher Education.

To finish up this section, let me consider just one component of students' prior preparation, what I'll call schmoozing skills, or lack thereof.  Good citizenship is more than being a good schmoozer, but the latter is clearly necessary for the former.  Yet there is reason to doubt that students have basic competency here and the situation has been getting worse over time.  One notable voice on this point is Sherry Turkle.  Consider her recent pieces:  Stop Googling.  Let's Talk., from the New York Times, and How to Teach in an Age of Distraction, from the Chronicle of Higher Education (which requires a subscription for full access).  Turkle argues convincingly that we learn empathy and how to listen by having lots of face to face conversations.  Students who spend much of their time online never learn how to really connect with other students.  Rather, they constantly are focused on their own needs and wants.  This is a very poor basis on which to build a strong approach to good citizenship.

I want to add something here about the informal learning that students should have by being in proximity with other students at their place of residence.  (There seems to be some agreement on the importance of student learning outside the classroom.)  For me at Cornell, this sort of informal learning was really more important than the classes I took.  It served me quite well 20 years later, when I became a campus administrator.  Much of it happened without any prior design and was just a fortuitous consequence of living with a diverse set of people, some graduate students others undergrads, none of whom were studying the same thing.  So our discussions were on subjects where nobody was expert, but where there was mutual interest.  We argued, though in a friendly and respectful way.  (Nixon resigned before the start of my Junior year and people were quite interested in politics then, with that interest more that just who would be the next President.)  We also intermingled those conversations with pure entertainment, going to hear live music, for example.

In my course I have one session about conflict in organizations and spend some time going through Argyris and Schon Models 1 and 2.   Model 2 can readily be interpreted as providing the elements for good citizenship.  (I tell the students that real conflict, once it occurs, is very hard to undo.  Model 2 is not about conflict resolution but rather about how disagreements and differences of opinion can be resolved in a collegial manner so that real conflict does not arise.)   If students are to really embrace that, they must feel a need to do so based on their own prior experiences.  I had those sort of experiences at Cornell.  What if most of the students who spend so much time online never get that type of background on their own?  Can we teach students to transcend themselves in this case?

* * * * *

One place where I thought that Boyte pulled a fast one on us was where he talked about his experience in South Africa, talking with students there, all of whom were black and who intended to go back to the townships where they were from after they graduated from college, to work on bettering their own communities.  These students reported that they wanted just the sort of education that Boyte had in mind, but they weren't getting it.  They were angry for this reason.

Here in the U.S., it would not be surprising at all for somebody who wants to be a social worker, or a community organizer, or even a teacher to favor Boyte's approach to instruction.  But that is not sufficient to make the argument universal.  What about somebody who wants to become an accountant, or a heart surgeon, or a software engineer?  Does the good citizenship approach to undergraduate instruction make sense for these students as well?

In other words, like it or not, we in Higher Education need to have a view of the labor market that our students will enter after they graduate.  And we need to make the case that the college education plays a complementary role.  For, if not, then for many potential students it will be an extravagance and a waste.   This complementary role, indeed, requires emphasis.  So if we are to make a case for the good citizenship approach to college education, we also need a view of the labor market that is compatible with that.

Such a view can be found in Akerlof's model of Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange.  Gift exchange operationalizes the notion of collegiality to an economic context.   I teach this model in the Econ of Organizations class and I've written up an explanation of that model for the lay person in a post called The Liberal View of Capitalism.   In that post I also contrast Akerlof's model with the more Conservative, pay for performance approach.

Interestingly, there's been some attention to these ideas recently in the popular press.  Last week's New York Times Magazine featured its Work Issue.  Many of the pieces argued that empathy is the key ingredient for making individuals productive in a collaborative workplace.  For example, consider this piece on effective teams at Google.  It is just this sort of evidence that explains why a good citizenship approach to undergraduate education make sense.

That is, with one proviso.  If good citizenship is to be the focus of undergraduate education, then we must deliver on that promise.

* * * * *

Let me wrap up.  Sometimes I get carried away.  This post might be an example.  The Blogger editor, where I compose my posts, mercifully does not give a word count.  I've just done that.  The piece is approaching 5,000 words.  Surely I'm trying the reader's patience with a post this long.  Let me apologize for that.   But let me also note by way of explanation that I believe it necessary to consider the various component sections of this essay as part of a whole in order to really get at the big picture.

Boyte gave us a vision of undergraduate education, one that we really might embrace, but we need to argue that.  A lot of things would need to be put in place to make that vision a reality.  Maybe it's too hard for us to do that.  And maybe there's a lot of disagreement about the desirability of the vision itself.  But let's not take any shortcuts in coming to that determination.  Let's work all the issues through to their logical conclusion.

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