Blah Blah Blah Higher Ed Technology Blah Blah Blah

by Gordon Haber

Wired Magazine—that is, the magazine that takes any idea seriously so long as technology is involved—has a piece up about how to fix higher ed: 4 Radical Ideas for Reinventing College Drawn from Stanford Research.

Let’s parse that title. (Yes, I know journalists don’t write the titles, editors do. That changes none of my points.) First: the ideas are not radical, it’s stuff we’ve been hearing for years. Second: the research was done by Stanford’s design school (which calls itself the utilizing what I call techspell, the orthographic trend that emulates computer code in order to brand an organization as really cool and futurey). The research was done by sending some students out to talk to other students and then going to places like SpaceX (more techspell!), Cirque de Soleil and Homeboy Industries.

So you have anecdotal evidence (because college students always know what’s best for themselves, right?) and then ideas drawn from organizations that may or may not have relevance to higher ed. Maybe they do, I don’t know; I mean I sure loved Homeboy Industries when I lived in L.A., which helps ex-gang members move on by giving them service-industry skills, and it seems to really work, and the coffee is good. But to me that sounds more like job training than education.

So, let’s get radical:

1. Lose the Four Year Degree.

“If I told you that you could exercise everyday for the next four years and at the end of the four years you would be fit for the rest of your life you would laugh,” Stein Greenberg [from Stanford] says. “We give students one shot in early adulthood to learn what they need to know and then send them out into the outside world.” Instead, she asks, what if college was a six-year program that you could enter, leave, and re-enter again later?

If students can’t afford four years of tuition I don’t know how they are going to afford six. And again, let’s take a step back and talk about the purpose of an education. Design school is a kind of arty-farty trade school, in which students learn the basic skills they need to, you know, design things. But what’s the purpose of college for most students? The kids themselves would say, “to get a job.” But we can’t have a discussion about the length of a degree until educators figure out what that degree is for.

American higher ed has given up. The bean counters have won. The purpose of a degree, in most cases, is instrumental: students want to get a job and their teachers want to keep their jobs. Let’s have an honest discussion about that, and let’s have an honest discussion about the meaning of the word education, and then we can talk about the length of a degree. Thx.

2. Lose the High School to College Model.

Four years can corner students into making important decisions before they’re ready. ”We only really offer [students] one rhythm, and they have to declare a major before they have any real idea of what it might be like to work in that major.” Her proposal? Abolish the freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years, and let students move at their own pace from exploring various topics, to gaining some expertise, to applying those skills in practical settings—maybe failing—and then trying again.

Why not? But isn’t this part of the previous point about the length of a degree? And considering that most American students don’t finish in four years aren’t they doing this already? And how are they going to “gain expertise in practical settings” when the job market sucks? With more unpaid internships? Did the Stanford folks actually think about these ideas?

3. Lose the Transcripts.

“We now live in a world where you can get any piece of information at any time. What if it wasn’t about information accumulation, but about developing competencies and skills,” Stein Greenberg says of this slightly more vocational proposition, in which students build individualized skill portfolios. “What if a transcript could be as unique as a fingerprint and really show and emphasize the skills you have going forward?”

Okay, fine. But you’re starting to get on my iNerves, Stanford people. Because this idea ain’t new. And if you think that college is about “information accumulation,” ask your graduating seniors if they know when the Civil War happened.

4. Lose the College Major

Part of having an 800-year-old higher education system means that some majors also haven’t changed. Liberal arts are valuable fields of study. But they might not bolster students for careers the same way a decided “mission” might, like tackling climate change. “What if students declare missions, not majors? Wouldn’t that fuel their studies in some way of real purpose they don’t get?” This way, students would pursue, for example, anthropology degrees to help their family’s ancestral Native American communities. It’s a new kind of incentive: give students real world applications, and then build a course around that goal.

I don’t know where to begin. Is it the argument that old things are bad because they are old? The condescending attitude towards liberal arts? The combination of classism and smug liberal politics? And if college students often can’t make “important decisions before they’re ready” than how would they be ready to choose a “mission?”

More ideas! Cathy Davidson at the CUNY Center has an interesting response here and I recommend you check it out (hat tip to the continually awesome Lee Kottner). But I’ll summarize:

5. Lose the Tuition

Davidson points out that many U.S. colleges could stop charging tuition and still have billions left over in their endowments. Which is indeed a good point and I wish we could be like Germany and just get rid of it. But Davidson is assuming that the purpose of higher education in America is to educate. I would posit that it is not. Higher education is a business. Whether it is a community college or nonprofit university, the purpose, like any other corporation, is to funnel money upwards. So telling administrators to do away with tuition would be like telling Wal-Mart to give away free flatscreen TVs.

6. Pay the Profs

Yes, you swine, pay the profs, but you won’t because see #5.

One final thought: I suppose I should remind people of my bonafides, or lack thereof. I am not an education expert. I am merely a journalist and fiction writer with an MFA who has been fortunate enough to teach college since 2000. (I wrote Adjunctivitis, a novella about the adjunct life, and you can buy it here, or email me if you’re an adjunct and I’ll send it to you gratis).

Readers are encouraged to disagree and present any and all refuting evidence. But it is unlikely that you will change my mind on the following points:

  • Higher education in the U.S. is like the Titanic: sinking, and it’s mostly the wealthy who get through it alive.
  • I’m waiting for someone, anyone, to take a step back and discuss the purpose of a degree.
  • None of the above means anything until we figure out how to get kids to college with basic writing skills and at least the rudiments of numeracy.

The problems are very deep, my friends, and we’re not going to fix them by changing the structure of a degree. Nor will technology help. I’ve said it before: when it’s done right, education is long, messy and inefficient. Until we stop thinking of it as just another consumer product, we will keep creating ill-informed, barely literate, deeply indebted and demoralized graduates.