How Could We Reinvent “College”? Fifteen Ideas

Shocker. An increasing number of intellectuals and major publications are questioning the value of America’s colleges. Recently Newsweek ran a cover story suggesting that college is a lousy investment, something not worth nearly the dollars or the time that is invested. In response to these sorts of criticisms and questions, the most recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct 19, 2012) includes an article entitled, “College, Reinvented.” This article contains 15 suggestions, by 15 educators, on how we might improve the system.

Some of the suggestions are plausible, while others are, ahem, something like the opposite of “plausible.” For what it’s worth, here is a sampling of The Chronicle’s suggestions, along with a few of my own reflections:

An Old-School Notion: Writing Required. Dan Berrett suggests that a good old-fashioned regimen of researching and writing is better than other newer and sexier suggestions offered by cutting-edge pedagogues. “Writing works exceedingly well,” writes Berrett, “as both a way to assess learning and a means of deepening that learning, according to experts who study its effects on students.” In a study that he and his colleagues published, “researchers found that clearly explained assignments in which freshmen and seniors had to construct meaning through their writing—summarize something they had read, explain in writing the meaning of numerical or statistical data, argue a position using evidence and reasoning—had a noticeable effect on deep and sustained learning.”

I couldn’t agree more with Berrett. As Francis Bacon once put it, “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” The process of writing forces students to organize their knowledge, build arguments, and communicate with concision and precision. Of course, it is difficult to teach incoming college students to write, when they’ve never committed themselves to serious reading.

2 Captains at the Helm of Each College. Jack Stripling suggests that colleges consider hiring two presidents. That’s right, two. He argues that no college president can fulfill all expectations, so why not hire two equals? He quotes President Buck Smith of Davis & Elkins college, who ways, “Presidents complain about loneliness at the top. This arrangement is a helpful antidote to that. We’re never hanging out there by ourselves.”

Uh huh. I’d like to see how many Boards of Trustees could be convinced to do this. I’d imagine they’d see no more need for two presidents than they do for donning a tutu or wrapping their heads in asbestos.

Grades Out, Badges In. Jeff Young asks his readers to consider giving merit badges to students when they do well in class. He argues that college grades are inflated to the point of meaninglessness, that students look for professors that give easy A’s, and that students often strive for good grades in a way that actually circumvents the teaching/learning process. Young thinks that “badges” could motivate students better than grades.

I suppose we are in favor of anything that helps to subvert the “grade idolatry” that pervades our educational system. Students sometimes tend to view their course grade as an assessment of their personal worth, as a lever for future earnings or status, and so forth. With that said, I’ll wager that merit badges won’t work.

School at Age 3. No More 12th Grade. Linus Wright asks us to consider mandatory schooling at age 3. That’s step one. Then he asks us to eliminate the 12th grade. That’s step two. Wright suggests that the 12th grade “is the least productive and most expensive of all grades, and the money saved by getting rid of it would pay for early-childhood programs, which are the most productive and least expensive.”

My initial response: On the one hand, it is true that a very young child possesses an immense capacity for learning. He/she forms approximately 700 neuron connections per second.  We want to capitalize on this potential. On the other hand, I do not want my child to undergo any sort of social engineering at this age, before we as parents have a chance to shape their minds and hearts, and prepare them for public or private school.

2 Tracks for Faculty. Anybody familiar with higher education knows that faculty members often are expected to excel both in classroom instruction and research/writing. In this article, Robin Wilson argues that colleges should allow faculty members to choose one or the other of these two skills. “What if the academic work force were made up primarily of two types of faculty members?,” writes Wilson. “One, a small proportion of tenure-track professors—those who earn doctoral degrees, do research, train graduate students, teach advanced seminars, and help administrators run the university. And two, a larger portion of full-time instructors…who teach undergraduates, help advise them, keep up with developments in the field by reading and attending conferences, but do no research.”

As I see it, Wilson is right that one rarely finds a faculty member who truly excels at both tasks, and that often faculty members feel pressure to do exactly that. However, colleges and seminaries will be harmed if they bifurcate the faculty so neatly. Most faculty members can excel at one of those tasks, while doing fairly well at the other; and they should be encouraged in exactly that manner.

How Can We “Reinvent” College Education? This “Briefly Noted” has summarized only five of the fifteen suggestions listed in The Chronicle’s article. In the near future, BtT will be offering some suggestions about improving higher education. In the meantime, we welcome our readers to offer their own suggestions in the comment section below. We hope to use your suggestions and questions when we address this topic again.

Just for Fun: The 2011 Ig Nobel Prizes

Just for Fun: The 2011 Ig Nobel Prize Winners

Just when you thought you’d seen it all, having been amused by the inanity of some theology dissertation or religion blog, the Ig Nobel Foundation comes along and raises the bar on inanity. The Ig Nobel prizes are given by Annals of Improbable Research which honors “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” Don Troop writes an article on this year’s Ig Nobel prize winners in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct 7, 2011).

Troop headlines the article with an exploration of John R. Perry’s Ig Nobel prize for his article on “How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done,” in which he argues that “the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely, and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.” Dr. Perry is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford University. Troop reports that “Perry advises procrastinators to make a list of the many things they hope to accomplish, and then place a goal like ‘Learn Chinese’ at the very top. ‘You have to have good self-deceptive skills,’ he said. ‘That’s key.'”

Other Ig Nobel prize winners include:

Anna Wilkinson (University of Lincoln) and co-authors, for their paper, “No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise,” Current Zoology (2011)

Arturas Zuokas (Mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania) “for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.”

Makoto Imai (Shiga University of Medical Science) and co-authors for their research demonstrating “the ideal density of airborne wasabi (a pungent horseradishlike condiment) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm”

Luk Warlop (Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium) and other researchers for their multiple papers “demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things, but worse decisions about other kinds of things, when they have a strong urge to urinate.” Papers published in Psychological Science (May 2011) and Neurology and Urodynamics (Jan 2011). Seriously.

Daryll T. Gwynne (University of Toronto-Mississauga) for his discovery “that certain kinds of beetles mate with certain kinds of Australian beer bottles.” Australian Journal of Entomology (1983).

Karl Halvor Teigen (University of Oslo), for his article “Is a Sigh ‘Just a Sigh’? Sighs as Emotional Signals and Responses to a Difficult Task,” in Scandanavian Journal of Psychology (2008).

This is not, I repeat not, a parody. I’m hoping that this research is helpful in some way for somebody, but until that can be proven, I don’t see the need for it any more than I do for wrapping my head in asbestos or wearing a tutu.