Dr. David Naylor, president at the University of Toronto, had an interesting interview in the Globe and Mail recently. In it, he argues that creativity has an economic value (more so than resources or a cheap dollar), that genius is more often collective than individual, and the value of social sciences and humanities to the creation of innovation. He also quibbles with Ken Robinson (sorry SIR Ken Robinson) a little at the beginning, which always pleases me.

A small snippet:

Is there too much focus on churning out job-ready graduates? Is this necessarily incompatible with producing the type of creative minds we need?

It’s maddening. We’re asked to produce job-ready graduates with technical expertise and soft skills, who become innovators and “intrapreneurs” at the flick of a switch. Well, you may not always get all that in one person! I think the job of universities is to build what some call T-shaped individuals – a deep column of narrow expertise, capped by substantial breadth. That means more multi-disciplinary and experiential learning, and lots of opportunities for interactive problem-solving inside and outside the classroom. It also means acknowledging a digital reality: facts are cheap and accessible, but people who can generate ideas and think creatively are priceless.

How Would We Know Quality When We See It?

Frances Woolley, writing in the Economy Lab space in the Globe and Mail recently, addressed a key question – and often an unasked one – in education: how would we measure quality?

Her comments were especially geared towards post-secondary instructors, but it holds up just the same in all levels of schooling. It is a much shorter version of Malcolm Gladwell’s superb treatise in the New Yorker on College rankings.

Her post:

Quality could mean international prestige. According to the Times Higher Education University World Rankings, UBC is the 22nd best university in the world, and University of Toronto is the 19th. That ranking is based primarily on the amount of research produced, and the influence that research has. Yet the presence of a Nobel Prize winner down the hall and around the corner is irrelevant to the first year student being taught by an instructor who plays no part in the research enterprise. International prestige is no guarantee of a quality undergraduate program.

Quality could mean the quality of instruction — but this begs the question: what is good quality instruction? Most commonly used measures of instructional quality are deeply flawed.

The Macleans rankings assess instructional quality by dividing the number of students by the number of full-time faculty members. But a part-time contract instructor can bring real-world experience — and valuable industry connections — that a full-time professor might lack. Moreover, there is little evidence that students learn more in smaller classes.

Teaching evaluations are a more direct, but equally imperfect, measure of instructional quality. Studies have found that students generally give higher evaluations to professors who give them higher grades, raising questions about what the evaluations are actually measuring, and suggesting that any attempt to place more weight on student evaluations could exacerbate grade inflation.

Another metric of instructional quality is retention rates — do students drop out? The value of a university degree is, in part, that it signals a person’s ability to see things through, to persevere and accomplish their goals. If students cannot fail, a university degree’s value as a signal of ability diminishes.

A final interpretation of “the quality of an academic program” is that a high quality program is one in which a student learns things that are useful. But what is useful? Humanities degrees are widely condemned as useless, but a student studying the humanities will learn to write clearly and think analytically. In the long run, those skills have a high return. As a former student once said to me, “My MA in Economics got me my job, but my undergraduate degree in philosophy got me my promotions.”

As a professor and as a parent, I know that the quality of education matters. But a good quality measure would require, for example, an outside expert reading over Eco 100 final exams, to see if the questions asked were clear and reasonable, or sitting in on a professor’s lecture, and giving her helpful feedback on her instructional style.

Given the current budget situation in Ontario, the chances of resources being devoted to providing a serious assessment of the quality of education are basically nil.

What is more likely, is that universities and the Ontario government will devise performance indicators that are easy and cheap to measure — retention rates, for example, or job placement rates.

The problem with incentives, however, is that they work too well: universities will game the system. Suppose, for example, that the quality of a university degree is measured by the percentage of students who are employed one year after graduation. Studies have found that some groups have an easier time getting jobs in the Canadian labour market than other groups, all else being equal. So a university wanting to maximize the percentage of students finding jobs could add programs that tend to attract the more hirable groups, and cancel programs that attract the less hirable groups.

Sound apocryphal? The experience of other jurisdictions suggests that once incentives are put in place, universities react swiftly and strongly — but not always in predictable or desirable ways.

Those in Ivory Towers Should Not Throw Stones

It is the general understanding in the west that the process of schooling works like this: we all go to school, those of us who do well there go onto further study (and probably higher wages later), and those who don’t get out early to get a job.  Implicit in this understanding is an assent to a few assumptions: school teaches important matters, students who do well are generally capable, and with each new level we learn things that other students wouldn’t be able to.  All of these might be true, but then, so might none of them.

The belief that a) only some of us are cut out for university and that b) what our presence there is useful are nearly omnipresent.  Look no further than the playground – the anxious and hopeful faces of the parents there watching their children compete-through-play with the other youngsters tells the story.  Save for some grousing on the margins (from, as the narrative goes, those who failed at schooling), few challenge this underlying belief about teaching and learning.

Like most other unquestioned truths, though, given enough time, there will be questions asked.  Tough questions.  And in the case of teaching and learning, the same questions seem to get asked every generation or so.  Asked, but then largely ignored, a nagging doubt at the corner of our mind, entertained for a moment, but then forgotten about.

From the New York Times:

A new book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) by a professor at New York University and another at the University of Virginia, attempts to answer questions like these in a systematic way — and, as its title suggests, its findings suggest reason for concern.
In the book, and in an accompanying study being released Tuesday, the authors followed more than 2,300 undergraduates at two dozen universities, and concluded that 45 percent “demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communications during the first two years of college.”

As an addendum, the New York Times recently ran a set of opinion pieces on the value of college education, “Does college make you smarter?” Essentially a set of soul-searching editorials on the fate of education in America, the range of topics, the assumptions made, the conclusions drawn, and the griping is fascinating.

Gaye Tuchman, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, echoes what many on the left have been saying for a generation: post-secondary education has become a corporate enterprise with the goal of (merely) encouraging economic growth. “I once thought my task was to increase the critical ability and intellectual imagination of my undergraduates,” she writes. “Two decades ago, I discovered that I had erred: My job is to stoke the coal that propels my state’s train.”Elsewhere, the usual calls for “new skills and different literacies (needed) in the future” appear, too.  As does the assertion that “Far too many come to college today less well prepared than in the past and are not able to work at the level that should be required of them,” followed by the demand that, “It is essential to develop an approach to reform that integrates K-12 and college education.”

Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, echoes a refrain commonly heard in the press: “Why is anyone surprised to find that standards and expectations in our colleges are too low? High school graduates — a rapidly dwindling elite — come to college entirely unaccustomed to close reading, habits of disciplined analysis, skills in writing reasoned arguments and a basic grasp of the conduct, methods and purposes of science.”

The end of reading this collection might leave you, as it did me, with the sinking feeling that the academy has little unity in ideas on what, exactly, our schooling system should be. Well, there is unity on one point: the heavy-lifting of teaching ought to be done by those lower in social stature than themselves.  The first two years of undergraduate education might well achieve little, and yes, that might be a concern, but the solution rests elsewhere – probably in the secondary schools.

Of course, all teachers, tempted by the inevitable frustration of the act of teaching, are prone to lash out in blame, and this is nothing new.  But if the issue is students aren’t learning much from university, the culprit must surely lie behind those garden’s gates.  It is easy to blame the students and society and those teachers who came before, and probably all those deserve some of the blame.  But any critique without a concomitant dedication to those very same students sounds a lot like defensiveness, impotence, and incompetence.  Sure, students may not come to you as romanticized images of monastic scholars form years gone by, but, we might ask the university: if they are broken, what have you done to fix them?

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

A little while back I mused sarcastically about teaching metaphors, before supplying my own.  As I become more and more exposed to organizational theory, my cynicism is only increasing.  I’ve recently done a lot of reading about how school systems function, and how we can understand them.  But my bleary eyes were rewarded recently with a nice analogy describing how we should understand school management:

“We would be making a great mistake in regarding the management of schools as similar to the process of constructing a building or operating a factory. In these latter processes deliberate decisions play a crucial part, and the enterprise advances or stands still in proportion to the amount of deliberate effort exerted. If we must use a metaphor or model in seeking to understand the process of schooling, we should look to agriculture rather than to the factory. In agriculture we do not start from scratch, and we do not direct our efforts to inert and passive materials. We start, on the contrary, with a complex and ancient process, and we organize our efforts around what seeds, plants, and insects are likely to do anyway. The crop, once planted, may undergo some development even while the farmer sleeps or loafs. No matter what he does, some aspects of the outcome will remain constant. When teachers and pupils foregather, some education may proceed even while the Superintendent disports himself in Atlantic City.” – John M. Stevens
The care and precision of the language is delightfully uncharacteristic of educational writing.  I admire how he only grudgingly yields to the need for a metaphor (the corruption of language is the first step in the confusion of ideas, as educational writing often illustrates).  And in other ways, Stevens is conservative: he points out that the process is as old, and like other time out of mind practices, the results are at least partially resistant to any effort to change.  Some parts of education are always the same, no matter what we do.  This kind of conservatism happily pokes a finger in the eye of the hair-pullers: for all the yelling and screaming over what our schools should and could be, no matter what our efforts, teaching and learning will always look familiar.  And rather than consider, as many academics do, the nearly limitless ways we could understand schools and school systems, let us instead describe, eloquently, how schools actually are.
One other charm of the passage: it refutes the notion that we have a ‘factory model’ of schooling.  That old metaphor, so abused and marshaled for any and all aims, deserves richly a rest.

The Dismal Pursuit of Immediacy

I can recall my modern British history professor explaining that until the 20th century, science was not commonly part of the curriculum in the elite British schools like Eton and Rugby.  It was seen as too common to study practical matters, I imagine, and students of such rarefied institutions continued in the medieval tradition of classical languages and ancient texts.  A learned man, it held, was less interested in the immediate than in the eternal.

Our 21st century mindset is a millennium away, and while the Victorians might seem out of touch, we might have overzealously replaced the ancient ills with new ones.  In an inversion of the old days, the halls of the modern school are filled with demands for immediacy.  Students, either by training or natural disposition, increasingly demand to know the relevance of the subjects studied, asking ‘Why do I need to know this?’ – as though knowing is a burden.  And teachers, especially younger ones, keen to appeal to the ego of their charges, owing to the natural ease in teaching happy students, reinforce the idea that the immediately relevant trumps the sometimes ambiguous and complex.  Guidance counselors will tell students that while the humanities are engaging and ‘fun’ (or worse, ‘easy’) they aren’t as practical as enrolling in a mostly math and science timetable – or, even better, business courses.

In the time before business schools, captains of industry studied literature, history, and even poetry.  Even today, many Canadian banking executives, where an intellectual tradition runs deep, often pursued academic degrees over bachelors of commerce – before perhaps entering the business world finishing school, the MBA program.  TD Canada Trust, one of Canada’s biggest banks, is run by Ed Clark, a man with a Ph.D. in economics called on routinely by government to weigh in on policy matters.  (It is no surprise that TD was the best-capitalized bank in Canada during the latest bank crisis, and one of the most solid banks in the world.  The demands for critical thinking are everywhere, especially in the business world.  The cost of turning our backs on wisdom is apparently quite great.)

A recent article in the Globe and Mail profiles Martha Nussbaum, University of Chicago philosopher, who has argued in her recent book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, that in our demand for business and practical courses, we are losing an essential role of education: producing wise, learned, critical minds.

Here is an excerpt of her interview with John Allemang of the Globe.

John Allemang: How can the study of the humanities improve our political system?Martha Nussbaum: The first thing you get from the humanities, when they’re well taught, is critical thinking.Philosophy in particular can play that role, not just in universities but in schools as well. Thinking about the logical structure of an argument is something we know children can do quite young.The second thing you get from the humanities is a greater understanding of the world, its different groups of people, their histories, the way they interact.The third thing you get is the training of the imagination.You can’t have a democracy when people don’t learn to put themselves in the shoes of another person, who can’t think what their policies mean for others.

JA: Yet the governments prefer to fund technical education – which tells me that practical, marketable skills are considered more valuable in our democracies.MN: People may believe that, but they haven’t thought hard enough.First of all, we badly need people who can think critically about authority and tradition.And that’s what democracy has always required, ever since the time of Socrates – not just accepting what’s passed down from some kind of authority, but thinking critically about it, examining yourself and figuring out what you really want to stand for. And then having debates in that spirit of respectful critical inquiry with other people – you can’t have a democracy that’s run simply by sound bites and cultural authorities. And I’m afraid that’s what we’re increasingly slipping into.Yes, we call our governments democracies, but I think they’re functioning badly now. The atmosphere of vilification is so bad that good people steer clear of the political process. And if they get in, their lives are made miserable.

JA: Do you think there’s something inherently anti-democratic about the study of science, technology, engineering?
MN: Not at all, if they’re taught well with an attention to the basic structures of thought and inquiry.But what we’re getting now is the demand for a quick fix for economic problems using highly applied technical skills but without the focus on basic scientific education – learning about argument, scientific method. So it’s that debased version of science that’s particularly dangerous.

I think Socrates – executed by the Athenian democracy for his spirit of inquiry – might quibble with some of what Nussbaum says here, but the point remains: our Western democratic tradition requires intelligent discourse, critical thought, and the possibility of informed dissent.  Our rush for the exits within places of contemplative thought into places of technical absorption is to be lamented.  There will always be those who pursue the beautiful and the philosophical – but as a culture, we would be wise to guard against the temptations of an unambiguous, technical world, where the rewards go solely to the immediately practical.

I emphasize immediate because the humanities produce structures with greater practicality than many of the arms of science.  Is our democracy not practical?  Is our legal system not practical?  Did the Anglo-American Enlightenment, the fruits of which – including the US Constitution and Bill of Rights – not increase human happiness more than most engineering projects?  Are we not people, first and foremost, who require historical insight and philosophical leanings, to organize ourselves for our own betterment and equality?  And if those things are not done, what hope do science and commerce have?

It seems obvious that the humanities and science are cross-pollinating organisms.  Surely it is not coincidental that the United States, the nation of Jefferson and Franklin, of Lincoln and Whitman, is both the most scientifically and commercially productive land on earth.  Nussbaum argues that even those of us not actively part of the production of the humanities, those of us without the title professor, can still lead imaginative, rich intellectual lives: ‘You just have to figure out how you in your particular situation are going to do it. It might be through being a critical voice in your law firm. It might be by writing short stories if you can carve out a space. It might be through being a productive alum of your university. Or it might be by bringing up children who can think critically.’

Sadder by the Mile

I came across a wonderful piece in the Atlantic Monthly a while back, ‘In The Basement of the Ivory Tower.’ Written under a pseudonym, it describes the life of a part-time English literature instructor at a ‘college of last resort.’ Professor X teaches ‘young men who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work.’

And he finds himself within the tension that exists between helping earnest, if incapable, students achieve their course-breadth requirements while maintaining the semblance of academic integrity he knew himself as a student in college. In the end, ‘Remarkably few of (his) students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.’

The article participates in the best category of American magazine writing – it confronts a difficult dilemma and does not shy away from bold, if disquieting to many and offensive to some, commentary on, in this case, the state of education and its place and purpose in society. (I say American because I doubt that a Canadian publication of similar stature would allow the same kind of fearlessness of opinion Professor X is allowed.) It would be easy to dismiss the author as the same old kind of crank common to university; rarefied, esoteric types who have old and outdated notions of what constitutes teaching and learning. I can almost hear those at teaching faculties, often metaphorically miles away from the other academic departments, cry that teaching, even at the post-secondary level, ought to be about transforming lives, not sorting students by ability.

But Professor X isn’t esoteric or stodgy. He obviously cares about his students, for starters; his sympathy bleeds on the page. And his demand for integrity is noble. While a lot of criticism has been written about the artificiality of grades, and much of it is warranted, does there not exist some point at which we deem a student’s work not worthy of the institution’s seal of approval? And on the subjectivity of the judgment, well, it has always been that way and by definition must be. It is necessity not laziness that defines instructors as final arbiters of quality, and the judgment can only be found in their experience and depth of scholarship. It is imperfect, but can hardly be otherwise.

He leaves behind a good deal of good questions: is post-secondary education for all? Why do we insist it should be? What role should the academy fulfill in society? How can we stop the rampant inflation of necessary credentials for even non-intellectual jobs?

Professor X is ambivalent about his work. He regards his career as having ‘sputtered,’ and his employers as less-than-innocent for participating in what might be seen as an elaborate ruse. ‘Adult education, nontraditional education, education for returning students—whatever you want to call it—is a substantial profit center for many colleges. Like factory owners, school administrators are delighted with this idea of mounting a second shift of learning in their classrooms, in the evenings, when the full-time students are busy with such regular extracurricular pursuits of higher education as reading Facebook and playing beer pong. If colleges could find a way to mount a third, graveyard shift, as Henry Ford’s Willow Run did at the height of the Second World War, I believe that they would.’

He argues that he and his students are two sides of the same tragedy, the over-enrolment in colleges, pushed ideals noble and otherwise. And once there, find little of meaning to say to one another, but nonetheless go through the motions, stumbling through the underside of the American dream: ‘I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I’m sure my students do. I envision the lot of us driving home, solitary scholars in our cars, growing sadder by the mile.’