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Monday, September 13, 2010

The present is not like my past

I read today two rants about the state of the university (specifically, but not exclusively, in the US).

One ("In Defence of the Ancien Regime"), at the blog Organizations and Markets, argues that declining standards in universities and a move away from "total...dedicat[ion] basic research" has "...very likely led to a dumbing down of the curriculum in many disciplines and a fall in the requirements for entry."

The other ("Declining By Degree: Will America's universities go the way of its car companies?"), in Schumpeter's blog in The Economist, argues that the problem is, rather, a consequence of spiraling costs (occasioned in part by the construction of luxury dorms and other non-academic facilities), professors who do not teach (spending their time in research), and exploding administrative costs.

Hard to believe that both these crtiques could be true simultaneously. But there they are.

As I've thought about it, I've sort of come to the conclusion that both of these critiques are manifestations of what I think of as "the present is not like my past" syndrome.

Take the O&M blog post. It makes reference to comments by two academics, one written by an emeritus professor of economics at UCLA, the other written by a professor of mathematics at Humboldt University (Germany). Both are probably in their 70s.

Their world has changed dramatically. When they began teaching, universities in the US, and this would have been even more characteristic of German universities, were populated largely by middle-class and upper-middle class, white students. The dominant culture on the campuses reflected the culture of the faculty quite accurately. That is no longer true.

I've also lived through much of that transition, but, for me, it occurred much earlier in my career, and it was a transition that I supported and welcomed. I'm not sure that the generation of the faculty before me was as supportive or as welcoming.

So what I wonder is how much of the discontent one sees in these writings comes from being now in an environment that seems alien, in which the motivations (and often the behavior) of students is strange. In which their values are no longer (necessarily) assumed to be correct by their students, by their colleagues, or by the communities in which they live.

In economics, one of the consequence of the much larger enrollments, especially in introductory courses, means that your students are less likely to be economics majors, less likely to be considering going to grad school in economics. They are there to learn economics instrumentally, for some purpose other than entering the guild of the economists. I suspect that more and more of the students in introductory calculus classes are also there for reasons that are not the same as they were 40 years ago. What may look to these two men like a collapse in standards may simply be an adaptation to the goals of a new set of students, with different interests and concerns.

Is this hard to adapt to? Absolutely. Does it mean the world have been taken over by barbarians, or even that the barbarians are now at the gates and must be opposed with all our strength? I think not.

My interest in the history of higher education actually gives me some perspective here. Many orpfessors opposed the Land Grant Colleges Act (the Morrill Act), passed in 1862. They saw it as debasing the function and purposes of the university. A considerable group of faculty also opposed the GI Bill (and perhaps even more strongly that the Morrill Act was opposed--it established new universities, the gates of existing institutions were not opened to the hordes of the under-prepared).

I may be too little disturbed by the future of US higher education (and I gripe frequently about my own students), but I see no apocalypse around me. I see a world of greater opportunity and potentially greater achievements, open now to many people we would have excluded 20, 40, 60, or 100 years ago. And I think it's wonderful.


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