Critical Thinking as Purposeful Questions

Can we improve on the current noise of college rating systems masquerading as a useful signal for college applicants?

What role should university faculty, administrators, and student affairs personnel play in influencing choices about which college to attend? 

Two immediate stimuli propelled this post. 

  1. 5 days ago Youngstown State University named the former head football coach at Ohio State as its 9th President,  That decision might seem to an outsider like placing a dentist in charge of a the Kentucky men's basketball program. But that response would reveal a lack of understanding about both what a modern public university typically is and how desperate those institutions are to raise private money to stay afloat. As sad as the choice may make some of us with particular educational values, I think the decision makes perfect sense.  Football, publicity, happy alumni, and the promise of a flood of money---are all consistent with the implicit agreement among students with few academic aspirations, sports-minded alumni, and faculty whose career ascendancy is tied to hours and hours of solitary research to ignore the mental development of undergraduates, except insofar as the curriculum can accurately promise future employment at a middle class wage. No one in my experience has ever captured this portrayal of modern universities as effectively as Page Smith, whose KILLING THE SPIRIT:HIGHER EDUCATION IN AMERICA possesses an uncommon credibility flowing from his extensive experience as a scholar and university president and his evident yearning to provide mental growth to undergraduates.
  2. I was agitated for days about a recent discussion about the complexity of a governmental rating system for colleges--one with the objective of avoiding the waste of public money spent on "worthless degrees" and "low rates of graduation." While I do not think people in universities, whether they be administrators or faculty, should be relied on to evaluate themselves, the ease with which a regulator can say "worthless degree" and assume that graduating from college has any clear or useful meaning is chilling to consider. BUT, universities have demonstrated over and over that they are no more reliable than anyone else who is trying to market a product. The college impact studies that buttress their spurious claims about the positive effect of college attendance are exactly what one would expect as a research product from those with a strong vested interest in tooting their collective horns. For almost 50 years now I have listened to faculty and administrators make shameful claims to entice undergraduates to enroll at their campus or choose their department as a major--statements that meet almost none of the standards those same "authorities" would expect in a scholarly article. Harry Rosenfield's brilliant article in the ANTIOCH REVIEW provides all the warning we should need to never allow university personnel to evaluate their own work if we desire that work to be guided by social welfare. Consult with experts every chance you get, but not about how to organize their activities in a manner that will benefit the public. Expertise does not  develop such that egocentric behavior evaporates at the same rate.

Of course, multiple people want divergent things from the university experience.  Another important caveat to what I am about to say is that elite colleges and universities can organize their curriculum and pedagogy almost any way they like, and they will continue to flourish. But the proportion of elite institutions is very small. If there is anything resembling preparation for a robust Jeffersonian democracy it is most common in (1)institutions like elite schools where the vocational needs of students are fulfilled less by the skills acquired and more by the reputational gloss provided by attending one of those schools and (2) in the classrooms of the few teachers at any college who resist the anti-intellectualism of the general culture and all too often the administrations of the schools where those faculty attempt to take students to a place beyond where the students think they wish to go.

However, I wonder whether it is not possible to establish some relatively simple and generally popular criteria that could ,be reliably assessed by outside rating systems, either public or private. These criteria could unite most parents, students, and governmental officials concerned about lack of accountability in universities. I would guess that most university faculty would resist because complying with these criteria would threaten their habits, their wishful thinking, and the social reproduction processes that have taught them how a university professor should think and act.

University administrators will generally favor what I am about to propose IF the triumvirate I linked above is as supportive as I anticipate they will be.

I know I am promising an unimaginably positive answer to the question that I proposed as the headline for this post. And I am going to tease you. I invite you to think about whether you could suggest sensible criteria.  Or maybe you think we have them now, although I would be shocked to learn of their existence. I will provide my suggestion in a later post.  I suppose I am being foolhardy in what I am about to propose. Perhaps, another week of my thinking about my criteria will calm my hubris.

Is our country so divided about the purpose of higher education that the idea of sensible criteria for rating colleges is foolhardy on its face?

Does liberal education have any future outside elite institutions? In other words, in a public university setting where a football coach or a corporate leader or a clever, hard-working social climber with a PhD is a logical choice for a college presidency, where is the space for a curriculum focusing on breadth of understanding and skills of synthesis and evaluation? 

AuthorM Neil Browne