Critical Thinking as Purposeful Questions

university graduates.jpg

What do these celebrants believe their degree has provided them?

Is there any common ground between what employers seek and university faculty and the few administrators who support liberal education wish to provide? 

I will, as promised, suggest in a later post a set of criteria by which to rate colleges and universities that I think would gain widespread support among the mass of students, legislators, parents, and faculty supportive of liberal education. If I am correct, no one will be entirely pleased; indeed, what I will describe is certainly not my ideal. Instead, it would move all the parties listed above much farther toward their ideal than what exists now. So I see what I will suggest as pragmatic, not wonderful.

This post is an unintended intermediate post stimulated by the many personal notes I received in response to my first post about rating colleges. The posts came from many relevant groups---employers, dispirited grandparents, recent graduates, faculty, and a few lonely administrators who share the dyspepsia I and my respondents feel toward the modern post-secondary education system. As I read the various responses, what struck me was the negativity the respondents felt toward the possibility of improving a university system for which they had such low regard. What was so hopeful about the responses was that all love the idea of a university education but only IN THE ABSTRACT. They and I want universities to be so much more than they are.

I thought I would save you the time of reading my 3rd forthcoming post about rating colleges and universities by listing my assumptions. Should you find them disappointing, you certainly will not approve of any rating system I would suggest.

  • Wishful thinking is a major source of disagreement about rating colleges and universities. Because the objective of universities is so inchoate, those who think about the purpose of higher education are then free to let their imaginations roam, creating pictures of universities that never were and never will be. When hopes are outlandish, they become an obstacle to improvement. Consequently, many of us need to reassess the possible, not with an eye to surrender, but with a clear vision of how to improve a recalcitrant institution.
  • John Rawls was on the right track when he urged us to try to draw down the veil of ignorance when making complex decisions where diverse interests are in conflict. Consequently, just as in a court of law, those with a vested interest in the status quo for modern colleges and universities can be listened to with respect, but their credibility is prima facie weak. None of us can forget the baggage we bring to deciding what colleges and universities should be like, but we certainly can make the effort. We all have histories and aspirations, but humans are not so pathetic that we cannot acknowledge differences in background and needs and try to ask "what would benefit our young people and subsequently our larger community?"
  • Elite colleges and universities operate in their own separate sphere. Whether someone should value what those elite schools provide (and there are legitimate reasons why such schools should be avoided) is beyond the scope of the questions being discussed here. BUT non-elite schools should stop trying to imitate elite schools. Non-elite institutions (and yes, a school like Miami U. or Grinnell College is in the penumbra of the elite schools.) should stop trying to play a game that they will never be able to play well and instead, create a useful activity for themselves. Rating those institutions requires a different yardstick than should be applied to Oklahoma State or even monstrously large schools like Ohio State University.
  • No valuable system of rating colleges and universities will lack loud opposition. That opposition should be anticipated and marginalized to the extent that their immense power in the existing arrangement of higher education can be seen for the failed and entrenched bureaucracy that it is. My suggestion will be a direct affront to existing top executives of higher education institutions who are often heard saying that their goal as an administrator is to move the school they lead up several steps in  ________ ( Fill in the blank here with whatever rating system is the putative contemporary repository of  rating wisdom.) In other words, they typically substitute (1) moving up in a rating system governed by an algorithm that few of them even understand for (2) academic vision. In addition, research faculty at non-elite schools will no doubt be catatonic were they to hear my criteria. Speaking of wishful thinking, they tend to dream of becoming a faculty member at an elite institution, and what I will suggest would make that possibility even more remote than it currently is.
  • Students, parents, legislators, and the vast majority of journalists who write about the purpose of higher education have a clear and common objective for higher education. That common objective is preparation for employment in a position that will guarantee at least a middle-class existence. (I started to put a link to the evidence I had gathered for this proposition, but do I really need evidence for that claim? The link would have been longer than the post, and I hardly scratched the surface.)  This objective is opposed covertly by those of us who love the ideas of "the examined life" or "Jeffersonian democracy" or "learning to see oneself as a citizen of the world." The opposition is often benign on the surface; faculty tell students that employers want liberally educated workers. And there are just enough anecdotal statements to that effect from CEO's that faculty can self-deceive that such promises are generally valid. ------ The fruits of liberal education are not what those throwing their mortar boards in the air in the opening picture had in mind when they came to college. AND there is precious little evidence that any but a few students possess any more loyalty to those ideas when they leave the university than when they entered. Those few are huge in the minds of faculty whose life purpose is often tied to the illusion that large numbers of students learn to become lifelong learners while in college. Consequently, I assume that those who like me are beguiled by liberal education as the purpose of the university should desist in quite a bit of our behavior. We have no right to shanghai institutions to meet our objectives. College students need to be prepared for the kinds of occupations that bring them to school in the first place. 
  • Just as we do not all want the same kinds of automobiles, it is silly to have a single rating system for all colleges and universities. I have already suggested that elite and non-elite schools are operating in incommensurable domains. Comparing them makes little sense. I can hear the yelps of anger from people at non-elite schools, but comparing Usain Bolt's talent at 100 meters to that of  an all-district high school sprinter is ludicrous, regardless of how much the high school hero wishes to be at Usain Bolt's level. There is at least one other distinct category of schools that I could envision would need its own distinct rating criteria. If there are other professions like law for whom a liberal education is the optimal preparation for later professional education, then a separate category of non-elite liberal arts colleges would require a distinct set of rating criteria. 
  • The mass of faculty at non-elite schools should be praised when they write scholarly materials, but they should never be pressured to do so. The next time someone says that "the production of knowledge is essential to being a good teacher.", I wish everyone within earshot would shout:  Evidence, please?  And while you are at it, why would you want someone to write when they have nothing they wish to say? And do please explain how one can learn about teaching and learning at the same time that one is producing "knowledge"?  In addition, if there is no conflict between teaching and research, why are office hours at non-elite universities so frequently 9-11 M and W and by appointment?  And if knowledge production by the mass of faculty so important for our society, why  do faculty openly bemoan the lack of attention others pay to their new  output of "knowledge."

It pains me a lot to say what I will say in my next post.  Wishful thinking is so comforting. I do not even know whether I would wish to have had a career as a professor under the regime I am going to suggest.  PAUSE    Yes, I think I would.  Then my career would not take place in what I now believe have been layers of self-serving dreams and false claims made to the public.

Would all the modern furor about the purpose, cost, and output of higher education have never been heard with anything like its current volume were the U.S. not in economic trouble?

Would a field trip in which Americans observed the typical college classroom not convince them within a few minutes that we are wasting a huge amount of money and prospective talent by continuing the system we now have? 

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AuthorM Neil Browne