Sidney Hook’s theory of education in a democracy

Philosopher Sidney Hook is best remembered for his debates with other philosophers and engaged political figures about Marxism and Communism (link). My interest here is in a different part of his work after World War II, his philosophy of education. Hook was a student of John Dewey, the author of Democracy and Education, but ultimately Hook had more to say about what educational values ought to guide a modern university than did Dewey. Much of Hook’s theory was expressed in Education for Modern Man, published in 1946 and republished and extended in 1963. The book has a striking degree of relevance today in the context of debates over curriculum both inside universities and outside. What is the value of a liberal education? Is a “Great Books” curriculum a good basis for a liberal education in a democracy? How should the content of a liberal education be made compatible with “education for a career”? And what ideas are out of bounds within a university classroom? Hook had trenchant answers to all of these questions. (Here is an earlier post on the question of how to define the goals of a liberal education; link.)

Let’s begin with Hook’s assessment of the state of liberal education in post-World War II America.

Whatever a liberal education is, few American colleges offer it. Despite the well advertised curricular reforms in a few of our leading colleges, by and large the colleges of the country present a confused picture of decayed classical curriculums, miscellaneous social science offerings, and narrowing vocational programs — the whole unplanned and unchecked by leading ideas. What one finds in most colleges cannot be explained in terms of a consciously held philosophy of education, but rather through the process of historical accretion. The curriculum of a typical college is like a series of wandering and intersecting corridors opening on rooms of the most divergent character. Even the cellar and attic are not where one expects to find them. (4)

Hook proposes that educators need to think more carefully about the purpose and goals of a college education.

The discussion will revolve around four generic questions:

  1. What should the aims or ends of education be, and how should we determine them?
  2. What should its skills and content be, and how can they be justified?
  3. By what methods and materials can the proper educational skills and content be most effectively communicated in order to achieve the desirable ends?
  4. How are the ends and means of education related to a democratic social order?

A satisfactory answer to these questions should provide a satisfactory answer to the problem of what constitutes a liberal education in modern times. (6)

He unpacks these questions around a statement of seven fundamental “learning goals” for a university education:

  1. Education should aim to develop the powers of critical, independent thought.
  2. It should attempt to induce sensitiveness of perception, significantly associated with the different receptiveness to new ideas, imaginative sympathy with the experiences of others.
  3. It should produce an awareness of the main streams of our cultural, literary, and scientific traditions.
  4. It should make available important bodies of knowledge concerning nature, society, ourselves, our country, and its history.
  5. It should strive to cultivate an intelligent loyalty to the ideals of the democratic community and to deepen understanding of the heritage of freedom and the prospects of its survival.
  6. At some level, it should equip young men and women with the general skills and techniques and the specialized knowledge which, together with the virtues and aptitudes already mentioned, will make it possible for them to do some productive work related to their capacities and interests.
  7. It should strengthen those inner resources and traits of character which enable the individual, when necessary, to stand alone. (55)

Each of these goals is noteworthy. Goals 3 and 4 are “content” goals concerning the kinds of knowledge that graduates need to have gained in order to be able to confront the personal and social challenges that lie in their future. Goal 6 recognizes and endorses the idea that the graduate needs to be prepared for productive work and career. Goals 1 and 7 concern the qualities of character we can hope for in our graduates: independence of mind and courage of their convictions. Goals 2 and 5 are specifically important for “education for democracy”: cultivation of the skills of understanding and accepting difference (racial, religious, economic), and cultivation of loyalty to the institutions of democracy and freedom. (Hook specifically calls out the fact that Weimar-educated engineering and technical students were among Hitler’s strongest supporters; 24-25.)

An important goal in Hook’s account (goal 2) is preparation of the student for a diverse world of different people, different religions, and different races. Hook describes the goal:

The existence of democratic communities in which individuals of conflicting religious faiths and metaphysical beliefs sincerely co-operate in democracy’s support indicates that it is possible to find criteria for accepting democracy that do not depend on revelation or intuition. (62)

In our language today, we might say that Hook in interested in education for inclusiveness in a pluralistic society. How can we go about that task, in Hook’s view? Part of his answer is the experience of thinking imaginatively about the human experience of others, and this means cultivating the skills of empathy and compassion.

What does it mean to think about a play, or about a poem, or about people? It means also to feel, to imagine, to conjure up a vision. Not only that but also that. Why is it that we often say to some thoughtless person, “Put yourself in his place”? To another, “You haven’t got the feel or the hang of it”? To a third, “You understand everything about the situation except what really matters”? We do not convey truths by this way of speaking, but we help others to find the truth. (27)

Here the idea is the importance of helping the student to gain the cognitive-emotional capacities of “understanding the other person’s experience”, or empathy. And this can be part of many aspects of a university experience, from reading history to studying and experiencing art, poetry, and drama. (In this way Hook seems to anticipate Martha Nussbaum’s arguments in Cultivating Humanity.)

And then there is the question of “relevance” versus “traditional civilizational texts and values”. Hook thinks this is a false dichotomy. He entirely endorses the idea that a college education should prepare the student to think critically and courageously about the most important problems that confront him or her at the present; so involvement in contemporary issues and problems is important (relevance). But he also believes that the history of human texts — Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe — can provide the student with some of the resources of imagination and understanding that are necessary for this task (119 ff.). Consider his view of what a student needs in order to come to grips with fascism or totalitarianism:

Let us examine some concrete illustrations of contemporary problems and issues, so despised by traditionalists, in order to see what would be involved in their adequate understanding. Nothing is more contemporary than present-day totalitarianism in its various forms. Can its nature be understood without a social and economic analysis of capitalism and its periodic cycles? Can we come to grips with its rationalizations, and understand our own minds in relation to it, without some study of the ideas of men like Chamberlain, Nietzsche, Hegel, Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, Aquinas, Aristotle, and Plato? Can theories of race and racial supremacy be exposed without a sound knowledge of biology and some familiarity with the elements of scientific method? Can an intelligent analysis be made of proposals that the West disarm unilaterally in the belief that the Soviet Union will follow suit, without a study of the pacts and treaties previously entered into by the Kremlin and the score of their fulfillment? (124)

In other words, a broad and deep exposure to history, literature, social science, natural science, and philosophy is highly “relevant” to the problems associated with confronting totalitarianism.

Hook is most assuredly a harsh critic of the “Great Books” theory of college curriculum (St. Johns College, Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler). His objection is not to “dry-as-dust” old books; rather, it is an objection to the dogma that the books speak for themselves, and that there is no need to try to connect the insights of these authors to the problems of the present and the recent past. This is to make a fetish of the “monuments” of Western civilization.

Hook also argues for the importance of knowledge of “social studies” — the basics of economics, sociology, political science — for every student, because these areas of knowledge provide the context for events, crises, and problems that arise in every profession and every period of history.

The knowledge and insight that the social studies can give are necessary for every student because no matter what his specialized pursuits may later be, the extent to which he can follow them, and the “contextual” developments within these fields, depend upon the total social situation of which they are in some sense a part. An engineer today whose knowledge is restricted only to technical matters of engineering, or a physician whose competence extends only to the subject matter of traditional medical training, is ill-prepared to plan intelligently for a life-career or to understand the basic problems that face his profession. (140)

This is a prescient point, and the examples of engineering and medicine are especially important. (Think of the moral and social complexities of facial recognition technologies.) The liberally educated engineer or physician is much better prepared to confront the social and moral complexities of their work than the physician who pursued the bare minimum of “distribution courses” in a race to get to an engineering graduate program or medical school.

This point has to do with a graduate’s readiness for his or her professional responsibilities. But Hook observes that one’s responsibilities as a citizen within a democracy have even greater need for a basic understanding of the social processes that surround government, the economy, social inequalities, racism, or health disparities. It is impossible to engage fully and productively in the affairs of a democracy if one has no understanding of how social and economic processes work.

And now we come to the role of values within a college curriculum. Hook believes that there are a range of “civic” values that universities must help students attain — respect for others, devotion to the rule of law, commitment to democracy — which means that a college education is not fundamentally value-free. Universities do indeed need to convey values to their students. But these are civic values — the values that are necessary for a democracy to thrive.

Finally, to teach values means to develop within students a willingness to commit themselves to new values, and to reaffirm or to reject the values to which they find themselves previously committed. When this is done after the value alternatives which are being excluded have been presented, then it can be said we are teaching that some values are better than others. (178)

This is not dogmatism or a doctrinaire approach to values education; it is couched in terms of critical thinking and reflection. But its goal is to reinforce the stability of a democracy — a condition that Hook knew only too well could not be taken for granted.

Hook’s philosophy of education, formulated as it was in the late 1940s, is remarkably relevant to the current challenges that universities face in providing their students with the tools they will need to be independent thinkers, effective professionals, and committed citizens. Much better it would be to have this conversation with Sidney Hook and John Dewey than with Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott.

Learning and engagement

John Dewey’s Democracy and Education is over a century old. But it still seems strikingly modern, even avant-garde, when compared to many pedagogical practices currently in place in both secondary and post-secondary schools. Here is one line of thought that is especially insightful: that learning is a constructive and active process for the learner, not a question of passive acquisition of “knowledge”. Learning involves acquiring new ideas, new perspectives, and new questions for oneself. And these processes require an engagement on the part of the learner that is as active and creative as is the learning done by a basketball player with a great coach. A good teacher is one who can motivate and stimulate the student to taking this journey — not one who can supply a full menu of pre-established solutions to the student.

Here is a particularly rich description of Dewey’s conception of learning and the relationship between teacher and student. He formulates his thinking about the learning that children do; but I find the passage entirely applicable to university students as well.

The joy which children themselves experience is the joy of intellectual constructiveness—of creativeness, if the word may be used without misunderstanding. The educational moral I am chiefly concerned to draw is not, however, that teachers would find their own work less of a grind and strain if school conditions favored learning in the sense of discovery and not in that of storing away what others pour into them; nor that it would be possible to give even children and youth the delights of personal intellectual productiveness—true and important as are these things. It is that no thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another. When it is told, it is, to the one to whom it is told, another given fact, not an idea. The communication may stimulate the other person to realize the question for himself and to think out a like idea, or it may smother his intellectual interest and suppress his dawning effort at thought. But what he directly gets cannot be an idea. Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at first hand, seeking and finding his own way out, does he think. When the parent or teacher has provided the conditions which stimulate thinking and has taken a sympathetic attitude toward the activities of the learner by entering into a common or conjoint experience, all has been done which a second party can do to instigate learning. The rest lies with the one directly concerned. If he cannot devise his own solution (not of course in isolation, but in correspondence with the teacher and other pupils) and find his own way out he will not learn, not even if he can recite some correct answer with one hundred per cent accuracy. We can and do supply ready-made “ideas” by the thousand; we do not usually take much pains to see that the one learning engages in significant situations where his own activities generate, support, and clinch ideas—that is, perceived meanings or connections. This does not mean that the teacher is to stand off and look on; the alternative to furnishing ready-made subject matter and listening to the accuracy with which it is reproduced is not quiescence, but participation, sharing, in an activity. In such shared activity, the teacher is a learner, and the learner is, without knowing it, a teacher—and upon the whole, the less consciousness there is, on either side, of either giving or receiving instruction, the better. (chapter 12, kl 2567)

What is this process that Dewey is describing, this process of active “learning” on the part of the student? It is one in which the student is led to “engage in significant situations where his own activities generate, support, and clinch ideas”; it is a situation of active grappling with a problem that the student does not yet fully understand; it is a situation in which the student develops new cognitive tools, frameworks, and questions through the active and engaged mental struggle she has willingly undertaken. She has grown intellectually; she has the excitement of realizing that her perspective and understanding of something important has changed and deepened. The language of gestalt psychology is suggestive here — the sudden shift of a set of lines on paper into a representation of a smiling face, the rearrangement of one’s thought processes so a confusing set of words and ideas suddenly make sense. It is something like what Kuhn describes as a paradigm shift, except that it is a continual process of intellectual change.

What does Dewey mean here by saying that an idea cannot be conveyed from one person to another? He does not doubt that words, sentences, and paragraphs can be shared, or that the student cannot incorporate those words into sentences. But his key point is profound: knowledge and understanding require more than understanding the grammar of a sentence; instead, the student needs to have an intellectual framework about the question in play and an active inquiring mental curiosity in terms of which he or she “thinks” the idea for herself. I do not understand entropy if I simply parrot the definition of the word; rather, I need a framework of ideas about gases, random motion, kinetic energy, and statistical mechanics within the context of which I can give “entropy” a conceptual place.

Anyone who teaches philosophy to undergraduates must be especially receptive to this challenge. The task, somehow, is to help the student make the problem her own — to see why it is perplexing, to want to dig into it, to be eager to discover new angles on it, to see how it relates to other complicated issues. So in teaching Kant or Arendt, the goal is not to get the student to memorize the list of the antinomies of reason or the three versions of the categorical imperative, or precisely what is meant by “the banality of evil”. Rather, it is to help the student to discover the problem that Kant or Arendt was grappling with, why it was important, why it is difficult, and maybe how it can be solved in a different way. 

The student needs somehow to put himself or herself into the mindset of a person on a journey of discovery, creating his or her own conceptual structures and questions about the terrain, without falling into the complacency of thinking she is simply a tourist with an excellent guide. And, after all, if there is nothing new to think about Aristotle or Nussbaum, then what is the purpose of studying them in the first place? Why would it matter to a student that she has read the Nichomachean Ethics cover to cover if she hasn’t somehow been stimulated through her own efforts of imagination and discovery to think new and original thoughts?

This insight into the learning process is evident in philosophy, but surely it must be essentially the same kind of challenge in teaching literature, sociological theory, thermodynamics, or even advanced accounting. When I read Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare — or when I hear him lecture on “racial memory” of Vilnius — I am stimulated to new thinking, new ideas of my own, and a striking lack of interest on Greenblatt’s part in being an “authority”. Greenblatt somehow succeeds in creating a Dewey-like learning environment, both in his writing and in his teaching.

The past year of teaching courses in a synchronous hybrid online mode, preparing lectures for asynchronous use and using Zoom meetings for class discussions, has brought this set of challenges to the top of mind for me. What kinds of “prompts”, questions, topics for discussion, and asynchronous exercises can I use to help students in these courses develop the appetite for taking the intellectual journey themselves? And how can the instructor help the student see that this is an activity of imagination and thinking that she herself wants to involve herself in? How can the instructor help the student to shift perspective from “learning the content of a course about Greek ethics from the professor” to “working my way through some fascinating texts in Greek ethics, seeing some new perspectives, and getting occasional stimulating questions from my professor”? The first is the tourist’s perspective, while the second is the explorer’s perspective.

In a way, we might say that the role of the teacher that Dewey describes is like that performed by Socrates: posing questions — perhaps irritating and persistent questions — but provoking those around him to think much harder about “justice”, “piety”, and “good manners”, and not providing a substantive doctrine of his own. Socrates was sometimes criticized for suggesting that no substantive beliefs about morality could be justified, but that was not his pedagogy. Rather, his commitment was to the idea of hard thinking without pat answers. And one would like to imagine that some of his students eventually came to develop rich, imaginative, and non-dogmatic minds that allowed them to probe new questions and create new solutions. (It is interesting to reflect that Plato was one of those students, and Aristotle was a student of Plato. I think historians of philosophy would judge that both Plato and Aristotle were highly original thinkers, but that Plato’s approach was somewhat more dogmatic, while Aristotle’s was more open-minded and experimental.)

Youth service and America’s progress


Several hundred leaders from around the country convened this week in Washington, D.C. to participate in the 2015 City Year National Leadership Summit. City Year is a national youth service organization with a focused and ambitious mission: to harness the talents of young people in service towards the goal of solving the nation’s dropout crisis. Currently there are more than 2,800 young people serving on teams of 8-10 in some of our country’s most difficult schools, focused on helping disadvantaged students stay in school and on track.

Making use of educational research conducted by scholars like Robert Balfanz at Johns Hopkins Center for the Social Organization of Schools, the City Year strategy is designed around a simple concept: using near-peers to help students overcome deficiencies of attendance, behavior, and course work so they have a high probability of graduating from high school. There is good quasi-experimental data to show that the intervention works. Some results of the signature “Diplomas Now” program are provided in the graphic below.

So the challenge is scale: is it possible to expand the scope of City Year’s activities around the country so that the majority of our country’s “dropout factories” have been addressed? The scale goals City Year has adopted are challenging but attainable: 80% of students in City Year schools will reach 10th grade on track for graduation; City Year will reach 50% of at-risk students in its communities; and City Year will expand nationally to serve the cities that account for 67% of the nation’s urban dropouts.

In order to reach the scale goal it is estimated that the national City Year corps needs to increase to 10,000 young people in roughly fifty cities — an ambitious goal substantially beyond the current level of 2,800 members in 26 cities. So the number of cities served by the organization needs to grow, and the number of schools served in each city needs to expand. And the key obstacle to reaching this goal is money. The “all-in” cost of supporting one corps member is roughly $40,000 per year. So to support a corps of 100 in a city like San Antonio or Cleveland, the local organization needs to raise about $4 million per year. Ideally there are four sources of support, roughly equal in magnitude: Americorps funds, local school funds, corporate sponsorships, and private gifts. This means the local organization needs to raise about three million dollars a year in local funds (schools, corporations, and individuals), with one million dollars in support from Americorps. And to get to scale, this goes up to about nine million dollars for cities like Detroit.

Dropout prevention through programs like City Year has a large return on investment. Throughout the summit City Year leaders and Federal and local education officials estimated that the return on keeping a student in school through graduation is roughly four times the cost of the programs that do it. So dropout prevention is a fantastic investment for society. But it requires public and private will to allocate the dollars necessary to achieve the goal.
This is a movement and a national organization that is making serious, meaningful progress towards solving one of America’s most pressing problems, the failure of high-poverty schools. This situation creates one of the most enduring forms of inequality of opportunity our country faces, and it disproportionately impacts low income young people of color. 
The City Year organization continues to expand the impact and scope of its program of national service for young people. City Year announced the startup of its 27th city in the United States, Dallas. Corps members in Dallas will begin having the impact on children in poverty in Dallas that their counterparts have in cities around the country.

What is genuinely appealing about the City Year effort over the past twenty-six years is its pragmatic idealism. This is the best example I know of where a grassroots organization has transformed itself into a powerful force for progress nation-wide. And the values that hold the organization together, from the national staff in Boston to the site leaders to the 2,800 corps members, are positive, democratic, and inclusive. This is the foundation for a better America.


Or as City Year says to the young people of America, “Give a year, change the world!”

Here are a couple of thoughtful books on national service and Americorps as vectors of social progress:

(Policy Studies Association is a research and consulting organization that has done a good deal of program assessment for City Year; link.)


Change in higher education


There are a couple of former university presidents whose opinions seem particularly insightful on the subject of the strengths and weaknesses of universities today. One is Michael McPherson, formerly president of Macalester College and author (with Morton Schapiro) of The Student Aid Game. Another is Bill Bowen, formerly president of Princeton and author of Higher Education in the Digital Age. And a third is Derek Bok, twice president of Harvard and author of Higher Education in America. Each of these thinkers and leaders has given serious, reflective, empirical study to the complex of institutions that make up American higher education. And each has had the concrete and challenging experience of leading a college or university through important changes. Given that being able to maintain superlative university education for the broadest spectrum of our young people is critical for our economic and global future, it is worth thinking hard about their assessments. (Another voice I’ve admired on these topics for many years is that of Martha Nussbaum, whose Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities and Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education shed welcome light on the curricular side of the issue.)

Derek Bok’s Higher Education in America appeared a few months ago, and presents over 400 pages of description, analysis, and temperate criticism of American colleges and universities today. (It would have been useful if he had provided a short policy companion, pulling out central concerns and key recommendations for reform, keyed to the full text.) The book includes treatments of research universities, community colleges, public comprehensive universities, private liberal arts colleges, for-profit schools, and professional schools (medicine, law, business).

One point that Bok understands very well is that each college or university is an institution in the technical sense — a set of governance rules, power blocs, constituencies, leaders, and missions and goals. The overall effectiveness of the college or university is the net product of the workings of these various factors, and it is valuable to try to uncover some of their system properties. Do systems of published student evaluations of teaching push faculty towards grade inflation? Do formal rules of faculty governance obstruct needed processes of internal reform? Do presidents and senior administrative officers have built-in incentives to create administrative bloat and mission creep? Do faculty prefer lecturing because it is a time-saver?

Here I referred to “overall effectiveness” as if we knew what that was for a university. But because universities serve a plurality of goals, it is difficult to define “overall effectiveness”. Universities want to support strong and well funded research, provide effective undergraduate and graduate education, play a positive role in regional or national economic development, satisfy elected officials, and raise funds. Are there unavoidable tradeoffs among these goals? If so, how do we make good decisions about how to balance efforts across the various goals? Or is it better to compartmentalize goals by units of effort, asking a dean to optimize undergraduate education in her college and asking the vice president for research to optimize research activities? Or perhaps even worse — should we allow certain goals to coast on auto-pilot while actively striving across units to improve performance on another goal? (Some universities give the impression that they’ve made that choice when it comes to the goals of improving undergraduate education and furthering the research activities of the university.)

This is where the expertise and experience of people like Michael McPherson, Bill Bowen, and Derek Bok come into particular importance. They have been at the center of these kinds of institutional ensembles and have gained important practical insights into what works and what doesn’t when it comes to leading a process of change in a university. And they each take the approach that this is a complex empirical process and must be studied using appropriate tools of empirical investigation.

One theme that I found particularly useful in Higher Education in Americais Bok’s treatment of undergraduate education and curriculum. Bok underlines the value of a broad university education at every level — for the individual, for the business who hires him or her, and for the society.

According to employment experts Anthony Carnevale and Donna Desrochers, companies find that graduates who have completed a broader, more traditional program tend to adapt more easily to changes in the nature and skill requirements of their jobs and to be more “trainable” for evolving occupational demands than those who have received a narrower vocational training. (169)

So the idea that an undergraduate education should have breadth across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities finds support in some of the empirical research that Bok cites. And Bok finds broad consensus among university faculties about the most general intellectual skills that need to be cultivated by a university education: critical thinking, capacity for self-directed learning, mastering knowledge in a discipline, and developing ability to write and communicate clearly (167). Along with these skills there is broad consensus as well about fostering tolerance, developing creative abilities, improving racial understanding, and developing moral character.

So how well does the typical university curriculum do in fostering these skills? Bok finds that there is empirical research on this topic, and it supports the conclusion that students typically make measurable progress with regard to core learning goals through their undergraduate years. Here is a summary table from Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research: 2 (Bok, 179).

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This table (measured in terms of standard deviations in achievement exam scores) indicates progress. But as Bok points out, it is reasonable to hope that we might do a lot better than this. Take critical thinking — the data indicate a half of a standard deviation improvement in this skill from freshman to senior. This means that the individual who scored at the 50th percentile as a freshman would score at the 67th percentile if he/she took the same test in the field of similar freshman students. (Other areas show more progress, it should be noted.) It is Bok’s view that this is a relatively modest improvement, and this seems right. (Of course it must be noted that these results are aggregated over many institutions, with students of varying levels of proficiency and ability at the freshman level. So it is possible that the same measurement performed at, say, Berkeley, would lead to stronger results and performed at XYZ university would lead to worse results.)

What this suggests is that university faculty and administrators — deans, provosts, directors — should be paying a lot of attention to the best available ways of measuring progress in key intellectual skills, and equally they should be paying attention to curricular and pedagogical innovations that can improve attainment. If lecturing about the fundamentals of organic chemistry can be shown to be less effective than small-group interactive discussion, reading, and experimenting, then surely faculty and administrators need to find ways of modifying the classroom experience so that the more effective approach is taken. Put it another way: the learning and teaching experience in a university is a complex amalgam of faculty, students, curriculum, prevailing pedagogical approaches, and assessment tools. We should be working intelligently to understand each component of this system with an eye to improving the overall results.

Here is an interesting example in physics teaching that Bok cites:

Two professors of physics, Ibrahim Halloun and David Hestenes, gave a striking illustration of the drawbacks of lecturing after they began to suspect that students in their introductory course did not really understand the basic principles of physics covered in class. Instead of putting their suspicions aside — as professors often do when temporarily assailed by dark thoughts about their teaching — they devised a test consisting of problems students could easily solve if they truly understood the basic concepts. They then gave the test to students prior to the first class. Since the course had not yet begun, the results were naturally abysmal. At the end of the course, however, when students should have mastered the basic concepts, the instructors gave the same test again. The results showed virtually no improvement. The students could recite the concepts, but they did not understand them well enough to apply them even to simple problems that differed from those taken up in class. (188)

Bok then describes the changes that these physics professors introduced into their teaching to improve their students’ basic understanding of the physical principles. One such change aligns with the idea of “engaged learners”: “Rather than lecture extensively, they should spend much of the time in class having students grapple with problems raised by their readings. In many subjects, students will gain more from such exercises if they work in groups where those having trouble grasping a concept or solving a problem can get help from fellow students” (189). This in turn dovetails with the idea that is emerging in the digital learning context of the “flipped” classroom: lectures and demonstrations are relegated to multimedia materials on the web that students are required to study, and the classroom is reserved for discussion, problem solving, and active engagement with the principles involved in the online materials.

There is a great deal more of interest in Higher Education in America — on medical education, on business curricula, on faculty governance, on presidential leadership, and on the challenges and necessity of change within universities in the current environment. The book is worth reading carefully by faculty leaders and university administrators as they make their best efforts to enhance the educational effectiveness of their programs.


Urban futures

I recently spent a half day visiting Detroit with some very perceptive university colleagues. We visited the university’s center on Woodward Avenue, the Riverfront Conservancy, and the Madison Building — all places where exciting signs of change are underway. Along the way we heard a lot of enthusiasm about the progress Detroit is making: more professional jobs downtown, residential and commercial real estate at 95%+ occupancy, entrepreneurial companies, $75 million invested in a spectacular river walk along the Detroit River, some very talented high school students coming out of several of Detroit’s best high schools.

The most common reaction in the group to what we saw was a positive one. Detroit is better off than the media portrays it. There are powerful processes of renewal underway that will change the future of the city for all its inhabitants for the better. The reinfusion of businesses and middle-class residents will improve the tax base and the city’s fiscal sustainability. And somehow these benefits will trickle out to the neighborhoods.

Or not. Like others, several of us noticed that these developments in downtown Detroit (Campus Martius, the Woodward Corridor) have had very little effect on the neighborhoods where 80-90% of the city lives. The sports, arts, and dining destinations are great — but they don’t have much to do with Detroit’s blighted neighborhoods. Unemployed high school dropouts aren’t going to be offered jobs in the high tech startups.

So what is the future for the impoverished and undereducated youth of this city? The theory I was testing in my mind was Loic Wacqant’s concept in Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality of fundamental marginalization–a sub-population of people with no avenues of opportunity and no hope for the future (link). This view implies that the segregated urban enclaves of American cities like Chicago, Washington, or Detroit offer virtually no prospect of social mobility for the young men and women who grow up there. Is that too bleak? Does it overlook or underestimate pathways of mobility that can bring substantial improvement for life expectations for this community after all? Or is permanent impacted poverty and disaffection the more likely outcome?

I talked with two other participants in this visit who disagreed with the “permanent marginalization” view in interesting ways. Both of these people were African-American men who had grown up in metro Detroit. One, born in 1970, took issue with the youth-hopelessness part of the picture. His view is that Detroit is significantly different from Chicago (the city Wacquant studied most closely), because Detroit is a majority black city. So he thinks teenagers in Detroit have an optimism their counterparts in Chicago lack. He also thinks the lower residential density of Detroit is an advantage. Young people are less oppressed by racism because they are part of a population that governs the city. By contrast, he argues that the black population of Chicago looks at the city as a white city and they feel powerless. So urban despair is deeper in Chicago.

The other person in the conversation had what is in someways a view even bleaker than mine. He is a distinguished social scientist born in 1940. He too grew up in the Detroit metro area. He commented that the developers’ vision is really a picture of a white city. “This is a white vision of Detroit’s future.” He predicted that in 25 years the black population of Detroit will be largely gone, replaced by a more affluent white population. Wow!

One thing that came out of the evening is an intriguing idea: invite a group of Detroit 18-year-olds, some in high school and some dropouts, to have a conversation about the future of their neighborhoods and their city, and what they think about their own futures. These are the kinds of conversations Al Young reports in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances. This would shed some light on all the major theories of urban futures. And conversations like these would be an important reality check for people who think that there is a general process of improvement that is going to bring everyone up through some kind of hidden-hand process of market successes.

The “permanent marginalization” view is a dark one, but it is not passive. Rather, it undergirds the idea that the structures of race and segregation still present in our society have embodied enduring and intractable inequalities, and only deliberate, sustained, and committed efforts will allow us to resolve these problems. Our cities need structural change and substantial public investment, deliberately aimed at breaking the circles of poverty, race, inferior education, and disaffection, and sustained over decades rather than years.

The developments we looked at during our visit are certainly important steps forward for the city. And the business leaders who are stimulating these developments are committed to improving Detroit’s future. But I’m not yet convinced that these developments can lead by themselves to the transformation of the lives of the whole population of the city, black and white, without other initiatives that are directly aimed at breaking down the barriers of race and poverty that imprison so many of Detroit’s young people.

(“Imprison” is probably the right word in this context, given the epidemic of incarceration our cities have witnessed in the past thirty years. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness documents the harm done to urban communities by the mass incarceration of young black men.)

Are there online solutions to rising college costs?

There are many, many voices offering observations and criticisms of universities in face of rising costs and tuitions. But none is more qualified than Bill Bowen to address these issues. He is the preeminent economist and analyst of the institutions of American universities, and he was a long-serving president of Princeton University. So it is a treat to read his recent set of Tanner lectures on this topic, Higher Education in the Digital Age. (The Kindle edition became available today; link.)

On the cost side, Bowen has a very clear and reasonable understanding of why university costs tend to rise more rapidly than inflation. Universities are very labor-intensive organizations, and the largest component of their workforce are highly skilled and nationally competitive faculty. But highly skilled professionals on university faculties are linked to employment markets outside of academia, and salaries in those external markets continue to rise healthily. To maintain excellence in research and teaching, universities need to increase compensation annually, and often at rates that are moderately higher than inflation. There are other cost drivers that Bowen doesn’t discussed — i.e. rising healthcare costs — but competition for the best faculty is key. (It is unfortunate that he uses the phrase “cost disease,” which implies that the rising cost structure in higher education is somehow a chronic failure within the sector, rather than an inherent feature of the nature of the work.)

Moreover, Bowen correctly notes that processes leading to productivity gain in other parts of the economy have not been possible in the teaching and research environment. Teaching undergraduates is a time-consuming activity for skilled professors, and reducing the time per student means lowering the quality of learning that occurs.

The basic idea is simple: in labor-intensive industries such as the performing arts and education, there is less opportunity than in other sectors to increase productivity by, for example, substituting capital for labor. (3)

Bowen quotes Robert Frank who observed that “it still takes four musicians nine minutes to perform Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4, just as it did in the nineteenth century” (4).

To be sure, universities need to continue to improve productivity in the routine business and management of the institution, and most universities have become very adept at this effort. But the compensation costs of maintaining a nationally competitive faculty generally outweigh these savings, so the cost of instruction per student continues to rise slightly ahead of inflation. (Bowen and others estimate this premium at about one percent; 4.)

Bowen also spends some effort on analyzing “productivity” in the context of universities. Some aspects of university outcomes are easily quantified — degrees awarded, time to degree, performance on standardized tests. But Bowen makes a key point when he observes that perhaps the most important outcome — educational quality — is not measurable; and yet leaders, faculty, and managers of universities must remain committed to maintaining and enhancing the quality of the education they provide. And quality has a cost. Bowen makes interesting use of a New England Journal of Medicine article on IT innovations and productivity; link.  Here is a relevant publication from the National Academy Press authored by Teresa Sullivan and others, Improving Measurement of Productivity in Higher Education (link).

In order to fundamentally change the cost structure of a university education, it would be necessary to do one of two possible things: either significantly increase the number of students for whom a single faculty member is responsible (greatly increasing the student-faculty ratio), or increase the number of lower-paid instructors whose job responsibilities are more limited than the current system (full responsibility of all details of a single course, research activity, participation in departmental affairs, …). Both of these pathways seem like significant steps away from the learning intimacy that Bowen extolls in the experience of a residential college. “Flipping the classroom” and maintaining or increasing the amount of faculty contact with students sounds like a great learning solution — but it doesn’t reduce costs.

What is most interesting about the book is the second lecture, “Prospects for an Online Fix.” Since many breathless voices have started to argue that online education and MOOCs are a breakthrough technology for universities and colleges that will render the traditional classroom obsolete, Bowen’s take on this question is an important one. His overall assessment is a measured one. He thinks that there is some reason to expect that blended pedagogy and curriculum may in fact be possible in ways that enhance learning and reduce the cost curve. But he also points out that there are only a limited number of rigorous studies of learning outcomes for online and face-to-face instruction, and these studies do not support a clear advantage for either modality. Essentially the most common findings are that learning outcomes are roughly similar in online and face-to-face classes. More importantly, though, he finds that there is very little rigorous research available to evaluate the possibility of cost savings through online instruction. And without significant (and growing) cost savings, the technology shift does not affect the cost curve.

So where does Bowen’s current cautious optimism about online and blended instruction come from? Several things seem to have influenced him since his Romanes Lecture at Oxford in 2000, which was significantly more dubious about the prospects for cost-reducing, effective online university instruction. One is the cluster of innovations in software-based quizzing, coaching, and tutoring that have occurred in the past ten years. Another is the finding of some studies that faculty and online course designers are beginning to get the hang of how to use the online medium to greater pedagogical effect than simply placing a traditional course online with existing materials and techniques. And a third, on the learning-outcomes side, is the educational payoff that may result from “flipping the classroom” — relieving the faculty member from lectures and using face-to-face time for discussion, coaching, and probing of learning quality.

The kinds of courses that are most frequently studied in research about online education are generally on the technical side of the curriculum: statistics, accounting, and calculus have been studied for learning outcomes by both approaches. We might imagine that entry-level courses in the sciences, engineering, and business might fall in the same general scope. But what about courses in humanities, human resources, marketing, ethnography, history, or sociology? Are there online pedagogies that would offer an effective base for learning in these fields? How can we be assured that the abstract cognitive and analytical skills associated with art history, philosophy, or computer design are actually being developed in the students who take these kinds of courses online?

Here is the vision that Bowen ultimately offers of the “university in the digital world”:

Can we imagine a university in which —

  • Faculty collaborate more on teaching (with technology serving as the forcing function)?
  • Faculty devote more of their time to promoting “active learning” by their students and are freed from much of the tedium of grading and even giving essentially the same lecture countless times?
  • Students receive more, and more timely, individualized feedback on assignments?
  • Instruction is guided by evidence drawn from massive amounts of data on how students learn, what mistakes students commonly make, and how misunderstandings underlying those mistakes can be corrected (“adaptive learning”)?
  • Technology is used to bring the perspectives of a more diverse student body onto its campus through its capacity to engage students from around the world?
  • Technology extends the educational process throughout one’s life through the educational equivalent of booster shots? And ideally:
  • A university in which institutional costs and tuition charges rise at a slower rate? (44)
And Bowen now seems to think that this favorable outcome is possible, using new tools available to faculty and academic leaders:

I am today a convert. I have come to believe that now is the time. Far greater access to the Internet, improvements in Internet speed, reductions in storage costs, the proliferation of increasingly sophisticated mobile devices, and other advances have combined with changing mindsets to suggest that online learning, in many of its manifestations, can lead to at least comparable learning outcomes relative to face-to-face instruction at lower-cost. (45)

What is surprising to me about Bowen’s current optimism is that it seems premature, given Bowen’s own commitment to rigorous measures of quality and costs. As he points out repeatedly in the lecture, the high-quality studies of educational effectiveness are not yet available in sufficient volume to permit confident conclusions; and studies of the cost structure of online and blended instruction are even less detailed.

But more concerning is the issue of defining more adequately the kinds of intellectual and social maturation we most want to stimulate with an undergraduate education, and whether the pedagogies that emerge in online education are effective in creating those forms of development. It is one thing to help a student learn the central doctrines of Descartes, Hume, and Kant as a list of propositions; it is quite another to help him or her to think critically, creatively, empathetically, and innovatively about the philosophical developments and social context that stimulated these ideas about rationalism and empiricism.

A related concern is the problem of generating student engagement in learning. The best classes I have had in my career as a philosophy professor have been those in which students gained an excitement and engagement with the issues which led them to want to learn more about the subject. They wanted to discuss ideas in the class and outside the class; they were happy to be steered towards additional readings; they took on the subject matter as their own. How does this form of intellectual engagement emerge from an online class? How does the learning become personal? How does the student acquire a stake in the learning and an intellectual passion for taking it further? Bowen recognizes the importance of direct contact with professors in generating this kind of engagement (67-68); but he suggests, somehow, that this personal contact will be increasingly the province of the richer institutions. “The mix will vary by institutional type, and relatively wealthy liberal arts colleges and selective universities can be expected to offer more in-person teaching than can many less privileged institutions” (68). But what if the in-person contact is actually the secret sauce — the ingredient that makes the recipe work?

I still remember taking the GRE in philosophy as a senior philosophy student at the University of Illinois in 1971. It struck me as being no more than a scholastic joke, probing for the student’s knowledge about names and key doctrines in the history of philosophy without any real ability to assess philosophical cognitive skills. This standardized exam had nothing whatsoever to do with real philosophical thinking, or the skills of reasoning and questioning that begin to contribute to one’s being a capable philosopher. I fear that online education in philosophy and other areas of the humanities would be vulnerable to exactly this fatal weakness: emphasizing facts and formal structures of doctrines, but giving short shrift to development of the critical skills that are needed to make sense of the issues in the field. Could we imagine Wittgenstein without Frege and Russell?

(Here is an excellent survey of current research on online education by Bowen and Kelly Lack; link.)

Decline of French universities?

France has 83 state-supported universities and well over a million undergraduate students in university. After visits over several years to one of these universities and conversations with faculty and students, however, I have come away with some troubling impressions, especially in the humanities. The crux of the apparent problem is a pervasive lack of concern for undergraduate students’ learning outcomes on the part of the universities and many of the regular faculty. 

Part of this problem derives ultimately from a chronic lack of funding for the universities. Facilities on many campuses are decrepit, and the ratio of students to faculty is quite high. Students are admitted to the university and are charged very low tuition; but sufficient public resources are not made available to allow the university to offer them a high-quality, challenging education.

Another part of the problem is an over-emphasis on research over teaching. Research achievement is certainly an important national goal. But there is a degree of research fetishism that seems sometimes to overwhelm the other values of the university in France, including quality of teaching and learning. This over-emphasis on research within the university is found at the level of the ministry. And it seems to percolate downward as well, to individual campus administrations and to individual faculty. The impression one gets is that only research accomplishment is valued, and there is very little value given to effective teaching, either institutionally or individually. High-prestige research publications are the ticket for career advancement for the faculty member; and nationally visible research achievement is the coin of the realm for university leaders. This value scheme leaves out the undergraduate student almost entirely. But this gives woefully short shrift to the project of creating the next generation of creative, skilled, rigorous thinkers who will constitute the main source of innovation and new knowledge in the France of tomorrow. Currently the universities do not appear to be succeeding in focusing on this crucial task.

And then there is the problem of the turbo prof. This is a very broad phenomenon in the university world of France today that was largely created by the extension of the TGV network of fast trains connecting many secondary cities to Paris with 90 minute journeys. This has helped create the phenomenon of the “turbo prof” — academics who live in Paris and commute to Tours, Dijon, Strasbourg, or other regional centers. There is a long history of French academics preferring Paris to the regional cities. But now it is possible to live in Paris and spend a day and a half on the regional campus where the academic has an academic appointment.

This phenomenon would not be troubling if the turbo prof kept up his or her part of the bargain: committed teaching, adequate time on campus to advise and assist students, and a reasonable degree of involvement in the intellectual and institutional life of the university. But this is all too often not the case, it appears. Instead, the amount of time spent on the university campus is often reduced to a two-day period of intensive lecturing. The prof travels from Paris on a Monday morning; reaches the campus by 11:00 am; lectures six hours on Monday; stays in a pied-a-terre or hotel room Monday night; lectures another six hours on Tuesday; and returns to Paris in time for dinner on Tuesday evening. It is easy enough to forget about those undergraduates in Tours, Strasbourg, or Dijon by the time the TGV slides into the Gare de Lyons or the Gare de Montparnasse or the Gare de l’Est.

This is very worrisome for the economic and civic future of France. University is a time during which students need to be stretched, challenged, and deepened in their intellectual capacities. But this isn’t likely to happen when they have essentially zero contact with faculty, very limited writing assignments, and a very low sense of accountability for their progress on the part of the university.

This is also a hazardous reality for the permanent faculty of these universities. If it becomes apparent that their very limited efforts in their teaching roles make almost no difference in the process of development and maturation that their students achieve, then it is a very short step to concluding that their services are not needed. The few who are genuinely important research scholars may find alternative employment in research institutes, of which France has a fair number. But the idea of a teacher-scholar will be dead. And the next rank of less accomplished researchers will need to look for work outside of academia — not a very encouraging prospect in France today.

The institutions governing higher education in France need to take these problems seriously. Universities need to refocus their attention on effective, transformative undergraduate education. Faculty need to be re-enculturated to give sincere adherence to the importance of their teaching responsibilities and contact with students. The turbo profs need to extend their work weeks on their regional campuses to a reasonable level — at least three full days and preferably four. And the Ministry of Higher Education and Research needs to impose real standards of accountability on universities and departments, along the lines of the accreditation processes that exist in North America. And it goes without saying — those accountability standards need to be focused on the primary values of the university, not the market value of this degree or that.

It is ironic to me that the sociology of education is a much more prominent part of the sociology profession in France than it is in the United States. Much attention has been given to the effects that the educational system has on class stratification, beginning with Bourdieu and Passeron, Les Heritiers: Les etudiants et la Culture, and extending through Mohamed Cherkaoui’s École et société : Les paradoxes de la démocratie (French Edition). And yet I haven’t been able to locate anything that focuses on the question of educational quality, the educational progress that undergraduates make, and the institutional and individual practices that interfere with educational progress in the universities.

Here is an OECD quality assessment report compiled in cooperation with Universite Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg (link). This document has many of the dimensions of an accreditation report in North America. And it illustrates several of the problems mentioned above. The report gives substantially more attention to research activities than teaching effectiveness; the university’s response to this issue when raised in 1985 was essentially nil; and the one effort at implementing measures of teaching quality assessment that was undertaken — student surveys of educational satisfaction — was evidently discontinued. The report highlights continuing issues having to do with the effectiveness of undergraduate education: “the excellence of teaching in the postgraduate cycle and the shortcomings of the other cycles, with emphasis on the lack of performance indicators, especially as regards graduate employment; …”.

Here is a recent news story on the funding issues in French universities (link). 

French readers — what are your observations about undergraduate education in French universities?

What makes universities better?

Universities are large, complex organizations that have multiple goals — educating undergraduates, training graduate students, facilitating and expanding research activities, serving various communities. Each of these activities depends on complex contributions by very smart faculty and administrators, often in a highly decentralized way, and each can be more or less successful. The individuals involved are generally motivated to do the best work they can do. But the organization and its leaders have a responsibility to take steps to improve the quality and effectiveness of the results.

So the question here is this: what kinds of actions and strategies can university leaders take to help their universities to improve in performance with respect to the fundamental components of academic quality that they value? (Arthur Padilla’s ACE publication, Portraits in Leadership: Six Extraordinary University Presidents, raises some of these issues.)

We might ask, to begin, what the dimensions of quality are for a university. I would highlight at least three:

  • providing successful and effective education to undergraduate and graduate students (which means that on average, students who study at the university improve their intellectual and moral abilities over time); 
  • successful cultivation of high-quality research by faculty (which means increasing the flow of published and funded research results with measurable impact in both academic and non-academic spheres); 
  • contributing to the improvement of quality of life for the communities served by the university (region, state, city, nation). 

 We might add to these core characteristics several others: creating an inclusive environment for working and learning; creating a high sense of morale and shared aspirations for students, faculty, and staff; maintaining and increasing academic quality while reducing costs.

These high-level goals of a university cannot usually be measured directly. Therefore we need to have some set of factors that are closely related to the quality goals but that can be observed empirically. Quality measures in higher education are varied, but they include things like these: graduation rates, levels of Federal research funding, percent of Pell-eligible students, number of citations to faculty-authored research, number of patents issued, number of members of the national academies on the faculty, … There are steps that a university administrator or dean can take to influence any one of these variables; but all interventions require resources, which means that choosing to increase the graduation rate may mean not taking steps to increase the number of patents. More fundamentally, fine-tuning one part of the university’s processes may actually interfere with the workings of its other processes.

There are two large philosophies that might drive the idea of increasing the quality of a university over time. One is the philosophy of continuous improvement. Here the idea is that the university is already functioning at a certain level of effectiveness in a range of activities; the imperative is to increase the effectiveness, quality, and productivity of all of those areas, giving primary emphasis to those that have the greatest impact on core values. This is a philosophy of gradual improvement and refinement.

The second philosophy is one that pays attention to the need and opportunity that sometimes exist for radical change in product and process for the organization. This philosophy downplays the idea of continuous improvement and argues instead for “punctuated equilibrium” — the need to sometimes take actions that fundamentally change the nature of the enterprise in some way. The idea that instruction should be substantially more oriented towards online courses would reflect this philosophy; it corresponds to those critics of higher education who believe that universities are like film-based camera companies in the 1990s facing the sudden appearance of digital photography. Either they adapt quickly to a new disruptive technology, or they fail catastrophically in the market.

A philosophy of continuous improvement would not have served the buggy whip industry well in the 1910s; whereas a philosophy of punctuated equilibrium doesn’t seem to be appropriate for shipping industry at this point. (It was appropriate at the time when containerized shipping was a hypothetical possibility!) So there is no reason to believe that either “gradualism” or “punctualism” is always the best option for an organization.

So what kinds of changes are needed and feasible for universities in today’s environment? This will be a disappointing answer, I’m sure, but I think the answer is: some of both. There are many improvements that can be identified in the ways that universities handle the various components of their missions. Improving retention and graduation rates is a case in point; there are many new strategies that could be incorporated to help students be more successful in their academic progress. Peer-based tutoring is one example; online tools for checking progress towards graduation is another; and improving the quality and reach of the academic advising system is a third. But it is also true that there are opportunities for discontinuous improvement in the existing university. For example, could the resource of a well-developed online course with rich media materials and evaluation systems allow the business faculty member to effectively teach accounting to twice as many students? Could a high-level learning goal for students (e.g. “ability to sort out contextual factors in a complex problem”) be better achieved by closer coordination among clusters of faculty and courses rather than by a general education curriculum that assigns one goal to one course? Is the traditional Ph.D. dissertation an antiquated ritual rather than a crucial learning opportunity for advanced students?

(Vincent Tinto has a short but interesting article on “Universities as Learning Organizations” here. Here is a piece by Judith White and Rita Weathersby on a similar topic.)

Liberal education

One of the most fundamental and distinctive aspects of the American approach to undergraduate education is the priority given to making sure that students receive a broad “liberal education.”  What this phrase means has nothing to do with “liberal politics”; instead, it is a theory of education that holds that the undergraduate student needs to be exposed to a wide range of ideas and perspectives from all the liberal arts: the humanities, history, mathematics, the natural sciences, and the social and behavioral sciences.  The student is required to take a broad range of courses that provide exposure in all of these areas.  He or she also has a major subject – an area of greater specialization; but the course work in the major discipline is usually only about twenty-five percent of all courses.  So the American system usually emphasizes breadth as an important academic value, and specialization in a discipline (biology, sociology, literature) receives somewhat lower priority.  Even engineering education – traditionally a fairly specialized curriculum – requires significant exposure to courses in the humanities and social sciences.  (Martha Nussbaum has written a very important book justifying this approach, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.)

What are the reasons for this educational philosophy? What advantages does it offer in helping to develop the intellectual capabilities of the student?  Other national systems of higher education place the balance somewhat differently.  For example, in France and Germany it is expected that university students will have received a broad education in secondary schooling, and that the university is a place for specialized education in a discipline.  However, American educators have multiple reasons for thinking that a broad general education is a crucial component within the process of intellectual maturation and development that is the goal of an undergraduate education.  These reasons fall in several categories: preparing young adults for thinking innovatively and imaginatively; helping young adults to recognize the historical and social context of the problems and processes they study; helping students to deal with moral and political issues in a thoughtful and critical way; helping young people to recognize the value of racial and ethnic diversity within a modern society; building a foundation for deep interdisciplinary work and study at later stages; and cultivating the skills of independent critical thinking. 

Imagination and innovation. Most people would agree that the challenges of the twenty-first century, whether in China, Brazil, or North America, will require new ideas and innovative approaches.  This is true in business; creating new products and solutions requires great creativity.  But it is true in social and political life as well; the social challenges all modern societies face cannot be resolved by simply applying “off-the-shelf” solutions.  So cultivating an ability of young people to think with originality and creativity is a major priority for educational systems in every country.  And a broad liberal education is very well suited to developing these features of thought.  When a student has struggled to provide interpretations of a difficult poem, or to understand the cultural practices of modern Navajo people in the American southwest, or to genuinely comprehend the theory of natural selection that Darwin proposed – the student will have created for himself or herself a set of mental skills that would not have developed if her education were restricted to a single discipline and its methods.  Too much “paradigm dependence” discourages creativity. 

Social and historical context.  The important problems that modern societies face are rarely confined to a single academic discipline.  And there is often a very important component of social and behavioral complexity to even the most technical of contemporary problems.  Suppose that a city is concerned about automobile traffic congestion, and that the civil engineering experts who consult to the city propose adding an additional tunnel to provide more capacity for an important river crossing within the city.  This might be looked at as a civil engineering problem, and it is, to a certain extent.  But even more importantly, it is a problem of human behavior.  What will be the behavioral consequences of an additional tunnel?  Sociologists may provide a basis for thinking that the additional tunnel will increase congestion rather than decrease it – because more drivers will be encouraged to think that there is a more convenient way of driving to their destination.  So the unintended consequence of the civil engineering project is to increase rather than decrease the social problem it was designed to solve.  (This is approximately what has been observed in the experience of the third harbor tunnel in Boston.)  When students have been trained to look within a problem to discover its historical context and its social dynamics, they are likely to solve problems more effectively.

Moral and political thinking.  It is an important social goal that our society needs to create young people who will be moral persons and engaged citizens.  But behaving morally and exercising the duties of citizenship are skills that we need to learn.  Both require a sophisticated ability to analyze and reason about behavior and about the needs of society.  A broad liberal education is well suited to giving young people the intellectual skills associated with thinking critically about difficult moral and political issues.  For example, suppose a person has received a medical education but now needs to make ethical decisions about possible treatments for some of his or her patients.  The concept of “informed consent” is a complex moral idea, and it is not self-evident.  After all, if the physician himself is confident that a treatment will benefit the patient, why should he need to gain the consent of the patient?  There are very basic moral reasons why this should be the case; but unless the young doctor has had extended experiences in analyzing and debating moral issues, he is poorly prepared for solving this practical issue in his own practice.

The value of diversity.  A broad liberal education is a very good basis for learning to understand and value the perspectives of people whose racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds are very different from our own.  Literature is one such tool.  When students read and discuss a book like The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, they are quickly drawn into an understanding that the perspective of an African-American writer from the 1960s is profoundly different from their own.  And they begin to see that their own parochial interpretation of the events around them is just that – parochial and limited.  It is important to have the tools that permit young citizens to understand these diverse perspectives.  And, as Scott Page documents in a recent book, when we are successful in incorporating diverse perspectives into concrete problem-solving contexts, we get better solutions (The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies (New Edition)).

Interdisciplinary studies.  Problems like global climate change cannot be effectively addressed from the point of view of a single academic discipline.  Climate change involves ocean chemistry, atmospheric dynamics, international politics, and individual behavior.  And no single discipline can be the basis for a policy that will effectively address climate change.  This means that it is very important to create an intellectual environment that favors interdisciplinary cooperation.  A broad liberal education can do that very well.  When a student graduates from a good liberal arts university in the United States, he or she has a reasonably good grasp of some areas of natural sciences, quantitative reasoning, policy analysis, and historical context; and he or she is able to think critically and communicate effectively with others.  This means that the undergraduate student is in a very good position to be a part of an extended interdisciplinary research or policy effort.

In short, the advocates for a philosophy of liberal education believe that a liberally educated student is best prepared to be a critical and innovative thinker; a person who is well prepared to think with originality about novel problems; a person who has learned to look for the social and historical context of the problems he or she confronts; and a person who has a sophisticated ability to think about complex moral and social issues.  This individual is likely to be a productive contributor to the organizations he or she joins later in life; he or she is likely to be an engaged citizen and a moral person; and he or she is more likely to embody the qualities of respect and civility that are crucial for collaboration and public life.

What is the good of a university education?

Martha Nussbaum is one of the most exceptional voices in philosophy and public policy we have today, and she has contributed to a wide range of topics.  Her work on the ethics of development has proven to be a very important contribution (for example, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach), through which she has significantly deepened the theory of capabilities as a touchstone for measuring successful economic development.

One of Nussbaum’s talents is to bring important issues of value and morality into engagement with the real world — women in development, the role of ethical thinking in great fiction, and the ways in which the world’s religions intersect with important value questions we face today. She rightly sees that purely philosophical reflection on these important issues will not take us as far as an approach that brings together analytic thinking with real historical and sociological inquiry.

Nussbaum’s thinking about liberal education is especially important today. Her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education provided a fresh and vigorous defense of the value of liberal education when it appeared in 1997, and it has gone on to wield influence on faculty and administrators as they engaged in curriculum reform in subsequent fifteen years. The appearance of Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities is a welcome addition to this line of thought.  Her point of view is an urgent one: our collective philosophy of education has gone off the rails.

How is education for democratic citizenship doing in the world today? Very poorly, I fear. This is a manifesto, not an empirical study, so this chapter will not be filled with quantitative data, although the data support my concern. The disturbing trends I am describing must simply be summarized, and illustrated by telling and representative examples. (120)

The central thrust of her argument in Not for Profit is that universities need to own up to the social necessity of preparing young people for democracy — not merely careers in the most lucrative possible industries at a moment in time.  She believes that the disciplines of the humanities, and the less quantitative disciplines in the social sciences, are crucial for this task.  But she also believes that these disciplines are increasingly perceived by policy makers, the public, and even some university leaders as being irrelevant, useless, and unnecessary at a time when universities are struggling for financial stability.  (She refers, for example, to the cancellation of a major conference on the future of the humanities at a leading university for reasons that seem suspiciously commercial; 4.) And she believes that this is a global trend — not simply in the United States but in Europe and Asia as well. (One of the strengths of the book is Nussbaum’s effort to compare the developments that are underway in India and various European countries.)

So what is it that is of such value in the humanities? Here is what she calls the spirit of the humanities:

… searching critical thought, daring imagination, empathetic understanding of human experiences of many different kinds, and understanding of the complexity of the world we life in. (7)


Education is not just about the passive assimilation of facts and cultural traditions, but about challenging the mind to become active, competent, and thoughtfully critical in a complex world. (17)

Nussbaum believes that through studying literature, philosophy, the arts, and other fields of the humanities, the student is led to cultivate each of these qualities. And she believes that these qualities are crucial for a successful democracy; citizens need to have these abilities if a democratic society is to flourish.

I shall argue that cultivated capacities for critical thinking and reflection are crucial in keeping democracies alive and wide awake. (9)

In fact, she articulates a specific set of abilities that the humanities help to cultivate and that are crucial for active and effective citizenship (25).

Moreover, she believes that it is crucial that these experiences and opportunities for development should be available to the widest possible slice of American society — not simply the students in elite colleges and universities, but in the full range of colleges and community colleges in which the great majority of American young people receive their post-secondary educations.

Though she doesn’t put the point this way, perhaps it amounts to a claim that there are two value systems within which education exists.  One is utilitarian and profit-oriented; the goal of education is to produce the most productive workers possible and to permit rapid economic growth.  The other is moral and political; it has to do with instilling the values of democracy, justice, and humanity in young people as they prepare themselves for leadership in their generation. And the crisis she delineates is the result of favoring the first value system while ignoring the second.  This is important for the way we structure our institutions; it is equally important for how young people come to think about their lives.

Why are these qualities so important for a democracy?  Nussbaum doesn’t answer this question very specifically, but I think we can fill in the blanks. A modern society always embodies large group differences, competing interests, regional disagreements, religious and ethnic diversity, and other sources of strife.  If we don’t work fairly intelligently to create citizens who have qualities of mutual understanding and tolerance, and who have some of the capacities that underlie collaboration and compromise, then a democracy has the potential of unleashing great conflict and polarization.  So building a compassionate and temperate citizenry is a necessary step towards creating a vibrant and flourishing democracy.

This is a book that educators and policy makers should read attentively.  It is pragmatic and clear, and it sets a very different agenda for the goals that we should pursue in designing a university education. Her own moral commitments come through clearly — a commitment to social justice, a passionate recognition of universal human equality and worth, and a cosmopolitan view of our moral relations to people in other countries.  A decent society has shared commitments that extend beyond a desire for economic wellbeing; and these commitments are a great foundation for a successful democracy.

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