Thursday, November 03, 2011

The First Obituary for the Academy

Yesterday I read what I fear will prove to be the first obituary for the university as we have known it. In an article entitled “Socratic Backfire?” on the Inside Higher Ed website, Kaustuv Basu reported the following:

Some students didn't take well to Steven Maranville’s teaching style at Utah Valley University. They complained that in the professor’s “capstone” business course, he asked them questions in class even when they didn't raise their hands. They also didn't like it when he made them work in teams.

Those complaints against him led the university denying him tenure – a decision amounting to firing, according to a lawsuit. Maranville filed against the university this month.

Last year, a professor at Louisiana State University was removed from teaching a course after a majority of her students received failing grades, while another professor at Norfolk State University was denied tenure in 2008 for similar reasons.

Granted, Utah Valley may not be the best example of higher education to begin with. It has only been a university since 2008 having outgrown its former vocational school and community college origins. It chooses not to participate in the US New rankings which, as politicized and commercialized as they might be, do provide some basic information about academics at a given college. Its primary focus appears to be business. Only one in 11 of its students are people of color and just over 4 of 10 are female. Only about a third of the student body receives financial aid. It should not be surprising that a predominately privileged white male college would operate out of a lens of entitlement and a demand for academia-lite.

What is troubling, however, is that there seem to be no designated grown-ups on-site. To wit:

The advantage of this kind of teaching is that students learn how to think on their feet, said Patricia King, a professor of education at the University of Michigan. “But it requires hard intellectual work,” she said.

In Maranville’s case, students did not see the value of his approach, the court records suggest. "Some students were quite vocal in their demands that he change his teaching style, which style had already been observed and approved by his peer faculty and administrative superiors,” according to the lawsuit. Students did not want to work in teams and did not want Maranville to ask questions. “They wanted him to lecture.” They also complained, according to the suit, that he did not know how to teach because he is blind.
 The department chair – Scott Hammond, who is named in the lawsuit – apparently agreed with how Maranville taught his courses and called him a “master teacher,” according to court documents. Hammond visited his class, and so did an associate dean. But a few months later, during the spring semester, Maranville received a letter from university president saying that his classroom behavior was not suited to his being granted tenure.

In short, being a “master teacher” is now a disadvantage in an academy driven by consumerism and entitlement. What the vast majority of students want today is credit hour facilitators. They do not want to prepare. They do not want to be required to attend class. They do not want to have to participate once there. They do not want to be required to think. G-d forbid they should have to deal with anyone or anything other than their own narrowly defined self-interests. And they are being taught, by example, that they are entitled to all of this and can inflict retribution upon anyone who dares to defy that entitlement. Clearly, there are notable exceptions to this rule without whom many still within academia would have long since departed. But, sadly, they are becoming increasingly anomalous.

Of course, much of this simply speaks to a developmental failure in maturity among our students. Sadly, those of us who work in higher education have increasingly come to expect this declining level of maturity among our students. The level of intellectual curiosity among most of our entering freshmen these days is limited on a good day. And the willingness to engage the process of actual learning has dropped off the charts.

At some level this is expectable after a decade of a failed social experiment called No Child Left Behind. While one out of three children were in fact left behind in this experiment, failing to complete high school, the more serious consequences are only now being realized among those who made it through. We have raised a generation of students who understand education as memorizing information for data dumps on command, who confuse the assemblage of unexamined data for learning, who do not see the point of critical thinking or creative problem solving and who largely are incapable of expressing themselves with much depth or nuance. NCLB lowered our expectations of them to the most basic functions at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy and they have proven apt pupils.

No doubt this places a great deal of pressure on the operators of institutions of higher learning. They face middle class parents demanding credentials for their children whether or not they actually become educated in the process. They face 1% legislatures more than happy to defund higher education and dictate curricula to insure the ongoing domination of a docile servant class by their corporate overlords. They face increasingly unhappy faculties who see their hard work if not their very intellect devalued. And they face a whole generation of largely underdeveloped children (the days we could say with a straight face that college students are adults and we should treat them as such have long since departed) arriving at their gates with inordinate senses of entitlement and unrealistic expectations.

Of course, this is precisely where real leadership is most desperately needed. We need deans and provosts who can say to parents “Your children will be educated. But they will have to work for it. And if they don’t want to work, they’re not ready to be in college.” We need advisors and orientation leaders who will tell students, “Yes, Dr. X has a reputation for being demanding. S/he is a master teacher. But that’s precisely the course you should take because it will help you grow and become educated.” We need administrators who can find the courage to say to state legislatures, “We don’t need your advice on curricula given that you have no expertise upon which to offer it and if you insist upon diminishing our funding, we will have to respond by a corresponding diminishing of admissions of your constituencies’ children.”

In short, we need someone to step up and be the designated grown-up in a situation where immaturity, self-interest and short-sightedness has come to dominate the operation of higher education. Right now, the inmates are running the asylum.

But, sadly, I do not see even a sliver of hope that this will occur. The mindlessness of discourse about higher education today is staggering. The unquestioning acceptance of policies within the academy which reward entitlement and denigrate master teaching are the norm, not the exception. The disengagement of all the interested parties within and outside the academy is predominant and growing. And, like all malignant family secrets, there is an unspoken conspiracy not to talk about any of this with any seriousness or depth, presuming that the parties still have the capacity to do so.

It is tempting to dismiss the events at Utah Valley as an anomaly, the limitations of a new university with little tradition of actual education as opposed to vocational training. But the reports I am reading at Inside Higher Ed and elsewhere suggest this is not the case, that this is merely a symptom of a much deeper malady infecting all of academia from the Ivy Leagues to the for-profits. Sadly, it is the rule, not the exception.

I fear higher education as we have known it will go the way of the dinosaur not with the roar of the pain of loss but with a whimper of resignation to the seeming inevitability of mediocrity. And that is why yesterday’s obituary coming out of Utah is a grim milestone that those of us who have devoted our lives to education should deeply mourn.

Socrates wept.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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