Higher Education in America

by reestheskin on 05/03/2014

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I am really enjoying Derek Bok’s most recent book, ‘Higher Education in America‘. The tone is always mild and diplomatic, but he points out truths that the academy prefers to ignore. I have frequently quoted an earlier statement from him:

‘some faculty members will cry foul, claiming that teaching is simply not comparable to a piece of merchandise. But protestations of this kind cannot hide the fact that very few universities make a serious, systematic effort to study their own teaching, let alone try to assess how much their students learn, or to experiment with new methods…’
[Universities in the Marketplace, Princeton University Press, 2003]

The problem is not that there are not lots of people in universities deeply concerned about student teaching and learning, rather that the multiversity drowns out the energy and commitment needed to improve things. I have not finished this most recent book but there are lots of thoughts worth mulling over (and no, I do not think things are better in the UK). Some examples:

In subsequent decades, increasing numbers of undergraduates have taken part-time jobs to earn the money to stay in school while also devoting more time and attention to extracurricular activities, computer games, and other forms of entertainment. To accommodate these pursuits, they have exerted a quiet pressure for easier grading and less homework. Because of their extensive freedom to choose which courses to take and their power to pass judgment on their instructors through published course evaluations, they have had some success in realizing their desires. Over the past forty years, the time undergraduates spend on homework has markedly diminished while the grades they receive have gradually risen.

On the tendency of university leadership to undermine core values

Moreover, although some presidents would disagree, experience suggests that professors frequently have a clearer appreciation of academic values than the top leadership and are less tempted to sacrifice these principles to raise more money or gain a competitive advantage…

On teaching:

With very few exceptions, however, faculty members were not conversant with the growing body of literature on undergraduate education.

One topic close  to my heart is that universities are often too big and not selective enough in how they expand. The result is growth that comes at a large administrative and academic cost. The problem is that they spend far too much time on activities that are probably better done outwith the academy. In medicine, there is far too little high risk, high reward research, but far too much humdrum routine activity that does not belong in a university. All of this routine activity, comes at a cost, not least because medical research is often not fully funded, with funds being taken from other sources to make up the deficit. Bok writes:

Other profitable services, such as testing drugs for pharmaceutical companies or giving instruction to entry-level management trainees for corporations, bear the added disadvantage of forcing instructors and investigators into routine teaching and research of little value to the university or its faculty aside from the generation of additional funds.


This chimes with an article about Caltech, a few weeks back, in the Times Higher. Much of what passes as ‘research’ in medicine, would I suspect 40 or 50 years ago, been described as the ‘D’ of ‘R+D’. Inventing new statistical methods to analyse clinical trials is research; using them to analyse trials is not. I guess it is the Steve Jobs line about learning what not to do. Or, as others have said, what is required for research, is a fount of ideas, and a large waste bin to throw most of them into.

It is a good book.

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