Americans expect some pretty unreasonable things from higher education, most notably, guaranteed "good" (i.e. high-paying) jobs. In this way, Americans often envision the university as a mere extension of high school, only this time with tastier employment prospects. Indeed, raw job-placement data has become a crude criterion of academic achievement in the American mind, and the sweeter and juicier the jobs (and their salaries), the better the education. Or so goes the assumption.
But is tastier always better? Few things in life are as satisfying as, say, a fast food burger served with a side of fries and pie for dessert, but a moment's pleasure is not a reasonable gauge of a healthy diet. No human can survive long on such trans-fat laden fare.
Unnaturally occurring trans fats saturate manufactured comfort foods. They satisfy, yes, but they also present a hidden double danger by simultaneously raising levels of bad cholesterol and lowering levels of good cholesterol.
And, you may wonder, what does trans fat have to do with higher education? Well, nothing really except for the similar double danger lurking in our universities. Like trans fat, it plays on our desire for personal gratification. As with the double carbon bond of trans fats, “trans ed”--as I call it--features an unnatural double bind of rising student entitlement and plummeting expectations of academic standards. If every student is a mere customer in the convenience store of higher ed, just what has that student “purchased?” Ostensibly, easy assignments, good grades, and guaranteed (juicy) jobs--all wrapped in a tortilla diploma and warmed up in a low-wattage classroom.
Students and their parents--our "consumers"--demand more for less. They incongruously insist on a lower-cost, higher-quality university "experience," complete with snazzy facilities and doting faculty, while the demand for the de facto currency of education--grades, course credits, degrees, and the assurance of jobs--grows shriller and more arbitrary, particularly in such a sour economy. Inevitably, the professoriate and academic administrators collapse under the morbid pressure of relentless expectation.
Consider, for instance, the plan the Obama Department of Education cooked up to "measure college performance through a new ratings system so students and families have the information to select schools that provide the best value." (I am quoting from a Fact Sheet on whitehouse.gov). These ratings will eventually be used to award federal aid and will rely on certain measures (and I am quoting the Fact Sheet again):
"-Access, such as percentage of students receiving Pell grants;
-Affordability, such as average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and
-Outcomes [and this is the one that really concerns me], such as graduation and transfer rates, _graduate earnings_, and advanced degrees of college graduates."
"Graduate earnings?" This scheme, whatever merits it may have, will potentially de-incentivize the development or even continuation of programs that lead to low-earning fields. Yes, that means, no more community organizers straight out of college. More insidious though, is how this recipe, however inadvertently, promotes the hardening of the national perception that a college education is a burdensome
formality--a plain salad on the way to or--more likely--in the way of the coveted big greasy burger with fries.
To grasp this situation, think of the students' perspective as "transactional," a view of education as a linear series of exchanges with a final payout. Many or even most students imagine a perfectly predictable path to remuneration: tuition, assignments, grades, course credits, degree, job. You do your time; you get your (melted) cheddar.
Simultaneously, we educators frequently spin highfalutin fantasies of the "transformational" power of rigorous university learning. Students, we dream, will strive to become more well-rounded, broader minded, and deeper thinking. Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, argues that “higher education’s highest purpose is to give all citizens the opportunity to find 'large and human significance' in their lives and work.” Neat. We educators are peddling steamed broccoli and vegan "bacon" amid the funnel cake and deep-fried chocolate bars at the state fair.
The dichotomy between the expectations of the end-users--students and their parents--and the presumptions of professors cannot be more stark. The disconnect between students' transactional experience and their professors' transformational idealism is nothing short of absurd.
But wait! It gets more complicated. Even as we academics decry the transactional expectations of our students, we own and operate that very system--doling out grades, credits, and degrees like so many coins of the realm. More troubling, we manage the transactional and transformational models of education side by side with little apparent awareness and near-zero acknowledgment--the unhealthy double bind of trans ed. As a result, students' expectations for easy, satisfying grades rise, like bad cholesterol. Professors, meanwhile, caught in the double bind, compromise their professional integrity, and the healthy rigor of transformational learning, like good cholesterol, decreases. Trans ed, like trans fat, satisfies at first, but its inherit unhealthfulness threatens to undo us all.
Yes, my analogy is decidedly labored, but I trust you get the idea. Besides, its laborious imperfection helps make the point. Richard Keeling and Richard Hersh, coauthors of *We're Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education*, have noted that higher learning, done well, can and should never be efficient (a reasoned counterblow to recent calls for $10,000 degrees and the like). Just as there is no perfect way to remove trans fats from the American diet, there is no perfect balance between transactional and transformational learning, but we can do much better. Eliminating trans ed's double bind from the classrooms of the American university will be as challenging and necessary and take as much tenacity and honest dedication as removing trans fats from the shelves of the American pantry. The Obama FDA recently banned trans fats, thus proving more enlightened about the overall wellbeing of the citizenry than the Department of Education.
Where to start with trans ed? Step one: admit we--anyone with an interest in higher education--have a problem.
Until then, trans ed will remain to American higher education as trans fat is to the American diet: pervasive, pernicious, and deliciously fatal.
I wrote this commentary for the Maryland Humanities Council's Humanities Connection on WYPR radio in Baltimore. Recording 1/6/14
Imagine living in a world devoid of the humanities. Many Americans--though few public radio listeners--would shrug at the prospect, indifferent to or doubtful of the humanities' benefits. But in this hypothetical dystopia without philosophy and religion, most values would be assessed according to their raw value--their price or profit. Religious faith, for instance, would be reduced to a cost-benefit analysis--say, a balance between the price of certain earthly choices and the prospect of eternal bliss--rather than an appreciation of the inherent good in certain choices or, for some, in faith itself. In this dystopia, art would be a rote thing, depictions devoid of the artists’ humanity and its complexity. Beauty itself would be measurable by tools, such as calipers or a spectrometer. Your smart phone would still have a calculator app, yes, but no YouTube.
Take the fundamental feature of all human cultures: the story. One would be hard pressed to find a person who did not appreciate a good story, but without the humanities, stories would be bland recitations of known facts without the understanding, however confounding it be, that our perceptions shape the facts we observe. We tell stories not just to relate facts but--more importantly--to convey meaning.
After all, social scientists and humanists can agree that the human mind is a meaning-making machine. We find meaning even in the mundane. But, while psychologists can discover the mechanism for that drive toward meaning, it takes the humanities to recognize and even appreciate the raw power and myriad implications of the compulsion. The drive toward meaning is at the heart of the humanities: religion, philosophy, languages, classics, and the rest. In short, many disciplines of study can identify how we make meaning and even why, and those questions and their answers are vitally important. The humanities, though, are supremely, maybe even uniquely, positioned to answer a fundamentally human question: "so what?"
That "so what?" is a driving force perhaps more powerful even than compound interest. It expresses an inquisitiveness that challenges facile assumptions and relentlessly focuses on the future. There is, then, an inherent optimism to answering "so what?” an irresistible searching that redirects the human condition away from apathy and despair.
When I was still in graduate school for English, an acquaintance who was in a residency as an emergency physician was boasting how she saved lives every day. She wanted to know what good people like me did in the world. With due respect for her noble work, I pointed out that people like me make those lives she saves worth saving to begin with, that human life bereft of humanity is bereft of meaning and purpose. It is existence, to be sure, but so what?
Yes, we can live, but the humanities help us live better.
Academic Dean, English Professor, and Sardonic Observer