Friday, August 31, 2012

In Defense of the Living, Breathing Professor. From The WSJ.

Falk, now the president at Williams College, was my boss for a few years, and a pal since. He's smart, funny, and clear-headed. We could use scores just like him in positions of power everywhere in the academy.


by Adam Falk

As classes resume on our nation's campuses, amid anxiety about high tuition, student debt and other concerns, it's worth examining what we value in college education. The question warrants consideration, in particular, following a recent recommendation by distinguished economists, appointed by the National Academy of Sciences, proposing to define the "output" of higher education as a combination of credit hours awarded and degrees earned.

That reduces the work of colleges to counting how many students they push through the system—a bit like defining a movie studio's output as the number of feet of raw footage shot, with no consideration of whether the resulting movies are any good.

Most of us in higher education take the long view about the value of what we do. Sure, students graduate with plenty of facts in their heads. But the transmission of information is merely the starting point, a critical tool through which we engage the higher faculties of the mind.



  1. Spot on. Although he missed one argument I think is valid: there is nothing new about our "technology". Internet resources allow people to read and write and cite (link) things easily. Yes, it moves faster than intra-campus mail, but basically it does the same thing. But if students could learn just by reading, we'd have no colleges, only libraries. If students could learn just by reading and writing, we'd have just correspondence schools. And we would have made that transition centuries ago!

    The generations before us were not blind to the possibility... it just never worked out. Humans learn from other humans; it's part of our social-animal DNA. And it's more fun.

  2. The article is indeed smart, but consider his outline:

    If we have minds and solve problems creatively, then we need facilitators.

    If we need facilitators, then we need to pay high wages.

    If we have minds and are inherently social creatures, then we need facilitators.

    Conclusion: If we have minds then either we need high wages for the facilitators or else creativity is false and we aren't inherently social creatures.

    The following is not possible if we have minds: having no highly paid facilitators while creativity/socialization being required

    But I didn't use creativity to write this argument! What do you do to students who simply memorize clever propositional and or predicate logic shit to write this stuff on the fly?

  3. Apparently the plot to hack into the WSJ servers has succeeded. Congrats to whichever of the four was in charge of that one ('twasn't me/us). I wonder how long it will take before they take it down/retract it.

    Seriously, although I believe that productive learning can, in fact, occur online, either in writing or via video-conference of some sort (think of all the centuries when scholars shared ideas almost entirely through letters and more formal writing and only very occasional face-to-face meetings), I agree with everything else Falk says. The kinds of online classes that emulate the sort of learning experience that Williams can offer (but many schools with smaller endowments and less-privileged/well-supported student bodies cannot, even in face to face classes) are expensive, and not at all what those who are touting online learning as a money-saver are envisioning.

    The viability of online learning may also vary by field. It works well for what I teach, writing, but that makes sense. I'm not so sure about lab/experimental sciences (including physics, which is what Falk teaches). And friends who teach foreign languages (an often-endangered field that some might argue could be taught more efficiently by centralizing certain languages on certain campuses, and connecting virtually to students elsewhere) tell me that even a video hookup just doesn't provide immediate enough access to the context -- gestures, other body language, the opportunity to closely observe mouth position -- that language learners need in the early-mid stages of the process.

    I'm not going to change my name to Pollyanna yet, but I do like the direction the commentary is going lately. Maybe there's light at the end of the tunnel? (But maybe it's an oncoming train?)

  4. I do believe that once a person has reached a certain level of intellectual maturity, they can probably learn a lot via 'mass communication technologies', whether those technologies are Books or MOOCs. Hell, that's how a lot of us do our research.

    Aye, there's the rub: "once a person has reached a certain level of intellectual maturity". Below a certain level of self discipline and awareness, one simply skims over the material (whether it's Plato's Republic or Coursera's latest shiny new offering), and retains only whatever makes the reader feel good by confirming their prior beliefs. Some of the most dangerous crackpots probably consider themselves 'self taught' this way.

    It's only once you acquire the discipline to challenge and test your own thoughts and ideas that you can really teach yourself. The poor sods who need to ask a Mommy-figure for Band-Aids are going to get nowhere until someone gives them several good swift kicks in the butt.

    Though, come to think of it, we could probably build a butt-kicking machine that could automate some important teaching functions...

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