Monday, February 4, 2008

The Super Bowl of Higher Education

The country took a break from politics yesterday to participate in that national bonding ritual that is the Super Bowl. After 256 regular season games and ten playoff contests, the NFL decides its champion in a spectacle that is now better known for its ads and halftime show than for its gridiron exploits. Don’t believe me? Well, consider this: everyone remembers Apple's "1984" commercial introducing the Macintosh, as well as Janet Jackson's breast-revealing "wardrobe malfunction" in 2004. But can anybody tell me who won the Big Game during those years? If you named the Los Angeles Raiders and New England Patriots, feel free to sign up for "Stump the Schwab". The rest of you get my point.

Well, it's not my point exactly; it has been made by plenty of other people. I could as easily have mentioned the roll out of the Budweiser frogs in 1995 instead, or the improbable Aerosmith-Britney Spears pairing in 2001. In any event, I tend to resist this sort of thing, so I rarely watch the Super Bowl in full. For some reason, I did happen to witness Ms. Jackson's notorious public exposure (I thought the nipple ring was a pasty, so my pulse did not quicken), but that may be the only halftime show I ever actually endured. I do wish now that I had sat through the performances by Up With People during the 1970s just so I could say that I did.

The commercialization of the Super Bowl did come full circle this year, with the teams mixing it up on the field of University of Phoenix stadium. I love this name, creating as it does the paradox of an institution of higher education with more stadiums (1) than football teams (0). Many people tuning in last night probably even assumed that the Big Game was being played on some college campus, the way Super Bowl XXX took place at Arizona State's Sun Devil Stadium in 1996.

While I am amused by the idea of a university without sports buying the naming rights to an athletic venue, I am less sanguine about what it represents. The University of Phoenix provides a model of higher learning that challenges the entire notion of what the college experience ought to be. Obviously, a strong relationship must exist between a college education and employability. That, however, should be only part of the overall equation.

Too often, those of us in the professoring business do an inadequate job of justifying our lives and our salaries. It is all too easy to tell skeptical taxpayers that our role is to punch their kids' tickets into the middle class. If we can convince state legislators that our value is quantifiable, we can avoid more difficult conversations about what it means to be an educated person. (Private universities do not have to answer to politicians, but they still must account to parents for high tuition rates.)

In part, of course, we act in the interest of self-preservation. A good liberal education demands that students question everything in which they have ever believed, including their faith, their patriotism, their political attitudes, and their conception of morality. Most emerge with views that are stronger and more firmly rooted than before, but try convincing a state senator that challenging notions of God and Country is a good thing.

The dilemma, however, should be clear. The more we explain ourselves in terms of job training and preparation, the less we can distinguish ourselves from models, such as Phoenix's, in which higher education is little more than a narrow means to a specific end. Indeed, many colleges in the United States have spent the past decade moving in a direction that further blurs the lines between trade schools and four-year universities. The sudden explosion of on-line courses and distance learning violates multiple centuries of collected wisdom about teaching and learning. If a student can receive his or her diploma entirely from a remote location, unmonitored by real faculty, then why should any state want to bill its taxpayers for sprawling campuses and full professors of philosophy? Why don't they just adopt the University of Phoenix model and be done with troubling matters such as deferred maintenance, not to mention tenure and promotion?

Let's say out loud what we already know: on-line and correspondence courses are vastly inferior to the on campus experience. Teaching—actual, good teaching—is inherently an interactive process, even in a large lecture hall. Anyone who has done this job knows that only by physically watching your students can you recognize when they understand and when additional description is required, when true engagement is achieved and when boredom has set in. Nobody ever waxed poetic about the inspiration they received from an online prof, and none ever will. The dirty little secret of higher education is that professors provide little information that students cannot get directly out of their books. The value added—to use the educrats' annoying term—exists in the ability of good educators to make that information meaningful and to give it life.

There is certainly nothing wrong with measuring and documenting student learning. Arrogant faculty members may think that accountability is for the little people, but they are wrong and always have been. Nevertheless, as we move (or are forced by accreditors) in this direction, we must resist the temptation to take the easy way out by simply measuring concepts defined and facts remembered. The difference between our education and that provided by Phoenix must be our efforts to make students reflect critically on what they read and hear, and to help them separate between superior and inferior lines of argument. If we do not take the measurement of learning—deep, textured learning—seriously, we will undermine our most important advantage in the battle for legitimacy in this new era.

We also must insist on the value of research. The average state legislator probably wonders why she must divert money away from highway construction to pay for some overpaid professor who writes critical analyses of eighteenth century Scandinavian literature. For too long, we have limited ourselves to playing defense as every philistine demagogue with a constituency steps before a microphone to make fun of the titles of serious (and some not-so-serious) conference papers. As schools like Phoenix increasingly challenge the existing model of higher ed, we have to spend at least some of our substantial political capital making the case for pure research and the kind of knowledge that doesn't lead to patents and cures.

More than anything else, though, we have to make clear a very simple fact. Despite their claims to the contrary, the University of Phoenix and its fellow for-profit travelers do not level the playing field for working class students or first-generation college attendees. Rather, such schools, by pushing many state universities in their stripped-down, online direction, have only widened the gap between elite education and the empty vocational training increasingly received by those left behind. Harvard will always be Harvard, of course, but the real danger is the growing chasm between the state flagship institutions and those smaller satellite campuses that have traditionally served the upwardly mobile.

Yesterday, a smug, seemingly unbeatable football team took the field at University of Phoenix Stadium and learned that you don't win simply by showing up. Those of us who value American higher education better take that lesson to heart. The challenges we currently face are enormous and, to some extent, existential. If we lose our will to fight, the most successful system of higher education the world has ever known may be diminished forever. And then we'll all be playing at University of Phoenix Stadium.

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