28 September, 2010

Foxes in the Chicken Coop

Critical observers of U.S. higher education—of which there are far too few—have certainly seen it coming for years, perhaps decades. I think it might have finally sunk in for me when, within the space of but a few years, the ubiquitous “caf” was renamed the “dining facility,” dorm rooms that looked like what you’d get for third-class passage on a ship were replaced by suites, and the cavernous rubber-and-sweat-smelling gym was turned into a “fitness center,” often as well appointed as the local for-profit fitness club. Ironically, none of this coincided with an equally obvious renewed emphasis on teaching and learning. Those on the busy side of the podium at the front of the room might even have been able to discern, over this roughly 10-year revolution that swept American higher ed, an inverse relationship between enhanced non-academic facilities and students’ engagement.

The problem was, those who should have been keeping tabs on it all were the ones who stood to gain the most from it: the fitness club for students is open, usually free, to faculty; the house-beautiful dorm rooms are as much a badge of pride for bricks-and-mortar administrators as they are for the students who take up residence there; and, well, everyone has to eat, and adults no less than students prefer padded chairs to benches, small tables to row seating, and a nice cut of beef in the stroganoff to yesterday’s shepherd’s pie. Meanwhile, students and their parents paid more and more; the federal government released more and more funds in support of “higher education” in the form of grants and loans; and the institutions kept doing what institutions do best: engage in a Veblen-esque conspicuous grasp for the biggest piece of the pie they could get.

Which makes it, frankly, refreshing that someone, finally, has someone’s ear: the president’s. In an interview with college and university newspaper staffs from around the country yesterday, Mr. Obama shows that he: (a) is onto the federal gravy train that has allowed higher education costs to soar out of proportion; (b) understands the higher-ed “arms race” (if I may be permitted: in 1985, 25 years ago, the comprehensive annual cost of one, very nicely appointed private institution [VNAPI] which I was fortunate enough to attend was just less than a brand-new VW Golf—$8,750; today, while the equivalent 2010 Golf runs roughly $16K, the comprehensive cost of the same VNAPI is $47K); (c) rightly views spa-like accommodations on campus as having little to no bearing on the quality of education; and (d) wonders out loud whether “research” may have gotten in the way of teaching and learning. You can read more about Mr. Obama’s interview in the Around Washington column in today’s Inside Higher Ed.

What does this all mean? First, this may be the first time I’ve seen these issues addressed publicly by anyone in Washington, although, as I've mentioned, critical observers have long noted these matters privately and in smaller venues. Mr. Obama’s comments may bring some long-overdue and well-deserved attention to some of the real problems in higher education. Second, this portends a new era of what we’ve been arguing for here on RenMus, a leaner, meaner curriculum, the creation of a shared culture not based upon whether students have private bathrooms with Kohler fixtures but on what they read. Third and finally, perhaps the reign of the foxes is over in the chicken coop.

That said, the foxes will be foxes as long as they can—even if it means destroying the chicken coop. The higher education juggernaut will continue. But there is room—and it is widening—for a new way, for a return to a tightly managed curriculum taught by teachers to students who want to be...educated. And Lutheran higher education, with its unique Wittenberg intellectual apparatus, is poised like few others to deliver.


Cuisapiunt blog said...

I admire your hope; I am skeptical regarding change. Fight on!

Jon Bruss said...

I only hope you're not the innkeeper and I el ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha.

Cuisapiunt blog said...

Not even Sancho.

Rev. Josh Sullivan said...

A relative went to college at a nice state university for "the college experience." As long as consumers [students] want to be treated like dignitaries, universities will find ways to accommodate [sell their product] to them.

Which makes me wonder, is it so bad to think of education as a product? I think that's all right. The problem comes in when the education is secondary to the primary product of "the college experience."

Dr. Jack Kilcrease said...

Jon- BTW, what is the name of the college that you hope to found?

I thought it might be "Melanchthon College"- but then it occurred to me that among American Gnesio-Lutherans that might give the college a bad rap. So, I thought and thought, and couldn't really come up with anything else, except perhaps "Melanchthon prior to 1535 College."

Seriously though, have you thought of a name?

Jon Bruss said...

Supposing a person were to go in that direction and supposing someone were to ask me what I'd suggest, I think I'd try to find something firmly in the confessional tradition that would evoke both the highest academic aspirations and the highest confessional standards. Among other names that over the years have emerged as favorites are: Bergen Abbey Luth. College (after Kloster Berge); Bergen Luth. College (same rationale). "Bergen" also can evoke Bergen, Norway, the source of so many of the orthodox Norwegians in North America. Actually, on the less imaginative end of things, though with certain positive evocations, might be names like: All Saints' Luth. College (or the College of All Saints? in any event, recalling the Allerheiligenstift Wittenberg), St. Martin's Luth. College, or even some re-treads from North America, like St. John's Luth. College or St. Paul's Luth. College. You could even be somewhat "retro" and say something like "The Philosophical College." Kris thinks simple's best; I think no matter what, there would be initial confusion, followed be profound clarity (on the mission, character, allegiances, etc., of the place: is there any doubt about where New St. Andrew's stands? or Thomas Aquinas?).

What have you thought of (besides Melanchthon-prior-to-1535 College)? If you've got good ideas, I'd love to hear them. Anyone's good ideas, for that matter!