Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Lawrence Summers and the Future of American "Higher" Education

Over the weekend Scot McKnight drew my attention to a piece in the New York Times by former Clinton Treasury Secretary and Harvard President Lawrence Summers entitled "What You (Really) Need to Know." This article, though brief, read like a horror story to yours truly, a paleolithic academic if ever there was one.

In the article Summers contemplates the challenges American higher education faces as it seeks to prepare young people for their roles in a rapidly changing world. The list of guesses and hopes he provides for how education will overcome its inherent inertia and change in future includes the following:
  • Education will be more about how to process information and less about imparting it. Because of advances in technology, factual mastery of subjects will become less and less important.
  • Because of the explosion of knowledge and "what businesses and what governments do," more tasks will and should be accomplished via collaboration rather than by individual effort.
  • Because of new technologies, professors should be "freed" of the responsibility to prepare materials for their classes. It "makes sense" that professors use video materials from the "clearest" and "most lucid" of teachers in their field instead of "having thousands of separate efforts."
  • Instead of traditional "passive" learning via lectures, reading, and evaluation of content mastery, professors should encourage the "dynamic" ethos of "active learning classrooms," where they "interact" with their students through the use of media and "collaborative experiences."
  • Because of English's emergence as a global language, it is not "clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile." After all, over time it will become less "essential" for doing business or resolving conflicts overseas.
  • Courses of study will place much more emphasis on the analysis of data.
Simply repeating Summers's main ideas inexorably raises my blood pressure and induces pity for future generations of students, for I have no doubt that such policies will inevitably be implemented, more likely sooner rather than later.

Summers's ideas, it seems to me, are liable to criticism on a number of fronts. First, and most importantly, Summers has capitulated entirely to a utilitarian view of knowledge, what I like to call "the tyranny of the practical." This is where most Americans instinctively fall in line behind Summers. In the past I always asked my freshman college students what the purpose of a college education was, and the response—almost to a person—was immediate: "To get a good paying job." Of course, this response didn't surprise me in that young people are constantly bombarded with the notion that college education is essential to their future prosperity. But this begs the question on a number of fronts.

What is the purpose of higher learning? I do not mean to suggest that future employment is not part of the equation. But such is only a part and not, I would suggest, the most important part. Higher education is, first and foremost, about the life of the mind. Knowledge, as John Henry Cardinal Newman argued, is intrinsically "useful." This applies especially to subjects such as the arts, languages, and the humanities, which are so under attack today in both America and Britain (one thinks here of F. F. Bruce's scathing dedication of one of his last books to the Department of Classics at the University of Aberdeen, where he studied in the 1930s, but was "axed" due to the policies of Margaret Thatcher). Any attempt to "make" knowledge useful, or to pursue only those courses of study perceived to be useful, misunderstands the mission of the university and, more importantly, transforms its character from that of an academic institution to that of a polytechnic institute. Such thinking has even infected theological institutions and Bible Colleges, most of which have capitulated to growing pressures to focus less on "theoretical" courses and more on practical "ministry." The result, as I once was so impolitic as to suggest, is a "college" that increasingly takes on the characteristics of a "vo-tech for ministry." Such does not bode well for future Christian education.

More importantly, and perniciously, is that the relentless pressure to conform educational models to the economic workplace of the global economy. What this fosters is the assumption that what is societally valued and rewarded financially is what is most important for life in the world. In other words, educational philosophy has worldview formation as its ineluctable companion. The result of utilitarianism, of course, is the economization of life, where the pursuit of money is assumed to be the summum bonum, and those who either can't or desire not to compete are left to the margins of society. This headlong rush to Philistia is not, I would argue, a good thing.

Second, Summers is uncritical in his praise of the benefits of modern technology. Yes, the time is coming when the contents of the Library of Congress and the Bodleian Library will be at anyone's fingertips. That will certainly both aid and complicate research. But I fail to see how this will excuse any self-respecting student of the requirement to assimilate as much content knowledge as one can.

All of us can recall humorous (at one level) instances where people have needed calculators to solve elementary problems of addition or multiplication. This, however, is not always a matter of comic relief. Technology, you see, comes at a cost. Even books came with the hidden cost of the deterioration of human memory capabilities. Yet high level thinking demands a body of content knowledge as its foundation. It's nice to have a mass of information at one's fingertips, but it's nicer—and more intellectually advantageous—to have the knowledge in one's brain. This is one reason why the current trend in theological education to reduce Greek and Hebrew requirements, if not to eliminate them entirely, is, in my opinion, disastrous policy.

Third, Summers's advocacy of a "dynamic" and collaborative educational environment is potentially disastrous for genuine scholarly training in a host of disciplines. The first thing that jumps out is his rationale for promoting collaboration: it's the way things are done in business and in government. Since people will spend their working lives collaborating on projects, it makes sense, so the argument goes, to jump start the process in college. Wrong! There is no substitute for an individual wrestling with issues and coming to one's own, hard-fought opinion on a subject. I certainly don't mean to suggest that collaboration is always wrong, let alone that people don't benefit from wrestling with issues in group contexts. Nevertheless, I am convinced by my decades of experience in academia that such collaborative efforts are valuable only after individuals have done the hard work necessary to form intelligent provisional and personal opinions on the subject matter. This, of course, works better the higher the academic level, culminating in the standard doctoral seminars. My experience has taught me, however, that such collaborative efforts are rarely effective (or fair to better students) in lower-level undergraduate contexts.

Likewise, Summers's disdain for traditional, "passive" educational models is nothing new to anyone who has had to endure courses in educational theory. To be sure, many people struggle with lectures and hefty amounts of solitary reading. That is why a good teacher will refrain from exclusive utilization of these methods. Nevertheless, many students, including a large proportion of more academically gifted ones, do learn best by means of the traditional approach. I, for one, have always benefited most from times of solitary reflection on matters introduced in lectures and voluminous required reading. At the same time, I rarely benefited from what, to me, were excruciating "active learning environments." 

Teaching method is often dictated by the instructional content and aims of the course. Perhaps in Summers's field of economics such "dynamic" learning is optimal. I have a hard time imagining such a scenario in the fields of history and Biblical Studies, especially in lower-level classes in which the students don't have an assimilated body of content knowledge to use as a foundation for application and/or practice (of course, history and religious studies are two disciplines increasingly considered passe in modern educational contexts). Some students may indeed find "traditional" instruction "boring." If so, that is at least potentially the fault of the professor. Any professor worth her salary should be so animated by the subject matter that begetting such derived interest in her charges should come as a matter of course. Maybe what we need more of are scholar-teachers for whom class instruction is as important as their research interests. I thank God for such mentors as Harold Hoehner who modeled that paradigm for me.


  1. Hey Jim,
    You touched briefly on what I believe is the main problem - the elimination of truth and facts as the foundation and core of education. Once you take God out of the equation, applicable skills are all that are critical or necessary. Knowledge actually becomes a liability to those who reject truth and the facts that point to the truth.

    Ironically, religious educators seem as prone to this "pragmatism" as secular educators. Go figure.

  2. This has already come to high schools. Ask Mary! I always hated group projects.

  3. Humans are not meant to be little gears in a big economic machine. The trend towards utilitarian education (utilitarian everything) makes me very depressed.

  4. Before I published my comment above, the computer asked me to retype a code word to "Please prove you're not a robot". How ironic.