What Kind of Technology Do Undergraduates Want?

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Messiah College participated in this survey

According to the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, undergraduates:

  • want mostly face-to-face learning environments.
  • want lectures, student presentations, question and answer sessions, and class discussions to take place in a face-to-face learning environment , as opposed to homework, exams, and quizzes.
  • really like degree audits and degree planning tools.
  • want Wi-Fi in the library and classrooms.
  • think that their professors do a good job in using technology to enhance their learning.
  • who have disabilities are not happy with, or upset with, their access to technology on campus.

Dig deeper here.

Should Trump be Impeached? College Students Weigh-In

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Here are a few quick takeaways from a recently released Axios poll of college students:

  • 97% of college Democrats approve of impeachment
  • 76% of college Independents approve of impeachment
  • 22%  of college Republicans approve of impeachment
  • The number of college students who approve of impeachment is growing, especially among independents
  • The number of college students who approve of impeachment is much higher than the general public

Read it all here.

What Colleges and Universities Can Learn from the Silicon Valley (Ironically, its not what you might think)

Neem 1Today we recorded Episode 54 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Our guest was Western Washington historian Johann Neem, author of What’s the Point of College: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform.  I don’t want to give too much away because I want you to listen to our conversation,  but let me offer a teaser.  At one point during the interview I asked Neem about his passage from his book:

…forward-looking companies try to emulate traditional colleges by building large, idyllic campuses where people can interact and be creative. “There is something magical about sharing meals,” said former Google CFO Patrick Pichette on why Google discourages telecommuting. “There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer, ‘What do you think of this?'”  That sounds a lot like the traditional college experience, but, in new model universities, fundamental aspects of traditional ones–such as personalized teaching, green lawns, academic freedom, shared governance, meaningful exposure to the liberal arts and sciences, and time and autonomy for reflection–are deemed irrelevant.

Oh the irony!

As Silicon Valley tries to promote face-to-face interaction in real places that resemble the traditional college campus, universities seem to be moving away from such a model through its increasing commitment to displaced online education and a delivery system that makes human connection more difficult.

See how Neem developed his thoughts in Episode 54.  It will drop in a week or so.  Stay tuned.

Moving Into the Dorms, Circa 1785

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My youngest daughter went to her first college class yesterday morning (Spanish I).  She moved into the dorms last week and has managed to survive four full days of new student orientation.  I think I will send her J.L. Bell’s recent piece at Boston 1775 on Charles Adams’s move into the Harvard dorms in 1785.

Here is a taste:

Fifteen-year-old Charles Adams started at Harvard College that year. His parents, Abigail and John, were across the Atlantic in London, so he was under the wing of relatives on his mother’s side. 

Charles had been studying for the entrance exam with the Rev. John Shaw of Haverhill, an uncle by marriage. On 9 May Charles wrote to his cousin William Cranch: “we study in the bedroom as usual two young fellows from Bradford being added to our number, One of whom will be my chum if we get in and who I should be very glad to introduce to you.”

By “chum,” Charles meant a college roommate. That prospect was Samuel Walker (1768–1846). When Charles’s older brother John Quincy Adams visited that summer, he immediately assured their mother that Samuel was “a youth, whose thirst for knowledge is insatiable.” 

Read the rest here.

Neem: We Cannot “Think Critically” Without Knowledge

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Johann Neem is on fire.  Earlier today we linked to his Chronicle of Higher Education piece calling for the elimination of the business major.  Now we link to his Hedgehog Review piece on “critical thinking.” I have ordered his book What’s the Point of College?: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform.

Neem argues that critical thinking cannot take place without knowledge–the kind of knowledge one learns in a particular discipline.  Or, as he puts it, colleges and universities should understand skill development “in relation to the goods of liberal education.”

Here is a taste:

Advocates of critical thinking contrast thinking critically with learning knowledge. College professors, they proclaim, teach a bunch of stuff (facts, dates, formulae) that students don’t need and won’t use. Instead, students need to have intellectual and cognitive skills. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has proclaimed, “the world doesn’t care anymore what you know” but “what you can do.”

There are two problems with this perspective. First, it is fundamentally anti-intellectual. It presumes that the material colleges teach—the arts and sciences—does not matter, when, in fact, this is the very reason colleges exist. Second, these claims are wrong. Cognitive science demonstrates that if we want critical thinkers, we need to ensure that they have knowledge. Thinking cannot be separated from knowledge. Instead, critical thinking is learning to use our knowledge. The most effective critical thinkers, then, are those who learn history or physics. The stuff we learn about matters.

In many ways, the turn to skills is a defensive response. At a time when the humanities, in particular, are under attack, what better way to defend the humanities’ “useless knowledge” than by demonstrating that these are means to a larger end: critical thinking? However, one must acknowledge that these defenses reflect the capitulation of academics to utilitarian and pragmatic pressures. Lacking a convincing argument for the knowledge that anthropologists or historians have to offer, they instead proclaim that history and anthropology will serve employers’ needs better than will other fields. But if that’s the case, why does one really need to know anything about anthropology or history? Why should colleges hire anthropologists or historians instead of professors of critical thinking?

This is not an abstract question. When we turn from higher education to the K–12 system, we see that the focus on skills over knowledge has transformed the curriculum. Increasingly, especially under the Common Core State Standards, students devote their energies to learning skills, but they may not learn as much history or civics or science. Therefore, in contrast to the anti-intellectual rhetoric of many reformers, critical thinking must be defended because it encourages students to gain more insight from the arts and sciences.

Read the entire piece here.

Johann Neem: “Abolish the Business Major”

Neem 1It is hard to argue with Western Washington University historian Johann Neem on this point.  The business major is an “anti-intellectual” degree program that should have “no place in colleges.” Why? Neem develops his thoughts in his new book What’s the Point of College?: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform.  In an essay at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Neem argues that business majors should be abolished because:

1. Business majors earn just as much money as liberal arts majors.

2. Business degrees do not teach the skills that employers value.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Ultimately, then, the reason to abandon business degrees is because college is not for anything and everything. A college graduate ought to be a different kind of person than someone who did not attend college. The issue is not just skills, but character. It is not about being for or against business, but rather about ensuring the specific kinds of education that a college degree should represent. A good college education offers access to the knowledge requisite to be a thoughtful interpreter of the world, fosters the academic skills necessary to develop meaningful interpretations on one’s own, and cultivates intellectual virtues. In other words, college is defined by its content — by the kinds of things that one ought to think about.

The business major is for students who want a college degree without a college education. The philosopher Tal Brewer has written that the very notion of business school is an “oxymoron.” The word “scholar” derives from the Greek word for leisure. Colleges are places where people step aside from the world of need — from the world of business — to engage in reflection. “Devoted to discussion and thought unfolding under its own internal demands,” a college cannot with integrity offer “training for the sort of life that has no place for such thought.” Business schooling is “a scholé of the negation of scholé.”

Business is an activity that we engage in to achieve other goods. A college graduate must be educated to think about those goods thoughtfully and critically, especially because markets are cultural institutions, shaped by what we value. But the very existence of the business major teaches students that the end of business is business. In reality, each good or service has its own distinct purposes, practices, and virtues.

Read the rest here.  Someone had to say it.

Will Free College Save the Humanities?

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University of Minnesota historian David Perry thinks so.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Pacific Standard:

I love all of the humanities, but I argue that history is the discipline best suited to instruct students how to respond to the 21st-century information ecology of short deadlines and overwhelming access to information. Historians learn to locate complicated historical contexts, sort through sources, then navigate a path to a coherent and persuasive argument in a timely way. There is no field in the knowledge economy that does not benefit from these skills. That’s why, in many cases, only rich kids can study the humanities, while poor kids feel obligated to major in business—and then often work for the rich kids for the rest of their lives. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing an undergraduate business degree situated in a rich liberal arts and sciences curriculum if that’s what you want to do, but these degrees (as opposed to MBAs) are not fast tracks to the C-suite. Yale history majors know this. Then again, student debt at Yale is lower than the national average; students there whose families make less than $65,000 a year pay no tuition or fees. Yalies probably aren’t as worried, in general, about their first jobs out of college. They want to be educated and to have long careers. And cake.

There’s been a crash across the humanities since the Great Recession, and no amount of course innovation or public engagement that can fix it. We have to change the basic economics of a college education, and arguments that deviate from this essential truth distract us from the core issues. We are in a decades-long decline of public investment in higher education, including a $9 billion reduction over the last 10 years. The public, meanwhile, assumes that investment in higher education has been growing. Maybe we should concentrate on telling them the truth, rather than scolding historians for (allegedly) not teaching enough political history. Then let’s get to work making college free, canceling student debt, and letting students follow their interests. We might just save history. And with a broader population educated in all the rich lessons of history, literature, arts, social sciences, and hard sciences, we also might just save the world.

Read the entire piece here.

“Don’t find yourself, find your vocation”

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History major Jonathan Fuller holding his towel

When Messiah College students cross the platform during their graduation ceremony they receive a small white towel.  The towel symbolizes service.  As Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, so we hope our graduates will think about their lives in terms of service to others.  I thought about this Messiah College tradition when I read Tom Perrin’s excellent New York Times op-ed, “One Way to Make College Meaningful.”  I especially like the subtitle: “Don’t find yourself; find a vocation.”

Here is a taste of his piece:

Why vocation, though, rather than the old model of learning for learning’s sake? Why not, as the religious studies professor Ron Srigley has recently argued, return to the old, “beautiful goal” of the university, “to discover and then to tell the truth,” disentangled from the mercenary arms of the offices of careers and student life? My answer would be that universities have always been hybrid creatures, serving many masters at once: social norms, the market, churches and the exacting standards of disciplinary research, to name four. But the fantasy of the university as a disinterested sphere of pure knowledge is just that. This is not so much to attack the liberal arts as it is to point out that to link them purposefully with life and career goals is not at all to alter the way they have long functioned.

Read the entire piece here.

“Critical Thinking” and the University

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Over at his blog Blue Book Diaries, Jonathan Wilson reminds us that the teaching of “critical thinking” skills is not the primary purpose of a college education. (Neither is job training). Here is a taste of his piece “The Most Understood Purpose of Higher Ed.”

Let’s be realistic. Most of the time, in most institutions, both the notion that the academy is a free-for-all of critical thinking and the notion that it’s a re-education camp for the politically incorrect are myths. This is not to deny that ideological abuses of power do happen, nor that many students have rational awakenings in college, but neither is a realistic description of most people’s experiences in practice. And I don’t think they’re good descriptions of the academy’s behavior in theory either.

So what kind of thinking does the academy promote when it’s doing its job especially well? (For simplicity, let’s stick close to undergraduate applications.)

The key to provisional collective best thinking practices is that knowledge means something special to scholars, including successful college students. For scholarly purposes—and I believe this is true across disciplines—professional knowledge consists not simply of true beliefs, but of true beliefs reached in a valid way. And validity is judged not by the individual, but by a community of scholars in an ongoing conversation.

Here’s where things get truly scary: For rigorous scholarly purposes, knowledge includes in its implicit definition the possibility that it might ultimately be proven false. That’s the “ongoing conversation” part. The only thing that scholars, as such, know for sure (however certain they may feel) is that their knowledge hasn’t been discredited by valid scholarship yet.

Wilson argues that colleges and universities do not teach “that certain ideas are ‘true’ in an academic sense–as far as we know, according to the best available evidence so far–because we have worked them out in a collective process of examination.”  He adds,  “We teach truths that are provisional but have been reached through the collective best thinking.”

Amen.  This is a great argument for the communal nature of higher education.  Wilson concludes: “…the mark of truly well-educated (as opposed to well-trained or well-spoken) people is their grasp of the way knowledge is collectively created….”

Two quick responses from where I sit, as a history professor at a private liberal arts college:

First, this is yet another argument for why the liberal arts classroom must not be a place of indoctrination.  Our job is not to tell students what to believe, but to teach them how knowledge is created so that they can make their own decisions about what to believe.  This is something that those on the Left and the Right must understand, but in the context of academia it is something that is more pertinent to the Left.  The classroom is not a place for preaching.

Second, Wilson seems to be making an indirect argument for the disciplines.  Each liberal arts discipline offers a different way of examining the world and the human experience.  Each discipline provides a different set of skills and thinking habits for arriving at knowledge.  This is what makes me nervous about introducing “interdisciplinary” learning to college students so early in their college and university experience.  How does one learn to think in an “interdisciplinary” fashion without first learning the thinking skills and practices associated with the individual disciplines?

What is Going on at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point?

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First it was the University of Wisconsin-Superior, now it is the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

UW-Stevens Point is expanding its programs in Chemical Engineering, Computer Information Systems, Conservation Law Enforcement, Finance, Fire Science, Graphic Design, Management, Aquaculture, Captive Wildlife, Ecosystem Design, Environmental Engineering, Geographic Information Science, Business Administration, Natural Resources, and Physical Therapy

They are discontinuing their programs in American Studies, Art, English, French, Geography, Geoscience, German, History, Music Literature, Philosophy, Political Science, Sociology, and Spanish.

Read all about it here.

Let’s just call UW-Stevens Point a professional school.  It is no longer a university or a college.

I concur with philosopher James K.A. Smith’s Twitter warning:

Jamie: It’s already happening.

More Thoughts on Cedarville’s “Biblically Consistent Curriculum.”

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I am quoted today in a Times Higher Education piece on Cedarville University’s “biblically consistent” curriculum.”  Read it here.

The quote is accurate, but it is also part of a larger statement that did not make it into the story.   Here is my entire response to the reporter:

On academic freedom:  Cedarville is a private evangelical college.  As a result, faculty need to sign a statement of Christian doctrine in order to teach there.  Any Christian college of this nature does not have academic freedom in the same way that a non-sectarian or public university has academic freedom.  For example, a faculty member does not have the “freedom” to be an atheist or reject a belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  So Cedarville has the right to define what ideas are acceptable and what ideas are not.  

But as someone who teaches at a private Christian college, one that is not as conservative as Cedarville, I think this new “Biblically consistent curriculum” confuses education with indoctrination.  Any institution of higher education requires an engagement with the world. What distinguishes a Christian college from a Christian church is an engagement with ideas and culture–all ideas and culture.  At a Christian college, this kind of engagement happens through the lens of Christian faith.  Cedarville seems to be motivated by fear of the world rather than engagement with it.  The college has chosen a path of separation from the world rather than an engagement with it.  This is the essence of fundamentalism.

Let’s face it–as soon as graduates leave the Cedarville bubble, they are going to be exposed to what their administration or their parents deem to be unholy or impure aspects of culture.  Isn’t it better that they learn how to think Christianly about culture in the kind of community a Christian college offers?

As the THE piece notes, I have written about Cedarville and its new curriculum before.  Read my posts here.

Taking Notes: By Hand or By Laptop?

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Students who take notes by hand tend to understand the material better than those who take notes via a laptop.  I have been saying this for a long time, so I am glad that we now have a study to back up my theory.

Here is a taste of an NPR story on a study testing how note-taking by hand and computer note-taking effects learning in the college classroom:

For their first study, they took university students (the standard guinea pig of psychology) and showed them TED talks about various topics. Afterward, they found that the students who used laptops typed significantly more words than those who took notes by hand. When testing how well the students remembered information, the researchers found a key point of divergence in the type of question. For questions that asked students to simply remember facts, like dates, both groups did equally well. But for “conceptual-application” questions, such as, “How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?” the laptop users did “significantly worse.”

The same thing happened in the second study, even when they specifically told students using laptops to try to avoid writing things down verbatim. “Even when we told people they shouldn’t be taking these verbatim notes, they were not able to overcome that instinct,” Mueller says. The more words the students copied verbatim, the worse they performed on recall tests.

Read the entire piece here.

Mark Lilla Continues His Assault on Identity Politics in American Higher Education

LillaToday I ordered his new book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity PoliticsI am looking forward to read it.

Here is a taste of Lilla’s recent piece on the subject at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Conservatives are right: Our colleges, from bottom to top, are mainly run by liberals, and teaching has a liberal tilt. But they are wrong to infer that students are therefore being turned into an effective left-wing political force. The liberal pedagogy of our time, focused as it is on identity, is actually a depoliticizing force. It has made our children more tolerant of others than certainly my generation was, which is a very good thing. But by undermining the universal democratic we on which solidarity can be built, duty instilled, and action inspired, it is unmaking rather than making citizens. In the end this approach just strengthens all the atomizing forces that dominate our age.

It’s strange: liberal academics idealize the ‘60s generation, as their weary students know. But I’ve never heard any of my colleagues ask an obvious question: What was the connection between that generation’s activism and what they learned about our country in school and in college? After all, if professors would like to see their own students follow in the footsteps of the left’s Greatest Generation, you would think they would try to reproduce the pedagogy of that period. But they don’t. Quite the contrary. The irony is that the supposedly bland, conventional colleges of the 1950s and early 1960s incubated what was perhaps the most radical generation of American citizens since the country’s founding. Young people who were eager to engage in “the less exotic but more lasting struggles for justice” for everyone in the great out there beyond the campus gates.

The universities of our time instead cultivate students so obsessed with their personal identities and campus pseudo-politics that they have much less interest in, less engagement with, and frankly less knowledge of matters that don’t touch on identity in the great out there. Neither Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who studied Greek) nor Martin Luther King Jr. (who studied Christian theology) nor Angela Davis (who studied Western philosophy) received an identity-based education. And it is difficult to imagine them becoming who they became had they been cursed with one. The fervor of their rebellion demonstrated the degree to which their education had widened their horizons and developed in them a feeling of democratic solidarity rare in America today.

Whatever you wish to say about the political wanderings of the ‘60s generation, they were, in their own way, patriots. They cared about what happened to their fellow citizens and cared when they felt America’s democratic principles had been violated. Even when the fringes of the student movement adopted a wooden, Marxist rhetoric, it always sounded more like “Yankee Doodle” than Wagner.

The fact that they received a relatively nonpartisan education in an environment that encouraged debates over ideas and that developed emotional toughness and intellectual conviction surely had a great deal to do with it. You can still find such people teaching in our universities and some are my friends. Most remain to the left of me but we enjoy disagreeing and respect arguments based on evidence. I still think they are unrealistic; they think I don’t see that dreaming is sometimes the most realistic thing one can do. (The older I get the more I think they have a point.) But we shake our heads in unison when we discuss what passes for political activity on campus.

It would not be such a terrible thing to raise another generation of citizens like them. The old model, with a few tweaks, is worth following: passion and commitment, but also knowledge and argument. Curiosity about the world outside your own head and about people unlike yourself. Care for this country and its citizens, all of them, and a willingness to sacrifice for them. And the ambition to imagine a common future for all of us.

Any professor who teaches these things is engaged in the most important political work — that of building effective, and not just right-thinking, democratic citizens. Only when we have such citizens can we hope that they will become liberal ones. And only when we have liberal ones can we hope to put the country on a better path.

Read the entire piece here.  After several conversations I have had over the past six months or so, I am more convinced than ever that identity politics and historical pedagogy do not mix very well.

Does Higher Education Have a Negative Effect on the United States?

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Most Republicans and “right-leaning independents” believe this, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.

Clara Turnage unpacks the study in a recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Here is a taste:

A majority of Republicans and right-leaning independents think higher education has a negative effect on the country, according to a new study released by the Pew Research Center on Monday. The same study has found a consistent increase in distrust of colleges and universities since 2010, when negative perceptions among Republicans was measured at 32 percent. That number now stands at 58 percent.

By comparison, 72 percent of Democrats or left-leaning Independents in the study said colleges and universities have a positive impact on the United States.

In an increasingly polarized culture, the drastic shift is the latest piece of evidence that institutions of higher education — along with labor unions, banks, churches, and the news media — have been plunged headfirst into a hyperpartisan war.

That war started a long time ago, though it’s intensified lately. “The divides between folks on the left and folks on the right are getting more serious,” said Neil L. Gross, a professor of sociology at Colby College and author of the book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? “I don’t think there’s any evidence that it’s going to subside anytime soon.”

Read the entire piece here.

What is the Purpose of the University?

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Writing at City Journal, Heather McDonald argues that “students would scorn free speech less if colleges honored their mission to transmit knowledge.”

Here is a taste:

Conservatives have, of late, stressed a process-oriented notion of education that shares certain similarities with the “false narratives” approach. This emphasis reflects their understandable revulsion at the silencing on campus of politically incorrect views. Education should be about reasoned debate and the airing of all opinions in the pursuit of the truth, critics of campus political correctness say. Students should take courses from professors who challenge their views and should attend lectures by visiting scholars whose ideas they find uncongenial, Princeton professor Robert George recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Students should not be so “deeply in love with [their] opinions” as to not listen to “others who see things differently,” George asserted.

This ideal of the Socratic academy is so reasonable that it may seem foolish to quibble with it. Of course, students should engage with ideas that they disagree with rather than silencing anything that challenges their worldview. But there is a universe of knowledge that does not belong in the realm of “opinion.” It would be as absurd for an ignorant 18-year-old to say: I have an opinion about early Mediterranean civilizations, but I am willing to “listen to others who see things differently,” as it would be to say: I have an opinion about the laws of thermodynamics, but I am willing to listen to the other side.

The free-speech model of education tends toward a focus on the present. The issues about which students are going to have the strongest opinions concern current political and policy matters: Is Donald Trump a fascist? Is immigration enforcement racist? Does the criminal-justice system discriminate against blacks? Which bathrooms should “trans” individuals use? The fact that only one answer to these questions is acceptable on college campuses is indisputably a problem. But they are not the questions that undergraduate education should focus on; there will be time enough after students graduate to debate current affairs. While defenders of the open university rightly fight for free speech, they should not lose sight of the knowledge that is the university’s core mission to transmit. If students had been more deeply immersed in acquiring that knowledge and less taken with challenging “false narratives about the marginalized,” we might not have seen the narcissistic campus meltdowns after the last presidential election.

Read the entire piece here.

I would not go as far to say that the university is only in the business of transmitting facts.  I think it is important that our students learn certain habits of the mind–ways of thinking about the world that will inevitably be linked to the virtues necessary to function in a democratic society.  But McDonald certainly makes some fair points in this piece that we all must take seriously.

Mark Cuban: Don’t Go to College to Study Business. Study the Humanities

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From Business Insider:

Billionaire investor Mark Cuban offered a perhaps bleak prediction on the future of jobs in an interview Friday with Bloomberg’s Cory Johnson at the NBA All-Star Technology Summit in New Orleans.

Discussing the swiftly evolving nature of jobs due to automation, he noted that across a broad array of industries, robots will replace human workers.

Prompted by Johnson, he then made a bold proclamation about the types of skills and majors that will dominate in his version of the future labor market.

Here’s an excerpt of their conversation (emphasis ours):

Johnson: So essentially what you’re making the case for is education and job training for grown ups.

Cuban: No, no. I think that won’t matter. What are you going to go back and learn to do?

Johnson: What it takes, right? Whether it’s finance, whether it’s software programming.

Cuban: No finance. That’s the easiest thing — you just take the data have it spit out whatever you need. I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. And so having someone who is more of a freer thinker.

Cuban’s forecast of the skills needed to succeed in the future echoes that of computer science and higher education experts who believe people with “soft skills,” like adaptability and communication, will have the advantage in an automated workforce.

Cuban highlighted English, philosophy, and foreign language majors as just some of the majors that will do well in the future job market.

Watch the entire interview here.

Cuban is reinforcing a narrative I and many other have been pushing for a long time.  We need the humanities more than ever in a constantly changing workplace. (Not to mention their contribution to our democracy).  Colleges and universities with traditional liberal arts programs that do not invest in their humanities-based missions are doing so at their own peril.

Having said that, I am becoming more and more convinced that not every 4-year college or university, even those who give lip-service to the liberal arts and the humanities, will be unable to commit to this kind mission and still keep the doors open.  Colleges in financial difficulties, or those who rely entirely on tuition dollars, or those with small endowments, cannot afford to take the long view in this way.  Instead, they must throw their money into professional programs just to stay alive.

Cuban takes the long view.  Liberal arts and the humanities are the future.  It think college administrators understand this, but there is nothing they can do about it.  Mission is sacrificed to market.  Give the students want they want, not what they, and all of us, need.

“Show me how to think and how to choose.”

delbancoThis quote comes from the 1850 diary of a student at Emory and Henry College in Virginia.  Andrew Delbanco writes about in his 2013 book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.  I highly recommend this book.

A few years ago, I came across a manuscript diary…from 1850–kept by a student at a small Methodist college, Emory and Henry, in southwest Virginia.  One spring evening, after attending a sermon by the college president that left him troubled and apprehensive, he made the following entry in his journal: “Oh that the Lord would show me how to think and how to choose.”  That sentence, poised somewhere between a wish and a plea, sounds archaic today.  For many if not most students, God is no longer the object of the plea; or if he is, they probably do not attend a college where everyone worships the same god in the same way.  Many American colleges began as denominational institutions; but today religion is so much a matter of private conscience, and the number of punishable infractions so small (even rules against the academic sin of plagiarism are only loosely enforced), that few college presidents would presume to intervene in the private lives of students for the purposes of doctrinal or moral correction.  The era of spiritual authority belonging to college is long gone.  And yet I have never encountered a better formulation–“show me how to think and how to choose”–of what a college should strive to be: an aid to reflection, a place and process whereby young people take stock of their talents and passions and begin to sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others (pp.16-17).

My Daughter Will Not Be Picking a Major This Year

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As regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, my oldest daughter will be starting college classes next week.  She has yet to pick a major. In fact, we advised her not to pick a major for some of the reasons discussed in a recent study conducted by the Education Advisory Board, a research and consulting firm based in Washington D.C.

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Carl Straumsheim reports:

Most students — as many as 80 percent in some surveys — will switch majors at one point during their time in college. According to the report, students who made a final decision as late as the fifth term they were enrolled did not see their time to graduation increase. Even one-quarter of the students who landed on a final major during senior year graduated in four years, the EAB found.

Neither did settling on a final major during the second through eighth terms of enrollment influence students’ graduation rates. Students who declared a new major during any of those terms posted a graduation rate of between 82 and 84 percent.

Read the entire piece here.

Peter Powers, Dean of Humanities at Messiah College (and my boss!) says it best:

I cannot overstate my belief that what we do to high school kids and college freshmen in making them believe they have to know and choose their major before they get to college is very nearly educational malpractice. In my view it increases student anxiety about education, and causes them to make poor decisions about their academics and their ultimate vocations, to say nothing of making them wary of curiosity and intellectual exploration.

It All Seems So Unnatural

eacac-fithian2bbookMy daughter left for college last week.  So did most of her friends.  A group of kids raised in a central Pennsylvania town who have spent their lives together in church, on the athletic field, in the classroom, and at weekend backyard bonfires are suddenly, in a blink of an eye, ripped from that environment and sent off to various locations around the country to pursue higher education and find themselves as “individuals.”

It all seems so unnatural.

I understand why we send our kids to college.  We want them to chart their own path, become independent, and learn things about the world that we cannot teach them. We don’t want them to be too provincial or parochial.  I get it. I am paid to initiate students into this modern way of thinking.  I also understand that much of what I am writing here is born of the sense of loss I feel right now.

This whole process–a relatively new one in the annals of human history I might add– can come with gut-wrenching pain for parents and homesickness for the child.  It might even prompt us to wonder whether such an initiation into modern life is really worth it.

The historian Gordon Wood, writing about the eighteenth-century, perhaps put it best: “local feelings were common to peasants and backwards peoples, but educated gentlemen were supposed to be at home anywhere in the world.”  To be too wedded to our local attachments is a “symptom of narrow-mindedness, and indeed of disease.”

As I said in my last post, I wrote a lot about all of this in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  I know that my telling of Philip Vickers Fithian’s story was shaped by my own experience as a first-generation college student.  Now I am starting to see the story I told from the eyes of a parent.

As an eighteenth-century first-generation college student from rural southern New Jersey, Philip Vickers Fithian struggled with homesickness every day.  Even after he graduated from the College of New Jersey at Princeton in 1772 his longing for home, family, the social connections of his youth, and the very soil of the place where he was raised remained strong.  “Strong & sweet are the bands which tye us to our place of nativity,” he wrote from his bedroom on Robert Carter III’s Virginia plantation where he found post-graduate work as the family tutor.  “If it is but a beggarly Cottage,” he added, “we seem not satisfied with the most elegant entertainment if we are totally separated from it.”

During his stay in Virginia, Philip suffered acute bouts of homesickness.  He felt “uneasy,” “bewildered,” and “haunted” about his decision to leave Cohansey.  He made a habit of gazing out the window of his room and then turning to his diary to write about home. “I went to the window before I was drest….I could not help casting my Eyes with eagerness over the blue Potowmack and look homewards.”  Today kids who have such pangs of homesickness usually find their way to the college counseling center where they are told that time will heal all the wounds of homesickness brought on by the first days and weeks of their college experience.

But for Philip, living in an eighteenth-century world still on the cusp of modern life, time spent away from home did not seem to help.  For example, the longer he stayed in Virginia, the more intense his homesickness became.  One cold Sunday morning in January 1774 Philip skipped church services and wrote, “I feel very desirous of seeing Home; of hearing good Mr. Hunter Preach; of seeing my dear Brothers & Sister; Indeed the very soil itself would be precious to me!–I am shut up in my chamber; I read a while, then walk to the North window, & look over the Potowmack through Maryland towards Home.” Some would say that Fithian was sick.  He had a case of homesickness that probably needed a few more counseling sessions.  Maybe.

Philip knew he was now an educated gentleman–a Princeton graduate.  Such longings for home were irrational and not fitting with the cosmopolitan outlook he had learned in class with Princeton president John Witherspoon.  “This may seem strange,” he wrote in June 1774, “but it is true–I have but very few acquaintances [in Virginia], & they easily dispense with my Absence–I have an elegant inviting apartment for Study–I have plenty of valuable & entertaining Books–and I have business of my own that requires my attention–At home my Relations call me proud and morose if I do not visit them–My own private business often calls me off & unsettles my mind…All these put together, when they operate at once, are strong incitement to divert me from Study.  Yet I love Cohansie!  And in spite of my resolution, when I am convinced that my situation is more advantageous here, yet I wish to be there–How exceedingly capricious is fancy!  When I am Home I then seem willing to remove, for other places seem to be full as desirable–It is then Society which makes places seem agreeable or the Contrary–It can be nothing else.”

By August 1774 Philip had come to the point where he was “low Spirited” and could not “eat nor drink” because he was thinking “constantly of Home.”  He even felt, using the theological language of his Presbyterian upbringing, that “Sometimes I repent my having come into this Colony.”

If Joseph Fithian, Philip’s father, felt the pain of losing his eldest son to the modern world we do not have his thoughts in writing.  We know that we was skeptical about Philip going off to school.  He needed his son on the family farm and had to be convinced that Philip’s break with a tradition was a good thing.

But this was not the case with Philip’s mother Hannah Fithian.  As Philip tried to fit into the intimidating and foreign academic culture of the College of New Jersey he found comfort in Hannah’s letters.  She did her best to sympathize with her son.  “I suppose you are uneasy about your Gown,” she wrote (Philip did not yet have this essential part of a Princeton student’s daily wardrobe), but “this is perhaps a small Cross & you must my dear Son take your Cross Daily & follow Christ if you will be his disciple.”  Hannah had great affection for her oldest son. “I hope that the Lord hath Work for you to do in the World,” she prayed, “O that he would furnish you with every necessary Grace & Qualification for his Service.”

Hannah also maintained a constant concern for Philip’s soul–exhorting him to remain pious amid the worldly distractions of college life. “Youth is a dangerous Time,” she wrote, and “it is not possible for you to know it until Experience teaches you…flee youthful Lusts.”  She also feared that Philip’s exposure to book learning might puff him up and jeopardize his spiritual relationship with his Savior.  She urged him to recall the moment of his conversion and God’s providential care for his life. “It is easy to profess Religion,” she wrote to Philip at Princeton, “but it is hard to be a Christian.  Without holiness no Man Shall see the Lord…Remember what the Lord hath done for you & let it humble you.”  This is how one eighteenth-century parent dealt with homesickness and the pain that comes with their son’s initiation into modern life.

I should probably end this post by saying that my daughter is a bit homesick and anxious, but she is doing fine.  She is probably doing a lot better than I am.

It all seems so unnatural.