This series of four posts by William M. Briggs is pretty interesting stuff.
The kind of thing where I’m torn: is it the most brilliant and perceptive thing I’ve ever read about higher education or is it a series of slightly early April 1st posts?
Dear Internet, I really need all you people out there to help me figure this one out. Which way does it go.
And by the way, you really have to read all four posts to get the complete message. The comment streams are interesting too.
Here is what everybody knows: the best researchers are often not the best teachers. Statistically, the relationship is negatively correlated. Prowess in the lab implies indexterity in the classroom. This is natural. An individual managing four graduate students, one post-doc, writing a new grant, revising an old one, and writing papers from the results of a third cannot devote adequate energy to preparing a Friday-morning quiz on “What is a paragraph?” to freshmen, of which a non-trivial fraction are hungover or otherwise sleep deprived. I am speaking “on average”, of the predominant reality, and therefore it would be a fallacy to counter with examples of exceptional researchers who are also brilliant teachers.
Universities should become bipartite: college and research institute under one banner. In practice, each would–and should–have little to do with the other, though they would share the same name and school colors. The college mandate is to teach all undergraduate courses and those graduate courses which are non-specialized. The people that man colleges should not be researchers–unless, as will be rare, somebody wants to cross the line and write a paper on a subject dear to them. The people that man research institutes should not be teachers–unless, as will be rare, somebody wants to cross the line for a temporary change of scenery. It would be best if some “universities” eschew all research (via attrition of workers) and become solely colleges. Other universities should separate from, or eliminate their college components, and become solely research institutes.
Requiring teachers to write papers is asking them to do what they are not good at. If they were good at it (and had the desire), they would be researchers and not teachers. Teachers are wasting time publishing an article in the South-by-Southwest Far East Asia Journal of Research: C when they could have been polishing a lecture, holding extra office hours, or in just plain reading. It is a waste because the paper will never be read by anybody except the one or two referees attached to the journal, and it fools the teacher into thinking he has been productive. It also fools the promotion committee (which obsessively counts papers) into thinking they are measuring the ability of the teacher to do his job.
Counting papers is like eating opium: it is an addiction everybody knows its wrong, but nobody can resist. It’s only a wonder academics don’t receive spam promising a “Proven method to grow your paper numbers. 7++ new citations! Make Deans scream in delight!!!”
Colleges themselves–which, I remind us, are to be separated from research institutes–should be broken in two: traditional college and technical or trade school (this break need only be administrative and not physical). As Russell Kirk tells us, college exists to impart wisdom, not knowledge, and certainly not information or even, as is by now commonplace, trivia. Trade schools should take students interested solely or mainly in obtaining a skill or a “degree”, a talisman which they must emboss on their resume to get a job at one of the many non-contemplative and undiscerning companies which require them.
Incidentally, this purblind requirement of a “degree”–and not of knowledge or ability–is why there are too many kids going to college.
Trade school will encompass majors like “business”, “marketing”, “sports management”, “diversity studies” of any kind, “communications”, “journalism”, “computer science”, “health”, “nursing”, “art” of any stripe, “engineering”, “security” (yes, it exists), “criminal science1”, “hotel management”, and so forth, which give students a taste–an amuse bouche, but no more–of the fields in which they will toil. Cosmetology and refrigeration schools have the right idea (I do not jest nor denigrate; these are useful, honest places).
College is not a place to learn a trade or skill of any kind. It is not job training. It is a place to think; rather, a place to learn how to think, to develop the habit of discernment. As Cardinal Newman said, college is a place to “open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, [and] eloquent expression.” College is the first step for those who would be future leaders.
What Should Be Taught
I suggested (in Part III) that “computer science” students should be housed in trade schools and not college. This is because the vast majority of enrollees in this subject only want to secure a job in programming, web or game design, or the like. These earnest, honest folk really don’t need to know more than the basics. (In a strange twist, professors, insisting on purity (and theory), won’t teach what most of these kids want to learn. Teaching actual languages is seen as an activity…best left to trade schools?)
Hey! Wouldn’t it be nice if computer students knew all about unsolvability, Turing tests, the theory of languages. It would indeed. It would also be nice if they knew all about differential equations, analysis, group theory, quantum chemistry, string theory, all the various niceties of electronic engineering, and so on, plus (for their customers) Spanish, Chinese, and French. And since no education would be complete without a thorough understanding of history, give ’em that. Shouldn’t they know something about literature? And writing? And a slew of other subjects? Yes, absolutely. Let’s well-round them!
I have to admit, I’m intrigued if not quite convinced.
I have some questions that perhaps the crowd can help me with:
- How possible would it be to disentangle research from teaching in terms of government funding to the various types of institutions?
- How would research time & effort be allocated for fields that don’t have immediate practical application or sources of outside funding?
- Are faculty so completely and uniformly convinced that research and undergraduate teaching don’t somehow inform each other?
- How much does the above vary by discipline?
- Are students’ real interests well served in this model?
- Is the library’s role in these types of institutions enhanced, diminished or about the same?