college reform, the universal instrument, and incorporeal transformations

Time magazine has college reform as its cover page story (again). The magazine polls a few experts about the problem, specifically the rising cost of higher education, but the issues are familiar by now:

  • the importance of public funds for public universities
  • the national, commerical and social value of university research
  • the ROI for students who want degrees to mean better salaries
  • the possibility of reducing costs through online learning.

The lead article focuses on undergraduate education comparing the MOOC experience of physics with physics classes at Georgetown and the University of DC. Diplomatically, each was seen as having its value. Georgetown is great (a "science spa"), for those who can afford to go. The Udacity physics course was innovative, and the DC course provided the attention those students needed. As the author, Amanda Ripley, writes of the professor, "he was helping them with many skills beyond physics. He was cultivating discipline and focus, rebuilding confidence and nuturing motivation." 

What interests me most however is the instrumental view we have of higher education. In a way this is hardly new but this economic ROI lens is a new twist on the general premise that an education can prepare you for a career. As I see it, there are two kinds of entry-level careers: those that require specific professional-technical knowledge and those that don't. In the former category we typically think of STEM careers but there are really many jobs like this from arts management to technical editing. However tehre are also many jobs that are fairly generic in terms of the skills/knowledge they require. These are your basic entry-level office work jobs in corporate and government spaces. However, I think for many of these jobs, even in STEM, the time we spend on specific skil-training is fairly low. We are mostly providing a baseline knowledge and creating a common profesional culture. This is the universal instrumentality of higher education. It is also a kind of incorporeal transformation. When the degree is conferred, a person is transformed, much in the same way as a couple is declared married in a wedding ceremony. In the university though, the incorporeal transformation occurs through multiple steps, with each grade and each credit. The student becomes a different person, employable as an entry-level professional, in part because s/he has acquired specific knowledge but mostly because they have been transformed into a certain kind of subject appropriate for such employment.

So this is the fundamental disconnect in this conversation. In a Time survey, 40% of the general population said the main reason to go to college as to learn career skills. We can't really give you those. In a few careers we can, such a nursing, accounting, or teaching where there are certificates we can award. Even in disciplines like engineering or computer science what we have is more of an articulation between curriculum and job, facilitated by internships. That's why internships are so important in those fields (and others). A college education can be applicable to a career and there are some specific skills that one can acquire in college but not nearly enough to amount to a degree. On the flip side, 36% of "college leaders" in the same survey said "critical thinking" was the most important thing. I am loathe to go down this path again, but when college leaders say critical thinking, I don't think they mean specifically the courses offered in a philosophy department but rather some generic kind of cognitive capacity that is accessible in any major one might pursue. I would argue that critical thinking in this context is another term for this incorporeal transformation. 

It is hard to speak in an open way about this subjective, incorporeal transformation, even though nearly everyone who has a 4-yr degree has experienced it. In part it is just growing up, but it is growing up in a particular way. This is part of why MOOCs are nowhere near serving the purpose of college. As Ripley noted in her article, the physics professor is dealing with more than physics. What she doesn't note, but should be apparent, is that Georgetown's "science spa" is doing the same thing: creating a different culture that transforms student-subjects. So yes, higher education is instrumental, but not in the way we typically think. If one imagines college as a series of bureaucratic hoops and discrete skills then one is seeing only a tiny part of the picture. The instrumentality of college is really about becoming immersed in and transformed by college as a form of life. 

I am sure that some would object to the picture of college I am describing as elitist. Working parents, non-traditional students, and many others are really looking for a credential to get a better-paying, more secure job; they should have a way to do that without being obligated to this immersion in college life (though it should be available to them if they want it). I agree, and I would agree that college is elitist, if by elitist we can mean something that 30% of the population acquire. I do think it means we need two clearly different paths. Maybe that would help to address the problem of students not finishing college. Right now that non-college path is dominated by for-profit institutions. 

On the other hand, if we want more people to undergo this subjective transformation, then I think we need to be more transparent about what we are doing. A significant part of our problem in the US is that we don't really value this subjective transformation. We want to see skills and career as separate from how we think and feel about the world. For someone who has been through an extensive educational process (like myself0, it is impossible to imagine that my training as a professor has not fundamentally altered the way I think and feel about the world, my political views, my social interactions, my ethics, and so on. I wouldn't say that the process is deterministic (i.e. it isn't "get this degree and think this way") but there is a feedback loop so that as one is affected in certain ways by education one makes further choices that reinforce those changes. As such, engineers end up being different from educators as cultural groups. 

This speaks to college reform in a few ways. 1) There is a significant problem with students not completing their degrees. Part of this is students running out of money for various reasons but I also think many students just get lost because they don't really understand what college is about. They think it is job skills when it is something else. We need to make this more clear and to make the connection between academic and professional cultures more apparent. 2) Governments and the private sector maybe also misunderstand what we do and so they fund and measure us in the wrong ways. If we want to take on this incorporeal transformation as a grand socio-economic project and strategy then we need to recognize that the students will need greater incentive and support, much as they do to get through K-12. 3) We need to recognize that ongoing research is an integral part of this culture. It may or may not be instrumental in its specific application, but it is instrumental in the creation of the academic culture that enacts the incorporeal transformation we desire.