Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

The inclusiveness of the 1700's

The next section of Hofstadter's documentary history of American higher education deals with the movement toward non-denominational institutions.  The pre-Revolutionary portion of the 1700's saw intense debates over whether institutions of higher learning should favor one particular Protestant sect or be open to all sects.  The majority view favored non-denominational institutions, though there were arguments that the best way to protect freedom of conscience was through denominational institutions, to avoid compromises.  The most vocal debates seem to have been over Columbia University (then called King's College), which ultimately settled on a non-denominational approach.  Brown chose to have explicit religious quotas on its board of trustees, so that all of the major Protestant sects would be represented.

It would be easy to look back at these debates over which Protestant white males to favor and see a hopelessly unenlightened society.  If we look only at where the society was at in its evolution then I agree with that criticism.  However, if we look at the pace of the evolution, and the energy devoted to expanding inclusion, protecting conscience, and checking sectarian forces that could fuel conflict, then there is much to praise in the movements of that time. It was a time of great progress and great energy for reform.  If they did not go as far as we have gone it is only because of where they started, and not for lack of attention to inclusion across social and ideological divides and the implications thereof.

On the other hand, while this attention to matters of inclusion bears much resemblance to academic concerns of today, there is one crucial difference:  They were not seeking to achieve a balance of Protestant sects, just to allow a balance of Protestant sects.  They were inclusive in spirit but there was no affirmative action here.  I use the phrase "affirmative action" not in any loaded sense involving trade-offs in admissions criteria, but only in the sense that there was no deliberate action.  They allowed people of many sects but did not express any urgency about seeking out a balance among students of many sects.  They wanted colleges and universities that stayed out of sectarian conflicts, not colleges and universities that sought to redress conflict by enrolling balanced student bodies.  For all of the parallels with the modern dialogue on inclusion and diversity in academia, this is one key difference.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

“Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about about mission statements.”

I've been arguing with some people over whether it's worth spending effort on revising a mission statement.  I maintain that most or all mission statements in higher ed are worthless because they come before the meaningful decisions, not after.  A mission statement has high-minded phrases and pleasant words.  There's nothing wrong with that, except that it can't guide decision-making.  "Academic excellence" is great, but what does it mean?  "Research" is obviously important, but every time a resource decision comes up you have to decide if one person's research program is more worthy of resources than another's, or if in this particular instance research should not get resources at the expense of classroom instruction, or if growth in an area of existing strength is a better use of resources than development of a new area.  And so forth.

Each of the examples that I posed in the previous paragraph involves a trade-off where reasonable people might differ.  The basic problem is that a mission statement doesn't help you resolve the dilemma.

Now, this is not to say that I'm not a fan of having people decide what their priorities are.  I am very much a fan of that.  I am coordinating my department's efforts to convert our curriculum from quarters to semesters.  A year ago I started this process by asking faculty in my department and client departments (i.e. departments whose students take our physics classes) what they wanted most, and pointing out trade-offs that would be encountered. After these conversations, we didn't draft a high-minded statement.  Instead, we looked for areas of agreement and put different values and considerations on the table, and worked through different scenarios for possible requirements.  Over time, a curriculum emerged, and I can point to consistent themes that run through the curriculum that we agreed on. We started with a large series of goals and negotiated something that is not a bunch of clunky and mismatched oddities, nor is it a bland collection of inoffensive second choices, but rather a reflection of common concerns that many people have consistently expressed over the years.

The problem is that this took work.  It took a lot of discussion of real, tangible trade-offs. And the only reason that we were able to focus our minds is that there were real stakes. The curriculum may just be a piece of paper right now, but we know that it will have real consequences because in a few years we will be teaching the classes on that list.  Students will be taking those classes.  Students will be preparing via the prerequisite classes that we agreed on.  There will be concrete action by real people.  At every step of the conversation, it was clear what sorts  of concrete actions we would take if we agreed to an idea that was on the table.

A mission statement is different.  A mission statement starts from the disparate goals and a group of people, and condenses them to a few high-minded sentences.  There's no hard work, and no concrete trade-off.  All of the hard stuff is kicked down the road.  It means nothing.  The idea that you can sort out your priorities via high-minded verbiage rather than decisions with consequences is a false promise sold by consultants and managers whose only interest is padding the resume for the next step, and it's bought by people who are desperate to be better and want to believe that it can be accomplished via secret tricks and correct politics.  It's liars selling to lunatics.  It's the fantasy of an easy path to what can only be won by sweat and blood.

If you absolutely insist on drafting a mission statement, here's my advice:  First work through some hard decisions involving real trade-offs and tangible resources.  After you've done that work, see what sorts of themes ran throughout your decisions.  Only now do you know what your actual priorities are, and if you are absolutely insistent on it you can distill those priorities into some high-minded statements that you paste into documents and display on plaques...at least until facts on the ground change.  Then you might have to make some more hard decisions rather than just appeal to nice words on plaques.

Tidbits on higher ed in colonial America

I've mostly just skimmed the primary documents in Hofstadter's book so far.  A few observations:

  • In a history of Harvard written in 1702, Cotton Mather extols the accomplishments of Harvard's first President.  One of the key things singled out is fundraising accomplishments..
  • By 1723, Harvard's faculty were at war with the Overseers of the Harvard Corporation (roughly the equivalent of a modern Board of Trustees or Board of Regents), and writing letters and essays on it.  Any observer of modern higher ed would recognize this situation.
  • In the 18th century, Great Awakening preacher George Whitefield was preaching throughout the colonies. In Boston he drew a huge crowd for a sermon that included criticisms of Harvard for falling short in the spiritual preparation of their students and for allowing students to read "bad books."  Whitefield would probably agree with modern efforts to put trigger warnings on syllabi for books with disturbing content.  Also, the faculty of Harvard fired back with just as many essays as modern faculty write in response to perceived threats to academic freedom.

On the other hand, early American university charters make it quite clear that the mission was a combination of inculcating religious virtue, preparing upper-class professionals, and in particular (but far from solely) preparing clergy.  That is very different from the purpose of the modern university.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Next Book: American Higher Education--A Documentary History by Richard Hofstadter

I liked Anti-Intellectualism in American Life so much that I figured I should read some more Hofstadter, so I will. I'm going to plunge into his two-volume American Higher Education--A Documentary History. I have only flipped through the pages so far, but it appears to be a lot of very short, largely self-contained chapters.  This will be interesting.

EDIT:  Oh, I see.  It's an edited collection of primary documents.  So far I'm reading documents from Harvard in the 1600's.  The ideal of higher education promoting virtue is definitely in there. Hofstadter takes pains to point out that the Puritans did want an educated clergy but they didn't only want an educated clergy.  They wanted well-read leaders in society, intellectually-grounded professionals.