Sunday, December 21, 2008

Why doesn’t college work better? An Introduction

As much as I like teaching, it’s often frustrating, seemingly relentless (part of why I’m buried and not blogging as much these days) and short of tangible rewards. On top of that, criticism of higher education is common, from employers to students. Why? What prevents colleges and universities from performing better?

I’ve thought about writing a series of reflections about this for over a year. At that time, however, I was also angry at a handful of related issues, and it wasn’t the time for clear thinking. Now that I’m merely buried in work, though, I’m ready to explain. The problem, in no particular order, is students, professors, high schools, parents, taxpayers, administrators, government, employers, guidance counselors, economics, culture, and society at large. Did I leave anybody out?

As I find a moment here and there, I’ll explore these areas one by one, labeling them when I do as part one, part two, etc. But here’s a start.

Higher education exists for one purpose--to continue. Seriously, no irony. It always has, since its inception in the 12th century. Sure, if research occurs, if education happens, if knowledge expands, terrific. But the system is set up not to reward those endeavors, but to continue. In fact, not only have many new ideas originated outside of supposed intelligentsia, but also those institutions often opposed the new approaches. Despite its more recent “liberal” label, college is a thoroughly conservative institution.

All the other stakeholders have much the same focus--to survive. Admittedly, lots of people throw themselves into endeavors for lots of commendable reasons. But the bottom line is survival, not growth. What growth does occur is a byproduct. Add a healthy dose of self-justification, and we have a system of higher education.

So join me on an exploration, and I look forward to your comments along the way.


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