Does American college need reform?

Examining higher ed.
Nov. 15 2005 8:10 AM

America's Top University

Does college need to be reformed?

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This has not happened everywhere, especially not in liberal arts colleges, which have mostly remained bastions of general education, focused as they are entirely on undergraduate students. But even among these colleges, there are many Harvard wannabes that demand high levels of research productivity from faculty members who used to be primarily teachers. These institutions also encourage the same sort of disciplinary specialization for students that has distorted the mentoring capacities of their teachers.

To be sure, the news is not all bad. Many of the best research scholars are also brilliant and dedicated teachers. The same can be said of many of the graduate students who increasingly instruct younger students. In addition, countless millions of dollars have been poured into improvements for libraries and other physical facilities, many of which are primarily for the use of undergraduates.

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Still, I do not think we are doing all we can do to come to terms with either the intellectual or the structural difficulties that confront American undergraduate education in the 21st century. I'm dubious that the U.S. Education Department's recent appointment of a commission on higher education to develop what Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings calls "a comprehensive national strategy" will offer much more than blue-ribbon-style pronouncements on the thorny financial problems facing a higher-education system that has become prohibitively expensive.

But there are promising signs of interest elsewhere. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has launched a decade-long initiative "to expand public and student understanding of what really matters in college—the kinds of learning that will truly empower them to succeed and make a difference in the 21st century." Harvard University has begun a serious effort to re-imagine its core curriculum, and what Harvard does always has an impact on other educational institutions. The University of California has appointed a prestigious commission to re-examine undergraduate general education across all of its campuses. The fact of the matter is that our system of higher education is so diverse and complex, and the challenges are so many, that there are not going to be national or simple answers.

I see twin issues confronting us. The first is organizing undergraduate educational experiences in light of the breadth and complexity of contemporary knowledge across all fields. Can we sustain the ambition of the first half of the last century to cover or at least sample the great ideas of the (Western) world? What constitutes "general education" in a globalized world? Or do we need to reconceive the problem and require students to dig deeper and more imaginatively? How to do that? This is a difficult intellectual problem, but it is also a pedagogical problem. Do the techniques of teaching and learning that we have traditionally employed for undergraduates suffice in our new intellectual circumstances? What we have learned, I think, is that the most effective learning is active learning, that teaching must involve presenting students with problems to solve rather than merely lecturing about those problems. We need to ask whether we are getting the most out of technology for both teaching and learning, and how we can use information technology as a better handmaiden of active learning—for instance, by creating Web sites that permit students to research a wide variety of primary sources in order to create their own solutions to the sorts of problems that animate their courses.

The second issue is structural, and it particularly (but not solely) concerns universities. I suppose we are past the point of no return in restructuring the university as an organization based on research centers, and the recruitment of faculty almost entirely according to their aptitude for research. If so, what can we do within the university to utilize this reality for the benefit of undergraduate education? There is, for instance, widespread agreement on the importance of undergraduate research as an effective learning strategy. It has been highly successfully, especially in the sciences. We are coming to believe that students in all fields must engage in collaborative learning experiences. How can those be better used in the humanities and social sciences? Is there anything to be done about reorienting the reward system in faculty recruitment, promotion, retention, and compensation to encourage more engagement with undergraduate students? Does "Mr. Chips" have to be a figure of fun in the contemporary university, or could he (or she) be a model to emulate?

I once carelessly said that if I had a magic wand I would know what to do in order to begin reforming undergraduate education. So, Slate has asked an assortment of academics—professors and a president, from large and small, public and private institutions—to answer the question: What would you do with the magic wand? Their answers will post over the course of the next three days.

Click here to read answers to the question: What should undergraduates emerge from college knowing?

Stanley N. Katz is a professor in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs at Princeton University. He is the president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies, the national organization in the humanities.