A Curricular Conundrum

The co-requisite curricular model in community colleges has been gaining greater momentum thanks to positive reports out of recent pilot projects in flagship states such as Texas and California. The success reinforces the insolvency of traditional remediation, with several college systems nationwide having previously reformed their developmental education prior to the report, whose ink has had barely enough time to set before the document’s most ardent supporters have demanded its passage into policy.

But despite some genuinely significant improvements in remedial students’ learning, such sweeping reform ought to wait. (The exclusion of state funding for this curricular model represents additional difficulty.)

Data from existing studies center predominantly on students’ success in mathematics, leaving conspicuously absent sufficient analysis of writing and reading outcomes in a co-requisite curriculum. (Descriptions of how writing and reading instruction make for a natural pairing do not qualify.) Data beyond this should be approached cautiously. Accomplishing functional literacy after a lifetime of poor nurturing and inadequate instruction has routinely proven difficult. And there lacks a convincing rationale as to how reading and writing curricula fit soundly into this model.

Currently, neither can.

If remediation were a simple matter of review, courses could be fast-tracked to be completed within weeks (presently available), offer customized instruction based on student performance (also presently available), and provide instant feedback to provide maximum efficiency (also presently available). Remedial education would cease being an onerous issue, assuming students enrolled in all studies accurately represent those common to college remediation.

But they do not. Most remedial students exhibit deficiencies far more pronounced than those enrolled in study programs; actual classrooms represent not a tight range of borderline cases but an array of misplaced intellectuals and borderline illiterates that often share a similar disdain for their required enrollment.

Enrollments, however, appear to be receding and attrition rates improving, particularly for those in pathways-based curricula, but the number of incoming college students needing remediation, including those only months removed from high school graduation, remain high. And many cannot avoid succumbing to the dreadfully low rates of degree advancement for those requiring remediation, despite promising additional reforms.

Artificial intelligence, such as that found in interactive software found in remedial curricula, provides promise but often students in remediation have historically lacked the access to, familiarity with, and discipline to navigate such resources. Many students demand human interaction. A co-requisite education, if suitably outfitted with a truly interdisciplinary curriculum, might provide this.

But, currently, it does not and cannot.

Modernize the Undergraduate Curriculum

Long considered a guarantor of economic prosperity, American higher education in the 21st-century has attracted more scrutiny and ridicule for its continued surfeit of underqualified graduates that become sinking costs upon hire. The remainder will largely fight succumbing to the growing imbalance between workforce-ready graduates and a workforce that cannot readily use them.

Charles W. Eliot confronted a similar dilemma saddled between Industrial Revolutions over a century prior, when labor demanded discipline and therefore effective management, leadership, insight. But mostly management; efficiency mattered above all else. This inspired Eliot to develop a distributive framework of courses that mimicked Frederick Winslow Taylor’s taxonomy of distributive labor (whose economic benefits proved largely illusory, leading several industries to discard “Taylorism” as fraudulent.)

But a distributive curriculum that had at one time satisfied a post-mercantile, pre-industrial economy has become untenable in today’s post-industrial, mixed market specializing in knowledge and services unfathomable even to the most discerning minds several generations’ prior. As bold as Mr. Eliot’s approach to higher education proved to be, the creative destruction that had revolutionized his era would neither diminish in speed nor scope in those thereafter, soon antiquating Eliot’s “most […] useful piece of work” that widely persists today. And at prohibitive costs.

But adaptability has rarely been the raison d’etre of an unreactive higher education system, whose cumbersome and costly cafeteria-style approach to undergraduate education slips further real-life economics, spurring some to shun college for more immediate living-wage careers. Others have bypassed the traditional curriculum in favor of online platforms such as Coursera to enhance their marketability in a fraction of the time and cost. High schools have even begun streamlining entry-level pathways that permit teenagers to possibly circumvent the post-secondary market altogether, avoiding exorbitant costs in return for lackluster employment. And a mound of research and anecdotal testimonies exposes the current undergraduate curriculum as little more than an unwieldy gauntlet of hodgepodge courses—some required, many not—for students to endure for a four-year minimum sentence before graduating into uncertainty and debt.

Higher education’s continued clumsiness is a result of numerous factors, including inescapable cost-disease, but not least of all its continued refusal to tailor student enrollments to job market forecasts, its fetish with niche courses that are questionably relevant and certainly overpriced, and its ironclad mismanagement of two distinctive systems:  the four-year’s siloed system trafficking in more theory than utility while overseeing the bachelor’s degree continued decline in value; and the two year’s helter-skelter approach increased remediation, lower retention rates, and declining enrollments.

And one needn’t be a seasoned educator to understand as much. Peter Berkowitz, from the now-defunct The Weekly Standard, appropriately criticizes the disjointedness of the traditional undergraduate curriculum that bewilders students with a “mishmash of unconnected courses” devoid of a core philosophy. Forbes’ George Leef insists that the “lip service” administrators pay defending this system mocks the cohesion and consistency essential to its efficacy. But the most incisive criticism comes directly from students, both current and former, many of whom consider their post-secondary experiences as an onerous mastery of “The Art of College Management”—a punchline that has lost much its former glibness.

Yet an expansive curricular overhaul is required, already having begun with various post-secondary institutions adopting a more efficient and effective pathways approaches to career success. But operating costs of even these reforms will eventually require private business and industry investments and governance, determining both the content and the delivery methods best suited to economic success. What Georgetown and other notable universities and colleges have implemented provides the philosophical basis; more critical, however, is the establishment of an integrative curriculum that will bring to fruition a nobler, more career-oriented vision that most academic institutions squandered in the wake of the 2007-08 economic crisis, when their leaders could have realigned their curricula more purely to industry trends and standards. Instead, most sat on their hands while the federal government cornered the student loan market, resulting in a 40 percent debt increase among borrowers and whose daily high-water marks inch closer to $2 trillion. Meanwhile, influential industries as technology, health services, and finance continue to starve for suitable talent.

Higher education governances need to acknowledge that their institutions serve wholly for career preparation—the development and mastery of skill-sets imperative to any industry’s success and to any individual’s self-fulfillment. The value of an education ought to reflect its economic utility; the “well-rounded” rationale of students requiring multiple semesters of largely unproductive elective courses has lost its allure, and the continued falsehood that career preparation is somehow incompatible with a liberal education—and therefore inferior to it—deserves censure in any serious conversation.

Any career, trades included, can outfit its academic programs with general education courses tailored to the industry or sector into which graduates enter. Such integration will save students and professionals substantial amounts of time and resources while organically streamlining the learning process to forge a stronger correlation between efficiency and efficacy—hallmarks of a sustainable enterprise. And such integration reframes the well-rounded angle: students can still address peripheral issues germane to their field but that go beyond the physical workplace. Beyond naysayers’ myopia, too. Workers’ rights, technological impacts on human labor, corporate accountability, professional development, and engineering ethics represent just a handful of universal applications, not to mention those applicable to specific industries. Action-based learning would flourish on account that instruction would come directly from industry, not an academic intermediary with no stake in and little knowledge of business, economics, and innovation.

This more integrative curriculum would be consummately transactional:  as a successful business employs the ideas of its workers, so too could this new approach patent the ideas of its future professionals now prone to participate in an education centered more on relevancy than loyalty.

While numerous academic institutions have partnered with certain brokers to outfit students with relevant skills in more expedient fashion, American higher education should not have to piecemeal what should be naturally housed entirely under its purview. Doing so makes more economical sense, certainly far more than the existing conditions have proven otherwise. Third-party firms responsible for educative functions count as part of the resulting bloat of administrative functions outsourced beyond its location but somehow not counting in the bottom line.

If educators continue as gatekeepers to industries and businesses about which so many know so little, and yet decry so much; and if administrations continue to defend an undergraduate system proven largely to be defunct, then higher education will continue hemorrhaging credibility. And by folding higher education into American industry, the onerous Department of Education can finally dissolve into oblivion, with the retentive Higher Learning Commission in tow. Industries can then slip into being the accrediting bodies that common-sense commands.

Administrations and educators must concede to the economic realities from which too many have apparently worked to insulate themselves, and hand industry the reigns to steer a lost system on to a more dignified path. Doing so would not signal defeat; it would ensure sustainability that is critical to higher education and to the market justifying its existence.

The Cost Disease of College

Baumol’s cost-disease captures the economic certainty of productivity costs that innovation cannot modify, reduce, or outright eliminate will rise over time. Human labor proves the most incurable. As it is always necessary, it is eternally inflationary. Its indispensability makes it resistant to algorithms and silicon. Human labor, once the hallmark of economic progress and individual prosperity, has turned into a toxic expenditure for industries requiring more of it.

American higher education currently operates as an unsustainable expanse human labor stationed in 2- to 4-year academies, many of which exhibit congenital defects including inequitable enrollment practices, insufficient advisers and counselors, inadequate financial aid support, or curricular irrelevancy. All have garnered more national exposure, yet their endemic cost-disease and the cumulative effects warrant greater coverage.

Most attention over the past decade has gravitated toward affordability issues for students, and understandably so, but rarely considered are the productivity costs incurred by the institutions being blamed for those issues. This neither exonerates nor diminishes institutional liability. Nor does this perspective at all dilute the take that cost-disease has been overestimated when explaining excessive tuition rates. Its impact on the two-year college, however, does prove concerning.

Two-year colleges often accommodate deficits of their underserved populations beyond the academic: some sites have opted to provide daycare services to accommodate parents, other locations make food pantries available for malnourished students, while other campuses offer onsite health care services for uninsured students, including a rise in mental health services. And these populations—the parents, the low-income, the first-generation, the racially diverse, the non-English speaking, the functionally illiterate, the undecided, the uninterested, the all the above—will comprise a larger share of declining enrollments and demand more assistance programs, greater comprehensive counseling, and more expansive academic supports, all human-driven. Students who have had sparse access to learning technologies and few opportunities to practice self-sufficiency, pushing many to become more fully dependent on human-based services. This shift will subsequently require from educators a more expansive, perhaps more explicit, hidden curriculum—in loco parentis—for students whose upbringing had survived without one, but whose immediate future demands it.

These trends and roles make teaching and learning—that which we call education—a supremely human act, a dynamic that artificial intelligence can neither replicate nor replace. Although software can cultivate students’ online navigation and recall abilities, a digital environment cannot outclass what flesh and blood has long refined. Genuine interaction will remain human:  nuanced, contradictory, and temperamental—qualities that software can at best mimic.

But this human triumph pays an unavoidable cost:  provided appropriately to scale as it ought to be, higher education’s operating costs would prove prohibitive, requiring an impossibly expansive labor-force that would never be able to meet demand. Capacity drops. Quality declines. Downtrends continue. Rinse. Repeat.

Even if artificial intelligence prevails in higher education within another generation, a sustainable market for it might not. State funding will never rebound; unsustainable health care and pension costs will make sure of that. Referendums will eventually run dry of support from a disillusioned public, whose purchasing loyalties have begun prioritizing relevancy over an obscure allegiance to a brand name. Productivity costs will continue their rise, thus limiting the scale of commodification required to meet demand. Online learning serves as a reliable proxy, as its revolutionary role after 30 years has settled more naturally into a learning platform, storage unit, and conduit for faster, more novel communication. Online education’s expedition not only to improve human learning but also to replace human educators likely capsized during the high-seas reign of fraudulent for-profits.

Artificial intelligence has not failed on account of too few attempts, a lack of ingenuity, or diminished capability. Online delivery has become a curricular staple, required of many faculty programs, but it was no more a threat yesterday as current AI software will be tomorrow. The tried and true Socratic method persists, as it always should.

The most pertinent question is at what continuing costs?

In Defense against Academic Freedom

In the August 27th, 1966 edition of Saturday Review, then-Vice President Richard Nixon and the revered American Historian, Henry Steele Commager, both authored distinct editorials defining the concept of academic freedom and its acceptable applications in higher education, at that time a more respectable American institution.[1] Both men write passionately, their missives void of artifice, exhorting officials to permit students to freely exercise their political viewpoints on college campuses during the Vietnam-era, when heightened scrutiny of one’s political leanings in public forums was at a fever pitch.

As to public college[2] professors, however, both men cautioned the university in granting them expressive latitude pursuant to their contractual duties on its premises. Nixon acknowledged the natural right of these educators to hold political viewpoints but advised them to exercise self-restraint so as not to unduly inflame or influence students to adopt anti-American sentiments. To him, America held its scholars to different, higher standards of conduct after having granted them full autonomy to direct their specialized knowledge and flex their prestige within a powerful American institution. Commager couched his apprehensions in the context of an enduring legacy of higher education: “…to act as the critic and the conscience of society. Society has indeed created it [higher education] to play this role.”[3] However, he defers to the unspoken social contract insisting professors be demure toward politics while in the college’s employ: “We require you, therefore, if you would not betray your historic function, to avoid all that is merely parochial, all that is interested, all that is prejudiced.”[4]

These narratives are the table stakes in discussions on the purpose of public higher education and, by extension, the standards of its faculty. A far less commonly addressed issue, however, centers on a more discreet means that some public college educators use to advance their political leanings:  curriculum development, specifically course creation, whose content and delivery are as parochial and mediocre as the teacher’s politics are prejudiced and uninformed. Some niche courses, like Cornell’s “Tree Climbing” or San Diego State’s “Invented Languages: Klingon and Beyond,” are wondrously apolitical but questionably relevant in any way, further underscoring the deficiencies in undergraduate education nationwide.

Liberal arts and social sciences are the primary culprits, amending course catalogs with such apolitical novelties including “American Degenerates,” “Whiteness:  The Other Side of Racism,” “Cyberfeminism,” and “The Lucifer Effect:  How Good People Turn Evil.” Present in all tiers of higher education, this tactic is thickest among Ph.Ds. at four-year public institutions that have historically emphasized professional research accomplishments over effective instructional practices for over a century. Many of these doctorates are neither short on bluff nor bluster, and conveniently rationalize their pet political projects as “fun” or “more engaging” for students when all likelihood, little credence will be given to pedagogical matters.[5] Department heads rarely will follow up with an evaluation, trusting that the initial sales pitch that sounded sweet in person and read persuasively on paper will transfer just as successfully when applied in the classroom. Philosopher William James even criticized the university’s chronic tendency to conflate the conferment of a Ph.D. with the presence of sound pedagogy, leading the prominent social scientist to tersely quip, “Will any one [sic] pretend for a moment that the doctor’s degree is a guarantee that its possessor will be successful as a teacher? … his moral, social and personal characteristics may utterly disqualify him for success in the class-room; and of these characteristics his doctor’s examination is unable to take any account whatever.”[6]

Instructionally, niche professors largely default to lecture with a smattering of “loaded” discussion, whereby a class forum marches to preemptive questions basted heavily with partisanship. Student spontaneity can be hushed altogether, manipulated to favor a different view, or retailed as the opposition to then be ridiculed and condemned. Objectivity is summarily jailed while revisionism runs amok, purging tradition and vandalizing truth, replaced with fanciful interpretations of timeworn themes of power and control.

Nixon’s last of his “Four Academic Freedoms”—an intentional play on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s influential, “Four Freedoms,” decades before—preserves “the freedom of the student from tyranny by the faculty…”[7] (emphasis mine). Many niche courses represent a valid form of academic tyranny, not freedom. They are often cocktails of entitlement and fraud, blended by niche instructors and force-fed to students who experience nothing short of an academic “bait-and-switch.” Like activist judges who manipulate American jurisprudence in the name of democracy, these professors engineer clever ways to spin gold from straw in the name of education.

This strain of academic freedom runs amok of faculty’s obligations to instruct undergraduate students in a more pragmatic, essentialist manner in accordance with economic demand and unencumbered by novelty or postmodernism. Moreover, the politicization or aimlessness of a course further risks dispossessing minority viewpoints in favor of a mob majority, a tactic running aground to the inclusivity and democratization that many of niche professors preach but ironically fail to practice.

A caricature thus emerges from this brand of academic freedom—that of the college professor, pontificating ad nauseum to scores of impressionable or oblivious students, an academic sideshow further rendering American undergraduate education as the circus it risks becoming.





[1] This piece targets educators who routinely disguise their lackluster or poor teaching abilities with niche courses whose relevance to a program’s stated outcomes and objectives is tenuous at best, deceptive at worst. This is not condemning any instructor who has created what could be considered a niche course, nor is this ridiculing Ph.Ds who do exhibit best teaching practices.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, “college” is synonymous with all levels of public higher education in this paper. Also, “professor” is used interchangeably with non-Ph.D. representatives for convenience and to underscore my belief that a terminal degree rarely correlates positively to effective instructional methods. Often, there is a negative correlation, owing to the overemphasis on research at the expense of undergraduate education.

[3] Nixon, R. and H.S. Steele. (1966 Aug 27). “What do we mean by academic freedom?” Saturday Review, p. 37.

[4] Ibid, p. 37.

[5] Kevin Carey’s The End of College (2015) and Cathy Davidson’s The New Education (2017) aptly highlight the shoddy quality of undergraduate education in American colleges and universities.

[6] As cited in Carey (2015), p. 32.

[7] Nixon, R. and H.S. Steele. (1966 Aug 27). “What do we mean by academic freedom?” Saturday Review, p. 12.

The Change Colleges Need?

Goucher College’s New Curriculum and those alike have taken a revolutionary step forward in reforming what are commonly known as general education requirements. The traditional distributive method of checking boxes next to courses under distinct groupings with specific conditions to meet has fallen into disrepute at not only Goucher College, but also at The College of William and Mary (integrative, domain-based) and Arizona State University (sectors with minimal, open distributive requirements). Among all are similar numbers of available courses within each domain (or representative thereof) at around a half-dozen, significantly fewer than most traditional distributive general education requirements.

But after viewing clips on Goucher College’s website of college President Jose Antonio Bowen explaining its revolutionary approach beginning Fall 2018, I am hesitant on how applicable and successful this approach will be compared to the more alluring—and potentially damning—theory behind its presumptive success. Put differently, the gulf between theory and application appears prohibitively wider here.

I hope I stand wrong, however. The waters that Goucher and others have waded into are in desperate need a new dominance hierarchy, especially in the historically bungled pursuit of establishing a respectable undergraduate education in America.

On Goucher College’s website, specifically in the section addressing this new curriculum, President Bowen narrates a series of clips to explain this new approach to students’ first year at college. Below are a series of Bowen’s statements followed by my evaluation.

“Most of what you need to know in terms of content we cannot actually teach you because it hasn’t yet been discovered.”

This dovetails nicely with the oft-trumpeted presumption that what students are training for or being educated in now relates to jobs that do not yet exist. YouTube has a cache of mesmerizing videos that animate bewildering facts about the present and future that are more extreme than previous years’ clips, including presumed facts that further mystify this future economy. This clever marketing deepens the mystery of our immediate economic fate while simultaneously stoking the fears of students missing out on acquiring these skills that will command new roles, fields, and perhaps industries, all of which we are not yet fully aware.

Whatever mysteries that will exist, colleges are not the reasonable places to discover and demystify them. Not in their current version, anyway, even when factoring in renovated general education requirements. Business and industry are the proper places, notably those responsible for or directly impacted by the disruptions endemic to economic upheaval, good or bad. (I advocate for a more pronounced business-academia partnership in an upcoming post.)

Colleges can equip students with basic skill sets that somehow escaped so many an earlier age, but it shan’t require so many years. Nor should any current undergraduate college education in its present form, save for the rigors of STEM-related fields and industries. Not all college majors or programs are equal in economic value and reasonably so. I would never demand my literature and English credentials receive equal pay as an engineer with similar degree credentials would in the open market; collegiate programs should be treated just as accordingly.

“The most important thing in college is to learn about your own thinking, what we call being a ‘self-directed learner.’”

If students entering college do not know how they “think best” from the previous 13 years of schooling, the first two years in higher education will do little but reinforce to certain students how poor their senses of prioritization and judgment are, at least for the first year. Many students are convinced their methods of learning work, and perhaps that is true. Other students simply do not care to try something new out of a comfortable sense of complacency. (This trait complements today’s students’ collective aversion to risk-taking, including “risks” that are actually obligations, like attendance and deadlines.)

Put simply, discovery is a desire, and like confidence, it cannot be readily taught. It is far more inherent, at least in an actionable sense, which is the sense that matters most. Simply feeling inspired without capitalizing on it yields nothing productive in return. The process of discovery is not new and does not warrant the number of approaches that allegedly work this process best, especially considering young humans’ penchant for being stubbornly mercurial.

I do have to comment on Mr. Bowen’s presentation at this point in this video segment. Here, he assumes a supplicative tone when addressing the kind of traditional courses incoming students must take, such as “a little bit of” chemistry, philosophy, math, “but not everyone needs calculus.” He mitigates students responsibility to take seriously these courses and to heed essential information that without it, would render even the savviest of students useless. He grovels to students, conceding they will have to exhibit “some ability and some comfort level with” required course content. Rather than be straightforward, his tone folds into a slight shame, as how a pushover adult may act when trying to calm a group of disgruntled children. He unwittingly concludes, “so it’s really more about how you think and how you learn rather than what you learn.”

Any layperson with a lick of understanding that education in America is unforgivably substandard may find this approach so novel, so refreshing, that they would miss what experienced educators as myself find troubling:  relegating content to the peripherals of education in favor for time-consuming, trendy meta-learning theories that upend the centrality of content in any learning theory, including inquiry-based.

You should pick a major based on your desire for learning and your passion and your ability to change your mind.”

When discussing how Goucher prepares students for the future, Mr. Bowen downplays valid economic predictions as to which  industries will grow and dominate and which will wither and potentially perish. (Perhaps these are the same predictions conveniently thrown aside in favor of marketing the unknown future of careers in order to increase enrollment.)

He advises students to pursue their passions regardless of their sustainability in a rather merciless career market. “You’re going to be learning new things your entire life,” he declares. But this is immaterial. Furthermore, I do not fathom many students choosing something they anticipate hating but pursue it anyway, at least not to a degree that warrants this kind of response and subsequent curricular action. And pursuing a career that a student, now as an employee, would hate does not imply that learning new things is not a possibility. That misery deadens the ability to learn. And even if so, then that is on the student.

In all, too much emphasis on colleges employing novel strategies believing they would work regardless of the composition of the student body. There needs to be a frank conversation in literature on how significant cultural differences among student bodies, especially those enrolled in community colleges, affect curricular changes on such a large scale. Put differently, it is critical to track and analyze the success of applied educational policy on students among different geographical pockets and could provide a more accurate analysis of how to best cater to an array of student populations that cannot be reduced to a few oversimplified national statistics.

And finally, the “jobs that do not yet exist” rhetoric needs to be tempered in general and avoided altogether in education, specifically. No matter how innovate general education requirements may be, they still consume an unforgivable amount of students’ time that would be better spent immediately shadowing an industry representative before interning to further hone that student’s desirable skill sets. And from my professional experiences, many students desire to be pigeonholed in a particular career and not waste two years’ time allegedly becoming “a more well-rounded citizen,” as is the common refrain.

New roles will erupt in existing industries, true, but there will always exist enduring practices and careers requiring not only a human presence, but also human ingenuity. Problem-solving skills are critical, as are communication skills. Markets are not going to change so drastically within four – five years (or two – three for community college students) for institutions to adopt such a cavalier attitude toward traditional learning and an emphasis on content—the stuff of thought, the basis for informed decision making, the foundation of all inquiry.

I look forward to Mr. Bowen and other brave administrators and executives proving me wrong.