Changing Higher Education

Stanley Fish’s offering “Higher Education’s Future: Discuss!” in today’s New York Times doesn’t provide anything new–but that’s not his fault. He writes about a panel discussion among four college presidents, ending:

Not that I have anything more scintillating to offer. I’ll just wait for the next panel discussion and hope to hear the good news.

He got nothing, really, out of the discussion–but I, and other members of the faculty, can take away a great deal from Fish’s reporting.

We can learn (or re-learn) that nothing is going to change for the better in higher education through college presidents.

Nor is it going to change through boards of trustees, politicians, reporters, or even (these days) through students.

The only people in a position to improve American higher education are the faculty.

Yet all we’ve done, for the most part, is complain bitterly about all of those other constituencies. Recently, at least. None of us (or very few of us) has rounded up like-minded colleagues and said, “OK, we’re going to show you how to do this.” And then done it.

We could make huge changes at our own campuses, even now, had we but the will. We could re-shape the future of higher education in ways that would make all of us–and our whole society–proud. But we don’t.

The theme for my upcoming (Jan/Feb 2013) first issue of Academe as Faculty Editor is “The Art of Education.” I chose that because I believe strongly that we are involved in an art–but are being reduced to paint-by-numbers. The only way we are going to prove that we don’t need that kind of guidance is by showing results, works of art (our programs, our graduates) that people can ooh and aah about.

There are so many things we could be doing. I want to use, for example, Fred Keller’s ideas from his old “Good-Bye, Teacher… “ article, creating (among other things) suites rather than classrooms, suites containing lecture halls and performance spaces, discussion rooms, individual study areas, and faculty offices. This would entail a new type of ‘learning community’ and a flexibility much more possible today (given digital technology) than in Keller’s day. I’ve been talking about this for over a year now, but haven’t done it. Why? Because, quite frankly, I haven’t the time to organize it.

Or, that’s what I tell myself.

True, doing something like this takes a lot of work, and includes a great deal of risk. Most new things we try will fail–but that doesn’t mean they weren’t worth the effort, and it certainly doesn’t mean that student education will be hurt. On the contrary, the students will learn more through participation in a failed experiment than they will sitting through more of the same old thing. And we faculty will know a little better how to proceed the next time.

The other thing holding me back is that I, like so many faculty, really don’t like to work with others. I’m used to controlling the classroom and my research. I need to learn to be more collaborative, working with others on a more substantial basis–not simply waiting for them to fall in line with my “genius.” For that just ain’t a-gonna happen. When I ran my own business, I could make the decisions and move ahead with them, knowing that success or failure was on my head alone. In education, that’s not possible. For different reasons, certainly, most of my colleagues are as unwilling to genuinely cooperate as I am. We all need to get over that.

If, that is, higher education is going to change to meet a changing future.

Fish says he’s waiting for good news. At this point, he’s an administrator and a pundit… he is not in a position to create the kind of change that’s needed (though it may seem a little ironic, administrators will never be the sources of change–all they can do is provide the “space” for it). That’s up to us.

It’s the faculty he’s waiting for.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.