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Jerry Pattengale

It's Broken

Mark C. Taylor's proposals to fix America's colleges and universities.

In a rare centerfold in U.S. News & World Report stands a monk in a sandstorm, pausing en route to his underground desert cave. Something seems out of place—he's holding a laptop. He's halfway between Cairo and Alexandria in Wadi Natrun, Egypt, but he's in the center of the world of thousands of American students. I had handed him my Mac and he was reading emails from ten middle schools in Western Michigan. Our Odyssey in Egypt virtual curriculum soon climbed to the top-ten most-visited websites globally (an accidental byproduct). Over five million people accessed it during one weekend, and yet we were teaching from a place so remote that when a scorpion stung our off-season guard, he almost died before other workers could carry him to the only hint of civilization—Pope Shenouda III's monastery an hour's walk through desolation.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this educational experiment is that the above article appeared not this year, but November 21, 1996, and my Powerbook (16MB) had a battery that lasted only thirty minutes. My colleague Scott Carroll (now the founding director of the Green Collection) would nightly drive an hour to the nearest phone booth to upload the monk's emails and our curriculum for the following lesson. By all accounts, the Michigan schools rated it among the best learning experiences their students (and teachers) had ever engaged in.

It was a new approach to addressing teaching outcomes that had seemed to shackle creativity and student interest. At one point, Dr. Carroll dismissed some professors from the planning sessions because their consultation became predictably pessimistic, laden with traditional educationalese and preoccupied with logistical difficulties. Every new idea was met with "Educational regulations dictate that we …" or "Research shows that …." I wrote on the board, "Philosophy before logistics."

Fifteen years later, according to Mark C. Taylor, we're still at that same crossroads. We need to find new approaches to learning outcomes or leave the profession and let others have a go. Crisis on Campus is a book-length follow-up to Taylor's New York Times op-ed piece "End Education as We Know It," which prompted a wave of bloggers large enough to shut down the website (April 26, 2009). While that provocation delivered a genuine jolt, the book version is comparatively tepid. Still, it's worth a look—not least for an overview that undercuts many outdated assumptions about higher education.

Are you aware that Harvard is paying over $517 million annually through 2038 to service its $6-billion debt from its recent investment portfolio collapse? (In other words, roughly the equivalent of ten average CCCU institutions' entire endowments—annually!) That institutions not capitalizing on the advantages of decentralized media networks (think "open source") are missing at least seven necessary advantages to keeping current with culture? That only 16 percent of today's students are the "traditional" age (18-22)? Were you aware that online education has increased between 2002 and 2007 from 9 percent of total enrollment to 21.9 percent. And can it be true that professors at higher-ranked schools average about 120 hours in the classroom annually? (Taylor reminds us that's only three 40-hour work weeks.)

What to do? Taylor argues that "the outdated ideal of faculty, departmental, disciplinary and institutional autonomy must give way to cooperative associations that extend from the local to the global." He proposes changes in six main areas.

Beginning with graduate education ("the Detroit of higher learning"), restructure the curriculum, and then move quickly to the undergraduate curriculum (making it cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural). "The principle of evaluation should always be the same," Taylor writes: "the quality of knowledge rather than the quantity of courses is the measure of accomplishment." One thing is clear in this discussion—the author is a brilliant professor. Educators should read this book simply to glean from his many personal experiments and sustained teaching/facilitating practices. (When Taylor described his "Real Fakes" curricular offering, I scribbled in the margin: "I would love to have taken this professor and course!")

Abolish permanent departments. Taylor calls for a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach: "I propose extending the traditional organization of the faculty into three divisions—natural sciences, social sciences and arts and humanities—by the formal institution of a fourth division called 'Emerging Zones.' … These new zones of inquiry would be organized around problems and themes that lend themselves to interdisciplinary investigation." The key is a flexible curriculum. He especially sees this as helping to bridge the largest gap in interdisciplinary learning, between the natural sciences and the humanities.

Increase collaboration among institutions, i.e., playing to their strengths and sharing faculty and resources for the benefit of the end users—the students. For example, Taylor calls institutions to close some language departments and to allow one school in a system to operate the German program, another the French, and so on. "Some subjects would be completely outsourced," and faculty members in these programs "would not be associated with a single college but would be required to become much more mobile."

Transform the traditional dissertation, including alternative delivery forms. In other words, make it more accessible, if not interactive. Taylor takes several shots at the proliferation of academic publishing and its rather vacuous nature. I'm reminded of a recent lunch chat with Lindsay Waters, executive editor for Humanities at Harvard University Press, over his Enemies of Promise, which should be read as background here—and Exhibit A for the return of the articulate essay. Waters describes the senseless mounds of "peer reviewed" material as "the patina over scholarly doldrums."

Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Taylor wants programs to help their students to be realistic about the slim chances of finding work within the academy. Grad students are pretty well aware of their grim prospects already, I think, but practical initiatives to facilitate and celebrate their placement in media and business would be welcome.

Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Taylor suggests moving to seven-year contracts, using performance evaluations as a means of keeping only successful ("productive") faculty in the ranks and making room for younger minds and spirits. Of course, if there's mandatory retirement there needs to be an age, which he places at seventy. Older faculty members, he alleges, are low-performers and high-budget. The former does not jibe with my experiences at Indiana Wesleyan, Wheaton College, and Miami University (OH)—and it's fair to use these since much of Taylor's book banks on personal experiences (which he sees as reflective of the national trends). Wheaton's Julius Scott published his best work within the shadow of his retirement while still mesmerizing large groups of students with his traditional but eccentric lectures. Miami's renowned Jack Temple Kirby won the Bancroft Award about the same time in his career, and the prolific Edwin Yamauchi (my mentor) still remains active a few years into his season as Emeritus Professor and is likely working on his 27th language.

Nothing is "radically" new in any one of Taylor's suggestions. There are dozens of places where a variation of each has been applied—sometimes with great success, sometimes not. And measures of "success" are themselves subject to debate. Readers will likely see a sharp disconnect between Taylor's share-the-wealth call, "redistributing intellectual and cultural capital more fairly," and Milton Friedman's views unfolding in the burgeoning for-profit education sector (which Taylor notes we need to study seriously, and even consider for collaborations and outsourcing). There seems to be no incentive or real business plan to provoke the "best" or "rich" schools to do what Taylor proposes other than goodwill: saving the majority of publics and some struggling privates. What is the end we're after, and if money and sustainability are indicators of health, why punish stellar institutions?

Crisis on Campus is both provocative and trite. It captures many familiar proposals in one place, proposals that— even today, after many years of calls for sweeping change—most educators appear too timid to stake their reputations on (especially in print). What are they afraid of? Not the popular audience, but their peers in the academy itself. And here Lindsay Waters helps us, and gives cause to salute Professor Taylor. "The idea that now pervades the academy is to avoid ideas," Waters writes in Enemies of Promise. "The most devastating put-down we have is that someone is a 'Big Picture' thinker." Taylor is an unrepentant Big Picture thinker.

Jerry Pattengale was recently named director of the Green Scholars Initiative and senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute and at Baylor's ISR. He is a Writing Partner for GiANT Impact, executive director of National Conversations, associate publisher for Christian Scholar's Review, and an assistant provost at Indiana Wesleyan University.

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