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The Two Cultures of American Higher Education

Confucius once said, "A wall of dried dung cannot be troweled" (Analects 5.9). By this he meant that a student who has no desire to learn cannot be taught.

Contemporary learning theorists generally make the assumption that students will learn if given the proper kind of instruction. Teachers have only to ascertain the students' learning styles, develop an effective motivational plan, and provide appropriate instructional activities. If students don't learn, the argument goes, then the teacher hasn't really taught correctly, because effective teaching implies learning in the same way that curing implies healing.

Confucius never understood it this way. "It's not how wet the water is," he might have said, "it's how soluble the soil is." In other words, teaching is never a sufficient cause of learning. Teachers cannot make unilateral guarantees because learning is work done by the students. Students (from the Latin studere, to be eager) are those who want to learn, who strive to learn, and who bear the ultimate responsibility for learning. The question is not simply "How do students learn?" but "How can the educational system ensure that students take responsibility for their learning?"


Teaching implies a social contract between instructor and student involving mutual obligations. Teaching suggests a handshake, not something one bestows on another. Too often in American higher education, teaching remains but a proffered hand because cultural conflict hinders or distorts cooperation between teacher and student. Even in racially, socially, and economically homogeneous classrooms, conflict exists in America between the student culture and the teacher culture.

The student culture plays the "forgetting game." In this game, you forget by midterm what you have "learned" during the first weeks of class. Because you intend to remember by semester's end only what will be on the final exam, you dread a comprehensive final. As soon as the term ends, you typically dump your term papers in the trash and sell your books back to the bookstore. Formal education is a rite of passage, an inconvenience you endure until you obtain a valuable credential.

Without understanding this culture, it is difficult to explain why students pay tuition for classes they attend spasmodically, why they applaud when classes are unexpectedly dismissed, why so many fail to take notes, complete assignments, bring their eye-glasses to class, or even buy the textbook. Any theory of learning that doesn't take into account this student culture is doomed to naïveté.

Faculty members usually come from the counter-cultural minority that loves learning for its own sake. In their idealism, they are committed to their discipline, to the pursuit of truth, and to the value of critical thinking. They see education, with Cicero, as "an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity" (Pro Archia Poeta, VII, 16). They teach not only because teaching involves the sharing of knowledge but because "docendo discimus"--we learn by teaching. They admire the retentive mind. To forget what one has learned at great cost of time and effort causes deep remorse and regret. Libraries are their temples to remembrance and their vaccines for forgetfulness.

This is not to demonize students or deify teachers. Students can be models of responsibility and dedication. Teachers can be superficial, narrowly-educated, and even anti-intellectual. But on balance, two distinct cultures definitely exist in contemporary America, cultures that shape human identities and govern behaviors. This is not to blame students individually or collectively. The students' cultural behavior reveals not so much what they are as what our educational system has made of them.


Conflicts between cultures are best settled by politics--the process of bargaining between opposing interest groups. Teachers and their classes constitute opposing interest groups: The teacher desires the students to learn the subject and to learn to think; the students, with many notable and laudable exceptions, desire to earn credit with as high a grade as possible. Tension naturally develops between these two groups, and political compromises arise in order to keep both sides relatively happy.

Neither group is powerless. Teachers assign grades, but students can complain and resist. Part-time teachers and untenured teachers often find they cannot succeed without satisfying the student culture. Tenured professors also want to be liked and to see their programs flourish. In economic hard times, the very existence of a position or program may depend on student enrollments. No one completely escapes the market-driven reality of classroom and campus politics.

The faculty's power to wield the stick or offer the carrot lies in the grading system. Students focus on high grades because of their inherent prestige, their usefulness in maintaining financial aid, their importance to graduate and professional schools, and their clout with prospective employers. Grade inflation at all levels has caused the majority of students to expect A's and B's. Few today can say with a straight face that C is the average grade. Ours is a no-fault society where correction is indistinguishable from criticism and where the gracious and egalitarian ideal exerts cultural pressure on teachers to be generous rather than rigorous.

Students are not so much concerned with the internal validity and reliability of tests as with the outcome of the process. They are committed to a benevolent relativism. A fair test is a test on which more than one student makes an A. By this logic, those who do best should have A's, and the remaining grades should be raised proportionately. This is what today is referred to as "curving grades." Teachers unwilling to adjust test grades in this manner are at the very least expected to drop the students' lowest test grades from consideration when determining the final grade. A fair teacher is a teacher who helps students "succeed," not an impartial evaluator.

Temptation to cook the grade books rears its head with the close of every semester. Among teachers and students a conspiracy of silence sometimes develops whereby the teacher's grade says in effect: "I won't let it be known that you haven't learned psychology if you won't let it be known either." Teachers who continue to grade on some absolute standard of excellence often find themselves discredited as unreasonable or discouraging. One problem with student evaluations of teaching is that students have difficulty distinguishing between the teacher as teacher and the teacher as grader. Instead of evaluating the teacher's teaching, they frequently choose to evaluate the teacher's grading. Good teaching, in the mind of many students, is teaching that empowers them to earn a good grade.

Political compromises between the faculty culture and the student culture have made the objective assessment of academic outcomes within the classroom difficult if not impossible. You never know whose grades to trust. Graduate and professional schools have put increasing emphasis either on selected grades they still deem valid (e.g., calculus and organic chemistry) or on the results of standardized, multiple-choice tests like the MCAT, the GRE, the LSAT, and the GMAT. Sadly, advanced GRE's for many disciplines do not exist.

Universities get by with giving unreliable grades because universities are not academically accountable to anyone with clout. Who is the university's customer? The students are throughput; their parents pay the bills but don't actually use the product. The society of the future ultimately judges the university's product. Yet society cannot focus a response to individual colleges, and the future remains mute.

Universities must deal with economic accountability as well. As a business, every college answers to its bottom line. Alexander Astin, professor of higher education at UCLA, has observed that "academics seem content to define educational excellence in terms of what we have, rather than what we do." This unfortunate definition works because, in a pragmatic society, economic accountability (what we have) always takes precedence over academic accountability (what we do).

Academically accountable teachers must prove that their students have learned something; an economically accountable teacher must demonstrate retention and program growth. Daniel Boorstin, an American cultural historian, has remarked that "democratic societies tend to become more concerned with what people believe than with what is true." Universities, too, have been more responsive to student satisfaction than to student academic growth. Their concern for keeping students happy and matriculated means that the student culture has slowly but surely attained parity with the faculty culture in shaping the university's "system"--the sum of all traditions and practices that time has hallowed.


Many will see no need for change. After all, the emperor is clothed; the system works in its own way. Compromises have been reached to accommodate both culture and human nature. Since cultures possess such great inertia, attempting to change the American academic culture may well be an exercise in futility. At the least, it will require a cultural revolution.

For the record, I propose a three-point plan for solving the fundamental problems created by generations of cultural and political compromise:

1.Set general education goals in terms of competency rather than in terms of classes.

As long as students earn degrees simply by collecting course credits like stamps, they will be tempted to take the path of least resistance.

General education goals (those normally achieved in the first two years of college) should be streamlined, clarified, and uniformly measured. If, for example, students must know how to speak Spanish using the present, past, and future tenses, let them demonstrate that ability in order to meet the standard. If they must know mathematics or history, let them show their competence in some way other than passing a class with a "D" or better.

Nothing is achieved except on purpose. If educators cannot articulate clear objectives, it is doubtful they can consistently attain educational goals. Although it is easy to indulge in the wishful thinking that students exposed to higher education automatically take away with them a "je ne sais quoi" of great value, cold objectivity suggests just the opposite: In classes where objectives are vague, students learn little and retain little of what they do learn. The question is not, "How difficult will it be to agree upon objectives?," but rather "How can we expect students to learn if the objectives are unclear or unreasonable?"

2.Allow for greater self-pacing and individualization.

People always try to beat a system they perceive as unjust. Individual students learn neither in the same way nor at the same rate. Putting thirty or three hundred students in the same classroom and assuming they all will learn a similar amount in fifteen weeks has frustrated generations of students and teachers. If students are to take responsibility for learning, the college must provide a high degree of flexibility and adaptation in order to recognize individual differences and address individual needs.

New technology makes this possible. But the system has to catch up with the technology. The registrar's office, for example, should be prepared to put only two credits of a four-credit course on the transcript if the student has mastered only half the course objectives. Too often, bureaucratic foot-dragging prevents educational reform. It is the will to change, not the capability, that is missing in American higher education administration.

3.Reform testing and grading.

Students must have the opportunity to take tests when they are ready, not simply when the material has been "covered" and the teacher is ready. Testing and grading must become increasingly independent of the classroom, not only because carelessness and abuse vitiate the process but because the individualization of education requires more flexibility.

The current system strains the relationship between student and teacher, tempts professors to assign grades for other than academic reasons, and promotes a "judge not that ye be not judged" atmosphere. An evaluation system that openly accepts poor work as passing work clearly needs reform.

The creation of departmental testing centers where students can go on their own to take tests will not cost a exorbitant amount, but it will restore objectivity to a system that has become more and more corrupt. Teachers whose jobs are on the line will no longer be tempted to give "open book" tests in the hope that their students will at least appear to succeed. What happens, sadly, is that students who feel no accountability for learning eventually begin to fail tests where the answers lie before their very eyes. Then what is the teacher to do? This pressure to make students appear successful must be removed from the teachers' shoulders if American higher education is to retain its integrity.

To paraphrase the philosopher Robert Nozick, if one cannot say of the typical American university, "The emperor has no clothes," one can nevertheless conclude that "The clothes contain no emperor." Culture and politics as reflected in the system really determine whether students will or will not assume their share of responsibility for learning. Students and teachers are intelligent, well-meaning people trapped in a flawed system they did not create. Confucius said, "A piece of rotten wood cannot be carved" (Analects 5.9). It is time to invest some creativity and energy in reforming the system.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 16, 2006 10:07 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Things to Teach.

The next post in this blog is Time to Cop an Attitude.

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