Please stop it, Professor Hacker! My critique of an Atlantic interview

As a regular commentator on higher education, I have covered a wide range of issues that currently plague the American university system. While the system certainly has its problems, it by and large remains one of the crown jewels of the American economy.

Treatises attacking the university system are not new, and a new book to be released next week, Higher Education?, is running over well-trodden ground. As part of the book’s publicity campaign, the authors were interviewed by the Atlantic on some of their findings. You can read the interview here. My initial conclusion: the myopia in this article is breathtaking. Let me go through all of my favorite parts:

“Schools get status by bringing on professors who are star researchers, star scholars. That’s all we really know about Caltech or MIT or Stanford. We don’t really know about the quality of undergraduate teaching at any of these places. And it’s the students who suffer.”

I know a little about the quality of undergraduate teaching at top schools since I attend one. As with any people-oriented enterprise, there is inconsistency in the quality of teaching at Stanford University. No university is immune to this basic law of human performance. However, professors here are by and large excellent teachers. In fact, it is difficult for me to identify any professor who I felt over-prioritized their research instead of their teaching (and considering that we are on the quarter system, that is a lot of professors). Have there been classes that I avoided because the professor had a bad reputation? Absolutely. I do not feel suffering because I had to do a little research to pick my classes.

As for the “star scholar” argument, I like having academic stars teaching me their disciplines. It is one thing to learn bioengineering, it is something else to learn it from one of the foremost scientists in the entire world. Research informs teaching, enhancing its effectiveness and applicability. Without it, maintaining a hold on the current developments of a field becomes mightily challenging.

“We argue that you can get a better education at second or third tier colleges.”

Professor Hacker has a very narrow view of education. He argues that professors at third-tier schools have more time, and therefore are better teachers. The problem is two-fold. First, time and quality of teaching are not perfectly correlated. Professors who do not maintain an active understanding of their fields and the events that shape them cannot be expected to provide the same level of instruction as professors whose work is challenging how we think about the world. This may matter more in the technical sciences than in the classical liberal arts, but I think there is value even in English of actively pursuing research.

The second problem, and more important one, is that learning does not just happen in the classroom. The value of the education at Stanford is its all-encompassing nature. Late night conversations in dormitories, visiting lectures, industry talks all help to place what we learn in context. Professors are crucial, but the American education system’s strength is the value of learning from the people around you - not just professors. The top schools really get this one right. Being around engaged people makes one engaged as well - it is synergistic.

“The problem is that there are just too many publications and too many people publishing.” and “And many of the publications are too long.” and “We don’t need that many new publications. We absolutely don’t.”

I agree with this sentiment to some extent. But at the same time, it is not his place (or mine!) to determine what an acceptable number of publications are. How many people should be publishing? Presumably his answer is less, but how are we going to know what is the right amount?

The power of the American higher education system is its decentralized nature. We do not allow a certain number of researchers in each field. Instead, we let them compete for intellectual domination. Sure, most papers go nowhere. So do most start-up companies. So do most politicians. But, some will make it big, and that is the whole point of the enterprise.

“I’m not even sure how many reputable scholars are really known for being good teachers. Many don’t want to teach; they don’t have the personality for it.”

Blame the PhD system, which in some cases requires more than a decade to complete. The length of time requires a monastic existence, and a commitment to research at the expense of building relationships. Unfortunately, good teachers are correlated with social people (not perfectly mind you), and thus many of the potential good teachers do not get past the system.

“They can always learn vocational things later, on the job.” and “That’s why I say they should take a year to work at Costco, at Barnes & Noble, whatever, a year away from studying, and think about what they really want to do.” and backing off later, “I wish more people could do the Old Navy thing, though.”

If there has been one trend among my friends, it is the relentless pressure since the economic downturn to move away from the liberal arts to more practical fields. I was once political science, but seeing what the future had in store for me quickly changed my mind to Mathematical and Computational Sciences. I still consider that decision one of the best I have made. Not only do I get the advantages of a broad liberal arts education, but I get useful skills that can solve real-world problems and use that liberal arts background in action.

Professor Hacker is going the wrong direction on this one. I think that all students should study the liberal arts within a broader skills-based context. There is nothing wrong with philosophy or history or English, but graduating without an identifiable skill is simply not smart economically.

Sadly, Professor Hacker’s advice to work at Old Navy worked great in the old economy. Too bad those jobs are gone too. Unemployment is the option that too many graduates are facing, and I am sure quite a few wish B&N still had a few more openings.

“Michigan is actually a much better university than Ohio State-its reputation, its medical school, its law school, and so on. It makes you wonder whether Ohio is putting so much into its sports teams because its academics really aren’t so great.”

Ouch. But true.

“Question: Still, graduates of Missouri Western State have to work extra hard to sell themselves. They don’t have that Ivy League seal of approval that allows them to waltz through doors for the rest of their lives. “ Response: “Absolutely. They have to stand out. But I like Missouri Western State.” and “At a school like that, you have a decent chance of finding a mentor who will write you a strong recommendation, better than you would at Harvard.”

Here is the problem. Everyone cannot stand out. Everyone cannot be the star at Missouri Western State, anymore than everyone can go to Harvard. Furthermore, academic reputation matters in all recommendation letters (less at professional schools than graduate schools though). Having a professor at a third-tier school say that a student will become a leading health care expert is good. Having the best health care expert in the field recommend you is even better. In the end, I just like the bias for Missouri Western State seen in Professor Hacker’s answer.

“I mean, you took the SAT! It’s multiple choice, a minute and quarter per question. What does it really test? It tests how good you are at taking tests!”

That’s the point. It is the same test given to everyone, and allows relative comparison. This is essential given the huge diversity of secondary institutions in America. “Gaming the test” is another way of saying that students study for it. Can they figure out the tricks, do they have the motivation to try to do well? There are other things that the SAT tests than just English, Math and Writing.

“Every student is capable of college.”

Pipe dream. I believe every student can be made ready for college, but not every student going to college is ready for it. There is a level of maturity required that even bright students sometimes lack. Sometimes, it is not about the level of knowledge but just the character of the individual that is necessary for learning. Teachers cannot fix everything.

I look forward to reading the book when it arrives in August.