Humanist Perspectives: issue 159: Something Didn’t Happen (on the 25th Anniversary of Arts 1)

Something Didn’t Happen
(on the 25th Anniversary of Arts 1)
by Robert Rowan

It has for a very long time been acknowledged by a number of intelligent friends of higher education that undergraduate education in North America, most inexcusably in the first two years — the lower division, is a failure. This heavy criticism is voiced by friends of the enterprise, not by hostile critics or Philistines. Responsibility for the failure lies with the dominating, prestigious, research-driven universities, and within those institutions the responsibility can only be traced to the overwhelming majority of faculty whose minds and hearts are devoted to research, to graduate students and post-bachelor degree training. But that sentence merely indicates the site of the problem. The problem itself is that by and large professors don’t recognize that the undergraduate education for which they are responsible is a failure. Now there may be uneasiness, some ambivalence or even residual guilt on this matter within the professorate; I suspect there is. Nonetheless, as judged by practice, one would have to conclude that professors think undergraduate education should consist almost entirely of the initial or preparatory stages of training for an academic or research profession; as though undergraduate students were going to follow the paths of their teachers, but then don’t.

Now we should be altogether clear that we’re not talking here about Caltech or MIT. Therefore the fact that only a tiny, tiny fraction of undergraduate students are or should be headed in that direction in any given academic generation should make a fundamental difference to the educational programs offered. But it doesn’t. The now standard undergraduate offerings just labour on.

Why is that? Why should professors have adopted such an ill-suited set of attitudes towards undergraduate education? Ill-suited it is, but odd it is not, because that’s just what the professors themselves know or recognize since they are the products of that system. They are the ones who didn’t stop along the way, for whose careers, apparently, the undergraduate curriculum was well-suited. In their eyes it represents things as they should be for it reflects their training and recruitment, it stands behind their competence and confidence, and is the focus of their academic values, interests, ambitions, rewards and prestige. That is to say, it represents virtually everything solid and good that they see attached to faculty research careers. That is why, to put the matter another way, the research-graduate school tail now wags the educational dog. So the resulting lack of respect for and intelligent care of the undergraduate level should only have been expected, and that’s a pity. But even more’s the pity since given that condition it’s not at all clear that a better undergraduate curriculum can be generated by or be taught by most of the faculty who now dominate the academy. I mean to say that even if by some miracle professors could acknowledge the failure at the undergraduate level, it’s not t all sure that many of them are capable of doing better in any direction other than the direction they know and are wedded to now. Even if the spirit were willing the flesh may be too weak. They themselves, in other words, may not be suited to the task. Their academic disposition and competence simply may not be sufficiently versatile.

Perhaps I too much lack confidence in my former profession. Perhaps I’m unduly skeptical of the range of its competence. Perhaps the professorate could in fact do better by undergraduate education. Perhaps. But there is no “perhaps” about this, that it is certain that better can be done only if wide recognition grows that things as they are are a failure and that more of the same will aggravate the condition, not ease it.

Don’t take my word for it. The failure is widely and authoritatively acknowledged and has been so for many years. Early in the century Alexander Meiklejohn indicted it. Clark Kerr, the former President of the University of California, in 1984 baldly described undergraduate general education as a “disaster area.” Kerr was not the first or only one to argue that a coherent liberal education has not been for a long time and is not now available except by accident in any but a few programs across the continent. The Commission of Inquiry on Canadian University Education, headed by Stuart Smith, argued at length in 1991 that nothing less than radical change was necessary. Ernest Boyer, now President of the Carnegie Foundation, has for years been proclaiming the same judgment. The recently appointed President of Stanford University, Gerhard Casper, conceded the essential truth of at least a milder version of that indictment. (Stanford is regularly rated among the dozen high-powered, most prestigious universities in North America.) As reported in The Los Angeles Times, he suggested that his first task would be to help improve undergraduate education. Since minor deficiencies are not usually cited by intelligent people upon taking office as ”first tasks,” it is safe to assume that he sees undergraduate education as the most serious of Stanford’s educational problems. Ironically, one might also assume he could have, and maybe would have, said the same thing had he been appointed president of almost any other prestigious university of North America. The presidential agenda could be the same for all, or most all, and that is party of my point. In a masterpiece of diplomatic understatement, President Casper went on to say that the first task, improving undergraduate education, would be a difficult job given the research emphasis of so many professors. It would be a mistake to conclude from that remark that the feature of “research emphasis” that causes the difficulty centers on time and the shortage thereof. Time is always short for serious productive people. But time and its use is itself a function of the priorities assigned to various activities by individuals, including professors. Thus the priorities assigned by the professorate of North American universities is much more revealing of the nature of the problems of undergraduate education than is the matter of the constant shortage of time, per se.

Now other studies by eminent, knowledgeable figures could be cited to the same effect. And to all these we should add the half-articulated dissatisfaction of those who have recognized the deep, persistent failure of undergraduate education as it is offered mostly everywhere in North America. I refer here to students and ex-students, many of whom in my own (and in my colleagues’) experience express a nagging intuition that somehow it didn’t turn out quite right. Something didn’t happen that would have made a difference. They report a sense of disappointment, necessarily vague because they have trouble identifying whatever it is that might have made a difference But they are not pointing to a deficiency in their wage-earning capacities, not at all. The sense deficiency in their university education has to do, rather, with its utter failure to provide any sense of the whole. Undergraduate years consist almost entirely of narrow, segmented, disconnected pieces or bits, lacking depth, range and perspective. Thus these years utterly fail to illuminate even so central a question as who we are and what we’re doing. That kind of illumination is just what programs of a liberal sort set out to provide. They can provide it well if given the chance. And there really has to be some corner of the university which sets about to do that, because if not then and not there, then where and when? Lacking perspective and coherence, the knowledge students have gained through their undergraduate years tends to leave them empty though half-full, half-knowing yet ignorant, somewhat bemused, skeptical and disappointed.

But acknowledging the failure of undergraduate education, even by insiders, makes little or no difference. Nothing really changes; if anything, conditions are worse on the whole than they were 25 or 40 years ago. The features collected together to constitute this indictment will be variously emphasized by various critics, but somewhere the following features are likely to be prominent:

So there it is, an indictment of undergraduate education in North America as set forth by its friends, knowledgeable insiders. The indictment is old, widely acknowledged as basically accurate, and of undeniable significance. Yet little or no improvement is visible. Pretty clearly no fundamental change for the better will take place in the character of undergraduate education unless and until the research-dominated orientation of institutions of higher learning loosens its strangling grip on the university. Nothing will change, really, until that orientation itself no longer decisively directs and rewards the moral and intellectual energies of the institution. Studies will proliferate, trenchant criticisms will continue to be heard, feeble gestures and much waving of hands will be seen, but unless a different and more appropriate set of standards to guide undergraduate education is somehow adopted nothing will change. Yet if that research-orientation must be severely qualified over a long period of time, then we face an order so immense as to make it most unlikely to be filled, because what has come to be, excessive and self-important thought it is, is of course the result of no accident. It has credentials. The “bad guys” did not one dark night overwhelm the “good guys” and then manage somehow to extend and make permanent their deeply flawed rule. As to be expected in any large human enterprise, there are vices and virtues in this story, but the key to it is, as I indicated earlier, more complicated and challenging than that.

I just now said that the dominating research orientation of higher education was “excessive and self-important” and I want to distinguish those traits from what would be the appropriate and important role that that orientation should play. The pursuit of knowledge, research, is one of the great human vocations, and its achievements are among the glories of the human mind. If it’s not the brightest star in that constellation, there are few brighter ones. The pursuit of knowledge, thus, is a truly important thing. But in its modern university mode it has become self-important and domineering, and that’s a different thing. In its self-importance it relegates other vital concerns not merely to second or third place, but in practice relegates them almost off the scale … case in point: the heedless treatment accorded undergraduate education, especially the lower division, in our universities.

I can’t sketch even a short version of the whole tale today, though aspects of it will be implicit in things I have said and will say. I can take time to note, however, that the research orientation, sustained over generations, has severe negative consequences for liberal education not just in its heedless indifference or outright opposition, which are potent enough.; It produces other equally potent consequences because it makes faculty recruitment and retention for even modest programs or courses of that type so difficult in the long run as likely to be fatal.

Arts one has suffered from that problem through most of its career. It simply has difficulty recruiting and retaining regular members of faculty to teach in it for one or two years. It has had to recruit many instructors from other quarters. In some cases that has lowered its quality, in some cases not. But it has kept the program marginal in the Faculty of Arts, and more importantly, it keeps it marginal in the interest and respect it generates in the university at large. It has survived, as a consequence, mainly through the extraordinary devotion of a relative handful of regular faculty and by the skin of the Dean’s teeth.

The situation facing Arts one in this regard is not unique. Meiklejohn’s Experimental Program at the University of Wisconsin in the 20s and 30s foundered on that problem. Tussman’s program at Berkeley in the 60s ended, unable to solve the faculty problem.

The undergraduate portion of Columbia University, Columbia College, has for many years offered a prescribed liberal, great bookish curriculum. This program is compulsory for all students, with some electives to round out the schedule. The curriculum changes very little if at all over the years. Columbia is able to staff this program simply by assigning post-doctoral fellows to it, and by bringing significant moral pressure on regular junior and senior faculty to teach in it. In short, Columbia insures that the program is staffed, because the university is committed to it. Where programs rest on volunteers it’s hard to point to successful long-standing programs of liberal education in the research-oriented universities.

Why is that? The short answer is that the training and recruitment of university faculty members relies essentially on research. Thus the bona fide intellectual interests of these scholars focus on research. That tends steadily to override, to displace such concern as there might be for teaching in a program of liberal education, even one so inherently satisfying as Arts One can be. Satisfying it is, but very demanding it is as well. I have found it much easier to teach regular courses than to teach in Arts One, and I’ve done a lot of both. In addition, promotion, rewards status, mobility and prestige all follow the path of research productivity almost without exception, despite verbal protestations to the contrary.

So thus it is and thus I’m afraid it will continue to be on the faculty recruitment front for programs or even courses of a liberal type. The whole tide is set strongly against them. It isn’t that those who are indifferent or hostile to liberal education are somehow bad guys – hot at all, its that they’re doing what they were trained to do, recruited to do, rewarded for doing, and are themselves devoted to doing. No puzzle there. The puzzle, rather, is why as many of us as there are still continue to believe that there must be some corner for liberal education in the modern research-dominated university. There’s a loving not wisely, but too well!

Detailed comments on the establishment and structure of Arts One, from this point in Dr Rowan’s talk, are available on request; please contact Editor, Humanist Perspectives,

I wish a poll could be taken of all professors in North American universities. I have some questions for that poll. The direction of the answers to these questions might or might not be very revealing. Here are my questions:

  1. Do you concede that liberal education is not generally available in North American universities?
  2. If you do concede that, does it occasion regret or guilt?
  3. Would you encourage your own children to get a significant piece of liberal education if they can?
  4. Would you sacrifice much or little to send them to places where chances of a liberal education are better?
  5. Looking back, would you have chosen a more liberal education for yourself if it had been available?
  6. If you received some fair measure of liberal education, do you now regret it or view it as not having been worthwhile? How do you rate it?
  7. Do you have serious reservations about teaching assistants playing anything other than a most minor role in the education of your own children?

If the answers to my questions run in the direction I hope they’d run, then one must ask simply what has gone wrong and stays wrong when the whole of university undergraduate education is North America is the responsibility of and is entirely in the hands of those who were polled? If the answers to my questions do not run in the direction I hope they’d run, then more power to Arts One! And to Arts One, many happy returns! It’s a kind of miracle it happened at all, and to have survived for twenty-five years is, given what universities are, a major miracle indeed, and it is one well worth celebrating.