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Summer 2012
New & Noteworthy in Higher, Liberal & Classical Education
Recent developments say to me that higher education, especially humanistic fields such as Classics, may be in for a “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” in the near future – the sort of wild ride that whalers experienced when they harpooned a big one. Here are comments and links on that and other possible futures for higher education

  • Time For a Change? For a long time I thought that higher education would, for better or worse, avoid any sudden or radical change. An article “Bullish on Private Colleges” by Dick Chait and Zach First in Harvard Magazine (November- December 2011) convinced me that the economic incentives weren’t in place for serious change, at least in highly selective institutions. 
  • Then on April 18th came the revolution, at least if Tom Friedman is right in his op-ed piece The launch of, he believes, is the way out of steadily rising costs in higher education. is no shabby for-profit distance learning operation but comes with backing from top flight universities – Stanford, Penn, Princeton and the University of Michigan – prestigious faculty, and rigorous syllabuses and exams. Course enrollments are in the tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands. Their web site: 
  • 32,667 and Counting: Humanists put a lot of emphasis on small group teaching – Mark Hopkins at one end of the log and a student at the other. Can the same degree of engagement and learning take place when there’s one faculty member and 32,667 students logged in. That’s the number enrolled, when I last checked, in the course on Greek and Roman Mythology taught by Peter Struck. He and a few other humanists have apparently decided that the best way to find out what such teaching is really like is to try it. Peter’s conversation with Diane Rehm on her PBS radio program can be heard at:
  • A Case for Classroom Learning:            "… [C]lasses … are, in my mind, the best rehearsal spaces we have for democracy. The college classroom should be a place where students learn to speak with civility, to listen with respect to each other, to know the difference between an argument based on evidence and an opinion, and most of all to realize that they might walk into the room with one point of view and they might walk out with another." Andrew Delbanco on PBS:
  • No Crystal Ball Needed: The pressure will be on to give full academic credit to anyone who successfully completes a Coursera or comparable course. Beyond that just do the numbers. Assume course enrollments settle down to an average of 25,000 students, each paying $1,000 to enroll. That’s a “bargain” for students and $25 million per course for the institutions. It’s pretty obvious what that will mean in the salary demand of faculty who teach them, the elimination of other (‘redundant’) faculty positions. But what are the less obvious, long run effects? How will colleges that lack the prestigious faculty needed to participate in the Coursera roster survive? How will they have to redefine themselves and the job descriptions of those faculty members who are not declared redundant?
  • Where Will the Leadership Come From? Who will take the lead in thinking through what the new electronic course era will mean? The potential financial gains are so great that the universities participating in Coursera and EdX will inevitably have a conflict of interest. But I don’t see the necessary leadership coming from the professional associations or the big foundations. Who will step up to bat?
  • What Constitutes Success? The potential revenue stream from on-line instruction may be dazzling and the knowledge-transfer high, but liberal education aims at even more dazzling heights: long term, cumulative, life-changing cognitive and personal growth. A true liberal education has always meant more than content mastery. Is that still the case; can it be re-affirmed now when the barbarians are inside the gates? The only way to do that, I am convinced, is for those who believe in liberal education to insist on rigorous evaluation of a wide range of outcomes in both traditional and on-line instruction.
  • Taking Ownership of Assessment: Can a college’s faculty take ownership of assessment, do it right (and thereby avoid having it forced down their throats)? The answer is Yes, according to a new study, Examples of Good Assessment Practices:

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Exploring ’Extreme Literature’: My next public lecture will explore the idea of ’extreme literature’ and its implications for students’ cognitive growth. I’ll be talking about Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Melville’s Moby Dick also Job, Thucydides and Joseph Conrad, if time permits. If you’re in Athens (the one in Georgia) on November 7th come and join in the discussion.

Where Is American Philanthropy Now? Stanley Katz looks at new patterns in foundations’ work and doesn’t like what he sees: “Beware Big Donors”

Another disquieting look is Geoff Harpham’s essay “From Eternity to Here: Shrinkage in American Thinking about Higher Education” in Representations 116 (Fall 2011) pp. 42 - 61.

Putting Student Learning at the Center of the Research University: “One of my hopes for the future of research universities is that student learning will be at the center of faculty concern, research will inform teaching, undergraduate classrooms will be places of engaged, participatory learning, and a university education will be not just a means to an entry-level job, but an invitation to a lifetime of learning.” Hunter Rawlings, new president of the Associationn of American Universities. Read more at

Teaching the Digital Generation: What’s it like to read the Iliad with today’s social networking students? Peter Burian has good things to say in “Defending the Humanities”

Why Literature? A new essay on my web site explores the idea of “extreme literature” by looking at some of the earliest written works, Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Odyssey, also a recent book by Joshua Cody called [sic]: A Memoir. I argue there are powerful cognitive benefits in studying “extreme literature.” See what you think:

“You are not special…” In case you missed the viral chatter about young David McCullough’s commencement speech at Wellesley High School, here is a link to it:

Another Commitment to Quality: "The big battleship" in higher education, the American Council on Education, has become the 38th national organization to endorse Committing to Quality - Guidelines for Assessment and Accountability in Higher Education of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability. That endorsement should motivate colleges and universities improve quality, but the guidelines can also be helpful at the departmental and class level. They can be found at:

To Read:
Tony Grafton “Can the Colleges Be Saved?” - an incisive review of Andy Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

Richard H. Hersh and Richard P. Keeling We’re Losing Our Minds (New York, Palgrave, Macmillan, 2012) 

Alice W. Brown, et al Cautionary Tales: Strategy Lessons from Struggling Colleges [with a foreword by William G. Bowen] (Stylus, Sterling VA, 2012)

Congratulations and Kudos:

Steven Greenblatt for the Pulitzer Prize awarded to Swerve: How the World Became Modern (Norton 2011), a tribute to Lucretius

Madeleine F. Green on joining the staff of the Teagle Foundation

Earl Lewis on election to the presidency of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Donna Heiland on her appointment as Vice President at Emerson College

Chris Graebner’s art and design: Chris Graebner designs this newsletter while carrying on her own work as an artist. Take a look at some of the paintings from her latest show at:


John Stuart Mill: Here is a shorter excerpt: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” (Utilitarianism (1863) Chapter 2. Thanks to Paul Woodruff for helping me get this quotation right.)

Martin Luther King: “So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light … rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Thanks to Jim Tatum for this one.)

Deja Vu All Over Again: When the seven foot, 900 pound bronze statue of coach Joe Paterno was removed from the Penn State stadium, the sculptor Angelo Di Maria, commented “I say wait and see … Do we cross out his name from the history of State College?" ( Classicists will recognize a colossal statue as a form of heroization, and its removal as a form of damnatio memoriae, purging the record of the past of bad examples. We’ve seen it all before. Here’s a photo of the now removed statue:


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