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New & Noteworthy – Items of Interest in Higher Education
Autumn 2014
The school year has started, new students have unloaded their “stuff” and enrolled in classes. Since social scientists keep reminding us that generational differences are real and fast changing, the questions “Who are these students?” and “How can we reach them?” become more intense.

The American Freshman: As they unpack their stuff, first year students also fill out questionnaire after questionnaire. One of the most revealing (though boycotted by most of the Ivies) comes from CIRP, the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA. The 2013 survey is now available. Guess what? 82% of students surveyed considered being “very well off financially” an essential or very important objective. In this economy why shouldn’t they? More interesting to me is the interest in “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” on the part of 44.8% of the students surveyed. (The figure is higher at HBCUs). That number has slipped a bit from the preceding year, but still points to an appetite for an education that deals directly with the big questions of human values.

Liberal Education’s Dirty Little Secret: The interest reflected in CIRP’s question about ”a meaningful philosophy of life” is both an opportunity and a problem for liberal education. It’s an opportunity because so many big texts, from classical times on, wrestle with big questions of this sort; it’s a problem because they challenge the assumption that what really counts is indeed “being very well-off financially.” The secret about liberal education is that it regards such unexamined assumptions as not worth living by. Hence, liberal education is deeply counter-cultural, a threat to false ideas about “richness.”
Are They Sheep? WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ thinks they are and in Excellent Sheep goes after them with a shot gun, not a rifle. The book’s subtitle shows the general line of attack on Ivy League and other highly selective colleges: "The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.” The picture he draws of undergraduates at these colleges doesn’t match what I hear from colleagues, but his comment that many students today are “great at what they are doing but [have] no idea why they are doing it” echoes the frequently heard complaint that students have no clue what their education is for. How could they when colleges and universities do so little to help them answer this question?
Will They Grow Up Conservative? 
DAVID LEONHARDT argues they might, “But think about people who were born in 1998, the youngest eligible voters in the next presidential election. They are too young to remember much about the Bush years or the excitement surrounding the first Obama presidential campaign. They instead are coming of age with a Democratic president who often seems unable to fix the world’s problems." We’ll see. Meantime, you can trace changes in the political views of your birth cohort in an interactive graph by AMANDA COX.
Mr. Vasari, Are You Sure You Wouldn’t Rather Be a Plumber?: "[A] lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree …. I'm just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need." Barack Obama
Does Curbing Grade Inflation Affect Students’ Choice of Major? A study by KRISTIN E. BUTCHER and others of Wellesley College’s efforts to reduce grade inflation shows a large shift (30%) away from majoring in departments that reduced grade inflation: “The fraction of a graduating class majoring in economic (and to a lesser extent in the [natural] sciences) increased and the fraction … in other social sciences fell, with the fraction remaining flat in the humanities.” (p.199) Since this coincided with the recent recession, the figures may simply reflect frightened lemmings running to what they assumed was the job-security of an economics major. Anecdotal evidence suggests a counter trend toward fields that make no apology about being rigorous and are frank about the prospects of post-graduate employment.
Creativity, Anyone? A tabulation of where the recipient of MacArthur Fellowships (the “genius awards”) went to college shows that about 26% of them went to private liberal arts colleges. That’s an amazing figure since only about 3% of American college students attend such institutions. This report, from CECILIA A. CONRAD, Vice President of the MacArthur Fellows Program, came at a conference “Celebrating the Value of Liberal Arts Education,” sponsored by Wabash College’s Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts. The Center has produced very valuable studies on what really works in liberal education.
Did American Business Blunder When It Switched Its Recruiting Policies? “Employers used to take generalists and train them into specialists for their industry. But fewer employers want to do that today or can afford to in a globally competitive economy, especially when they fear they’ll train someone who will then leave for a competitor. So everyone wants employees out of college or technical schools who are as ready to plug and play as possible." TOM FRIEDMAN in “It Takes a Mentor.”  Friedman may be right about the shift in hiring practices, but he doesn't look at its costs in loyalty and, yes, in creativity - and maybe even in integrity. Friedman’s wider point is derived from BRANDON BUSTEED, the executive director of Gallup’s education division. Long term success depends to a large extent on “two things … . Successful students had one or more teachers who were mentors and took a real interest in their aspirations, and they had an internship related to what they were learning in school." That, I believe, is consistent with what the Wabash Center (above) has been finding using a different methodology.
Can My Kid Afford a Liberal Education? If she’s bright enough, the answer is yes. MATT ROCHELEAU of the Boston Globe has shown at the changing pattern of college costs and financial aid at 33 Massachusetts colleges and universities. Scroll down to “Why Does the Real Cost of College Vary So Much from College to College?” at for some of the implications. 

Here’s Another Part of the Story: A tabulation that accompanies the Globe article shows that the net cost at institutions that are strong the liberal arts and sciences is actually lower than that of many vocationally oriented institutions: 
Harvard $15,079 
Amherst $16,150 
Wellesley $18,771 
Williams $19,503 
By comparison the net cost at: 
MIT $20,726 
Simmons College $30,123
Worcester Polytechnic Institute $37,567 

This according to the Globe’s study, which also indicates that the net cost at public universities in Massachusetts range from $13,166 (Massachusetts Maritime Academy) to $19,998 (U Mass Amherst).
But Will They Learn? That depends to a large extent not on the prestige or cost of attending the institution, but on good teaching and active learning. One way to encourage active learning has been getting a lot of attention lately - and deservedly so: “Reacting to the Past,” a series of well designed “games” on topics such as the trial of Socrates, Indian independence …well, take a look at the list. Want to know more? Check out MARK CARNES’ new book Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College. While you’re at it, you might enjoy Carnes’ op-ed “Plato’s War on Play.”
The New Humanities Indicators: The Humanities Indicators Project is flourishing under the leadership of CAROLYN FUQUA. One striking finding: the steady increase in the number of second-majors, combining work in the humanities with work in another curricular area. That’s increased to over 22,000 or in graphic form: 

Humanities Bachelor’s Degrees Earned 
as “Second Majors,” 2001–2010
Humanities BA as Second Majors 2

Also from the Indicators Project - A Profile of Classics: 
Total number of US departments: 276 
Average number of faculty per department: 7.0 
Average number of B.A.s awarded per department: 8.1 
Total bachelor degrees awarded: 2240 
Number of minors: 1920 
Average no. completing minors per department: 7.0
MOOC Majors? It’s not clear yet what the appointment of RICK LEVIN, former President of Yale University, as CEO of Coursera, one of the largest providers of MOOCs, will mean for online education, but here’s one clue. In an interview with the Washington Post “Levin acknowledged what is offered doesn’t necessarily add up to a coherent package of courses that would correspond to a major for an undergraduate in college. “We’re starting to think about this,” Levin said. Stay tuned.

Antidote to Doom and Gloom: Before swallowing CLAYTON CHRISTENSEN'S prediction, “In fifteen years from now half of US universities may be in bankruptcy,” better read JILL LEPORE'S relentless New Yorker article “The Disruption Machine.” Christensen’s reply is in Business Week for June 20th 2014.


ROBERT NEWMAN, Dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Utah, the next President and Director of the National Humanities Center. 

The new SOCIETY FOR CLASSICAL STUDIES, carrying on the work of its predecessor the American Philological Association. 

DENIS FEENEY on being named chair of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton.

Typewriter Keys 3

"America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy." John Updike

“I have cut this board three times and it is still too short.” Maine carpenter 

“Be quick but don’t hurry.” John Wooden, late head basketball coach at UCLA. He was no doubt translating the emperor Augustus’ favorite maxim, "speude bradeos" or in Latin, "festina lente." Here it is visually, a speedy dolphin and a staid anchor:
Festa Lente

Love Story: That’s the title of DAVID BROOKS’ discussion of the relationship between Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova
including this observation: “Berlin and Akhmatova were from a culture that assumed that, if you want to live a decent life, you have to possess a certain intellectual scope. You have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and make subtle moral and emotional judgments."

Definition: “Etymology: the science in which consonants count for little and vowels for nothing at all."  (Attributed to Voltaire) but, JOSHUA KATZ assures us, he never said that.

The Real Scandal, Debt but No Diploma: USA Today reports that there are more than 260 colleges and universities in 40 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico which have students who are more likely to default on their loans than full-time freshmen are to graduate, an analysis of federal data shows. Hundreds of thousands of students are enrolled at the 265 schools, nearly half of which are operated by for-profit colleges.

Thanks again to Chris Graebner for design and list management, and to many friends who send me links and leads to matters truly “new and noteworthy.” Keep ‘em comin’.
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