Sunday, August 19, 2018

Big changes in universities?

I was recently asked to give a talk to an NGO about how universities are changing.
There is no doubt that there are rapid changes, many for the worse, happening. For me the biggest change has been the rising influence of neoliberalism (free market ideology) in the values, goals, and decision making within universities. But that is another story...
In the past few weeks some relevant articles "came across my desk" [through my web browser...].

I would be particularly interested to hear readers comments on the first one.
My wife sent me this New York Times piece to read and I really despaired
The iGen Shift: Colleges Are Changing to Reach the Next Generation 
The newest students are transforming the way schools serve and educate them, including sending presidents and deans to Instagram and Twitter.

Why do I despair?
I believe a university education should largely be about two things. The first goal is explicit and the second is implicit.

The first and primary goal of university education is to help students to learn to think: to think about specific disciplines, and to think about anything. Deep and valuable thinking does not come easily. It takes time, concentration, perseverance, and freedom from distractions. It a student is constantly checking their phone or just skimming the first material that comes up on a Google search or in the Twitter (for twits!) feed for their course, it is highly unlikely they are going to do much deep thinking.

Second, a university education is about helping students "grow up":  to move towards adulthood, to learn to be responsible and independent, to create an identity that is more independent of their parents and their peers, to have a sense of direction and purpose, and a desire to be good citizens.
Unfortunately, too many students think "growing up" means getting really drunk and throwing up...
However, too many of the initiatives described in the article seem to be pandering to students (customers) and "hand holding" them through their university experience. For example, at some point in life students are going to have to learn to seek and find relevant information, regardless of whether it is nicely packaged in some cool app with great graphics and lots of "likes".

Oh, the Humanities! 
New data on college majors confirms an old trend. Technocracy is crushing the life out of humanism.
Ross Douhat (NYT op-ed columnist)

The third article is more controversial and political, and raises questions about whether one purported change is as big or significant as often claimed (particularly in the right-wing press)
The free speech panic: how the right concocted a crisis
Snowflake students have become the target of a new rightwing crusade. But exaggerated claims of censorship reveal a deeper anxiety at the core of modern conservatism.
William Davies (A Long Read in The Guardian)
For balance here is a counter-view that there is a problem
The Problem of Hyper-liberalism
John Gray (Times Literary Supplement)

Comments welcome.


  1. Ross, on the topic of "short attention span" that lies at the heart of the NYTimes article you mention, I recommend "Deep Work" by Cal Newport. This book offers a cogent analysis of the challenge and also practical things that individuals can do so they can develop the ability to do deep work. I have used this book as the basis for a non-technical seminar I will be giving to graduate students in my program in a couple of weeks.

  2. While smartphones and related mobile technologies are recognized as flexible and
    powerful tools that, when used prudently, can augment human cognition, there is
    also a growing perception that habitual involvement with these devices may have a
    negative and lasting impact on users’ ability to think, remember, pay attention, and
    regulate emotion. The present review considers an intensifying, though still limited, area
    of research exploring the potential cognitive impacts of smartphone-related habits, and
    seeks to determine in which domains of functioning there is accruing evidence of a
    significant relationship between smartphone technology and cognitive performance, and
    in which domains the scientific literature is not yet mature enough to endorse any firm
    conclusions. We focus our review primarily on three facets of cognition that are clearly
    implicated in public discourse regarding the impacts of mobile technology – attention,
    memory, and delay of gratification – and then consider evidence regarding the broader
    relationships between smartphone habits and everyday cognitive functioning. Along
    the way, we highlight compelling findings, discuss limitations with respect to empirical
    methodology and interpretation, and offer suggestions for how the field might progress
    toward a more coherent and robust area of scientific inquiry.

  3. This a good univ of American Universities Middle Kingdom. This a big change.
    U. of Akron Will Phase Out 80 Degree Programs and Open New Esports Facilities

  4. Hi Ross,

    Since I'll be vehemently disagreeing with you, let me state first the deep respect I have for you, your blog is one of the few physics blogs I still read regularly since leaving my PhD.

    I suppose it is somewhat uncontroversial that the main goal of primary education is to teach literacy and numeracy to kids. If I were to accept your proposition that universities should teach thinking and responsible autonomy, then I would be left wondering what would you say is the goal of secondary education? I'll refrain from guessing, but most people I know think the goal of high school is to prepare kids for the university.

    As a result the curriculum in a typical high school is a union of 10+ different courses with zero integration among then. It is no surprise that kids leave high school thoroughly unprepared for life, it does not have an autonomous goal, kids realize that very clearly, and stop taking school seriously.

    Yes, neoliberalism does treat students as customers and it really damages the university's capacity of providing meaningful education. But it is also neoliberalism that wants everybody to attend university, take a incredibly narrow scope major, and then be a prepared worker instead of a citizen.

    People should have the right to attend university yes, but they should also have the right not to attend university by their own will and not be robbed of full participation in society.

    I'm quite sure you do not look down at people without a university diploma, but I do think that the role you propose for universities somewhat imply that.

    I apologize if I sound disrespectful, I enjoy your blog immensely, and you were one of the key figures in convincing me of the importance of teaching solid state concepts in high school chemistry classes. Yes, I should admit that I teach high school physics and chemistry and therefore I'm incredibly biased in my assessment. Though I would note that I live in the very middle of the brazilian semi-arid region, and a lot of my fellow teachers have never attended university (the ones older than 35 usually not even completed high school since there was no such thing here until around 15 years ago), and yet possess all those qualities you think universities should teach.

    All the Best

  5. Those Who Can Do, Can’t Teach
    Advice for college students: The best experts sometimes make the worst educators.

    Adam Grant

    "Studies of world-class scientists, musicians, athletes and artists reveal that they didn’t have top teachers or coaches from a young age; they started with a teacher or coach who made it fun and enjoyable to leaRN

    'This is why I recommend creating separate tenure tracks for teachers and researchers. Instead of just learning from researchers who spend their days dividing cells in a lab or churning out code in front of a computer, you can take classes with people who study the most effective methods for teaching cell division and JavaScript"

    Many sit with undergrads to learn esp postgrads. Undergrads many find out are the best teachers in the digital world. They keep on asking questions, which is a good way to learn