The following guest post is from Cedar Riener, assistant professor of Psychology at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. He blogs about education reform, college teaching, history and philosophy of science at Cedar’s Digest, where this post also appears.
I squirmed a lot reading Larry Summers’ recent piece in the New York Times on where he thinks and hopes higher education will go in the future. Here’s a point by point analysis:
He begins by undermining his own credibility:
A paradox of American higher education is this: The expectations of leading universities do much to define what secondary schools teach, and much to establish a template for what it means to be an educated man or woman.
REALLY? Have you paid attention to any of the K-12 school reform of the administration you have been a part of? The encouraged emphasis on basic reading and math skills at the cost of social studies, science, physical education and extracurricular activities runs exactly counter to the template of colleges and universities in which diverse offerings, and choices of majors proliferate. But I’ll forgive this vague handwaving and move on. Summers’ point is that colleges are seen as cutting edge, but in fact offer stale education which is stuck in the past because tenured faculty (who are often in charge of the curriculum) are stubborn. Dismissed college president says faculty are stubborn and old-fashioned, the Times is ON IT!
The paragraph in which he lays out the reasons that colleges are old fashioned seemed to me to be amazingly disingenuous. Colleges are staid and stuck in the past because… departments and courses have the same names as they did 50 years ago? Students take four classes and exams in blue books? Students pick a major? So the biology major is the same as it was 50 years ago because it is still called biology? Really?
Summers wants higher education to better reflect how the mind and world works. But as someone with expertise in mental processes who works in higher education, Summers’ understanding of both the current state of higher education and the science of cognitive psychology are simplistic and off base. As a result, we shouldn’t take his six “guesses and hopes” seriously except as a warning of the perils of breezy theorizing by famous intellectuals.
1) College curriculum will become “more about how to process information and less about imparting it”.
This is the standard: “You don’t need to know any facts because you can Google them, you just need critical thinking skills of finding and evaluating facts.” It is so tempting. Information is everywhere, it is at our fingertips, and the ubiquity of this information will spare us from keeping any of it in our heads, just like we don’t have to remember phone numbers, or directions anymore. Unfortunately, this is not how the brain works. As Daniel Willingham reminds us in his book “Why Don’t Students Like School?” “Factual knowledge precedes skill.” Whenever cognitive psychologists look closely at critical thinking, we find that it is tightly integrated with background knowledge. Any definition of critical thinking involves the creative and rigorous application of a network of facts. It is impossible to think critically about neuroscience unless you know dopamine from acetylcholine, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex from the occipitotemporal junction. Not remembering phone numbers is not the same as facts which we will sometime need to recruit to do our thinking. Summers shows he doesn’t have certain facts about language education and cognitive psychology, which he could easily look up, but which undermine the validity of his “critical thinking.” Read the rest of this entry »