Larry Summers Calls Higher Education Stubborn and Anachronistic, Offers Suggestions

by Robert Pondiscio
January 23rd, 2012

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.”

2) Collaboration is the rule in the world, but individual evaluation persists in college. I agree with this point, but there are a whole host of reasons that one would rather have an individually tailored (and evaluated) learning experience before a collaborative job experience. This doesn’t necessarily require grades, but being able to track one’s own progress, independent of group work, has value, and will continue to be a part of education. But I agree that more group work should be expected and acceptable. But then he proceeds with this bit of absurdity:

One leading investment bank has a hiring process in which a candidate must interview with upward of 60 senior members of the firm before receiving an offer. What is the most important attribute they’re looking for? Not GMAT scores or college transcripts, but the ability to work with others. As greater value is placed on collaboration, surely it should be practiced more in our nation’s classrooms.

This is absurd, because from what I read (from sociologist Lauren Rivera) credentials still matter more than anything. Maybe what Summers is referring to is that investment banks want to ensure that Harvard recruits can get along with their future colleagues from Yale and Princeton.

3) Technology will change how information is conveyed. Just like no one has to memorize Canterbury Tales anymore, and textbooks can be written by the experts, the next phase of technology will change how education happens. Why should anyone bother to lecture about Intro to Philosophy, when we could all just watch Michael Sandel teach Justice? Who needs me to create a good lecture for Intro to Psychology if I could just have my students watch Paul Bloom at Yale. I have a lot of thoughts about this, but the short answer is this: On the one hand, I agree that maybe we shouldn’t have 200 state universities all having 500 people lecturing at the same time. Why not pick the most amazing one, and have all 10,000 intro psych students watch, and then come in and talk about it. On the other hand, this has at least two negative consequences; first, the lecture isn’t just “the best” but it is also meant to reach the widest possible audience. In doing so, it can lose some pedagogical punch. Yes, 18-year-olds are 18-year-olds, and I don’t think Yale students are that different from my students at Randolph-Macon. But student populations do vary, and the lectures should reflect that. Second, a good lecture potentially can involve some questions or interaction, a video can’t do that. When I lecture, I think of my students and their interests, I ask them questions and they ask me questions, but they are often unmistakably lectures. An intro psych class for engineers (yes, these exist) would be different than an intro psych class at an art focused school. There is no platonic lecture, just as there is no platonic textbook. This is a good thing.

4) Summers says we know more about learning and name-checks Daniel Kahneman which leads us to: “Not everyone learns most effectively in the same way. And yet in the face of all evidence, we rely almost entirely on passive learning.” Ok, whoa there. This sounds suspiciously like learning styles. Which I am pretty sure, given that it is wrong, is not in Kahneman’s book. A big point of Kahneman’s research is not that people have different ways of learning, but that certain things are harder to learn than others.

Second, The distinction between active learning and passive learning is not that easy. I can give a ten minute lecture, answer two student questions, show a demonstration from YouTube or even one of my amazing magic tricks, then ask students to apply what they have learned in a quiz the next morning. Did they learn anything? I don’t know, it depends on the quality of the lecture, how well the demonstration matched the lecture, and how much the quiz made them study. They could be sitting back, listening and thinking this whole time, but Summers calls this passive.

Students listen to lectures or they read and then are evaluated on the basis of their ability to demonstrate content mastery. They aren’t asked to actively use the knowledge they are acquiring.

But there is a fine line between “demonstrating content mastery” and “actively using the knowledge.” For example, I can ask “What do we call the three different kinds of cone receptors and what distinguishes them from each other?” Or I can ask “If I have special sunglasses that block out electromagnetic energy which has a wavelength below 1000 nanometers, what will my visual experience be like when I put these on?” Despite not having any extra technology, and not putting them into groups, the second question can be an incredibly active process, because it asks students to apply a concept that they have learned (our photoreceptors are only sensitive to electromagnetic energy with wavelengths between 400 and 700 nanometers) to a (relatively) new situation. If no wavelengths below 1000 pass through the sunglasses, none would enter your eyes, your photoreceptors would not activate, and you would see nothing, it would be totally dark. Would students learn more if I made that an interactive clicker question rather than on a hard copy of a quiz? (I have tried both, not noticed too much of a difference). I am an early adopter who loves gadgets, but I am deeply skeptical of their ability to improve education without the right content. If the content is not accurate, appropriate for the student’s level, and organized, no technology can help. Likewise, if students don’t have any background knowledge, no amount of active learning group discussion is going to help them teach each other anything. In psychology, where myths and misconceptions abound, students can simply reinforce each others errors. Don’t get me wrong, active learning classrooms can be great, but they can also mistake student engagement for student learning. Engagement and motivation are necessary, but not sufficient, for learning.

5) The world is more open, according to Summers, so students should have more international experiences, but shouldn’t necessarily bother with more language, because English is taking over. I mostly agree that colleges should have more international options, but I haven’t heard that colleges are short of travel courses or options for international study. But what about the case for the cognitive benefits of bilingualism? According to the research of Ellen Bialystock (summarized in this New York Times interview) learning two languages has far wider effects than simply adding another language. For example, bilinguals are better at multitasking.

6) Summers wants every student to take more probability and statistics. I agree, with no qualifications. Ok, maybe one. I think more statistical literacy should be required for all students. But we shouldn’t mistake this for being able to understand any data and any statistics. There is some basic statistics knowledge necessary to understand medical statistics, but also some knowledge of medical phenomena. Statistics is rarely divorced from its subject. Moneyball was successful not just because Bill James was a statistics god, but he had a better understanding of the connection of his sabermetrics to team wins than the typical batting average/RBI/ERA stats. Summers, expert in math pedagogy, thinks we should drop trigonometry (i.e. that old-fashioned math that was used when kids needed to survey land) and teach a lot more statistics and probability. That makes sense until you consider how important calculus is for scientists and engineers (and even economists) and how trigonometry lays the foundation for calculus.

Diminishing trigonometry as merely “math for surveying” shows me that Summers doesn’t really understand math education. He also doesn’t acknowledge that part of higher education’s strength is its diversity. While each of these suggestions does have the undercurrent of “Larry Summers knows more about international relations and language than you do because he thought about it a little this weekend,” each also presents a view of a world of higher education that is monolithic and growing more so. By suggesting these broader trends, he ignores those schools that already follow his suggestions, but also ignores that some schools do not, but for good reasons. Some schools (such as most business schools) are already incredibly collaborative, with most work done in teams (which is why MBAs have such a strong reputation for cooperation and collaboration). Some programs, such as Kalamazoo College, are incredibly focused on the world and travel. But some are not. Some students take language skills into communities closer to home. Many departments (such as mine) require a semester of training in probability and statistics as well as another entire semester in which students design their own project, carry it out, and analyze the data. But some departments do not, and some schools do not. My history of science degree did not require probability and statistics, so I didn’t take it. I wanted to take Frank Lloyd Wright, and Computer Science, and Poetry instead. Which were all awesome.

I am no expert on math curricula, or the relative costs and benefits of languages vs. travel courses, but I know enough to see someone being breezy and lazy in their sweeping generalizations. I have been in enough meetings and discussions about college curricula, with intelligent and diligent people considering how we weigh the “template of an educated human” with “what this set of 18-year-olds in front of me wants to do with their time” that I know that these aren’t easy decisions, and our colleges aren’t nearly as filled with arbitrary anachronisms as everyone seems to think. Funny thing is, Larry Summers has been in those meetings too. Maybe he just wasn’t using his critical thinking skills because he was a passive learner and they were just people lecturing.

Cedar Riener is an assistant professor of Psychology at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. His research and scholarship investigates basic processes of how we see the geometry of the natural world, as well as the application of cognitive science to education. He can be found on twitter @criener and blogging at


  1. Summers has been taken to the woodshed more often than many realize. One of his starkest comeuppances revolved around his proclamation several years back that, “…women may not have the same innate abilities in math and science as men.”

    It essentially lost him the presidency at Harvard when a number of his female faculty came up short of asking for his resignation but called his statement, “a resignable thing.”

    What’s frightening about any of this? I agree with some of what he espouses in his NYTimes piece.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 23, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

  2. @Paul Hoss – From what I recall, what really lost him the presidency of Harvard was that he didn’t respect or listen to the faculty (as much as they thought they deserved). This was not just “a number of his female faculty” but Cornel West and Alan Dershowitz to name a few. The women in science brouhaha (which I don’t think anyone missed) was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Here is a book that outlines his term as Harvard’s President.
    I’d be happy to hear about what in particular you agree with. I don’t think I used the word “frightened” but I disagree with strongly with his hopes in the ways I laid out above.

    Comment by Cedar Riener — January 23, 2012 @ 11:29 pm

  3. Larry’s much more right than you are.

    1. There’s an ontological problem with the issue of fact vs. skill, particularly when factual issues are presumed to be final data rather than classes of inquiry. Most certainly, neuroscience exploration requires good data on dopamine,, but to begin to neuroscience involves exploring many preceding conditions, and let-me-google-that-for-you wouldn’t be enough to start your work. The most critical skills involve how to find those facts you need to solve a problem, how to identify real from trivial or irrelevant data, and what processes are most appropriate to validate, verify and then apply data to a solution. None of that requires the data itself to get to those most critical stages. That’s why places like Olin College of Engineering, for just one example, have abolished prerequisites in favor of collaborative teams. Even med-schools are moving in that direction. Facts most certainly are needed, but their order is a lot less critical in today’s inquiring environment. Larry’s doin’ just fine with this discovery.

    2. Credentials vs. collaboration is another specious argument. Some places want one, others want another. It depends on where you want to go. Lots of kids want to join Larry’s VC network where cum-by-ya seems a priority; some may want to join a monastery where contemplation is king. Don’t mix ‘em and don’t pretend he’s “absurd.” I had the remarkably pleasant opportunity to turn Harvard down, for example, and that was way back when their credential counted even more. Maybe you did as well, but I doubt it. hehehehe

    3. Lectures vs. other forms of teaching represent an area where Larry’s probably talking too much from his Harvard podium. Ironically, a lecture can be as unidimensional as a textbook, or, as your own exhibit from Yale demonstrates, a reasonably useful multimedia experience. Pretending that “all the best” would be enough and we could save a lot of money by abolishing other, less luminous, lectures would transform higher ed into a batch of TED Talks. While that might improve the engagement of students, it is hardly a convening system. Teaching is a much more mixed event than just a talking head.

    4. While I agree that “passive learning” is a mildly silly term, I don’t agree that all things are sequential according to specific and universal sequences, and that such sequences are as critical as engagement and motivation. I think you’ve jumbled a batch of things – much like Larry – and built a case for the kind of mixed environment that he was promoting in his article in the Times. Incidentally, the example you give of a lecture and then an exam on the lecture itself ignores things like the Kahn Academy or MIT’s OpenCourseWare, where your students may have found the same things you think you’re introducing way before you introduce them. Ironically, you might think of some pre-tests to find out if you’re actually teaching or passively collecting data they’ve found elsewhere.

    5. And I do agree about the inherent benefits of bilingualism, but suggest there is an even deeper problem with Larry’s characterization of multicultural instruction as a means of collecting a somewhat random quiver of skills. You don’t always need the full dimensions of the language to recognize and use the values of different cultures in solving transcultural problems. Nuances unique to linguistics are lovely, but not always as critical as acknowledging there are more ways to say “cat,” much less to skin that cat. Harvard’s always done that fairly well, even if Larry lost it when he bailed out his buddies with our money early in Obama’s term.

    And 5, defending trigonometry is cute, but pretending that the diversity of higher education is broad insults the thousands of rules, rubrics, and strategies of politesse that turn kids into alumni. Larry’s case is both more sophisticated than you credit – with many nuances and alternatives you ignore – and quite accurate insofar as the intransigence of higher education in an age of technology and diversity. The “drag” on American education – and what distinguishes our inability to “keep up” with places like Finland – is the universality of class as a factor in assimilating students to and through college – much like Benson Snyder pointed out nearly 50 years ago in talking about MIT and Wellesley. Larry’s got some of those issues quite elegantly framed, and your arguments notwithstanding, you don’t seem to … get … the … point. Just because you’ve achieved tenure, it ain’t all there is.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — January 24, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

  4. @Joe Beckman
    Thanks for such a lengthy and thoughtful response. I won’t be engaging in ad hominem as you did, but I can see how a few snarky digs at Larry Summers may have led us down that road. However, I will just correct a few of your insinuations, I went to Harvard as an undergraduate, and I don’t have tenure. Both of these facts could be relatively easily found by going to my page at Randolph-Macon College, but I think you’ll agree that they are trivial dimensions of our present discussion.
    Regarding your first point:
    “The most critical skills involve how to find those facts you need to solve a problem, how to identify real from trivial or irrelevant data, and what processes are most appropriate to validate, verify and then apply data to a solution.”
    I’d be happy to read the evidence for this claim. From what I have read, all of these may seem like skills, but are absolutely dependent on factual knowledge in that field. Splitting the real dimensions from the trivial dimensions is, well, not a trivial problem. I’d be happy to read rebuttals of Willingham, Stanovich, etc etc. But this is not just common sense that you can assert without any evidence.
    2. I agree that more collaboration is needed, and I said as much. What I disagree with is him saying that this ibank he knows doesn’t care about credentials. People in higher ed are saying on one hand we need more accountability (we’ve got to measure individual student progress and track teachers this way) and on the other saying we need to drop all the focus on the individual and work in teams.
    3. It seems like you are agreeing with me on this one.
    4. I thought I was arguing for a mixed, complex environment, whereas he was continuing to beat on the straw man of lecturing and testing. I don’t see how I was arguing that everything is sequential, just that all lectures are not created equal. I don’t see how my lack of mentioning pretests undermines my point in any way. All I was saying is that lectures and testing are far more varied than he portrays
    5. I’d love to be corrected with his sophistication. Maybe you could point me to the nuances in his piece. I obviously don’t have the requisite skill in reading comprehension.
    I agree that class is a huge problem (tell me where he elegantly framed this?). I also agree that higher education is resistant to change, but not more resistant than any other domain of humanity. Some of the inertia is not as arbitrary as he says. I don’t have tenure, but I’ve seen the discussions about how to balance goals of increased diversity and social justice with the health and survival of an institution. I’ve seen (and adopted) new technologies, new curricular requirements, small group discussions and team work and yet, these are not nearly as inevitably successful as he implies.

    Comment by Cedar Riener — January 24, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

  5. 1. Disagree; facts are a prerequisite for critical thinking and problem solving. End of discussion.

    2. Neutral; credentials are important in many areas of business/economy. Most Boards would select a Harvard grad to CEO their company than an individual from Slippery Rock. However, if the Harvard CEO can’t work with his/her Board…

    3. Agree; technology will be an enormous factor in the future of education, enormous. Folks who can’t see this coming would have also questioned the invention of the telephone, television, and the Internet.

    4. Agree; While I believe “learning styles” (for lack of better term) exist, they exist only insofar as they can make learners more comfortable in their efforts. Learning styles should in no way be the focus of any classroom, but they can be addressed clandestinely if the teacher is at all clever in the diversity of presentation of their lessons.

    5. Agree; With the invention of the Internet and the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, as Tom Friedman so aptly pointed out in his 2005 best seller, the world today is FLAT. People have more access to information than at anytime in the history of mankind; and this access continues to grow exponentially with time. I’m also one of those arrogant Americans who believe (strongly) English is the language of the future and I’m not about to even attempt to learn the languages of the 27 (plus) countries of the EU. There’s a reason most developed countries around the world have their students learn English in school as well as their native tongue.

    6. Agree; probability and statistics will be far more useful to our next generation than say trig/calculus. While trig and calculus will be important to our STEM students, not everyone will wind up in those fields. Probability and statistics can be useful/helpful in almost every avenue of life whether you’re Bill James trying to gain the upper hand for some baseball owner or Joe Schmoe trying to figure out your best picks for the NCAA brackets in a March Madness pool at work.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 24, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

  6. I think my bigger issue with Larry Summer’s is his lack of respect for looking introspectively at what he has advocated for in government. Many people do not know how significant his role was during the Clinton administration in terms advocating for the CFTC Modernization Act which was critical to the lack of oversight of the securities that helped tank the housing market.

    As for higher ed succeeding or failing, we have to look at what are K-12 schools are producing. I have several friends working in state colleges and they are quite frustrated at the research, analytical and just general knowledge capacities of their incoming students. Once again to ignore what has proceeded is to miss why we are where we are.

    Comment by DC Parent — January 24, 2012 @ 9:17 pm

  7. Great post.

    Over at Kitchen Table Math, Catherine Johnson had a nice summary of Summers: “The extremely poor quality of his reasoning and evidence in this essay is a perfect example of what a high-IQ person comes up with when he is engaging in “higher-order thinking” outside his field of expertise.”

    Comment by Stuart Buck — January 25, 2012 @ 12:25 am

  8. The emphasis upon ciritical thinking skills is to put the cart before the horse. Summers falls into this trap. Saying that you can “Google” the facts you need is to miss the point. Both common sense and cognitive psychology
    dictate that one master a certain core of factual information in a given subject field before one can process that information through critical thinking. Those individual bits of information have to mastered to proceed to the next level of integration and analysis. One can’t be continually Googling for that information when a problem is presented and requires analysis. Sadly, our K-12, and particularly our K-8 education in the United States has abandoned this goal of mastering factual information, which includes everything from names, dates, historical events, theories, literary terms, musical terms and genres, chemical formulae, anatomy, you name it, from the simple to the complex. It’s why our students are far behind their peers in many other countries that teach factual content and ill-equipped for “higher education.” The fault lies in the intellectually bankrupt “child-centered” Progressive theories of education being promoted for more than 70 years by departments of (mis)education.

    Comment by Kendall Svengalis — January 31, 2012 @ 10:14 pm

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