The Two Cultures of Educational Reform


By STANLEY FISH, The New York Times, August 26, 2013, 202 Comments


Stanley Fish on education, law and society.

About halfway through his magisterial study “Higher Education in America,” Derek Bok, twice president of Harvard, identifies what he calls the “two different cultures” of educational reform. The first “is an evidence-based approach to education … rooted in the belief that one can best advance teaching and learning by measuring student progress and testing experimental efforts to increase it.” The second “rests on a conviction that effective teaching is an art which one can improve over time through personal experience and intuition without any need for data-driven reforms imposed from above.”

Bok is obviously a member of the data and experiment culture, which makes him cautiously sympathetic to developments in online teaching, including the recent explosion of MOOCs (massive open online courses). But at the same time, he is acutely aware of the limits of what can be tested, measured and assessed, and at crucial moments in his analysis that awareness pushes him in the direction of the other, “ineffable” culture.

Here, for example, is his account of what he takes to be “the fundamental issue”: “Some of the essential aspects of academic institutions — in particular the quality of the education they provide — are largely intangible and their results are difficult to measure.” Indeed, he adds, the “result is that much of what is important to the work of colleges and universities may be neglected, undervalued, or laid aside in the pursuit of more visible goals.”

Or, in other words, we’re probably measuring the wrong things and the right things are not amenable to measurement. If this is true and it is also true that the culture of measurement is in the ascendancy, we might expect that things that resist measurement — quality, poetry, insight — would be dismissed and set aside, on the reasoning that if it can’t be measured, what good is it? A new technology typically turns its limitations into a mechanism of evaluation and consigns phenomena outside its capacities to the margins, not merely to its margins but to the margins of what is generally significant and worth worrying about.

William Bowen, another former university president and Bok’s sometime co-author, explains how it happens when he reports (admiringly) on the success of an adaptive learning method developed at Carnegie Mellon University. “If a student got something wrong, he or she could push a ‘hint’ button and receive a well-thought-out suggestion as to how to do better.” Still can’t get it right? Don’t worry, just push “hint” again, and keep on pushing until you arrive at the correct answer. Bowen comments drily, “That kind of machine-guided learning model works for certain content, but probably not for Melville” (“Higher Education in the Digital Age”).

Bowen doesn’t say why not, but it isn’t hard to figure out. Not only is there no right answer when the subject is Melville, there’s no right question, just the undesigned and often circuitous process of turning the object of your attention this way and that way until something arresting emerges, and then you do it again, without the programmed prompting of any deus ex machina. How can you measure or preplan that? You can’t, and so much the worse for Melville, who will just have to be left behind, along with a great deal else that belongs to the culture of art and intuition.

Andrew Delbanco, director of American studies at Columbia, observes, in a response to Bowen, that the tension between quantitative and qualitative methodologies — or, more accurately, between methodology and non-methodology — has been explored “for many centuries” under different rubrics: “facts versus knowledge, skill versus wisdom … information versus insight.” Delbanco declares, correctly I think, that “education in the United States … has been moving lately toward the first term [in these pairs] and away from the second.” And he predicts, again correctly, that “the online technologies are likely to move the needle further and faster in that direction.” (Already happening.)

Bowen may well agree. Like Bok he punctuates his account of digital technologies and the claims made for them with what amount to deadly caveats. After discussing with some enthusiasm (“I am a convert”) the “truly transformative” potential of online learning, he asks the key question: “How effective has online learning been in improving … learning outcomes?” (I now add the phrase “learning outcomes” to the list of words and phrases that should never be used, along with “stakeholders,” “imbricate,” “aporia” and “performative.”) “Unfortunately,” he concedes, “no one really knows the answer,” and he says of the studies that purport to provide an answer that they are often not “relevant to the teaching of undergraduates” and “almost always suffer some serious methodological deficiencies.” Yet, 25 pages later, he is still hopeful: “Uncertainties notwithstanding, it is clear to me that online systems have great potential.”

Why is it clear? Because these systems “are still in their infancy” and are “sure to improve over time.” But the improvement that would count would involve not the refinement of quantitative techniques (which will surely happen), but the establishing of a relationship between quantitative techniques, however improved, and qualitative insights. Years ago when the philosopher John Searle returned from a conference on Transformational Grammar, I asked him what had gone on. “They can’t get from the physics to the semantics,” he replied. Getting from the physics to the semantics — from counting things to knowing anything deeply important about them — is what the new digital techniques (like the old computational linguistics) have not yet been able to do, and neither Bowen nor Bok offer any argument, save for the argument of faith, that what Bowen calls “nirvana” will ever arrive.

Indeed, it is worse than that, as Bok acknowledges in several passages that, again, cast a pall over his characteristic optimism. Not only has the twin emphasis on quantitative methodology and vocational instruction failed to achieve genuine educational breakthroughs; but it has apparently had deleterious effects. The more the focus has been on disciplines where computational skills are central, the greater the erosion of the skills we refer to as “critical thinking” (another phrase I abhor, but one impossible completely to eschew these days): a “longitudinal study of twenty-four thousand undergraduates revealed that majoring in engineering was associated with declines in writing ability, cultural awareness, and political and civil participation.” And the “surprising finding” of another study “was that the writing of seniors who majored in science had actually deteriorated over the four years of college.” There’s something those would-be engineers and scientists aren’t getting; we might call it training in serious thought, another of those “intangibles” that escape the net of numerical assessment.

As I made my way through these two books, one moment stood out for its chilling clarity. Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, argues in the course of a response to Bowen that with the help of the digital media, “we can release ourselves from the shackles that we have gotten used to in the context of in-class teaching.” This turns out to mean that we can be released from the distracting bother of interacting with actual people. In this way, she claims, we can be in tune with our students’ preferences. “Eighteen-year-olds,” Koller tells us, “actually prefer to text each other rather than to talk to each other on the phone or even get together for coffee.” That is, even a phone conversation is too humanly intimate for this generation.

Reading this, I found myself thinking of a small movie I saw when it came out in the middle ’90s. The movie is titled “Denise Calls Up” and its conceit is that a bunch of supposedly close friends never meet; they know one another only through electronic media. Physical encounters are threatened, but never occur. Everyone pledges to come to a party, but no one shows up. There is a pregnancy, but the father is a sperm donor whose only contact with the mother is through the phone call of the title. See how isolating and empty modern life has become is the acidly comic message of the director. Isn’t that great and can we please have more of it is the messianic message of Daphne Koller. O brave new world.

Stanley Fish is a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, in Miami. In the Fall of 2012, he will be Floersheimer Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke University and the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is the author of 15 books, most recently “Versions of Antihumanism: Milton and Others”; “How to Write a Sentence”; “Save the World On Your Own Time”; and “The Fugitive in Flight,” a study of the 1960s TV drama. “Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution” will be published in 2014.

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