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“The mind is not a vessel that needs filling but wood that needs igniting.”
—Plutarch (45 – 120 AD), Ancient Greek essayist and biographer
What is the biggest threat to the higher education system? Rising tuition costs? Declining student enrollment? Lower academic skills? Or, is it the structure of the institution itself?
A System of Self-interest
In “Clear the Way for More Good Teachers,” philosophy professor Douglas Anderson provides a critique of universities’ increasingly bureaucratic tendencies, “Higher education has become an industry of meeting holders whose task is to ‘solve’ problems – real or imagined,” observes Anderson in a provocative January 2016 column for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Further, Anderson, who works at the Southern Illinois University, argues that teaching has often become a “cult of self-interest” encouraged by a body of administrative staff twice the size of the teaching faculty. Many universities, hindered by their legal obligations, are “require[d] to hire lots of people to handle possible complaints from students and parents,” resulting in “the evolution of the syllabus from a teacher’s plan for a semester of learning into someone’s idea of a legal document and contract.”
Because of this problematic trend, many at-risk students are continually falling through the cracks. Anderson describes a scenario during his tenure at a university where the administration relied on survey questions to determine the expected student dropout rate. In fact, a series of visits between Anderson and his students during office hours determined that a different set of students would leave than the survey results predicted. Guess which one was right?
The Start of a Solution
What is the best solution here? How do we reclaim higher education from needless bureaucracy? Here’s what Anderson suggests – with which I wholeheartedly agree:
“Just one college should cut its administrative staff in half and hire an army of good teachers and see what 10 years of such an experiment might yield. The teachers are available – the so-called business model of education has been a disaster and has left us with more qualified teachers than jobs. It is time to see what serious, hard-core teaching can do for a college – and its students.”
Anderson also advocates for reprioritizing student learning by decreasing class sizes and offering more accessible office hours. These few (but significant) reforms would enable more university students to better connect with their instructors and provides them with more and better opportunities to seek guidance and directly address concerns. The over-reliance on adjunct faculty, of course, has made these best practices less widespread than just a decade ago.
Responsive Teaching is the Remedy
However, these changes are just a starting point. As Anderson says, “[t]eaching is an art and a craft, talent and practice.” By choosing to responsively teach and focusing on individual student needs in our English classes, we do a greater service to our students and ourselves. Doesn’t responding to our actual students actual interests sound more sensible than pretending ‘one-size-fits-everyone instruction’ works best in our English classes? Individualizing instruction and feedback as much as possible seems like the ideal form of higher education. Anderson’s article elucidates the peculiar distortions that plague too many universities today.
Do you agree with Anderson’s commentary? How would you improve the quality of education on college campuses? What reforms do you think would improve higher education? How else can we help universities better meet the needs and aspirations of today’s university students?
P.S. Interested in trying out Search and Share activities in your ESL/EFL classroom? Check out this compilation from Compelling American Conversations on my TeachersPayTeachers store. We’ve also incorporated Search and Share activities in every chapter of Compelling Conversations – Japan and Compelling Conversations – Vietnam.