Friday, November 6, 2009

The Write Stuff

"I'm curious as to why we think all students need to write well."
—faculty member in discussion about requirements and standards
Oh, I don't know:

Because this is an institution of higher learning?
So that they won't be illiterate idiots?


In fairness, I believe the point had something to do with the need to value visual arts and expressive culture, as well. No argument there, in principle.

The fact remains, however: Many skills are important, but in a given context, there are hierarchies. There is, after all, a reason that, when I go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles to renew my driver's license, I am given a vision rather than hearing test.

And colleagues wonder why people hold us and our institutions of higher learning in such low esteem.


Gavin Andresen said...

Do people really hold institutions of higher learning in low esteem?

I went googling for polls that might answer that questions, and this was the closest I found; colleges and universities seem to be very well respected:

The Harris Poll. Feb. 10-15, 2009. N=1,010 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.

"As far as people in charge of running [see below] are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them?"

The military: 58% great deal
Small business: 48%
Major educational institutions, such as colleges and universities: 40%
The White House: 36%

Citizen Wald said...

Good point, Gavin. You're calling for evidence and using a quantitative measure (see a later post). Bravo. Perhaps I should have said that people hold academics and many features of academic culture in low esteem.

True, there is a very strong collective belief in the value of education. However, the general public often interprets the value of education differently than do the people who run and teach at universities. In 2003, the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote:

"An extensive national poll of public opinion of higher education, conducted by The Chronicle, shows that the public is more than satisfied with the quality of education that American colleges provide. In particular, the public's confidence in private colleges was exceeded only by its trust in the U.S. military. Four-year and two-year public colleges ranked only slightly lower, just below local police forces.

"Even so, Americans dislike many things that colleges do, and they question the priorities of college presidents. The survey's respondents were highly skeptical about affirmative action, tenure, big-time athletics, and other entrenched practices of the academic establishment. About two-thirds of the respondents said that colleges place too much emphasis on sports, and that experienced professors should not be granted jobs for life. More than 60 percent said colleges should not admit minority students who have lower grade-point averages and test scores than their peers.

"Respondents also urged universities to focus less on economic-development and research missions, which their presidents often emphasize, and more on the basics: general education, adult education, leadership and responsibility, and teacher training. According to the poll, the most important role for a college is preparing undergraduates for a career."

What I was referring to was the attitude behind the skepticism reported in the poll, i.e. the notion that academics are elitist and devoid of common sense, that their research and writing are arcane and of little value, etc. which derives in part from specific contemporary debates ("culture wars," conservative backlash), but also from a deeper and broader tradition described by Richard Hofstadter in his Pullitzer Prize-winning Antiintellectualism in American Life (1964). See, e.g. this summary in Peter Gilbert's Vermont Public Radio commentary.

Some of this dovetails with a phenomenon we are familiar with from Town Meeting, i.e. an instinctive suspicion of "expertise." Interestingly, though, Town Meeting on a bad day manages to combine the worst of both worlds, i.e. populist suspicion of authority and professional or specialized knowledge with the "deliberative, thoughtful approach" (Gilbert)—which populists normally disdain—carried to an extreme.

Bottom line: When a professor questions the need for students to write well, he makes not just himself, but all of us look stupid and out of touch with reality.