Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Our Underachieving College Presidents

Book cover

It would seem absurd to claim that nobody cares about the quality of higher education. After all, anyone paying attention can name a dozen bestselling polemics off the top of their head — The Closing of the American Mind, The University in Ruins, Tenured Radicals, Higher Superstitions. But as Derek Bok points out in his quietly subversive new book, Our Underachieving Colleges, these commentators have treated universities largely as a punching bag for their political and professional views, rather than out of any genuine concern for the education of the students.

A classic example are the heated debates about what should be in the core curriculum. Should the humanities be required? Should things be focused around the great books? What about classes in writing and public speaking? Professors will happily argue about the proper allocation of required classes for hours, but you’ll never once hear them comment about the way in which these classes are taught. And without decent technique, it doesn’t matter what the topic of the class is.

Bok shows deep familiarity with a largely-hidden literature about the effectiveness of college teaching. Nearly 80 percent of all college courses are simply lectures by professors, a stunningly ineffective form of teaching. By the end of a lecture, a student remembers less than half of what was taught. Only a week later, that number is down to 20%. At such stunning rates, it’s hard to imagine much is left after a month, let alone by the time the student gets out of college.

And yet nobody seems to care one whit. Bok is hardly to be excepted from this criticism. After the Larry Summers scandal, he was appointed acting president of Harvard University (and before that he was president from 1971 to 1991). Bok expects to only have the job for a year and no doubt his hands are tied in many ways — but rumor about campus is that he wants to make his year count. Yet Bok’s biggest changes have been a recommendation for more hands-on activities and the elimination of early admissions. Not bad moves, by any means, but hardly anything like the deep rethinking Bok’s book suggests is necessary.

But if Bok — a thoughtful and intelligent figure who has written eloquently about these problems — can’t use his position — the most prominent spot in the entire field, with the deadline already on his head freeing him from any accountability — can’t do anything about these problems, what hope do we possibly have? Opportunities like this come around once a century and it appears that Bok is going to blow it.

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February 9, 2007


Doesn’t the argument that you only remember half of what was taught in a lecture miss the point? You can always make whatever point you desire by carefully choosing what thing to measure. I never thought that the point of my college classes was to remember every single fact that was stated during the class. The point was to use those facts and the relationships between them to learn how to think about the material presented. Of course even that goal is not achieved very well, but let’s at least be clear about what the goal is. No method of teaching would result in the students remembering as many facts as are recited during a typical lecture.

posted by Mark on February 10, 2007 #


posted by a news on February 10, 2007 #

A few questions:

  • What exactly is it that you expect Bok to accomplish in his year as interrim president, Aaron? Big educational institutions are slow moving beasts, with complex traditions that take generations to change.

  • What would you suggest as an alternative to lectures, for professors to use as a method of imparting their arguments and evidence to students? It’s not like the retention rate from reading a book is particularly high either, but we’ve been using books and lectures for millenia for passing along academic discourse to each new generation.

  • Note that at schools like Harvard, lectures and readings are complemented by discussion sections and papers, in which students are forced to reflect on the topics of the course. Do you have some better method in mind?

I think you have disproportionate expectations of Bok’s brief return to the presidency, and perhaps of the university presidency in general. University presidents in general, and Bok in particular, have a caretaking role rather than a reforming one. The best university president keeps an institution running smoothly, conciliating disagreements between different groups, and generally encouraging concensus in group decision-making. This was one of Larry Summers’s biggest problems; he tried to lead the faculty by strong-arm tactics, and they pushed back.

Undoubtedly there is always room for improvements and change in any institutions, and that is certainly true for both Harvard College (your essay seems to focus on undergraduate education) and Harvard University more generally. But there aren’t any silver bullets here.

posted by Jacob Rus on February 11, 2007 #

In solving problems in the real world, one has four variables: time, money, quantity, and quality. No doubt the a year as a university president is very high quality, but quantity is clearly fixed. As president he has access to some amount of the endowment and annual funds, but far from all of them. So, within those constraints, he can solve a certain number of problems. I’m inclined to agree with Jacob Rus: Bok can grand-stand some paper-thin solutions to big problems, or he can solve some small problems well. Personally, given that choice, I’d go for solving small problems well.

What would you do?

posted by Niels Olson on February 11, 2007 #

Saw him on C-span while ago and he sure illustrated that it’s entire USA situation thing, over generations, over many camps with their own povs and interest and thick reaction habits.

I don’t know he is really devising a plan (even idealistic and may not actualize, but worth putting down and show to public) for whole scale solution or improvement - or not. But it seemed he knows enough bolts and nuts.

It’s a pity that we don’t have big space in the middle of the room to talk about those things, clearly and openly (on the net) but only corners, here, c-span book tv, and amazon online book store only.

I don’t know then why he hasn’t set up a web forum and releasing his book (and whole plan and analysis) in pdf for free or donations.

Shall we suggest him?

posted by We all use web in underachieving ways on February 11, 2007 #

Harvard is an interesting case study because the amount of decentralization here is massive and legendary. Making fundamental changes to a faculty like FAS can’t be easy, and I imagine the best thing the new president of the University can do to effect major change in undergraduate teaching is to appoint a new dean for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences with a strong vision for such change, and support him or her in the quest for reform.

posted by Danny Silverman on February 11, 2007 #

Also, whatever else anyone says, there is no one more qualified than Derek Bok to be interrim president at Harvard. His experience and tact are matched only by his love of the institution.

posted by Jacob Rus on February 12, 2007 #

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