Blog Post

Big Ideas About Changing Higher Education and Graduate Training

Here are a few "big think" points that add up to the problems of the modern university that we need to address in immediate ways (in our pedagogy, in our classrooms, in ways we can change tomorrow) and in huge ways (in our institutional structures, the ways we credentialize and accredit and rank,and in our public policy and cost structures and labor practices). 

  • The research university was developed in the early and mid 19th century to address issues of specialized knowledge for an industrial society.  Everything about the research university puts a professor’s research at the center of a complex reward and status merit structure.  Therefore everything about the research university is about selectivity, about weeding out or failing out the students who are not “good enough."


  • The community college, developed largely in the late 19th century, addressed massive immigration and the need to education a huge population.  Its requirements meant it had to be as open  as possible. The community college has evolved to put student success at the center of its reward structure.
  • However, the extreme meritocracy of the elite research university (the tyranny of the meritocracy in Lani Guinier's term) that actually serves only .3% of the student population in the U.S. still distorts the mission of all universities, even community colleges.
  • Because of the changing demographic structure of the US, because of a changing nature of specialized knowledge, because of a changing access to information, many students are wondering more and more what the value of elite credentialing is. 
  • Many more are wondering why public universities implicitly hold to the failing out/weeding out ideals of elite universities.  Why isn't student succes rather than student success the metric?
  • Most graduate education is dedicated to training students as if they are going to teach at Research 1 universities, to teach graduate students at those universities, whereas most will teach introductory courses at large non-selective institutions.  How many graduate institutions really teaching graduate students how to teach for the students they actually address in their classrooms?  How many graduate students learn how to teach for student success, not student failure?
  • We have a bad mismatch of one system we’ve inherited and another system that we need.
  • Much of the malaise of the modern university—including standardized testing, cram schools, grade inflation, and cheating—are the diseased byproducts of this mismatch.
  • We need to rethink graduate school in the most positive, uncynical way by helping our graduate students to understand the finest ways to teach undergraduates to succeed in ways that also teaches graduate students to value deeply the importance of their own specialized research, the assumptions in their own work that are valuable and worth valuing.  
  • A number of programs--at the University of Washington, at Carnegie Mellon, at the Graduate Center CUNY, and at NEH--are working to rethink these relationships. These programs reconsider the deepest meanings of the humanities, what it means to live ethically and responsibly in a complex and complicated world.  It's important.  We all need to be rethinking the humanities as if our lives depended upon them because--guess what:  they do! 

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