Higher Education Reform

Stanley Fish, Opinionator for NYTimes and Prof of Humanities & Law at Florida International University

Stanley Fish has written another essay on education reform for the NYTimes. He is especially focused on higher education reform, which is also on my mind these days. So many schools are letting their humanities programs dwindle in size and scope while they seek development in the STEM and business/finance fields. The financial theories about the costs of running higher ed programs is that the fees from students in STEM fields and business/finance programs subsidize the costs of programs in the humanities and social sciences. I’d like to see more evidence about these costs before I affirm this theory. Since when is a classics program any where near as expensive as a biology or computer science program that requires major annual investment in laboratory equipment and technology upgrades?

A recent report by Derek Bok from Harvard, the Higher Education in America, highlights the divided conclusions of those who try to explain how education works. Yes, there are aspects that can be assessed and measured, but there are also many other aspects of education that cannot be effectively assessed. Some may call these ineffable or intuitive. I hope to engage with the Harvard report more fully in the coming weeks…

By the end of his article, Fish turns to a short review of a recent book by Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, one of the many successful MOOC providers. What Fish finds in her book and in the world of online education more generally is that the online model eschews the ineffable and immeasurable benefits of physically being on campus in a university or college setting. And with this critique comes his fear that modern life with all our texting and online interactions will turn us into isolated bodies with only digital contact mediated through electronic devices. While Fish teeters close to the edge of curmudgeon-speak—”these kids today! When I was in school…,”—he affirms that the quality of education has much to do with knowledge, wisdom and insight, not just facts, skills, and information. And these qualitative aspects of education are what motivates him to turn and return again to poetry, literature, Melville.

PS-1. I love Fish’s list of anathema words and phrases: learning outcomes, stakeholders, imbricate, aporia, and performative; he even pulls critical thinking closer to the list than anyone else I’ve read!

PS-2: The feminist in me is keenly interested in embodiment. We learn and understand more in the world through our experience than perhaps we previously thought. I am somewhat surprised that our education-reform debates are beginning to engage the role of bodies in education, although, God-forbid <sarcasm> we would ever spell out  feminist pro-embodiment theories of knowledge and personhood in the same article as an education-reform proposal that deals with real money and real institutions of power.

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