A Post by Michael B. Spring

(A list of all posts by M.B. Spring)

Our students today…(October 18, 2010)

At a recent meeting of the University Faculty Assembly, there was a discussion about the quality of the students at the University.  I wanted to speak to the issue but it was not the time and place to provide an extended argument.  So, I turn here to pen and paper with some thoughts about the university and students.

Let me begin with an attempt to encapsulate the 30 minute discussion induced by an observation that it is hard work to teach our incoming students who sometimes lack critical basic skills.  One member observed that our students don’t know how to write well.  Further, it is not our job in higher education to teach writing in courses other than writing courses.  Another member observed that the undergraduate students entering the University of Pittsburgh have been getting better every year based on objective measures.  There were some remarks about the lack of work ethic, and then some more remarks about how remarkable some of our students are.  There were observations about the failure of the primary and secondary school systems, and about parents who are not involved enough or who are too involved!  Toward the end, one member made a passionate statement about the quality of the students we are graduating as measured by the graduate schools they are being admitted to.  There seemed to be no conclusion, but clearly the matter was one near and dear to the hearts of many of the members.  

Leaving the meeting I carried a piece of paper on which I had jotted five notes:

  1. Changing technology
  2. Changing demographics
  3. The University as laboratory and museum
  4. Competency versus comparison
  5. Changing forms of communication

Changing Technology

I am a great fan of Herb Simon’s notion of a science of the artificial – a science of the artifacts that we create and surround ourselves with – technology.  In the book, he talks about the differences between the physical, social, and artificial sciences.  While his work addresses different paradigms and methods, there are some corollaries that are also of interest.  For example, while the physical world is constantly changing, the rate of change is glacial compared with the social world and the social world changes glacially compared with the technological world.  From the birth of powered flight to the landing on the moon was less than 70 years!  We might benefit from introspection on the significance of the impact of various forms of technology on different generations.

Alan Kay is another of my heroes.  He was one of the principles at Xerox PARC in the 1970’s who invented what would eventually become the personal computer we use today.  The Alto, Dynabook, and Star used networks, laser printers, windows, mice, icons, bitmapped screens and the desktop metaphor.  They were all developed at Xerox PARC in the late 70’s – years before the first IBM PC was sold!  Kay did his testing with children because adults were too set in their ways – he wanted to work and learn from minds that were not adverse to radical new technology.  Last week, I heard the scientist who had developed the simulator for the Joint Strike Fighter – the main fighter for the US for the next thirty years – saying that they were asking high school kids to try out the simulator.  His rationale was that 90% of the pilots who would fly the JSF had not yet been born and he needed the input of individuals conversant with the new technology to assess it.  Technology is evolving rapidly, especially the technology that is being used by young people today to communicate in new ways. 

Keep in mind that writing is a technology just as is telephony, or text messaging, or video mashups.  With that in mind, with great love of writing, about which I learn something new every day, and with a belief that we need to take account of, not resist new technology, I turn to Socrates as presented by Plato.  Plato’s Phaedrus, a dialog on love, rhetoric, and other matters between Socrates and Phaedrus turns at one point to writing. Socrates comments:

This invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise. (Plato, Phaedrus 275b).

In the context of discussions and debates about our students in higher education, this observation by one of the greatest teachers of western civilization provides an interesting reminder.  Each generation clings to the technology with which they are most conversant and shuns or devalues newer technologies.  What will ultimately become significant new technologies may be most appreciated by the youngest generation unencumbered by tradition and training.

Changing Demographics

I wish I had a nickel for every comparison of the academic prowess of the different generations – or about the relative strengths of US versus foreign students.  In a prior life I served as a director of an outreach educational effort for the University.  The comparison of the students in the program against traditional students was inevitable.  We convinced the Dean of the elite undergraduate college to teach a course for these non-traditional students.  Inevitably, he was asked to compare the students.  I was pleased to find his response consistent with my own beliefs.  He said that the brightest students in each program were comparable, but that the non-traditional students were more highly motivated and were wise as well as smart.  On the down side, the non-traditional students were more heterogeneous.  That is, the number of poorly prepared students was greater in the open admission system.  This was of course true.

Without worrying about specific numbers, imagine that less than 5% of the population went on to college 100 years ago.  The entering class at an institution of higher learning was from the elite in society, whether it is based on aristocracy or meritocracy.  When we include all forms of higher education today, I suspect the entering class includes over 50% of the population.  The bell curve dictates that even if selective institutions try to assure the brighter students are chosen, more of those allowed to dream the dream of a higher education are closer to the average.  A related observation can be made for our foreign visitors, who are often supported by competitive state scholarships.  We do not see the average student from China or India.  We see the intellectual elite.  That the demographics of students pursuing higher education in our democracy are changing is a good thing, and it is the vision upon which we built our democracy.  We should not pine for our experience of higher education only for the elite but embrace and support one that is the realization of our vision of democracy.

The University as Laboratory and Museum

It is well understood that we look to our universities as one of the key locations for research that leads to new knowledge.  But there is another important function that universities fulfill.  It is our responsibility to preserve knowledge.  It is within the university that we can study ancient languages and cultures.  The Saber-Tooth Curriculum is a wonderful little book written in 1939 by Harold Benjamin under the pen name J. Abner Pediwell.  It is the tale, in the best Weberian sense, of how our academic structures are self perpetuating.  Long after the hunting of saber-tooth tigers had become unnecessary in a culture transformed from hunter gatherer to agrarian, the institutions of higher learning are enhancing their PhD programs in saber-tooth tiger hunting!  The university is one of the institutions in our society whose goal is not only to discover new knowledge but to preserve old knowledge.

Another perspective on the role of institutions of higher education in our society relates to preparing individuals to work in society.  This matter has been eloquently addressed by a number of historians of education.  At a simplistic level, we understand that when agriculture and engineering were important, and not being addressed well enough by the institutions then in existence, the land-grant universities were created to produce the engineers and agricultural researchers.  Similarly, the states created normal schools to produce teachers.  More recently community colleges have emerged to open access and produce individuals with a wide variety of rapidly evolving technical skills

In addition to the knowledge and skills institutions provide, they also provide a cultural indoctrination to society and its institutions.  Lester Thurow has talked eloquently about capitalism and education.  In a simple form, our traditional classrooms and forms of discipline are meant to prepare people for large organizations where they follow the rules and keep a regular schedule.  The desks in rows, the rulers to impose discipline, the detention hall and rigid schedules produced the people needed in an industrialized society – from General Motors to the Army.  Today, Google, Microsoft, GE and our other 21st century businesses are looking for faster, leaner, more self-directed individuals capable of working in fluid situations and ad hoc structures.  Are we producing these kinds of self starters or are we producing individuals for the corporations of the 20th century?  Are we shaping our students in a laboratory of the future or a museum of the past

Competency versus Comparison

We argue ad nauseum about grade inflation and the growing incompetence of our students.  I was trained as an educator in an era when we thought about instructional objectives and ways to individualize instruction to the needs of students.  My first job as a graduate student was working with a school district in a “non-graded middle school.”  It was not that we did not assess and grade students.  The idea was that students weren’t in a particular grade, but rather they had a portfolio that defined the competencies they had achieved.  Taken to the extreme, the idea is that any student who gets a credential – be it a high school diploma or a master’s degree – knows certain things and has certain skills.  If an individual can develop the knowledge and skills in five years, that is wonderful.  If it takes thirty, that’s what it takes.  If you listen carefully, you will hear this basic idea behind many of the educational reforms that are suggested for the US.  Unfortunately, the extent of the change that would be required in our institutions is so significant that attempts at reform are very difficult.

Teaching graduate courses over the last 30 years, I have had the luxury of being free to teach in the way I thought best.  In my case, that means that a student doesn’t complete my course until they complete a series of projects that are tied to competencies I set out for the course.  In educational jargon, my evaluation mechanisms are competency based.  Most of my colleagues prefer to give a mid-term and final and be done with the course.  If they do include projects, they almost always grade over a fixed time period and on a curve.  We are told that we want to avoid grade inflation and that is assured if we only give a percentage of our students A’s.  In educational jargon, this is referred to as norm based evaluation.  For a variety of reasons, I am not a fan of comparative or norm based evaluation on an imposed time schedule.  I much prefer, even though it is more work for me, to say you can all get an A when you prove to me you can do these things.  (BTW, I do give B’s and C’s but basically it is when the student says “I give up, give me a grade that represents that portion of the competencies that I have mastered.”)  How different would the university be if we followed a competency based model universally!

Changing Forms of Communication

This reflection on students and universities ends with a return to another aspect of the theme introduced in the first point about changing technology.  The reader may have noted that I focused on communication technologies more than other technologies.  I want to say just a few words here about communication in a very broad context.  (One of my blog entries provides a more leisurely exposition of this idea Immediacy. )

One of the things that separates humans from other species is our ability to communicate in very sophisticated forms.  We evolved from grunting and pointing to spoken language 40,000-50,000 years ago.  That ability to share information and knowledge accelerated the development of our species.  In retrospect we call this form of communication the oral tradition.  Around 6000 years ago, a new form of communication began to emerge – writing.  I could spend hours weaving fictional tales about how the experts in the oral tradition must have made fun of this new fangled technology.  Needless to say, writing caught on and the literary tradition was born.  Writing did not supplant speaking, but complemented it.  It became such an important skill that we spend years developing it in our children.  With the emergence of radio in the 1850’s, some saw a new form of communication beginning to emerge.  Broadcast and stored speech were referred to by some as the “second orality.”  I take a broader view.  Not just telecommunications, but computer and network based digital communication constitute the new communications technology.  It is the totality of digital communication in all its forms that is qualitatively different from both speaking and writing.  This includes everything from email to blogs to YouTube to Twitter.  I am convinced that rich and as yet unrefined forms of communication will emerge making use of this technology.

If we discovered that we had a new and better way to communicate rich messages more easily, wouldn’t we adopt the new practice, maybe at the expense of developing better writing skills?  I think so.  Writing did not put an end to speaking, and the new era, which I have had the audacity to label “immediacy”, will not supplant writing and speaking, but add a new complementary form.  New forms of communication based on digital technology are going to emerge, and we should not be disappointed that some uses of writing are replaced by new forms of digital communication just as some forms of oral communication were replaced by a written equivalent.   When I seem to hear a refrain from Socrates – “This invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory” – I am grateful that Plato chose to use that new technology to share his mentor’s observation.


There is more that I would like to weave in about my experiences with my children, my nieces and nephews who range in age from 16 to 50, and the 1000’s of students I have taught.  My overarching conclusion “about our students” is that they are wonderful, smart, powerful, knowledgeable and competent.  Lots of things are changing, but in the last analysis our students are moving forward and they are every part our equals.  Regarding the university, to my colleagues, I would say “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, or maybe “we have met the enemy and the enemy is us.”   Technology and the future are challenging us to modify and update the social institution of higher education to which we are dedicated.  We may not need to change a lot, but we do need to think about what we are doing during one of the most exciting periods in the evolution of human civilization.