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Michael Roth

Michael Roth

Posted: September 30, 2010 05:39 PM

Over the last thirty to forty years, higher education in America has viewed contributions to research as an essential part of its mission. Professors are expected to participate in shaping their scholarly fields, and students are expected to learn not just the wisdom of the past, but how to produce knowledge in the present. At large universities, though, the research function often seems to dwarf the dedication to undergraduate education. At several of the Ivies and other schools that compete for academic prestige, senior faculty often have little to do with teaching those preparing bachelor degrees, and graduate students or other part-time instructors wind up taking on the bulk of college teaching. The tenured professors work mostly with graduate students, preparing them for careers that, too, are expected to center on research.

In recent years the folly of this system has become increasingly evident: there are few tenure-track jobs for the graduate students being trained to work in the most specialized domains, and undergraduates are often left to wonder how courses taught by these narrowly trained specialists are supposed to connect to their lives after college. As smaller institutions emulated the research universities, the publish-or-perish mentality became a core part of faculty culture, with specialized journals publishing for small groups of colleagues offering the most professional prestige.

There has recently been plenty of strong criticism of the cultivation of esoteric research in higher education. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have argued that universities are wasting resources and failing students, in part because of the premium put on faculty research rather than teaching. Hacker and Dreifus have been teaching in New York for decades, and they have also been prolific authors. But in their recent book, Higher Education?, they argue that schools have been distracted from their core educational mission by adding on the obligation to contribute to scholarly fields.

Mark C. Taylor, Wesleyan graduate, long time professor at Williams and now Chair of the Religion Department at Columbia University, has recently published what he calls a "bold plan" to respond to the contemporary crisis on campus. Noting how the focus on research has driven a wedge between faculty and student interests, he diagnoses "the identification of specialization with expertise." Narrow specialization should be the great enemy of educators because it leads to silos of inquiry with little opportunity for surprising intellectual exchange. But specialization has gone hand in hand with professional prestige, something that schools have been chasing for decades.

Taylor's main argument is that our overspecialized colleges and universities are increasingly divorced from the hyper-connected world defined by "webs, not walls." Networks of interconnectivity rather than isolated expertise are defining our world, and higher education will become obsolete if it doesn't plug into these new forms of knowledge creation. (I've taken my comments here from my review of the book in the LA Times.)

How are these critiques relevant to the future of liberal learning in this country? The search for prestige through specialization, whether it takes place in athletics or the English department, can often take place at the expense of a well-rounded experience for undergraduates. However, the "virtuous circle" of teaching and research can powerfully affect both the form and content of higher education to benefit students. The key is being able to show the relevance of the research to undergraduates. Many of my Wesleyan colleagues have been deeply affected in their scholarly work by what they learn from students in the classroom. Similarly, our students know that we continue to learn with them through the work we do in our fields... we are not just imparting information to them that somebody else imparted to us.

Some of best teachers at America's liberal arts colleges are also the most serious and original researchers, and all of us remain dedicated to undergraduate education even as we produce scholarship for specialized audiences. So, even though I think Hacker, Dreifus and Taylor are right to worry about severe overspecialization (with its associated bureaucracy) in certain fields, I think they might say more about the positive feedback loop that can connect the classroom and the archive, the science lab and the lecture hall. And we should note that these contemporary critics of education are themselves also researchers, and this hasn't seemed to undermine their professed love of teaching.

Whether it is in economics or in religious studies, art history or computational biology, we want our faculty and students to translate the specific things they learn into terms that have broader relevance. I recently saw a great example of this in a poster session for young biochemists. Sure there was specialization, but there was also an understanding of what is at stake in the experiments and an ability to describe the work for the non-expert. Showing a wonderful talent for translating their efforts in terms even I could understand, students explained to me their work on RNA, on modeling the structure of particular carbon based molecules, and on the translation of proteins. My head was spinning, but they showed me what was at stake in the work they were doing.

There are plenty of things to improve in American higher education, but we must be careful to preserve our ability to educate students broadly and deeply by engaging faculty in projects that are both scholarly and pedagogical. Specialization without the capacity for translation can undermine effective teaching. But many small colleges and universities do promote "intellectual cross-training" precisely because our professors remain active scholars, scientists and artists, exemplifying a love of learning that can be made powerfully relevant to their undergraduate students.