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news from Arabia

September 22, 2014

Last week I visited United Arab Emirates University to address its convocation of the new academic year. Candidly, I find just typing that pretty exciting. There are those of my breed – that is, higher ed geeks who travel around and make speeches – who are more jaded. (“Do you fly on points?” “No, PowerPoints.”) But for me this was a flippin’ thrill.

I’d never before been anywhere on the Arabian Peninsula. So there I am listening to my hosts, trying to focus on their questions of student engagement in the CSU, and all I can think is how I might sneak a selfie with a camel. Before the trip I’d fantasized about white robes, otherworldliness. Sitting on floor cushions and eating with my fingertips. But I also know it’s a McDonald’s and Ikea world out there, and braced myself for a letdown.

But so help me it’s still there, the calls to prayer, the crowding and wealth, the extreme hospitality, the omnipresent dates, and yes, even the flowing white robes and headgear. In fact, the traditional dress is such a given that it’s drawn onto the silhouettes of crosswalk signs.

Some of the old world touches can rankle. The country’s class system is explicit; that white and checkered headgear is the dress only of the nationals, called “Emirati.” Although they hold a growing number of executive positions, much of the day-to-day work of the university, and for that matter of the country, seems performed by expatriate workers brought in. Emirati don’t need to cook or clean, or in many cases even drive. I can’t be too judgmental here – you will hear very little English among the dishwashers and farmworkers of California – but the strata are starker here.

And then there are gender relations, which I’m not sure what to make of. Those top Emirati exec positions are largely male, but here, too, people who sit on glass ceilings shouldn’t throw stones. Although there are women in the CSU who outrank me, it’s telling that caption goes here... everyone who reports to me is female, and those I report to are male. No exceptions on either side of me.  Similarly, in the UAE five cabinet positions out of 25 are held by women.  It’s a hard thing to measure precisely, but female authority seems about equally attenuated on both sides.

The classrooms and labs segregate students by gender, something we don’t do. But I left wondering if we should try it: UAEU is trying to get more males into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, to balance all the successful women engineers and scientists it produces. That’s right; the country is running a surfeit of females in STEM. Faced with the opposite problem in the CSU, I was agog. I asked if all those female STEM grads were getting jobs. “Oh, yes. The country is culturally conservative, but the women do work. Many are engineers.”

I asked what the men majored in instead. In fact many of the high-performing high school graduates pursue college overseas.  Many others don’t pursue education at all; the country is ahead of us in the loss of men in college. At the CSU the male portion is 40% and falling; at UAEU it’s already down to 25%.

Maybe when we get down to 25%, we’ll also find that our STEM gender gap has reversed. I’d like to close it by other means.

The university’s academic and administrative structures feel oddly American, the upshot of decades of consulting with westerners like myself. Instruction is in English, the curriculum and selection of majors familiar; they even have our quirkiest contribution to higher ed, General Education. They’re up for accreditation by WASC, the same U.S. regional that does the CSUs. There’s a meal card, a student affairs division, dorms, and a registrar’s office. Many of the bad habits came in too – lectures, content emphasis, disciplinary silos. All this eleven time zones away. It’s disorienting.

Maybe I’m biased by the way I parachuted in, but I have to believe globalization fuels this university. The UAE has a near monopoly on safety in a part of the world where jet planes can just about make it on a tank of gas. If you’re going to have a layover somewhere, it’s likely to be here, the O’Hare or DFW for the world. (See a recent Wall Street Journal op ed from the ambassador, on keeping your cool in a tough neighborhood.)

Sheikh-Zayed-Mosque-in-Middle-East-United-Arab-Emirates-with-reflection-on-water_-Abu-Dhabi_2Before we left the LAX runway, a PA announcement catalogued the languages of our Etihad Airlines flight crew: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and two others I didn’t catch. I’m not kidding. Think of those currents of culture, creativity, and ideas, swirling together in the mega cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and lapping up to the universities in between. Think of living in that. Making it your base for study.

Seeing such a confluence rise out of the desert, built on oil and an ideal location, it’s hard not to think of earlier trade hubs striking it rich – 13th century Venice, or 19th century London. Or the Silk Road. After all, the world’s clearinghouse of knowledge was once its Arabic trade routes, along which the eastern world curated Roman and Hellenistic thought for centuries, while a few countries to the west we were still cleaving each other with broadswords and meat axes, the lights out for a while to come.

Fast forward a millennium to visit a staggeringly cosmopolitan, polyglot hub of learning, built on a commodity and occupying another crossroads, and it kind of makes sense. The next step, once they’ve won their accreditation and can relax a little, will be to think critically about which parts of the U.S. approach they can drop. They’re diversifying away from oil as fast as they can; there are probably some higher ed organizational habits that should go the same way.

the attention economy, part 2

September 4, 2014

114907678A couple of posts ago I described indications that our economy increasingly prizes attention. These days, rich people and poor people both have many of the same gadgets, but the poor have less access to human-delivered services like education, health care, and legal help.  That’s the consumer’s perspective, the attention we buy.

At the same time, our students are graduating into a world where the main thing they will sell is their attention: their ability to focus, to empathize, to make connections.  The producer’s perspective.

Both of these signs of an ascendant “attention economy” affect higher education.

On the consuming or buying side, higher ed’s function as a driver of upward mobility gets harder to demonstrate, as some consumption gets less conspicuous.

On the producing or selling side, the common curriculum of all bachelor’s degrees – that is, general education – could anticipate the new valuations by foregrounding attention-related intellectual proficiencies, like cross-cultural competence, executive function, and the ability to argue in ways that are interesting as well as persuasive.

As I was writing that post, it occurred to me that its perspective was all microeconomic, following the incentives and actions of individual decision-makers.

Other likely upshots of the attention economy are macroeconomic, on a collective and social scale.  But the implications on that front struck me as too weird for plausibility, so I stopped writing.

Now that it’s a few weeks later I think they’re still weird, but more plausible.

First, a word about wealth, not just for individual people but for the planet.

Every once in a while it surprises me to remember that everything we use, touch, and consume started as stuff in the ground. The fax machine, the pepperoni Hot Pocket, and the Mona Lisa all owe their origins, ultimately, to mining and agriculture. Everything else that brought them about came from us.

27274-gnsAnd as production gets more clever and efficient, the same finite raw material ends up as more and better finished goods, and wealth increases. Over the millennia those advantages have added up, to things like space ships and keyless cars and shampoo + conditioner in one.

When you put these next to each other they’re surprisingly stark:

origins of wealth growers of wealth
mining creativity
agriculture productivity

That’s it. And for the first column, the Earth is carrying pretty much the same net nutritional and mineral value as it did when the comets stopped pelting us.   That humans are far better off today than when we first dropped from the trees is owing entirely to the second column.

Now, in an attention economy, innovations and efficiencies arise not from tinkering with the assembly line, but from improving human cognition. The more developed each person’s intellectual capacity, the more high-quality attention there is to go around, and the more of it we have to divvy up.  That is, you grow large-scale wealth with social work, corrections (in those rare cases of rehabilitation) and — most of all — with education.

That’s always been true, but it’s truer in an attention economy.  Now the extra smarts aren’t just the means to a faster, say, assembly line; they are the end themselves.  My colleagues and I may be the new miners and farmers.


A recent Frontline story looked at the city of Baton Rouge, and efforts by a group of affluent suburbs to break off and form a separate city of their own. This would considerably impoverish those left behind. According to the story, this is happening in cities across the south, where decades of mandated desegregation mixed good schools with bad. Now that’s unraveling.  Even the liberals among the rich white parents support the drive to separate, to make sure their own children are well educated no matter what. It’s hard to fault them.

But watching the piece, I was most disappointed in the arguments on the other side. Advocates of city unity, and so tacitly also of racial integration, did a poor job defending their positions.

Some of them said staying together was the right thing to do on moral and altruistic grounds (in my experience, never a potent defense for public education). Others merely squirmed.

What I didn’t hear was the argument that strikes me as truest and most compelling: we want even our poorest neighbors to be well educated, because it makes us all richer.

I don’t mean in an abstract, humanitarian, road-to-Damascus sense, I mean it literally brings us more of the goods and services we want, raising standards of living, even in the neighborhoods that were already well off.

Because when wealth is measured by the ability to provide and command high-quality human attention, the production of more and better attention, education becomes the main source of material abundance.

I’m 90% sure.

how to scale

August 21, 2014

Boston MarketIn the 1990s the popular business press had a few recurring themes, such as growth in demand for PCs, anxiety over Asian economic strength and Latin American debt, and the hazards for American businesses of expanding too rapidly. On that third point the example was Boston Market so often that for lazy writers the name became a kind of shorthand for how not to scale. The chain of fast-casual restaurants began in 1985, grew explosively, borrowed too much, and by the end of the ’90s was bankrupt.

There’s more to take from that story than the hazards of leverage; with lower interest rates the Boston Market parable might have been one of nerviness rewarded. It’s also about judgment and perspective. Whenever you’re on a roll the temptation is to push harder: momentum itself is a a resource to take advantage of.

Here in the system office we spend some time trolling for ideas to scale, wondering when good practice at one state university is ready to carry over to another. We can do a lot of good when we guess right.

So imagine my surprise on finding a compelling argument against scaling at all. The authors of this paper, faculty at San Luis Obispo, begin with an observation about the prevailing metaphor for higher education, which is industrial and thus prioritizes standardization:

Industrial era manufacturing methods attempt to minimize diversity and its sources through quality control. In these metaphors, profit is assumed to be maximized through economies of scale, where variation accrues as a loss in profit.

If you replace the word “profit” with “efficiency,” you get a pretty good account of my job managing transfer credit. Uniformity is good. Idiosyncrasy produces waste. The paper continues:

Using the metaphor of complex systems instead opens possibilities for a plurality of valid “truths” to simultaneously exist, since the underlying premise is that systems are more than the sum of their parts.

For the last couple of years I’ve been fishing around for good ways to propagate ideas across communities, something less ham-fisted than policy and credit articulation. So I liked reading this paper, which brought to mind other models for group work: the “practitioner network,” exemplified in the California Community Colleges by the RP Group, for example , or the Networked Improvement Communities supported by the Carnegie Foundation, or the model called “communities of practice,” now a couple of decades old.

What they have in common is a loose-knit, organic property that feels truer to human interaction. People join or leave as time permits. Once in the group, listening and turn-taking are as important as any other contribution. Roles and obligations are fluid.

As an administrator, one part of me loves this while the other is reaching for the Xanax. Gone are the rigid to-do list and reporting deadlines; you can’t even maintain a decent listserv. I mean, for the love of God.

Intuiting my interest in such things, last year the now-dean of undergraduate education at San Francisco State gave me a book called Scaling Up Excellence. It describes this continuum in religious terms, running from Catholic (“mandating that new people and places become perfect clones of some original model”) to Buddhist (“encouraging local variation, experimentation, and customization”).

Somewhere between those theologies is the mix likeliest to work for universities like ours, thriving on local shared governance, while chained together on the state’s higher ed road crew.


A couple of weeks ago I joined administrators at a meeting of the National Association of System Heads. One of our advance readings was an article on Collective Impact, which included these five Conditions for Collective Success:

  • common agenda
  • shared measurement systems
  • mutually reinforcing activities
  • continuous communication
  • backbone support organizations

This list nicely captures what I’ve seen working around the CSU. But I’d emphasize that these are not only the minimum requirements, but also the most you’d want to do. In other words, once everyone has agreed to the goals and metrics, and you’ve provided a means of communication, shared activity, and support, get out of the way.

20090925_friedchicken_560x375The recent interest in scaling two innovations in particular has made it suddenly important for us to get this right.

  1. HIPs. In our efforts to institutionalize CSU offerings of high-impact educational practices, like learning communities, undergraduate research, and community engagement, we’re just about done with four of the five points, but the shared measurement systems remain a work in progress. Here the challenge is to do only that: create the metrics in a way that recognizes common ground where it really exists, without homogenizing everything else.

The clock is ticking: my boss in the corner office keeps upping the ante with dedicated student success money. My campus colleagues and I have successfully argued that it belongs here, with the learning: make it visibly valuable and relevant, and students will persist and graduate.

For now we’re winning, but if we don’t back our claims up soon with some research, the fad will pass, our moment of momentum missed. We’ll be the next, you know, Boston Market.

  1. Linked Learning. Last month I was witness to a bigger, splashier meeting around scaling right. For many years, grantees of the James Irvine Foundation have been quietly building a coalition to blur the boundaries between liberal education and job training. The ideas of this movement – Linked Learning – go back further than this iteration, and they will persist beyond it, too. The state of California is putting half a billion dollars into Career Pathways Trust, a development most observers attribute to Irvine’s successes.

In both of these cases, good work is getting money and support at unprecedented levels. And so both leadership groups face hard questions about how to scale – what is and isn’t in scope, what the templates must include, which details can be sacrificed while still maintaining “fidelity to the model.”

I worry about falling into that same industrial-era paradigm, and excessive homogenization.

There’s another serious risk here, and that’s simply antagonizing others who do good work. In the words of one of my colleagues in this work:

As a field we must guard against sounding ‘holier than thou,’ — that is, sounding like we are the sole guardians of quality, the only initiative that really knows what it is, and everyone else is just going through the motions. There are many other people out there who care about quality as deeply as we do.

In other words, as we draft these papal bulls on high-impact practices and linked learning, we’d better leaven the orthodoxy with a little Buddhism, and remember what we really want to scale.


the attention economy, part 1

July 28, 2014

NYT article

An article in the New York Times a couple of months ago is still lodged in my brain. Prompted by the protests of fast food workers over their minimum wage, it amounted to a deeper consideration of what wealth still gets you, in an age of cheap technology.

As the article’s opening question put it, “Is a family with a car in the driveway, a flat-screen television and a computer with an Internet connection poor?”

It echoes something Ken Follett wrote in the afterward of his historical novel The Pillars of the Earth. In researching the middle ages, he was struck by the way standards of living evolve, and observed that today’s incarcerated felon enjoys a higher quality of life, better health care and more security than the wealthiest nobility of the 14th century.

So say, hypothetically speaking, we want to address the widening gap between the rich and the poor. What exactly are we filling in, if everyone already has all their teeth and a smart phone?

The NYT article would argue human services: good health care, access to education, a lawyer when you need one. This makes sense to me, because it lines up with other long-term trends of comparative value. A thousand years ago, the cheapest way to copy a book was to hire a monk for a year. Today it’s a Kindle download equivalent to about an hour at minimum wage, or, if the book is old enough, free.

In other words, what’s expensive today isn’t the book but the monk.

That growth in the relative premium on human attention is accelerating, as we race each other to make everything else cheaper. I first encountered this idea around ten years ago, in a book called The Attention Economy. By now its examples and arguments are dated – the only edition was published in 2002 – but the conclusions are surprisingly fresh. The businesses that thrive will be those that value uniquely human input, that attend to attention.


This has a few implications for us in higher education:

1. The higher standard of living we peddle to newcomers is for services, not stuff. See the New York Times article for this. We have always chafed somewhat at the crassest motive for college learning, to earn more money. Yet that incremental income is looking less materialistic all the time, and more like the means to the kind of full life that we’re more comfortable promoting.

2. The most valuable proficiencies we develop may be interpersonal. Engineering faculty around the CSU are especially vocal advocates of general education, understanding that cross-cultural competence, clear communication, and persuasion are some of their graduates’ most marketable skills. That is, in an attention economy, the spoils go not only to those who make what people want, but also who can understand, anticipate, and responsibly lead the focus of others.

3. The most important dispositional learning may be executive function. I think of this third one as the flipside of the second: just as we want our graduates able to steer the attention of others, they will need increasingly to protect their own. And so far, as near as we can tell, they’re not only bad at it but getting worse.

nass.cliffordLast October I was among the presenters at a CSU Northridge event on the future of the CSU, and appearing with me was Clifford Nass of Stanford University. His remarks on the erosion of our students’ executive function, their multi-tasker’s vulnerability to distraction from all quarters, was chilling.

He went through detailed testing results on the different ways we manage attention:

     maintain focus in an appropriate area

     ignore irrelevant information

     manage working memory

     switch between tasks

In every case, students categorized as “high multi-taskers” – the vast majority of subjects, and a growing share – scored measurably worse. Yet, these are looking like the same skills they’ll rely on most after they graduate – both in what they purchase with that higher standard of living afforded by a college degree, and in what they sell as their contribution to the workforce.

That alone should tell us something urgent about what to emphasize with our curriculum.

But for those of us working in higher education, there’s another, bigger consequence of this shift in valuation, and it plays out not for individuals but collectively.

But it’s too surprising for me to write about yet.  Maybe in another post or two.

news from the Crooked Road

July 7, 2014

road endsLast month my wife and I spent a few days driving around the southwestern corner of Virginia, a stretch of U.S. 58 that boosters call the “Crooked Road,” musician slang for an unpredictable solo.

There’s a lot here to like, including the road itself, winding as it does through small towns and gorgeous scenery. There’s good food and authentic regional accents, and other reminders we’re not in California anymore: an abundance of churches, and designated smoking areas bigger than a doorway. (In fact, cigarettes are everywhere: you can drive up to a window and order them like tacos.)

At the eastern end of the road is a countercultural outpost called Floyd, with left-leaning bookstores and a reminder that even on the mountainous side, Virginia runs purple, not red.

And then there’s the reason we came, which was to hear the music.  It’s abundant, sometimes playing in the corners as an afterthought. At the welcome center in Abingdon hundreds of locally produced CDs are on sale – hundreds—and they’re all good, available to sample for free, recorded by people you’ve never heard of. The depth of talent and material, from a place that’s not all that populous, is astounding.

IMG_20140621_214550_623We were there early in the week – a Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday – and many of the venues were dark, either until later in the week or for good, replaced by an Applebee’s or a Red Lobster. But those were the exceptions: the Crooked Road falls only a little short of its promise.

Which had us wondering, what would take it the rest of the way?

How much of “dark on Sundays” is the Old Dominion keeping the faith, and how much is because there’s not enough demand for more? Could venues along the Crooked Road cultivate a bigger market by spreading their evening shows across more of the week? Or would that kill the very culture they’re set up to share?

And if there was interest in any build-out, then is there a role for Virginia’s public universities?



The whole state has a stake in the answer. As April Trivett explains from the Heartwood Cultural Center in Abingdon, the Crooked Road has been a boon, and gives the state’s poorest region hope for an economic base less problematic than tobacco or coal.

Her comment reminded me of other states looking to public higher education to help diversify into cultural and intellectual economies, goals I hear via my counterparts in Louisiana, Nebraska, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Michigan has made its commitment especially clear, launching a public-private partnership with its universities expressly to reverse the state’s business fortunes.

The benefits will cut both ways.  I’ve often thought (and written once or twice on this blog) that as higher ed gets more comfortable with virtual delivery, our brick-and-mortar operations will need to emphasize their local roots to justify themselves. Real-world campus life has always had unique benefits, including the physical facilities, the face time with experts, the community interaction, and the sheer serendipity you get with proximity. What’s new is that now we have to emphasize them.

As we do, we’ll be sounding a little like the people who promote the Crooked Road: some places are still worth the trip.

fMRI and learning outcomes assessment

June 4, 2014

When you think often about the same thing, does it take up more of your brain? That assumption informs our cartoons and tee shirts:

03 inside_the_male_psyche

But images of brain activity suggest the opposite. The colored sections below show active regions of the brain performing a complicated task for the first time, and then after an hour of practice:

image 01

As you get the hang of something, it takes less mental effort to continue it. We knew this: it’s why for centuries we’ve drilled our soldiers in reloading rifles, so they can conserve their working attention for other purposes, like staying alive and shooting.

As a skill or movement shrinks to its long-term minimum footprint, we can locate it precisely in a person’s brain:

04 tumblr_m6p2n9A5nh1qza6bio1_400

I think about this sometimes. When my wife Cyndi first taught jazzercise, learning a routine took her days, the same pop song booming around the house while she recited its choreography. Fifteen years later, she picks up steps to the latest Macklemore and Ryan in about ten minutes, usually while playing Candy Crush on the other screen. Somewhere in her brain I picture a synapse she didn’t have before, whose only job is to represent a grapevine right and two pliés.

Food for thought: what if, along with locating neural networks for body parts and dance steps, you could locate them for ideas? Last year a Kyoto-based research team made news by reading dreams using the same technology — functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) — that produced the pictures here. They did it by first building up a glossary of visual associations, showing their waking subjects images from the web, then used those as references to read their minds while asleep.

This drew from work by a Berkeley team two years prior, which studied waking subjects as they watched movie trailers. Here’s a side-by-side clip of the actual trailer and what the fMRI guessed the subjects were seeing:

So, a blurry mess, but a start, like color TV circa 1939.

Since the brain activity varies from person to person, it represents ideas constructed by the brain as it learns over time.  That makes research like this potentially useful to educators.

That is, the day may come when we don’t need testing, transcripts, and samples of student work to see if someone knows something. We can just look.

Which raises a question we can start answering right away: what would we look for?

06 sumerian%20tablet%20543x513

When we off-loaded memory to writing, around five millennia ago, we changed the relative value of different intellectual skills. Memorization fell back in the sweepstakes, leaving room at the front for things like problem-solving and persuasion.

Our priorities shift again whenever we outsource some brainwork to technology. When my parents were in high school in the early 1950s, they learned to take square roots by hand. When I was that age my textbook listed two steps to derive a square root: (1) find a calculator and (2) press the √ key. An appendix at the back explained the manual procedure for the curious.

Today’s shifts put a new premium on collaboration, persistence, cross-cultural facility, and other ineffable capacities to productively make your way in a connected world.

But about that word “ineffable”: is what we want really so impossible to describe? If I can recognize the neural fingerprint of a chassé left or watching a fight scene, then can’t I also see whose brain is cooperating? And whose is still learning how?

Katharine Stewart, my counterpart in the University of North Carolina System, has a disciplinary background in medical psychology. She’s convinced these capacities aren’t ineffable at all, and that in fact we have been usefully effing them for quite some time. They appear increasingly in the higher ed lit as “non-cognitive” skills: resilience, grit, determination. She cites longstanding parallels from other realms of human development: K-12, social work, and corrections. Indeed, aren’t we just talking about variations on impulse control? Anger management? Deferred gratification?

Those who study education as a discipline may object to my casting this as breaking news, but it’s a fact that hardly any college faculty and administrators know this stuff. We were trained in our separate disciplines, not in learning.

Watching these separate strands of work – in fMRI and in the precision other fields have used to describe non‑cognitive learning – I think we can anticipate the day when they’ll connect. So if the question is “what would we look for?”, then part of the answer is these discrete parcels of unambiguous, identifiable dispositional learning.

Looking ahead to that day, there’s a third strand that needs to catch up, and that’s our relatively primitive approach to assessing learning in the disciplines. Because along with impulse control, cooperation, and a visibly frugal use of attention on practiced tasks, we also expect our college graduates to know a subject well. They still pick a major, and on that part of the new ground we’ve barely set foot.

Since we weren’t trained for any of this, faculty in departments tend to define learning (at least initially) in the simplest way possible, as recall. After that they grope, saying things like “we want our physics majors to think like physicists.” With continued effort, these groups eventually define what they mean in smaller units, the “tells” of physicist-style thinking that reveal proficiency beyond content knowledge. They may look for signs a student can pose a relevant question and then suggest a hypothesis and experiment to answer it – depending on the specialty within physics, maybe by using specific math or pieces of lab equipment.

The trick here is to come up with small, unambiguous signs of such proficiency, indicators that can be recognized as meaningful increments of learning, and recorded for academic credit. As I’ve written before, I think the Threshold Project has promise here.

At some future point the frontiers of these three kinds of work should touch each other, and we’ll have a clearer sense of our students’ learning in a variety of domains, and our institutions’ educational effectiveness:

07 convergence


That may seem unlikely, the idea that we’ll know if you’ve mastered say, writing movie dialogue, by boiling it down to discrete chunks of timing, verisimilitude, characterization, and wit, and checking whether the performance of such work takes up an appropriately small and efficient corner of your brain.

08 fMRI_labeled

But to me, that’s no more reductive – or far-fetched – than evaluating illness with x-rays and blood tests. As educators we’re a lot like 18th century physicians, who diagnosed and prescribed with semi‑mystical assertions of “humors” and the like, telling patients they might feel better if they breathed smoke or bled into a bucket. Developing a handful of key understandings by hurling content knowledge at freshmen seems no more enlightened.

Or, in the words of my Texas colleague Marni Baker-Stein, we’re like amateur astronomers, on the eve of the discovery of the telescope.

I can’t wait to take a look.



why four years

May 16, 2014

Here’s a response I got from the post before last: “I have a question that I have posed to colleagues who can only say ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it.’ My question is: Where does the concept of the four-year college degree come from? Why four years? Why not two, or five, or seventeen? Why is four the magic number? I know it predates Carnegie contact hours and whatnot, but I can’t find a good answer anywhere. Can you shed some light on this?”

American Higher Education

Well, I looked this up in my favorite reference book on higher ed history (yes, I have one), American Higher Education by Christopher J. Lucas. I didn’t find a particular origin, but a couple of references suggest this has been with us for a very long time, and certainly – as you point out – predates the credit hour, an innovation of the 1910s.  This is from his chapter on the 13th and 14th centuries:

A composite of university life indicates upwards of four or five years elapsing between a student’s initial admission and the series of academic trials required for his obtaining the medieval equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. (p50)

In the U.S. we adopted the four-year curriculum wholesale and uncritically:

The course of study offered by the typical colonial college very much reflected the earliest settlers’ resolve to effect a translation studii – a direct transfer of higher learning from ancient seats of learning at Queen’s College in Oxford and Emmanuel College at Cambridge to the frontier outposts of the American wilderness . . .

During the first year of study, Greek, Hebrew, logic and rhetoric were curricular staples. In the second year to them were added logic and “natural philosophy.” The third year brought moral philosophy (ethics) and Aristotelian metaphysics, followed in a fourth year by mathematics and advanced philological studies in classical languages, supplemented by a smattering of Syriac and Aramaic. (p. 109)

So, four years.  But get a load of that course list — and we thought our GE was musty.  I think it’s telling that in the centuries since then, we’ve changed almost everything about this curriculum except its duration.

We can attribute its durability over the centuries in a couple of ways:

1.  We never got around to changing it, because measuring learning in ways other than seat time is so hard.

2.  We’ve deliberately held it to four years because experience indicates it’s the right period of time.

I suspect it’s both.  People get something valuable from time on task, so there’s more to this structure’s longevity than just habit.  But that doesn’t let us off the hook:  if we still expect people to set aside all that time, then we should be better at defining what that something valuable is.

More on that next time.


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