oh, the humanities – part four

burning-with-mast-1024x768This series has looked at the shifting value of the humanities, in a world where the word “human” is in fresh flux. As we augment our intellects with machine learning and artificial intelligence, and our bodies with prosthetics and gene therapies, we should note the less visible but no less dramatic changes to fundamentally human activities like paying attention, interacting, and creating.

The first post made a distinction between my current handwringing and the longer, honorable tradition of simply complaining that no one majors in poetry anymore. I think that one’s still on solid ground; our faculty friends in literature, languages, and philosophy can look forward to centuries of continuing disfavor.

The second post shifted to my present concern, which is that the question of “why are our lives meaningful” may soon need more than the widely accepted response of secular humanism, which is essentially “because we’re human, and man is the measure of all things.” That yardstick is macerating in a bath of technology, and may soon dissolve completely.

The third post got a little more hopeful, by looking into the places where traditional secular humanism still has plenty of ground to clear and fields to plow, for example among the impoverished and imprisoned.

This one will close the set with what I think is the most convincing case of optimism on behalf of the humanities.

sapiensI owe the thinking in this post mostly to a book called Sapiens, and its extended discussion of “imagined realities.” I read it when it came out a couple of years ago and didn’t think much of it, but parts keep sticking with me.

I’m especially taken by Harari’s premise that our remarkable evolutionary success is owed to a little recognized human propensity. Yeah, brainpower is good, and so are upright walking and opposable thumbs. But the really significant innovation was significance itself, our tendency to collectively assign meaning and then believe in things that aren’t intrinsically true.

Paper money is one easy example of an imagined reality. So are traffic signals; nothing in the color red necessarily denotes stopping, but so long as we all agree to pretend it does, our streets work fine.

In the tradition of secular humanists, Harari puts religion into this category. But he defines religion to include a lot of things others don’t, such as the culture of Silicon Valley, and its zeal and evangelism on behalf of coding. He counts liberal democracy and American exceptionalism as religions, too.

Once you start seeing our world as a collection of collective fictions, they turn up everywhere. Today is Wednesday because we all say so, and not because there’s anything Wednesdayish about today’s spin around the poles.

In my world of higher education, the fictions feel especially arbitrary and rampant: the credit hour, the division of knowledge into disciplines, the agreed ways of organizing, explaining, and adding to what we know.

553d1293f2f7c8cd10e8865f06acb29c-business-people-team-meeting-by-vexelsIf your workday is like mine then it includes a meeting or two you’d rather not sit in. On the off-chance you find your mind wandering, I encourage you to note the collective fictions that go into all the assumptions, discussions, and resolutions you’re party to in a given hour, noting of course that the hour itself is a fiction, as are the job titles, resource allocations, and policy implications. For all the psychic investment – and it can be considerable – it’s amazing how purely hallucinatory the topics are.


I mean, let’s note that other animals do this less. Wolf packs may agree to imaginary boundaries between ranges and observe an invisible hierarchy, but they don’t codify it in zoning laws and tax brackets – to name two inventions that go back as far as recorded human history. There must be powerful reasons for doing this.

Harari believes we make these investments because the stories we tell ourselves are more than organizing. They are also keenly, eerily motivating. University presidents, fundraisers, consumer brand managers, and warmongers all make their livings on that energy.

Not to say you can do so with falsehood for long – although it helps to dress truth to advantage (paraphrasing Pope), you still need truth. And it’s possible not only that history is written by the victors, but also that the victors won because they had a more compelling history to write.

So now that I’ve had a year or two to ruminate on Harari’s thesis, I can imagine a time after ours when this will be how the word “human” is used. By then we can expect “human” to serve less as a self-evident, self-contained noun, and more as an adjective to describe that predilection for shared fiction, whether demonstrated by us talking primates, or by whatever comes next.

I think if we still organize our collective learning at universities, then they’ll be mostly in the business of intentionally, systematically developing the intellectual capacity for literature, religion, and philosophy. And even though we’ll still go begging for poetry majors, the humanities may be our main job. Performing even complex tasks will have become trivially easy for machines that don’t need college, but seeing the purpose behind the tasks will not.


As the third post pointed out, the economist who argues that we’ve passed the last point of diminishing returns and finally hit the limits of economic growth fails to convince because he doesn’t allow for the next paradigm-breaker.

For macroeconomics as well as the humanities, I think we’re developing such paradigm-breakers right now, with connected intelligence, the imminent discovery of exoplanetary life forms that will challenge our assumptions about life itself, and – believe it or not – quantum entanglement, which promises to do to lightspeed communication what the telegraph did to the horse.

Copernican orbitsThese shifts are already underway, poised to upend the secular humanist complacency. They may finally kill our longstanding tautology that humans are significant because significance is human.

Instead we’ll enter another Copernican reframing, knocking ourselves out of the center and looking for our bearings elsewhere.

That elsewhere will need to be understood and organized, more than ever, by the disciplines of philosophy, religion, languages, and literature.

Our awesome capacity to narrate collective fiction will then be more vital to us than ever, and become one of the biggest purposes of future higher education.

And the first new story we’ll need to tell ourselves will begin with the word Because.


If you’ve made it this far, then a note of gratitude: this series was harder than usual for me to write. Along the way I’ve benefited from comments and feedback from you, individually and over the social networks that syndicate this blog. Thank you.

Image credits: Airship.net, vexels.com, KQED, NY Daily News, The Cosmic Engine.


Dispositional Learning

title slideAt the annual Assessment Institute in Indianapolis on Sunday, I helped lead a workshop called – no kidding – Using ePortfolio to Document and Enhance the Dispositional Learning Impact of HIPs.

My co-facilitators were Marilee Bresciani Ludvik, Laura Gambino, and George Kuh. You can download our slides by clicking on Marilee’s brain, to the left.

Our hypothesis is that High-Impact Practices (HIPs) – things like learning communities, undergraduate research, and community engagement – may be especially good for promoting particular neuro-cognitive or “dispositional” learning.

These are the college learning outcomes that employers and society say they want more of – things like curiosity, persistence, self-regulation, flexibility, and the ability to work in diverse groups to tackle complex problems.

Leaders of HIPs programs on our campuses say they develop these outcomes in their students. They’re often frustrated that so far the benefits – the high impacts – have been counted in other ways, like personal satisfaction, higher grades, and increased likelihood to graduate. These are all valuable, but may gloss over some of the most powerful learning that comes with HIPs.

But this kind of learning can be hard to assess, which is where the student electronic portfolio comes in. By narrating and making sense of their educational experiences as they go along, and sharing with others their evolving sense of themselves, students may demonstrate how far they’ve developed these dispositional learning outcomes.

And as they do, they will give colleges a new set of tools for evaluating and improving the experiences we’re proudest to offer.


another habit I got from screenwriting


I first got into higher education as an adjunct professor in screenwriting, having worked for a dozen years mostly on stories begun by others, doing rewrites and adaptations. It was fun, trying to make stories more visual, lifelike, or involving. Like a lot of adjuncts, I kept doing that work as I taught college on the side, giving my students a very current and realistic understanding of the field.

In the early meetings I’d take with producers, either to interview for the job or, after signing, agree to the story goals, I paid more attention to what the team wanted than to what my predecessors had written. Writing is very hard work and also a little daunting, and so it’s too tempting to go back to the previous draft and begin the repairs on each scene. But really, you want a clear idea of what you need to create, before you can tell which parts should change.

If you look too closely at the existing script too early, then you lose the very freshness you were hired to bring. And it’s hard to get back, something I came to think of, and later teach, as the tyranny of the first draft. It insidiously affects how you think.

Cut to 2017. At my campus we’ve had people arguing for a few months about a set of contradictory policies, and who has standing and which document controls. As an administrator it’s my job to pore over them and then render judgment, but I resist.

For one thing, it’s kind of boring. But really, I think the written record is less important than finding agreement on how things should be. Since the present documents are inconsistent, we’re hardly bound by them anyway. They’re just a prior draft, created by well meaning but flawed people a lot like us. So escape the tyranny, and focus instead on a way forward.

My insight, from writing straight-to-video science fiction.


It reminds me of a conversation I found puzzling a couple of years ago, but which now makes more sense to me. I was at a higher ed conference, and seated next to me for dinner was a senior administrator who’d taught chemistry.

She was insistent not only that it helped her do her current job, but that it was indispensable. She really believed that if you wanted to lead a university you should first study chemistry, because it disciplines your thinking about cause and effect, and limiting reactions, and the invisible bonds that make a process possible.

Fans of broad, liberal learning – that is, me and the people like me – will tell you the choice major doesn’t matter. Just go to college, because no matter what your focus you won’t use it much after the first one or two jobs.

But what if we’re exactly wrong? It seems instead as if no matter what your focus, you will indeed use it, and for the rest of your life, just in ways that are impossible to predict.

Image credits: Green Communications, nde-ed.org

news from New Hampshire

Last month I joined the Teagle Assessment Scholars at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire. I’m new to this group but it’s been around for more than a decade, drawing applicants from all over the country. Many participants work at private liberal arts colleges, a lot like Franklin Pierce itself.


Over the course of the meeting, I was repeatedly impressed by how urgent assessment is for colleges like Franklin Pierce. They need to explain, quantify, and demonstrate learning not just for quality control and accreditation, but also to protect their very survival.

I’m as pained as anyone by the broken higher education business model, but cushioned by working in the public sector, on tax money, in a blue state. My job is relatively secure.

web1_Franklin-Pierce-CollegeBut for most of my colleagues last month, that’s not the case. Their institutions are on shakier fiscal ground. Three weeks after we met, Marygrove College in Michigan announced it was closing its undergraduate programs, for many of the same, entirely financial reasons.

First, there’s pricing. The smaller privates charge tuition lower than their headline-making counterparts in the Ivy League, but fees are still high and rising fast. So even though they’re relative bargains, few families can afford the sticker price. And so, to stay in business, these less-famous privates cut further, offering deep discounts to the majority of their students.

Demographics can make this worse. Most colleges are regional, and some parts of the country face a dwindling pool of college-age recruits. Along with New Hampshire, we had colleagues from the states of New York, Maine, and – yes – Michigan. In these places, purveyors of baccalaureate education undercut each other to maintain a viable share of a shrinking market.

On the cost side, they face the same pressures as other businesses whose raw material is people: rising cost of labor, rising health and retirement obligations, and a product – personally facilitated intellectual development – that just doesn’t lend itself to automation or outsourcing.

Against this background, about 20 of us gathered for a two-day exercise imagining a financially sane college of the future.

Organized by the Wabash Center of Inquiry, the meeting had as its centerpiece a diabolical Excel spreadsheet, whose elegantly linked and cross-referencing formulas enforced a framework for solvency. There were credit hours connected to salary, class sizes and admission profiles connected to graduation rates, and fluid assignments of workload to staff and faculty.

This really is a picture of it:


There were ways to make it all work, but as you’d expect, the default solution was to stick to the present business model, but make everyone work harder. You stuff more students into each classroom, you pile on the teaching load, and eventually you break kind of even.

At the places where I’ve been employed these strategies are already played out. For one, faculty are teaching an awful lot. For another, the hours left outside of the classroom are also put to valuable use, in research, advising, and the kind of service that runs the university. Such work may not be monetized, but it does have value.


About a month after we met, the Council of Independent Colleges released a TIAA-funded report called The Financial Resilience of Independent Colleges and Universities. Its mostly upbeat tone leads with this statistic: despite the headlines, 67% of all small- and medium-sized colleges are doing fine financially.

I’m not sure I’d find that consoling. It’s a little like getting compelled to play Russian Roulette with two bullets, but told to relax because four rounds are missing.

At the Teagle workshop, the best solutions departed from the current business model more adventurously. There was a lot of interest in prior learning assessment, for example, as an alternative to offering expensive classes in things students already know.

One of the best models proposed higher ed outposts embedded with employers and businesses throughout the community, extensions of the home campus that would make it easier for non-traditional students to fit us into the crevices in their lives – for example, middle-aged learners checking in at a local storefront study hall as part of their broader retooling. No one familiar with community colleges would call these approaches new, but the marriage to liberal arts colleges is.

These private colleges are old institutions, designed to do more life preparation than job training. Keeping them in business will mean offering that transformational, versatile growth in a format that’s available, accessible, and fiscally sustainable.

And doing that means stepping back from our current business model, while counting on the assessment of student learning to keep us honest.

Image credit: Dennis Mires; Spring Mall, Malaysia

the regular order


I was moved by John McCain’s address to the senate this week. Shortly after casting a deciding vote to allow continued debate on health care, he took the chance to reflect on partisanship, and the importance of rising above it.

Some in the press thought it was inconsistent for him to call for compromise shortly after casting a key party-line vote, but I didn’t. He wasn’t supporting anything more than continued debate, and then asked his colleagues to keep it reasonable.

And it’s a really good speech. You can read the whole thing (thanks to the Washington Post) at the link above, or by clicking on John’s face.

A part I especially like:

Our system doesn’t depend on our nobility. It accounts for our imperfections, and gives an order to our individual strivings that has helped make ours the most powerful and prosperous society on earth. It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than ‘winning.’ Even when we must give a little to get a little. Even when our efforts manage just three yards and a cloud of dust, while critics on both sides denounce us for timidity, for our failure to ‘triumph.’

I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us. Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.

Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order.

dove on tug of war

My state is experimenting with some changes to our political process that might help us recover a productive middle ground. For example, opening our primary elections to voters of any party reduces the incentive to appeal only to the base. Appointing a broad, multi-party commission to set electoral districts discourages gerrymandering, improving the odds of success for any candidate willing to compromise.

Although it’ll be a while before we know if such moves work, they make intuitive sense. And as McCain points out elsewhere in the same speech, the public agenda is urgent enough that we should be trying hard to do better.

Topping the shared to-do list are the usual – mass incarceration, climate change, border security, trade – things that we know are serious but on which no one can make progress alone.
degrees of inequality

By coincidence, around the time McCain was speaking I was reading a 2014 book by Suzanne Mettler, Degrees of Inequality, that hit some of the same themes.

She persuades me that higher education belongs on that list of urgent, unaddressed public issues, too. Until reading this I’d thought of ourselves less as a symptom of political gridlock, and more as a potential cure. If we could only mint enough civic-minded alumni, we could all get on with it. Heck, some of our grads might even run for office.

But she sees politics and policy behind many of our sector’s current problems: rising tuition, rising student indebtedness, serious constraints on access and inequitable outcomes.

She writes: “All told, higher education today is becoming a caste system in which students from different socioeconomic backgrounds occupy distinct strata, and their experiences within those tiers end up making them increasingly unequal.”

Allow me to pause for editorial emphasis: WTF!?

We tell ourselves we’re in the equalizing biz, first rungs on the ladder of opportunity. But instead she describes a system that looks like this:

SES outcomes

Because, as Mettler writes, offspring of the rich go to non-profit privates and flagships, often on scholarships, while the poor are likelier to enroll in for-profits and community colleges, incurring more debt from the former, and lower odds of graduating from both.

I’m familiar with these arguments and find them convincing, but still appreciated the book’s synthesis and case-making. Here was the epiphany:

But the crisis is also fundamentally political. We have plenty of higher education policies created in the past but they function less well than they once did, generating unintended consequences or deteriorating due to their own design features, or the impact of other policies on them.

In short, they require updating and maintenance. Public officials should be fully capable of these tasks. The problem is that the political system today has grown dysfunctional. It is paralyzed by polarization that inhibits even these routine activities. In the rare instances when government functions, it takes on the character of a plutocracy, as lawmakers join forces across party lines to represent the advantaged and neglect the needs of ordinary Americans.

It’s a thought worthy of a senator in his waning days.

Image credit: Atlantic