Six Fault Lines in Higher Education

In early January 2019, I gave the first public presentations on our seven year study of higher education in the United States: two talks (with Senior Project Manager Wendy Fischman) at the Council of Independent Colleges; and three talks at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (titled, informally and respectively, “What We Did”; “What We Found”; and “What It Means”). These presentations were clearly defined as “interim reports.” Our data analyses remain very much “in process”—no conclusions engraved in stone. As with other blogs in this series, we were trotting out our tentative findings and hoping to secure feedback from supportive but critical friends.

Our study has definitely lost its virginity. The presentations gave us a chance to hear what we sound like and also to solicit valuable feedback. As a result, we discovered several “fault lines” in our thinking—areas that deserve further consideration.

1. The “News Sources” on which We Relied

As we began our research several years ago, our research group was surprised by two initial findings: first, the universal reporting of mental health issues across diverse campuses. Second, the frequent laments by students that they felt they did not “belong.”

In one sense this surprise was justifiable: neither issue had received much attention in the press (at that time). But this blind spot may also be traceable in part to the background and knowledge base of our research team. It is quite possible that if we had a more diverse research team, representing several demographies, we might have been more attuned to the pressures that students are currently facing. Also, of course, the situation in 2012-2013 (the middle of the Obama presidency) may be quite different from that in 2018-2019 (the middle of the Trump presidency). What was surprising close to a decade ago, when the study was initially conceived, might be less surprising today.

2. Our Research Team

We are part of Harvard Project Zero, a long-standing research group at the Graduate School of Education. Research teams are staffed partially by masters and doctoral students (or graduates) from the school, and partially by recent graduates of college or graduate school who apply for openly advertised positions. Within the pool of applicants, we look for individuals with interest in higher education and with the abilities to carry out interviews, analyze them, participate in discussion of details as well as the big pictures that are emerging. We have had wonderful researchers on our team, and they represent different generations of college students; but as noted, a more diverse team might have been sensitive to issues and themes that eluded us.

3. Easy Assumptions about a Core Concept—Mental Models of College

As individuals who are convinced of the importance of a broad education in the liberal arts tradition, we have made certain assumptions. For example, in considering mental models of higher education, we have cheered when students (or others) embrace models that are “exploratory” or “transformative.” And in turn, we were concerned about the high incidence of “transactional” and the occasional “inertial” models of higher education.

In discussing our findings, we now realize that transactional models should not be lightly dismissed. For certain students, under certain circumstances, transactional models—”I need this degree if I am to have any chance to get a decent job”—are quite reasonable; and equally, for some students, transactional may be a necessary step en route to a more capacious view of the possibilities of college.

4. A More Nuanced View of Other Organizing Concepts

Having adopted the concepts of “alignment” and “misalignment” from our earlier study of work in the professions, we assumed that schools should seek alignment among various constituencies wherever possible and, accordingly, should spurn misalignments as antithetical to the achievement of a school mission.

We now acknowledge that alignments are not always possible; and that sometimes it may be necessary or even healthy to have misalignments—and to permit such misalignments to maintain a healthy tension on campus. For example, it is understandable that students and their parents may be occupied with securing a decent job, while faculty may underscore the importance of disciplinary study and of inculcating certain forms of thinking and writing. It may be unnecessary—and perhaps even counter-productive—to seek to erase these non-alignments. Perhaps, instead, one should allow this tension to persist and seek to broaden the perspectives of others. (The analogy to having two strong political parties—one more liberal, the other more conservative—may be apt.)

Following our presentations, we heard considerable discussion of the four mental models of college and much less discussion of our concept of “higher ed capital.” This difference may simply have reflected the interests of our audiences; but it is also possible that “higher ed capital” is simply assumed by those in a liberal arts setting, while considered out of reach by those located in a primarily vocational setting.

We were asked whether “higher ed capital” is simply a synonym of critical thinking. “Not as usually defined,” is our response. “Higher ed capital” is a broader concept, encompassing careful listening, ability to engage in conversation, interrogating questions that one has been asked, raising questions on one’s own, and noticing patterns and contradictions both in the questions raised and in the consequent discussion. Of course, if one wants to define critical thinking broadly, then the two concepts are much closer—though the current ways used to measure the constructs remain distinctive.

5. Alternative Views of Solutions to Three Campus Challenges

With respect to mental health, we have assumed that campuses should add as many specialists as possible and make sure that students have maximal access to them.

But it is possible to adopt a more skeptical stance. Perhaps colleges should scrutinize more carefully the mental health records of those who they have admitted or even those whom they consider admitting. Perhaps all students should have to take a gap year and perhaps that year should involve community service and not just a grand tour of the Greek islands. Perhaps words like “mental health” and “stress” and “anxiety” have become so familiar that they are invoked without genuine needs. Or perhaps students should be asked to read about how to solve problems themselves (for example, through applying insights from cognitive behavioral therapy) or be reminded that “we all have bad days.”

With respect to belonging, we would never endorse alienation for its own sake. But sometimes, it is appropriate to feel that one does not belong, and perhaps one needs to take dramatic steps—not simply “adjusting”—in order to alter that situation. There are legitimate reasons for feeling alienated. Consider the “angry young men” of the 1950s—who were skeptical about the “one right way” to look and to comport oneself—or the widespread college student unrest in the 1960s in the United States and abroad in reaction to the deceptive and sometimes disastrous foreign policies of the United States. The messages in Albert Hirschman’s book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty are well worth pondering. Sometimes one needs to stand up with one’s voice against something that feels wrong (such as racism or sexism), and, if it cannot be changed, then exit.

In addition, a key finding of our study is the extent to which diversity on campus is recognized and lauded. Of course “diversity” can have quite different meanings to different individuals, and we are probing both the diverse (!) connotations of diversity, as well as possible synonyms, like the frequently heard adjective “quirky.”

But when it comes to how best to navigate diversity, consensus evaporates. Recommendations range from giving students many opportunities—both formal and informal—to associate with those from similar backgrounds and demographies; to creating rooming arrangements, required courses, and section arrangements which deliberately cut across these diverse backgrounds; to an effort to provide opportunities for both “bonding capital” and “bridging capital.” Many of the fault lines on campuses today, and among the broader public, center on the tensions between helping students to feel part of groups and experiences to which they have a natural affinity, or rather encouraging students to cross over into unfamiliar classmates, backgrounds, and points of view.

6. And What to Call our Study?

Last but not least, we began the study with a deep commitment to the liberal arts and sciences; and to confirm that commitment, we initially named the study “Liberal Arts and Sciences in the 21st Century”—LAS21 for short.

From our over 2000 formal interviews, and many informal conversations across diverse campuses and constituencies, one thing has become clear: most individuals involved in higher education are not able to define the phrase “liberal arts” with any confidence, and many have little notion of the standard definitions—instead focusing on political liberalism or on “anything goes.”

And so, we have the following options with respect to the phrase “liberal arts and sciences”: shout it, whisper it, give it a decent burial, or ban it.

We expect to return to these and related issues in the months ahead.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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3 Comments on “Six Fault Lines in Higher Education”

  1. venture February 13, 2019 at 4:20 pm #

    Thank you for this interesting research! Nice article!
    But as for me ”I need this degree if I am to have any chance to get a decent job” is a wrong setting. I think we always must follow the heart and what goes from the heart will bring a decent result.

  2. Gema Cruz de Gonzalez February 20, 2019 at 11:38 pm #

    Creo que la base de toda mejora personal radica en la HUMANIZACIÓN de nuestros conocimientos. Cómo transmitimos información y cómo la damos es materia de análisis.


  1. The Mental Health Enigma: One Size Does Not Fit All (Part I) | Howard Gardner - March 11, 2019

    […] lament long waits (weeks) to be seen or a limited number of sessions per academic year. In an earlier blog, we reflect on whether campuses should ramp up mental health services or help students become […]

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