“The academy”—the world of universities and professors and students—is a world I love.

I love the pursuit of truth, the debate, seeing the lightbulbs go on in my students, having that experience myself. I find the amazing ingenuity of human beings to figure things out, and the ideas they come up with, inspiring.

But in one of its primary purposes, it is not doing very well. It pursues truth quite well, if through many blind alleys and quite a bit of nonsense. And it often getting things quite wrong. (It is a human endeavour after all.) 

But in its responsibility to pass on the truth it discovers to the general culture and citizenry, the academy isn’t doing so well. The most talented students figure things out quite well on their own, with the resources available to them. But for the bulk of our students, we do not nearly provide the education that would be most beneficial to them, or would be most beneficial to our society.

Universities offer professional programs designed to prepare students for specific careers. Well-defined programs provide their students with what they need to flourish in that career. Such programs typically and unfortunately sacrifice ‘general education’ to do so. To make sure their students acquire the tools needed to do a particular job, they pay little attention to ensuring that they acquire what they need to flourish in their lives generally, or are well-educated citizens to participate effectively in the governance of our society—or have the foundational tools needed to enable them to switch to a different career should they so choose.

These are the things general Arts and Science degrees were designed for. They are not designed as preparation for specific careers. They are designed to give students foundational tools they can go on and apply in nearly any career, and what they need to flourish in their lives generally and to participate as effective citizens in our society. These programs specialize in general education. Or at least they were supposed to.

Unfortunately, the universities have mostly been doing a very poor job of doing just this. We require students to choose a major. (It’s good for students to have the experience of studying a field in detail.) We often require them to complete a ‘minor’ as well, for, well, I really don’t know what reason. But we also once required a strong program of general education—a program designed to ensure that all students acquired a broad education, ensuring their possession of the most important knowledge, skills, and attributes they need to flourish in their lives and contribute effectively as citizens. Universities once provided strong and effective general education.

Most universities now offer truly pathetic general education. We require students to take a couple course in each of several areas (social sciences, natural science, humanities), complete a major, perhaps a minor, earn enough credits overall, and we issue their degree. No ensuring that the students learn the most important things they need to know. No ensuring that what they receive has any useful coherence. Just study a bunch of different things, complete a bunch of assignments, pass some exams on a virtually random assortment of topics. Not that students are not benefitted by what they study. But they also graduate with whatever they happen to have chosen to study, completely missing other things it very much hurts them, and us, that they don’t have. I am myself much embarrassed myself by what I was ignorant of, having earned a university degree with honours. 

We can do so much better. We can ensure that students acquire the most important knowledge, skills, and attributes they need most. (My post on “The Ideal University Education” contains some thoughts on that subject.)

A significant contributing factor to the weakness of general education is the nature of scholarship itself these days. What is valued is new knowledge—not acquisition, or re-articulation, or reconsideration, or repackaging, or more effective communication of already existing knowledge. Only the former will get you promotion, tenure, high-ranking, or fame.

To distinguish themselves in these valued ways, then, professors must specialize in ever narrower topics, going further and further in detail, and investigate ever less significant or plausible hypotheses. They become the world’s leading expert in the left wing joint of the red-eyed, cross-legged fruit flies of northern Ecuador. And that is the scholarship universities reward and are rewarded for. I exaggerate only slightly. We learn “more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing.”

Now actually, such detailed work is not at all worthless. It contributes to the elaboration and testing of the really big and significant ideas. But it also comes at a price. Because professors are not rewarded for “big picture” knowledge, thinking, and articulation, professors can be quite successful professionally while actually being quite ignorant of the big picture even in their own fields. And they are certainly little-rewarded for developing effective articulations of the big picture knowledge they have. 

But what do undergraduate students need most? The big picture! The main overview insights and methods of the various disciplines. But this is not something the modern academy rewards. Its reward structure positively conspires against effective undergraduate education.

Another other major cause of the weakness of typical university education is the fact that universities have been directing more and more of their resources toward knowledge creation—research—at the expense of knowledge transmission—teaching—at least of undergraduates.

The status of professors is determined almost entirely by their research productivity, as well as the status of their institution—which is itself determined primarily by the status and research productivity of its faculty.

So professors are promoted almost entirely on the basis of their research. The motivational structure for most professors heavily rewards research and rewards effective teaching hardly at all. Most professors are exceptionally conscientious in doing the best they can for their students. But all the motivations are for expending as little effort as possible on their undergraduate students.

Adding to that, universities’ financial pressures motivate them to increase class sizes, and have much of the instruction provided by very inexpensive graduate students and “sessional” instructors. This has an obviously has a detrimental effect on the quality of the assistance provided to individual students.

So most universities do not provide nearly the quality education they could. We could massively improve the education they provide by 1) ensuring that our students acquire the most important things they need to flourish in their lives and contribute to society, and 2) directing more of our resources toward quality undergraduate education.

-January 2017