Review: Reflections on Higher Education

5 Star, Best Practices in Management, Change & Innovation, Education (Universities), Leadership
Amazon Page

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg

5.0 out of 5 stars Relevant Today–Perhaps Still Not Appreciated Today, August 10, 2011

There is nothing in this book that I could disagree with, which instantly marks it as iconoclastic rather than traditional or elitist. This long-serving president spent close to three decades managing two universities, the longest The George Washington University which can legitimately lay claim to being intended by Founding Father George Washington to be a “national” university.

Prior books against which I compare this one include

The Uses of the University by Clark Kerr
Universities in the Marketplace by Derek Bok

The book consists of three parts that meld 11 speeches and 2 articles from the 1998-2001 timeframe. This particular book was distributed by the GW Board of Trustees to parents of the incoming GW Class of 2006.

QUOTE (19): “The entire planet is in the process of turning itself into an educational institution, the faculty of which consists of the entire human species.”

QUOTE (21): “The problem boils down to this: How do you get the *universe* of all things into the classroom?”

NOTE: Amazon’s Insert a Product Link is broken. If and when they fix it, I will come back and insert links.

Recurring themes from across the entire book:

1) Extreme complexity and time-intensity of a university president’s job, made all the harder by the fact that a university is one of the few communities where everyone is an expert at something, and consequently very reluctant–“resistant to anything that looks or feels like management.” (p. 60).

2) Daunting speed and breadth of change, with the digital world rushing in, both in terms of Internet competition (not just good information, but really bad information as well as distracting video experiences the university cannot match yet); and in terms of media attention including disasters waiting to happen on the campus (with every cell phone today enhancing the likelihood any mishap with any student will make it to television).

3) Disconnect between the great humanist tradition including ethics as taught for centuries by word of mouth and the written word, and the new new world of visual and auditory enchantment often at odds with the goals of education. The author takes great care to distinguish with the WHAT one can learn from the Internet and the HOW of social interaction and ethics that can only be learned in consort with classmates, faculty, and other humans.

4) In the author’s time, the pervasiveness of higher education, ultimately reaching a vast majority of adult Americans who if not graduates of college, have at least attended a community college or traditional university for at least a few courses–in the author’s time, the symbiotic integration of higher education and America and how America saw itself. Today of course we have findings that suggest that many college graduates know what a 1950’s high school graduate knew upon graduating from high school, and we have many articles and commentaries on the “college bubble” that is about to follow the housing bubble and the very high unemployment reality down the drain.

From my own perspective, the author held at the time an almost idealic perception of American higher education and the status of American education within America, no doubt justified by his many opportunities to observe non-American higher education, but today at odds with these four books:

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges
Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journal Through the Dark World of Compulsory Education by John Taylor Gatto
The Cheating Culture: Why More American Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead by David Callahan
Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free by Charles Pierce

There are a number of points in the book where I have to pause to take notes, and below are some of the gems that I consider well worth the time and money invested in this book.

+ We’ve grown away from the great tradition in learning, to the point that we seem to have a separation between European humanism and US mechanism. I completely agree, and would point to three other books that have shaped my own rejection of mechanism, substituting technology for thinking as Washington so loves to do.

The Knowledge Executive: Leadership in an Information Society by Harlan Cleveland
The Exemplar: the Exemplary Performer in the Age of Productivity by Robert Carkhuff
Radical Man: The Process of Psycho-Social development by Charles Hampden-Turner

The author addresses the struggle of universities to cope with the Internet in several ways.

01 Abolish the classroom (not literally, just triage between home learning, group learning, and field learning)

02 Admit that the digital literati are visual creatures and get with the program to include learning how to do idea visualization, citation analytics, and true cost forensics.

03 Redesign all courses so they have the feel and aura of a quiz show (a pedant would say drop the didactic I speak you listen and migrate quickly to the facilitated nurtured team learning model).

I see a struggle throughout the book for the soul of the university, but I come pre-disposed to look for that. Certainly the author comes back on several occasions to address the complexity of the human mind and the human heart, and the need to develop very strong ethical standards that can shape technology and other external influences rather than letting them shape us.

At multiple points, despite the very positive tone of the book, there are clear acknowledgements that high school is not producing individuals ready for a college experience, which I certainly agree. Even preparatory schools in my own mind seem to be producing arrogant little things who appear to have learned to posture and cheat rather than reflect and mature. In the context, the author proposes an overdue revision of the scholastic approach to include raising the standards for entry into college by calling for a pre-collegiate thesis; and an integration of the “root” knowledge of the great traditions with the magic wizardry of the Internet (YouTube certainly seems to be advancing story-telling and show and tell).

In addressing the entrepreneurial university the author suggests that it can, should, and must make money; students are customers; faculty and administrative staff can and should blend; the university should have a living contract with its external community and the external world at large; and the status of the university has grown.

The media appears throughout this book, as does the Internet, both mixed blessings. The author’s bottom line is that no president can underestimate the importance of “incidental image” and no president can stop thinking about media.

The second half of the book carries on (there is no repetition from one chapter to the next, each is an original work on its own) with the struggles of a university president generally, but The George Washington University president specifically, to embody the original vision of Founding Father George Washington, who sought to create a national university; and the struggle to define, price, and deliver education in multiple forms from the Internet to classroom séances to field trips.

This book is superior to the others I have read at communicating the complexity of the university president’s job, with a never-ending stream of constantly changing issues, constituencies, and circumstances.

QUOTE (74): “To put it plainly, we teach facts *and* we teach how to deal with facts. We teach techniques *and* how to use techniques. We teach great thoughts *and* how to think. We teach the *how* because education does not end with a degree in hand. The facts, techniques, and thoughts may change or be disproven or discarded but how to deal with facts, how to use techniques, and how to think are constant.”

Harlan Cleveland would say this is the essence of what should be *higher* about higher education. For myself I find most universities today abysmally parochial, insular, and totally oblivious to the urgency of teaching strategic analytic model, the inter-connectedness of all knowledge, or the raw fact that nothing the USA does is going to alter the future UNLESS we can create something that is culturally compelling to Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, and Wild Cards such as South Africa and Turkey.

Just four books in this vein:

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by E. O. Wilson
Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin by Larry Beinhart
Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Political Documentaries by James McEnteer
Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Affairs by John Mearsheimer

The author makes one concern crystal clear: elementary schools and high schools are not communicating the value of higher education in relation to complexity and risk.

The author then addresses the dichotomy of US universities being deeply admired overseas, while increasingly dismissed or even despised at home. He comes to five conclusions on this point:

1. Many Americans are not aware of how US history impacted on the Anglophilia of the Ivy League.

2. The Ivy League was snobbish to the point of not taking seriously the other 99% of the higher education institutions in the USA.

3. Higher education leaders are largely ignorant of both the American economy, and the role of the university as an economic engine (this is distinct from Derek Bok’s concern over the commercialization–even the prostitution–of universities seeking corporate grants).

4. The anti-academic rebellion of the 1960’s (which I might add including the Berkeley Open University that my most respected colleague Jim Warren had something to do with) scarred higher education leaders toward a conformity with “tradition” that rejects “innovative,” “unprecedented,” and “revolutionary.”

5. Americans do not see that the US higher education system has become the model for how one serves the needs of a modern industrial state and a modern liberal democracy.

On the latter point, the author emphasizes the decentralization of higher education across America, not the sins of a neo-fascist corporate state in which Wall Street and a two-party monopoly have managed to screw 99% of the public back into the 1960’s.

In the closing chapters two points stay with me.

First, the external culture can have a very negative impact on the brain (and I would add the ethics) of the individual.

Second, the isolation of town and gown from one another must end and a new relationship developed (some call this Service Learning) in which the students and the faculty are more actively engaged in helping immigrants to learn English, high schoolers to “get it,” local communities to address their challenges.

This book is still relevant today. Among more recently published books that can contribute to the author’s stated path, I would especially recommend:

The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education by Curtis Bonk
Reflexive Practice: Professional Thinking for a Turbulent World by Kent Myers
Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age by Douglas Rushkoff
Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet by Christine Borgman

In fairness to the author, this is a book from the perspective of a long-serving president at one of the most centrally-located and prestigious of the universities, and the sole university with a claim to both the name of Founding Father George Washington, and the aspiration to be a national university.

Here are a few books that I would recommend for where universities need to go in the next decade. I am quite certain no sitting university president wants to hear this, but as the higher education bubble bursts and many colleges are threatened with shut-down, perhaps a few will venture into what I believe to be terra firma for the future.

Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright
Reflections on Evolutionary Activism: Essays, poems, and prayers from an emerging field of sacred social change by Tom Atlee
New World New Mind: Moving Toward Conscious Evolution by Robert Omstein and Paul Ehrlich
Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution by Steve McIntosh

I have reviewed all cited books here at Amazon, but it is more fun to use Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog, where my 1700+ reviews can be navigated across 98 categories, and where I have posted two book review lists, one positive (our future) and one negative (our present).

One final comment: this book is important to me because I have come to the conclusion the US education, US intelligence (the secret very expensive largely worthless kind), and US research are in severe decline. I believe that US intelligence, done right, is remedial education for policy-makers suffering from severe ideological constipation and persistent hubris, and that we need to enact a Smart Nation Act such as I wrote about in Government Information Quarterly in 1995. Of the $80 billion now being wasted on secret intelligence, I would recommend to a future President of the USA that one third be chopped completely, one third redirected under the direction of a new Deputy Vice President for Education, Intelligence, and Research, and one third be refocused on human and open source intelligence as well as multinational, multiagency, multidisciplinary, multidomain information-sharing and sense-making (M4IS2).

The George Washington University is not the only university capable of moving in these new directions, but for various reasons it is well-positioned to be the first. Later this week I will review the author’s other book that I have ordered, Big Man on Campus.