Another one on linked learning

by Carl Dyke

Some of you may still have a shred of interest in this topic, so here below is a post I just wrote for my school’s gen ed debate blog. Again, the issue is a challenge to the plan that just passed the full faculty, by a group that want to add back more ‘liberal arts’ courses and incidentally remove the linked learning component. (Btw Dave, re: evidence I have done other posts compiling links to lots of educational research and comparable cores at other unis.)

As some of you may know, I run a tennis group up in the Cary area. I have about 100 players on my distribution list and some subset of us get together twice a week to play and socialize. I also play in USTA leagues in Cary, which puts my network in the hundreds.

Because it’s Cary, and because it’s tennis, a very large proportion of these folks are mid to high level professionals. I play with CFOs and chief accounting officers of major corporations; state legislators; small business owners; pharmaceutical executives; IT and data security professionals. We hang out after we play and talk. As a result, over the years I’ve accumulated a fairly dense ethnographic understanding of how these folks think and what they want. And because I’m a college professor, we’ve talked a whole bunch about how they think about college education and what they want from it.

It is absolutely true that, as Lloyd just said in the last post, they have abysmally low expectations of the value of a college degree. They routinely interview and hire candidates with fancy educational credentials who just as routinely turn out to be fundamentally unprepared to be useful. From ample experience, they expect college graduates to be clueless and high-maintenance. They are resigned to this fact. They hope for a little technical polish as a writer and communicator (they get even that rarely) and a general middle-class culturing, by which they mean an acceptance of the value of the enterprise and a certain amiability about following instructions. Because they don’t expect more they don’t look for more, as Lloyd said.

When I talk with my friends about a more ambitious agenda for college education, one that involves teaching students to be resourceful, independent learners who can make connections, figure things out for themselves, and adapt responsibly to complex, unfamiliar situations, they get a faraway, wistful expression. These dispositions are rare and precious to them. I was talking this weekend with a consulting engineer who works regularly with the state department of transportation and a P.A. at a major cardiology center. They bonded over the irrational outcomes that are regularly produced in infrastructure and medical care by rigid systems of rules designed to intercept bad decisionmaking and create predictability – because the people involved can’t be trusted to think their way through the variables of particular cases, and a mediocre outcome is better than a disastrous outcome.

Which brings me to general education. There is enormous value in transmitting what is already known to the young. A firm grounding in the traditions of knowledge is essential to the educated person. Such an education can do much to guard against disastrous outcomes. But as proponents of the alternative core have amply shown, exactly this grounding is the focus of the vast majority of general education programs at our peer institutions, as it has been for many, many years.

And these are the graduates my informants find so disappointing.

It may be that our students ‘should’ be able to learn a more resourceful kind of thinking from our classes, but mostly they don’t. And not just ours. And it’s for the simple reason that we don’t show them how. This is why I think the alternative proposal is out of balance – because the wonderful things in it don’t have the impact they should as long as we’re not intentionally showing the students how to put them together and make something of them. This is the college education my tennis buddies would love to see, and that they’re mostly not seeing. This is the opportunity we have now at MU with the Linked Learning initiative, which is why I think it’s short-sighted to vote it out just in case we vote it back in again later.

5 Comments to “Another one on linked learning”

  1. Looks pretty good to me. Just one glitch. As a professional propagandist, I would eliminate the sentence, “As a result, over the years I’ve accumulated a fairly dense ethnographic understanding of how these folks think and what they want.” That “dense ethnographic understanding” is something that we (you and me) appreciate. Could just sound pretentious and unconvincing.

  2. Thanks – that is a danger and I’ll keep it in mind for next time. For now, I’m struggling to find ways to legitimate a position with people who aren’t making any effort to read the citations or engage the substance of the arguments.

  3. Since the post was fresh I snuck in and changed the phrase to “gathered a fairly good understanding.” Ironically though, my biggest party foul is probably hanging out with capitalists and taking what they say seriously.

  4. Of course, they aren’t. All they care about is that customs with which they are comfortable are about to be changed. What would move them to pay more attention? Do those capitalists you hang out with represent a threat or opportunity?

  5. Threat. Because ‘my CEO pals’ treat the liberal arts like a means, not an end in itself. The fiddly thing about the politics of this is that the true believers are a small but resolute and vocal minority. They are clearly well-intentioned, have both settled habit and what looks like high principle on their side, and are expert scolds. In good faith they trump up all kinds of dire warnings about doom to the liberal arts, ethical and scientific literacy, accreditation, our academic reputation, and the price of tea in China. My inclination is just to let them vent, but as we’ve seen from national politics if you let the fear-mongers cloud the issue enough some weak minds will be swayed and many moderates will just check out because it doesn’t seem worth that level of fight.

    Most of them will say, we like linked learning but not at the expense of real liberal arts courses. And they’ll say, we like linked learning but we’re not sure it will be as transformative as you think. So let’s vote it out, because the faculty can’t possibly have meant to vote it in, and then talk about it some more until everyone feels ready.

    So sure, integrative ed is not a perfect and guaranteed leap into educational nirvana. But there’s lots of historical and current research evidence that it works pretty well, which has been amply cited and amply ignored; and that it works much better than just doing more of the things we know don’t work very well at all. But because their register is principles, great traditions, and feelings, it’s virtually impossible to get the conversation worked around to how, why, and what students learn.

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