21st Century College

I’m still attracted by the idea of trying to imagine a radically different kind of institution that carries forward some of the virtues of higher education but implements them in a radically new form, partly precisely because I think it is not necessary to storm the ivory tower and burn it to the ground. Perhaps we can do something new while leaving the old to change or fade as it will.

I’ve been messing around for a while with a blueprint for an alternative institution and have finally finished the basic sketch. This is no more than a sketch, and very clearly impractical or inadvisable in a number of the gestures it contains. It attempts to resolve through fundamental redesign three interconnected problems:

1) The haphazard, disconnected curricular design of both liberal arts colleges and research universities, both the range of subjects covered and the connections between areas of study. Rather than glossing over the relationship between integrative and specialized knowledge and trusting everything to turn out for the best, as most conventional liberal arts colleges do, or actively favoring specialized knowledge, as most research universities do, this curriculum proposes a much more consciously and rigorously organized relationship between integrative and specialized knowledge and between academic study and practical know-how. This is my own response to the kinds of curricular incoherence identified so expertly by Gerald Graff in his book Clueless in Academe.

2) The insular, timid and self-confirming character of a great deal of contemporary academic practice. This outline responds to this both by widening the labor pool of potential instructors and by systematically directing faculty towards communicating with wider publics while also demanding that faculty broaden their knowledge and intellectual practice rather than narrowing themselves towards more and more inward-looking forms of specialization. Rather than the laissez-faire spirit of most contemporary academic institutions, in which generalism is a scorned aspect of professional development and a responsibility to wider public discourse and needs is not a requirement, the 21st Century College would make these central conditions of continued employment. As part of this reorganization, this blueprint also advises the abolition of conventional academic departments and units.

3) The rise of the expensive “full-service” model of higher education coupled with the pervasive resurgence of in loco parentis, of the college or university as “nanny” determined to manage most aspects of community life and ethos. This blueprint counsels abandoning the vast majority of services provided by most colleges and universities while also maintaining a scrupulous disinterest in the private lives of students, faculty and administrators.

A couple of basic things about this outline.

First, I’m serious about it: if you happen to know where there’s 500 million dollars lying around, I’d be interested in helping to build this institution for real. (And there are some institutions like Quest University and the College of the Atlantic that do much of this already. So give them some money!)

Second, I think some aspects of this design would productively inform efforts to reform current institutions, but this is also an integral project, with all parts tightly connected. I think many of them would not work nearly so well if they were adopted on a piecemeal basis. I would be equally concerned about “watering down” key aspects of the design in order to make them more respectable by the standards of the current academy. The key idea here, more than any other, is to create an institution whose legitimacy is largely not measured within the normative terms offered by contemporary academia.

Section A: The Curriculum A-1 First Year Courses: Methods, Debates, Integrations

A-1a. Methods Courses

A-1b. Debates Courses

A-1c. Integration Courses

A-2 Second Year Courses: Core Studies

A-3 Third Year Courses: Applications and Extensions

A-4 Roll Your Own and the Portfolio

Section B: The Faculty

B-1 Regular Faculty

B-2 Visiting practicioners and specialists

B-3 Associative research institutes

B-4 Braintrusts

B-5 Organization of the faculty

Section C: Students, Services and Administration

Section D: Other Considerations


Section A THE CURRICULUM

The 21st Century College is a four-year institution granting a B.A. degree, with no M.A. or doctoral programs. By design, it is a small college with heavy emphasis on small class sizes and “on demand” instruction. The basic orientation of its curriculum is to introduce students to a generalist and integrative framework for critical thinking while interweaving that framework with specialized, practical and real-world implementations of knowledge. Students completing the program are intended to be competitive with the graduates of conventional college and university programs both for admission to leading professional and graduate programs and for employment.

A-1.

1st Year: Methods, Debates and Integrations

In the first year of their studies, students would take two Methods courses, two Debates courses and one Integration course. These are described below. The first year of study is not intended to be connected to any planned specialization or area of special competency, and students are discouraged from using these courses as a preparation for their subsequent work at the college. The purpose of the first year is openly exploratory and connective, to demonstrate a general approach to knowledge. Texts and materials used in the first year should rarely if ever be highly academic or scholarly, and should presume no necessary background or preparation.

A-1a. Methods courses

Classes in Methods are critical examinations of fundamental skills in which students both hone their abilities and demonstrate their competencies in these areas while asking questions about the purposes and usefulness of the skills in question. The syllabi for these courses are built around shared “backbones” that are standardized from teacher to teacher, but each instructor also would plug in modules that derive from their own individual interests and competencies.

The Methods courses offered are: Reading, Writing, Speaking, Quantitative Reasoning and Numeracy, Hypermedia and Information Technology, Performance, Design, Experimentation, Viewing, Translation.

Methods classes are not remedial, or even strictly about skills development. Each is also a historical review of the method in question, and an open-ended investigation of the philosophical questions that the method raises. The courses are designed to ask when the skill in question is useful, indeed, whether is it useful, with one legitimate outcome being that a student may judge that the method at hand is of highly limited or almost no utility, or that it once was generative and now no longer is. The meaning and diversity of the method at the center of each course is subject to exploration.

SAMPLE SYLLABI: Reading

A-1b. Debates courses

Debates courses are designed to showcase two distinctly different and potentially antagonistic disciplinary and intellectual strategies for interpreting, thinking about and evaluating a single subject of considerable public interest. They are co-taught by two faculty members who represent these different points of view, and who carry on a respectful but productively contentious dialogue with each other as well as the students over the course of a semester. Debates courses are designed to show how the choice of intellectual approaches and methodological tools can structure a particular way of seeing a controversial issue, but also demonstrate the plurality of views within a particular discipline or approach, to discover both moments of possible agreement and concord between opposing views and moments of incommensurable difference. Debates courses are also designed to model of civil discourse, to demonstrate the understood rules and outer boundaries of reasoned disagreement in a democratic society.

Examples of topics for Debates courses include: Genetic Engineering; Environmentalism; Globalization; The Nature of Consciousness; Poverty; Rationality and Human Motivation; The Nation-State; War, Terrorism and International Politics

Ideally, these courses would be framed around existing, ongoing discussions between two members of the faculty where their views were meaningfully in tension with one another, either because of different disciplinary or methodological perspectives, or because of different ideological or theoretical positions. So, for example, Globalization might be taught by an economist who largely favors neoliberal globalization and a cultural anthropologist who opposes it, or by two economists with radically different ideological positions on the same subject. The Nature of Consciousness might be taught by a computer scientist who specializes in artificial intelligence and a philosopher who works on theory of mind, or it might be taught by two cognitive scientists with antagonistic working paradigms and research programs.

Debates courses would also be designed to have limited shelf lives. While some might continue to make sense for many years, others would be responses to rapidly changing circumstances in the world, or developing debates in particular fields.

A-1c. Integration courses

Integration courses are designed to provide students with a complete overview of a single subject as it might be approached by many different disciplinary and intellectual perspectives. The central principle behind such courses is to help students understand how to choose the right tool for the right job, how to know what they need to know and how to combine multiple kinds of knowledge effectively to gain a new vision or angle on an established problem or subject. Each course should also include practical and hands-on experiences with the object of study.

Examples of Integration courses might include: The Car, Television, Cities, The Brain

SAMPLE SYLLABI: The Car

A-2 2nd Year: Core Studies

The second year of study at the college would consist entirely of the core sequence of a major area of study. Core studies would be broader than most conventional academic departments or disciplines, however. The fall semester would concentrate on skills and foundations that faculty in the area of study judged to be absolute necessities for applied work in the core, while the spring courses would focus on higher-end applications and subjects. In both cases, student achievement would be measured through regular and rigorous assessment, and the focus would be on the acquisition of concrete, applicable understanding of a particular discipline or competency. This year is by design extremely intense and challenging.

Students will take a battery of qualifying exams in the late spring of their first year designed to test basic preparations for the core area that the student intends to pursue. Students unable to meet the basic preparation standards will not be permitted to enroll for a core program that requires those skills at the outset. This puts a burden on students for prior preparation before entering college; the college might offer summer preparation courses designed for before the first year aimed at the 2nd year exams.

This design also produces a stress between between the exploratory, integrative learning of the first year and disciplinary, specialized learning in the second which is intentional. Rather than eliding this tension, as most standard liberal-arts curricula do, so that each student encounters it in different, contradictory and often poorly articulated or opaque ways, this curriculum would be designed to explicitly dichotomize these learning styles.

Students may find they prefer one or the other or can imagine a happy medium between the two, but they will have to experience both in their exaggerated forms.

Core courses would have the highest enrollments in the college and would be taught in more lecture-heavy formats.

One possible sketch of the core areas at the college might be:

Qualitative and Quantitative Social Sciences
Text, Interpretation and Meaning
Cognitive Sciences
Biological Sciences
Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy and Mathematics
Engineering, Design and Technology

These cores would split some established disciplines: philosophy of mind, for example, would appear as part of the Cognitive Science core, while hermeneutics would appear in Text, Interpretation and Meaning. Some subjects would remain between the borders of cores, such as biochemistry or historicist literary criticism, but those would be dealt with in the third year of study.

The strong imperative at all times would be to resist the urge to split these cores further. If it were possible to collapse them even more while retaining some specificity and focus to the 2nd year of study, I would do so. The emphasis in the 2nd year of study at all times should be the practical mastery of those skills and basic bodies of knowledge that faculty judge to be absolutely indispensible to all possible permutations of more advanced work.

So in the part of one core dealing with qualitative social sciences, for example, I would argue that all students would need to know how to conduct archival research, how to do ethnographic research, how to write analytic essays using qualitative evidence. I would argue that they would need to master a core vocabulary and the central canons of social theory and philosophy, as well as central examples of qualitative social science in action. In cognitive sciences, students would need to master the technical underpinnings of neurobiology, artificial intelligence, and social psychology.

A-3
3rd Year: Applications and Extensions

In the third year of study, students will take three higher-level courses in their core area of study that are designed to bridge from the acquisition of skills and methods in that core to more sophisticated programs of research and application. Applications courses by design would be small, relatively loose, and should include, in all core areas, a substantial research component in which the student is expected to pursue both collaborative and independent inquiry within a course’s topic area. Some applications courses might include a limited off-site component in the summer between the third and fourth years—an archaeology course that might conclude at a dig site, for example. Applications courses by their very nature will or should begin to reintroduce substantial integrative concerns, in particular by focusing on areas of application or research where narrowly drawn methods are inadequate for the original pursuit of research or study.

Examples of possible applications courses:

Primary Text Workshop
Collaborative analysis and annotation of one or more important historical documents or sources.

Screenwriting Workshop
Writing and criticism of screenplay.s

Vision Workshop
Cognitive, psychological and neurobiological research on vision.

Game Theory Workshop
Economic and other studies using game theory and its associated concepts and techniques.

Primatology Workshop
Genetic, behavioral, or other study of apes and monkeys in local laboratory contexts, with possible field component in the summer.

Additionally, in the third year, students would take two “extensions courses”, two courses that were part of the core sequence of one or two different areas other than the one they focused on in their second year. Students would be encouraged but not required to explore well outside their area of core study: their selection should also be shaped by the need to acquire new toolkits and bodies of knowledge that offer original insight into their core competency.

A-4
4th Year: Roll Your Own and the Portfolio

In the fourth year, students will be expected, in consultation with faculty, to prepare three individual tutorials to be pursued over the course of the entire year which advance that student’s individual research and intellectual interests. Faculty will meet one-on-one with fourth year students throughout the year, but it is expected that many students will be exploring areas of inquiry that will not directly or closely correspond with particular competencies or specializations of the core faculty of the college. At least some of the study conducted by students during the year will need to draw upon, with the aid of the faculty and administration, the college’s wider braintrusts, described elsewhere in this proposal.

Each tutorial should involve both the further mastery of areas of knowledge and method deemed necessary for advanced work in a particular area and some kind of research component or significant product or end objective.

The final portion of the student’s fourth year should be spent preparing the culminating portfolio, which will serve as the major requirement for graduation and will be assessed by a panel of faculty drawn from different core areas, one member of the college’s braintrusts, preferably one of those who has worked with the student during his or her fourth year, and by a panel of student peers.

The portfolio is designed to evaluate not just the quality of a student’s academic work but his or her ability to persuasively communicate the value and importance of that work to a variety of audiences.

All portfolios must include:

A major research work. This can be a lengthy written expository work, a scientific paper, a significant creative or performative piece, or a mathematical proof, but it must be substantial. It should develop from at least one of the fourth-year tutorials but may actually culminate from and combine material from more than one.

At least one grant application for further funding of the next stage of this project. This should use the actual procedures and forms for applying to a relevant granting agency or institution, potentially including a proposal to a venture capitalist firm for investment backing, but more conventionally NEH, NSF, SSRC and so on.

A letter to a family member explaining the project and its personal meaning or importance to the student.

An op-ed article justifying or explaining the project to a wider general audience.

A cover letter for either a graduate school application or a job application that includes some description of the student’s work in general and his or her research in specific.

A regularly updated personal journal or weblog kept during the research in which the student should describe and reflect upon concrete issues or problems sequentially as they arise.

A significant review essay placing the research and its significance in the context of a wider area of study or research problems.

SECTION B

THE FACULTY

This curriculum would place significant strains upon the normal faculty of an average liberal-arts college in two ways.

First, it departs intellectually from the conventional logic of specialization within academia in that it recasts specializations more widely than is normal and requires all core faculty to take an active and continuing interest in the entire breadth of what is taught at the college. Faculty would of necessity be required to widen their interests and generalize their knowledge over their course of employment. Some faculty at conventional liberal arts colleges do this, some don’t; at this college, it would be a fundamental requirement.

Second, the organization of the college is highly unconventional in the terms familiar to most academics, both in that it largely avoids departmentalization of instruction and that it requires faculty to cultivate a wide range of contacts in order to connect core instruction with instruction done outside the institution.

B-1
Regular Faculty

The regular faculty of the college would be hired and retained as divisional generalists, selected for their overall quality of mind and intellectual flexibility, communicative ability and interested in the public sphere and for ability to teach within one or more core areas of study.

Recruitment of faculty would not be exclusively or even primarily from a pool of candidates holding academic Ph.Ds from major research institutions. Candidates with the appropriate commitment to and general sense of the values and virtues of a liberal arts approach who possessed appropriate competencies in core areas and the ability to communicate effectively with students and wider publics would be considered regardless of whether they held an academic Ph.D or not. Professionals in many fields interested in teaching would be actively considered for and recruited for faculty posts.

Regular faculty would not hold permanent tenure. The standard term of employment would be eight years, which would be divided into two cycles of three teaching years with a fourth fully compensated sabbatical year for all members of the regular faculty. Contract renewal would be the normal expectation following the eighth year, but faculty might not be retained either for reasons of performance or because of significant changes in the needed competencies within the core curriculum. For this reason, all faculty would be urged to remain professionally viable as practicioners outside the college’s environment, whether as academics or in some other context, and this would be the major purpose of the generous sabbatical support.

The college will commit substantial resources, including travel funds and subsidy of professional memberships, to encouraging core faculty to maintain their professional identities outside the college’s purview. Assessment of faculty performance at contract renewal would focus on both teaching and evidence of continued interest in intellectual exploration and general activities as “public intellectuals”. It would not center on scholarly productivity as it is traditionally understood (though certainly scholarly publication would be regarded as a meaningful contribution to the public and communicative responsibilities of the faculty).

Normal faculty load would be 2/3, with the fifth course being a variable number of fourth-year supervisions, usually 2 or 3.

B-2
Visiting practicioners and specialists

In response to anticipated demands in the applications and tutorial studies of current students, or as part of an exploration of a new area of study, the core faculty would also be supplemented by faculty on three-year contracts brought in to represent an area of specialization that core faculty do not feel able to represent for which demand is regarded as urgent or situational. These faculty would be hired much more for their areas of specialized knowledge and teaching competency, and less for their breadth of general knowledge and intellectual interest. Visiting faculty would also assist core faculty by exposing them to new areas of study or investigation. Ideally, visiting faculty might be recruited from professionals who were making transitions from one long-term assignment to another, seeking to take a break after recent intense research, or from newly trained researchers or professionals seeking their first posts. The 21st Century College would commit to paying compensation for visitors that was comparable to regular faculty pay and to providing full beneifts to visiting faculty.

B-3
Associative research institutes

Location of the college would be crucial as it would have to rely, for reasons of economy of scale, on leveraging nearby concentrations of researchers and intellectuals to provide resources that the institution itself cannot. A location that was relatively rural and distant from other universities, think-tanks or research institutes would not be viable.

If the location were adequate, the college would pursue collaborative relationships with local research institutions, as well as other professional institutions (such as large law firms, IT-oriented businesses and so on) with the aim of connecting students with exterior sources of guidance and instruction. These relations might be relatively ad hoc connections to particular researchers or professionals, in which case they would fall more under the heading of braintrusts, but they might be more substantial institution-to-institution connections involving significant investment by the college in other institutions in return for instructional services and general access to resources.

B-4
Braintrusts

A more significant–indeed, crucial–source of instructional capacity would be vested in the college’s “braintrusts”. These would consist of a large number of practicing intellectuals, writers, and professionals that the college would pay to advise fourth-year students on their individual tutorials, essentially a consultant faculty supplementing the expertise of the core faculty.

Such advising of students would take place largely or entirely through computer-mediated communication, though braintrust members might be invited to campus to meet directly with students if there were sufficient reason or need to do so, and sufficient time on the part of the braintrust faculty. It would be expected that the instructional demands on braintrust faculty would be relatively minimal, largely consisting of advice and networking services for fourth-year students. One of the responsibilities of the core faculty would be to identify possible members of the braintrusts and to assess the quality of the instructional guidance provided by braintrust faculty over time. Highly reliable braintrust faculty might be paid a regular retainer in addition to per-student compensations in order to build their relationship to the college.

B-5
Organization of the Faculty

The regular faculty would not be organized into disciplinary departments. Major personnel decisions would be vested in the central administration working with an elected committee of the whole faculty (comprised of 10% of the core and visiting faculty). Curricular decisions would be reviewed by all faculty within each core area first with the important proviso that each core area would have to include one member of each of the other cores in their curricular discussions, and then confirmed by the entire faculty acting as a whole, with final approval for curricular and programmatic decisions resting in the central administration and a board of managers.

The central ethos of the college would be to foster collaborative sharing between all faculty members, to “increase the traffic” between different areas of study, and to promote an ethos of responsible commitment to the overall curricular structure. Faculty would be given significant individual autonomy to teach as they see fit within that structure as long as the basic supply of first, second and third year courses of the more or less appropriate sort was guaranteed.

[Note: Stepping aside from the formality of this proposal, I have to admit that this is really loosely imagined and probably unworkableâ. It implies a degree of central control without structures of delegation that would make life very difficult for those charged with making sure the overall curricular structure is kept intact. It would really only work if virtually all the regular faculty maintained a high level of personal commitment to the central vision of the college. I'm pretty indifferent here to the actual structure of governance. The main principle would be that this institutions would not want academic departments in their conventional form to exist. Most crucially for their personnel role, as departments seem to me to be where some of the most insidious kinds of academic politics are vested through personnel decisions, but also for their gatekeeping impact on curricular design, for the ways in which they push apart courses and research that ought to be connected.]

Section C
STUDENTS, SERVICES and ADMINISTRATION

The key innovation here is that the college would commit in a very aggressive way to rejecting in loco parentis. Enrolling students would be required to sign a document indicating that they understand and accept that the college takes no responsibility whatsoever for extracurricular guidance or service to its students save that which arises as a direct part of instructional connections between faculty and students.

Here again location is crucial. Ideally, the college would be located in an area where local supplies of housing stock and a wide variety of services would be adequate for enrolling students.

This might prove unrealistic. A student body of 1500, for example, would almost necessarily swamp nearby housing options in most communities. If the college were forced to build facilities like housing, however, it would undertake this very strictly as a landlord and nothing more, building standard apartment facilities rather than conventional dormitories. The college would not provide resident advisors or any other special services to its student tenants. Students would put a deposit down like any other renter and be expected to pay additional costs if they did unusual damage to the rental property over time. Rents would be market-normal, though students on financial aid would be given extra consideration or subsidy to allow them to be resident near the college.

The college would build no athletic facilities, health care facilities, dining facilities or anything similar, and would instead encourage students to buy these services just as they would (or would not) if they were not attending the college. Again, location is important. For this advice to be viable, the college would need to be in an area where such services were available at reasonable rates and in reasonable proximity to the neighborhoods where most or many students lived, or the college would have to invite external vendors to provision such services in or near the college’s properties.

The only infrastructural investments the college would make would be in areas that directly supported the instructional mission. So, for example, the college would undertake to have a highly sophisticated and extensive IT infrastructure and a substantial library both for the sake of particular classes or research projects but also because the overall structure of instruction would be heavily dependent upon it. The importance of communicative skills and a public vision of intellectual work would also make it important for the college to provide a communicative infrastructure that linked all students and gave them opportunities to address each other, the faculty and the wider communities around them, but again, with an understanding that such activity would be in some sense within rather than outside the curriculum. (In practical terms, the college would also probably have to invest more space than is typical in small liberal arts colleges in parking facilities as its decentered approach means that at least some, possibly many, students would have cars and would drive to campus.)

As part of its rejection of in loco parentis, the college would also not offer some of the administrative services available at traditional residential liberal arts colleges. No extensive counseling to students, or support for student groups, and so on. The college would take no official or administrative interest in the private lives of its students (or for that matter its faculty or administration) but equally, offer no protection to them for such private activities. Judiciary activities by the administration towards the students would be limited entirely to questions of academic honesty; matters of criminal conduct between students or within the college would be referred to authorities outside the college should the college administration become aware of them, or should students themselves wish to pursue legal remedies for a grievance.

[A personal note: All of this is a hard idea for me to embrace, and I would probably myself not pursue this approach if the hypothetical $500 million dropped on my doorstep, as I rather like the communitarian character of a traditional liberal-arts college, the old-style provision of a rich array of services, the integration of athletics and academics within instruction, and so on. But with one stroke this eliminates a major source of administrative growth and a series of nearly intractable managerial dilemmas. Given the ambition of the instructional design of this project, particularly the costs of paying braintrust consultants, I think that this college might need this change financially. So in this respect, perhaps this college would be very strictly no-frills, both for reasons of financial practicality and as a philosophical commitment to the adulthood of its students.]

[Another way to undertake this approach might be to have a services menu, allowing students to choose a no-frills enrollment, or to add on college-subsidized or provided services from a set listing. Even so, it would still be important philosophically to embrace a position of minimal involvement in and responsibility for the essentially private activities of students.]

Section D.

Other Considerations

Issues that I’ve thought about but do not think this sketch requires a fixed outline of:

1. Optimal size of the student body. In practical terms, if anyone actually tried to implement some or all of these ideas in a new college, this would depend first on location, second on the initial money available for construction, and third on the likely size of the initial four-year intakes. Unless a unusual group of luminaries were associated with this college at the outset and a wizard of public relations helped to promote it, I think expectations would have to be low: the initial enrollments would have to be the kind of students drawn to experimentation. But I personally couldn’t imagine the student body ever surpassing 2000, given some of the design precepts.

2. Financial aid. I think this college would have to have it, but whether it could afford to be need-blind, especially at the outset, is an open question. More significantly, it is possible that pursuing a conventional financial aid strategy could force the college to forgo some innovations in order to conform to federal and state mandates.

3. Accreditation. Hard to imagine succeeding in the higher education marketplace without it, and yet, conforming to the normal bureaucracy of accreditation might force the abandonment of crucial innovations.

4. Relative savings from the no-frills approach vs. relative expenses of the instructional design and relation to average tuition costs. Hard for me to really cost this out, but I doubt very much that the no-frills approach would allow for sufficient savings to dramatically reduce the costs of tuition. Ideally, it seems to me that this college should cost more than publically-subsidized universities but considerably less than any selective liberal arts college.

5. Viable locations. If anyone was actually serious about pursuing a new institution of this kind, I think it would have be located in about ten places in North America: the North Carolina Research Triangle, the Boston area, somewhere between San Jose to San Francisco, New York City and environs, Southern California, Chicago, the Pacific Northwest between Vancouver and Portland, Mid-Atlantic between Philadelphia and Richmond. I can think of a few other places where it might conceivably be possible, but I think it would be very hard to leverage the associational needs of this institution in rural areas or smaller cities, especially smaller cities away from the coasts.

6. Existence of employable faculty (regular, visiting, braintrust) who would be willing to get on board for most of the philosophical underpinnings of this institution. This is a major practical reason why I don’t think anything like this will ever exist. I don’t know that it would be possible to find enough successful non-academic professionals who would be willing to redirect their careers into teaching at the college, or whether one could compensate them sufficiently to make it worth their while to do so, particularly without the lure of tenure. If it were possible, finding people with a philosophical belief in the liberal arts and an intellectual orientation might also be difficult. For academics, the problem would be a bit different: in many disciplinary contexts, truly committing to the philosophy of the 21st Century College would require sacrificing one’s viability in most or all other academic marketplaces, and again, without the security of tenure. The existing reward structure for academic research grants would probably look very askance at the intellectual profile of any applicants employed by the college, so the college would have to do more than provide conventional sabbatical support: it would probably have to replace some or all of the federal and private monies used to make research possible. While there might be many highly-qualified junior candidates with recent doctorates willing to work at the college, I strongly suspect that many of them would try to wrench the basic structure of the curriculum back to a more conventional design.

7. Sustainability of a tight and relatively inflexible curricular architecture. One of the reasons that conventional liberal arts colleges show the relative degree of intellectual incoherence in their curricular design that Graff quite rightly criticizes is that a fairly decentralized, entrepreneurial approach to course design is vastly easier and cheaper to administrate. In practical terms, if someone really wanted to build the 21st Century College, I think that extensive conversation with institutions like St. John’s College in Annapolis would be instructive–how do they manage to maintain their “Great Books” curriculum, and does the maintainance of such a curriculum put pedagogical creativity and imagination at risk, as I suspect it might. This could be an enormous problem for the 21st Century College: it demands a high degree of intellectual restlessness and creativity from faculty while also mandating a large proportion of the form and kind of instruction they must deliver.

One Response to 21st Century College

  1. Harvey says:

    Very interesting. I didn’t read it all carefully, but I like what I’ve seen. I think that some consideration of ‘productivity’ in instruction has to be included in the plan – how to get the most bang for the faculty salary buck, and how that will be determined (in general). I believe that any failure to consider this is a big part of the current higher-education bubble – in no sense have faculty salaries (or any other component of university expenses) been tied to any rational measure of productivity.

    But getting rid of ‘non-instructional services’ seems to me to be a good step in the direction of such improvements.

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