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The state of higher education

Topics/tags: Academia, UofC, rambly

The other day, I picked up a book and read the following.

[T]here is an essential conflict between teaching and research. Education is synthetic and generalized. Research is analytical and detailed. Education is becoming more generalized. Research is becoming more specialized. The college teacher, after intensive training in a minute field of physics, is expected to teach a general course in the natural sciences. The teacher aims at comprehension. But in the natural sciences in this country alone, 20,000 research workers are digging up important new facts and announcing new discoveries, some of which are as yet incomprehensible to their sponsors, to say nothing of those who are compelled to fit them into an intelligible scheme which may be communicated to the rising generation.

Nor is this all. American education confronts certain national peculiarities which present almost insoluble problems. A much larger proportion of our population gets into higher education than in any other country on earth. […] The number of students has been swelled in recent years by the association of the formal indicia of education with certain vocational opportunities. [1]

Those concerns struck me as timely; after all, one of the important issues associated with the national student-loan crisis is the increasing necessity of a Bachelor’s degree for many jobs [2]. What’s the source and the year? Give me a moment for a quick detour.

At the beginning of the 21st century, as the Web was taking off, many popular talks I heard about the Web and information management included some part of the following quotation.

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. Those who conscientiously attempt to keep abreast of current thought, even in restricted fields, by close and continuous reading might well shy away from an examination calculated to show how much of the previous month’s efforts could be produced on call. Mendel’s concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.

The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships. [3]

The quotation would invariably be followed by a question of the form, When was this written? I’d usually wait a few minutes for others to speak until giving 1945 as an answer. Why did I know the answer? Because the quotation comes from Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article As We May Think, which I regularly assigned to my students [4,5].

The presenter’s point was invariably that the information explosion we encounter as new is, well, not so new.

The same holds for the article I was reading. It’s from an article entitled Education and Research, I by Robert M. Hutchins. The text is a version [7] of a speech he gave at Convocation [8] at the University of Chicago in June 1934 [9].

I had always attributed the growth in American higher education to the GI bill and to the baby boom. I was therefore surprised to see these concerns raised so much earlier. You may not be surprised to hear that his model of association of the formal indicia of education with certain vocational opportunities is different than that of today. He goes on to say,

We shall shortly see the Bachelor’s degree required for elementary teachers and Master’s for high-school teachers, as the doctorate is now almost universally demanded for teachers at the higher levels. Thanks to such requirements and to similar ones for entrance to professional schools, American students have in the last forty years become the most degree-conscious in the world. They are not to blame. Colleges and universities have themselves informed them that nobody can get anywhere in teaching, research, or the so-called learned professions without an appropriate alphabetical series after his name. And, when to this is added the absolute necessity of having the Bachelor’s degree in order to pass the sacred portals of the local university club, we can see the forces of both social and economic life conspire to exalt degrees at the expense of education.

Snarky, isn’t he?

I wasn’t reading Hutchins to understand the state of education in the 1930’s. Rather, I’ve started reflecting, once again, on the form, meaning, and purpose of a liberal arts education. I’m reading Hutchins because his philosophy of education helped shape the University of Chicago that I attended, because I’d like to reflect a bit on what I understand to be a long-running debate between Hutchins and John Dewey [10], and because I know that some of Hutchins’ writing supports Grinnell’s intent that a liberal arts education is essential to citizenship. Hutchins wrote The liberal arts are the arts of freedom [15], and that’s the Hutchins I want to read more of.

Given that it’s Hutchins, I’ll need to return to the question of the power of great books. It will be a challenge; I acknowledge that the great books of today include a different set of writings and authors than Hutchins would have chosen.

But those are issues for another day and another musing [17]. For now, I remain intrigued by this example of things both staying the same and changing, and I look forward to the challenge and pleasure of reading more by Hutchins [18].

[1] Since the source of the quoted material is a central subject of the musing, I will leave the citation until a bit later.

[2] I was going to say professions. But profession implies a focused area, like law or engineering. As I understand it, the indicia of a degree is now required for a surprising variety of work opportunities, not all of which would be considered professions.

[3] I’m leaving this one for a bit, too.

[4] I thought I’d mused on the Bush article, but I can’t find the musing. Right now, all I can point you to is my notes on my early research at Grinnell. Perhaps I’ll muse about it in the future.

[5] I still assign it from time to time, particularly when I get tasked to give a guest lecture in TEC 154, The Evolution of Technology [6].

[6] Will Grinnell continue to offer that class when the Technology Studies concentration evolves into Science, Medicine, and Society? I’m not sure. It may also take a different form. However, there is a small chance I’ll get to be lead teacher for the course one more time.

[7] I was not able to determine whether it represents a transcription of the speech, an edited version of his notes for the speech, or something else.

[8] Graduation.

[9] Hutchins, Robert M. 1936. Education and Research, I. In No Friendly Voice, pp. 175–180. 1968 Reprint, Greenwood Press, New York, NY.

[10] See, for example, this piece in The Cresset [11] and this piece in Educational Theory [12]. I see from the latter that Hutchins’ snarkiness I commented upon earlier was not atypical. As part of the debate, Hutchins wrote,

Mr. John Dewey has devoted much of two recent articles in The Social Frontier to my book, The Higher Learning in America. The editors of The Social Frontier have asked me to reply to Mr. Dewey. This I am unable to do, in any real sense, for Mr. Dewey has stated my position in such a way as to lead me to think that I cannot write, and has stated his own in such a way as to make me suspect that I cannot read. [14]

[11] Heldke, Lisa. 2005. Robert Maynard Hutchins, John Dewey, and the Nature of the Liberal Arts. The Cresset, Vol. LXIX, No. 2. Found online at

[12] Johnson, James Scott. 2011. The Dewey-Hutchins Debate: A Dispute Over Moral Teleology. Educational Theory Volume 61, Issue 1.

[14] Hutchins, Robert. 1937. Grammar, Rhetoric, and Mr. Dewey, 1937 In Boydston, Jo Ann (ed), John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1952, vol. 11, p. 593. As referenced in Johnson 2011. Also available at

[15] Hutchins, Robert M. 1943. Education for Freedom. Found online at [16].

[16] I have a physical copy of Education for Freedom somewhere, but I think somewhere is likely my old office. I may ask the colleague now occupying the office if I can get into the office to borrow the book.

[17] Or a few other musings.

[18] And Dewey.

Postscript: Somewhere in my office, I have a book that has ties to Grinnell, the UofC, and Dewey. If I recall correctly, they were lectures he gave at the UofC whose only copies were at Grinnell. I’ll have to dig that up.

Postscript: Grammarly identified way too many issues with the text by Hutchins and Bush. Sorry, Grammarly, but I’m not going to correct the writing of others.

Postscript: As I reflect back on this piece, I note that I haven’t addressed the issue of the conflict between narrow graduate training and the broader teaching expectations of faculty, that Hutchins spoke to. That conflict can be particularly challenging for faculty at a small liberal arts college. I’d say that’s a musing for another day, but I don’t really have a strong desire to address the issue at present.

Version 1.0 of 2019-08-13.