The Decline of the Knowledge Factory: Why Our Colleges Must Change

By Tagg, John | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

The Decline of the Knowledge Factory: Why Our Colleges Must Change


Tagg, John, The World and I


The organizing and animating principle in the world of the next century will be neither capital nor labor nor raw materials but knowledge. As management theoretician Peter Drucker observes, "The shift to the knowledge society ... puts the person in the center. In so doing it raises new challenges, new issues, new and quite unprecedented questions about the knowledge society's representative, the educated person." If knowledge is the key to our future, the educated person will embody the hope for the future.

When we speak of the "educated person" today, we often assume as a framework for the discussion the institution that defines and certifies education: the college. At a time when high schools cannot persuasively claim to produce even literate graduates, we focus our hopes for the educated person on colleges and universities.

The United States leads the world in the proportion of its people who attend college. We see college as the bridge to social mobility; discussions about the prospects of disadvantaged groups or individuals often become disputes about access, or the lack thereof, to college. In many ways college has become the engine of the knowledge society; if it breaks down, we will be stranded in a strange new place.

Unfortunately, this engine of progress is failing. It makes more noise than ever, but it is no longer turning the wheels. Yet this will not be instantly evident to the casual observer. Behemoth University carries on public and private research in a dizzying array of fields, provides graduate and professional schooling and community service, and offers a stage for the political and cultural dramas of a variety of social causes and groups; with so many shells in constant motion, most observers would be hard pressed to find the pea of undergraduate learning. Most of what we read in the newspapers about colleges and universities concerns the inputs to those institutions--entering students, faculty hired, revenue from taxes or tuition--or the research outputs, such as discoveries in the physical or social sciences. We encounter little news about the central product of colleges--the product that justifies most public investment in higher education. Even the well-informed citizen will find little information in the public press on the issue on which colleges should be judged: what the students learn.

DO COLLEGES WORK?

That question has been asked--and with increasing persistence, over the past two decades--and the answers have been discouraging. In 1985 the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities) assembled a select committee under the leadership of Mark Curtis, then president of the AAC, to address "the loss of integrity in the bachelor's degree." Their report, Integrity in the College Curriculum, asserted that "evidence of decline and devaluation is everywhere." An examination of what students study in college revealed that "what is now going on is almost anything, and it goes on in the name of the bachelor's degree." Assessing the qualities of those who teach undergraduates, they concluded that "if the professional preparation of doctors were as minimal as that of college teachers, the United States would have more funeral directors than lawyers."

Eight years later, in 1993, the Wingspread Group on Higher Education, chaired by former Labor Secretary William Brock and including several prominent college presidents, surveyed the same prospect. They noted that the Department of Education's National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) found that "surprisingly large numbers of two- and four-year graduates are unable, in everyday situations, to use basic skills involving reading, writing, computation, and elementary problem-solving." They concluded that

a disturbing and dangerous mismatch

exists between what American society

needs of higher education and what it

is receiving. …

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