Teaching and Scholarship: Adapting American Higher Education to Hard Times

Article excerpt

The American educational system has now endured nearly a decade of unprecedented public examination and criticism, and no end is in sight. The initial focus was on elementary and secondary education. In 1983 the United States Department of Education fired the first salvo with A Nation at Risk |8~. The barrages that followed included no fewer than four other, equally critical studies in the same year |3, 4, 5, 9~ and four more since that first year |6, 7, 10, 13~. In 1984 the Department of Education shifted its attention to higher education with the release of Involvement in Learning |29~. This, in turn, was followed by a biannual series of assaults orchestrated by William Bennett and Lynne Cheney from the National Endowment for the Humanities |15, 19, 20, 21~, six additional major reports from other sources |17, 18, 26, 27, 28, 30~, and a public crescendo of criticism in 1987, when Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind |16~ and E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy |25~ made the best seller lists. In the meantime, a rumbling from just beyond the horizon of public consciousness accompanied the publication of a number of studies by and for the business community |31-50~. They spoke directly to the underlying concern that was implicit in many of the more publicized governmental reports on precollege and collegiate education. America was losing her competitive edge in the global economy, and improvements in the education of the workforce would be absolutely crucial to any attempt to regain it. We had apparently rediscovered something forgotten during a long postwar period without international economic competitors -- the relationship between education and the performance of the economy.

A final impetus for the continued scrutiny of education arrived with the recession, the decline in public revenues, and resultant demand that at least public-sector educational institutions justify their claim on increasingly scarce public funds in competition with other legitimate claimants. An old experience for the public schools; a new one for most of higher education.

This wave of economically driven scrutiny has resulted in calls for greater accountability in general and for the systematic assessment and improvement of higher education teaching in particular. And this demand, in turn, has reignited old internal conflicts over the relative importance which the academy attaches to teaching as opposed to scholarship. Within the last few years, two national surveys of the professorate |14, 18~, the presidents of prestigious universities such as Stanford and Columbia, and a collection of state political leaders, assembled by the Education Commission of the States, have all raised concerns that the "publish or perish" pressures on faculty may be diverting too much time and energy from the central task of effective undergraduate teaching. Those who annually have to justify the budgets of public-sector colleges and universities already know what most of the professorate would like to ignore: economic hard times will require higher education to do more than it has traditionally done to justify the resources it consumes and to do so at least partially in economic terms. And that task, in turn, will require that we find a way to reconcile the two major contributions to the economy to which higher education can reasonably lay claim -- teaching and research. An understanding of how that might be done requires an understanding, first, of the current wave of concern about teaching, and then of the rocky edifice of traditional scholarship toward which that wave is rolling.


The current wave of economically driven concern about undergraduate teaching has attached itself to long-standing suspicions among nonacademic constituencies that many college-level academics would rather wallow about in expensive and esoteric research projects than undertake the less glamorous and often grinding business of educating the future workforce and citizenry. …


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