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Liberal Ed in crisis: Trinity College President Dick Hersh talks frankly about the landmark Greater Expectations report--and what we can expect from it. (Interview).

University Business: Dr. Hersh, as one of the national panelists behind the recently released AAC&U report, do you believe that liberal education can keep its promise of purpose in a world where it is accessible to all? Or, will a liberal education only survive in a culture where certain individuals wish to pursue that high ideal of education and others attend community, vocational, or professional schools?

Dr. Hersh: Will it be difficult? Yes. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. A liberal education in the best sense--in the deepest and widest sense of the term--is an education that we have always argued is the best education for citizens and particularly for leaders in a democracy. That doesn't mean that we have only liberal education institutions out there; there are community colleges and others we would think of as more vocational, and there is no attempt to pretend that they offer a liberal education, per se. But big universities, public and private, all make the claim that they already, ought to, and are providing what they would call liberal education. So, the Greater Expectations report, at the very least, is responding to that claim of what American higher education is--that is, that liberal education is a fundamental basis for a traditional bachelor's degree.

So, we're not talking about hanging onto a foothold; you're not concerned that with the growth of community colleges and vocational and professional schools, a liberal education as we know it will become a smatter piece of the higher ed pie. The report is addressing the quality of the delivery of a liberal arts education, correct?

Well, that's an interesting question; I don't think we ever discussed the issue of proportionality. It's that we're not as efficacious as we ought to be, wherever we claim we're doing it. But I honestly don't think that we can afford people to not be liberally educated in the long run, independent of whether they eventually go through a professional or so-called vocational education. The reason I suggest that, is that at one point, we all assumed that high school education was de facto liberal education and we now admit that it's no longer that. So now, in some sense, college and university education is somewhat compensatory for everybody.

But is a liberal education compensatory?

Society has to ask the question, "What is the purpose of higher education?" It has multiple purposes, one of which is indeed to get people to the point where they are more employable and capable of moving into the work world. But also of going through a series of learning curves--that is, being able to change the kind of work they do over time. That's the nature of the work force today. What better kind of education to get than the kind that gives you the toots and the competencies and the basic knowledge to continue learning? Liberal education is the bests for that upward and onward triangle of learning.

But if today, people are being educated more and more along specialty, professional, and vocational lines, doesn't that mean they will have less flexibility, less adaptability, less opportunity to think out of the box, in leadership mode?

Yes. That's why liberal education ought to have a much more powerful and pervasive presence in our educational system. The notion of Greater Expectations has multiple meanings. It means there ought to be a much better articulation between what happens at K-12 and what happens in higher education. But it also means greater expectations for what we think of as the meaning of a higher education. But you're right: There is a centrifugal force in higher education, as well as in American culture, which is pulling people away from being liberally educated, and toward being narrowly educated. We're not so much freeing people in the sense that a true liberal education would, but we're in some sense constricting them. What an irony! And the word "higher" in higher education has increasingly been reduced to less than higher; to the lowering of standards, to grade inflation, and lower expectations. They have all conspired to the narrowing of what we mean by education and liberal education: getting a degree; getting a piece of paper as opposed to getting an education. So Greater Expectations not only talks about making sure that we are as broad and as deep and as demanding and as challenging as we ought to be at the expectation level, but it also says that we should be holding greater expectations for our students than we do, and much greater expectations for ourselves as higher educators. It's a statement about what we, as the academy, have allowed ourselves to become as a part or product of American culture. But it's also about us--the people who help to inform and perhaps change American culture. Are you saying our own inability to see the real value of a liberal education may be the greatest danger?

That's exactly the issue. We're increasing people's myopia by going after what we think is deep and narrow learning. There's a real question about whether we're getting the deep learning, and we certainly understand the consequences of too narrow learning. Given that our life span is already 20 to 30 years longer than it was at the turn of the 19th century, and that we've now increased access to the large proportion of our population, are we facing the reality that we've added a minimum of four years onto formal education? If so, and we're providing access to it, then let's make sure that we don't just provide access, but provide access to something worthy of access. Access without quality is a hollow promise. There's the notion that we've "won" because we've made huge progress on the issue of access. And though that absolutely needs to be maintained and strengthened, we have to ask the question, "What is the access to?" We have to ask if we are satisfied with the product of what we're producing. And the answer is, we're not.

So, it's not the expansion of access that has endangered the survival of a true liberal arts education?

No, I don't think the access question endangered it at all. What really endangered it is this naive belief that what really counts is the degree; the whole "marketplace" mentality with its short-term view of making money and getting a job and being prepared in some narrow credential to enter the job force.

But can't that be traced to the fact that in greater quantity, quality often suffers? If greater and greater masses of people are entering colleges, is the ability to educate them property--in the mode of a true liberal arts education--reduced?

I don't know if there's a cause and effect. There may be. But when it comes to greater access, I'm not sure we have a choice. In a democracy, you're trying to turn out the best citizens you can. Okay, we've been trying to do it on the cheap. Once we got rid of the impediments of sexism and racism, the big change has been essentially financial. How do we make sure that people's capacity to finance and afford higher education is increased? So, through scholarship aid, state-supported tuition, and so forth, we've increased access. But we naively believed that you could increase access and decrease cost--that is, the cost per student. But that's the wrong question. The right question is: How do we increase access and do justice to quality? Because the reason for access is not to simply have people go through a factory system, but to actually be educated. And it's where we're making the promise of a liberal education--a formalized four-year university or college education--in those settings at the very least, that we have not done justice to the issue of quality, or to the issue of the nature of the education that we claim we're purveying.

All right; but entering our hypothetical college are students who are prepared at all different levels: some are thoroughly prepared, many are not well prepared, and some are so poorly prepared they will need extra or remedial attention. In addition to that, the institution has been pushing its faculty to focus on research, so there's less of an emphasis on teaching. Add to that a mandate for the school to be more competitive; to move up a tier--

--They all want to be Harvard.

So, where do we go from here?

What we're saying [in the report] is that this entire society is being hypocritical. We have to either agree that we're going to give up on the dream of that kind of education--which is a mistake--or we're going to have to agree that we're not getting it at the moment, admit that and say, "What's the cause of that?" And the cause of that is clearly the cultural value that says it's not worth it. For example, equal education, which means getting to some level of equal outcomes, requires unequal treatment. You may need to take four courses in calculus to get it, and it may take me one. But the fact is, the means-in terms of time and method--may vary. We understand from education and research that we do have to treat people differently. But the question is: What do we want the outcomes to be? And we haven't yet created a pedagogy that does justice to what we know about learning. What does it mean to take seriously the nature of learning, as we define teaching--as opposed to making learners conform to our research needs? The report is, in part, about turning things around; about saying, "Where's the starting point?" And the starting point is: outcomes. What do we expect a student should get? Then, how do you work backwards with that, rather than saying: "Here's who we are: We're a research school trying to become Harvard, and if you don't conform to what we want to be, then, tough break. We're just going to pass you through here, through social promotion; otherwise, you're going to the wrong place." And maybe we have to have a conversation saying, "This is what we expect when a person comes to college." And if people don't have these requisite skills, they're going to have to either get them earlier, or make them up, but not in our setting.

So, one, we need to put a mission statement in place: What is it that we really want to be? Two is: What should a college curriculum really look like in order to get there? And three: What kinds of articulation agreements are going to have to be put into place with high schools and how is high school education going to have to change?

Exactly right. But once you understand the pieces of the puzzle and you agree on where you want to go, then you can ask the question, "Do we have enough will?" We need to know if there is enough economic, cultural, and political will to say that we've got a severe American problem. Then, how do you move to a standards-based or criterion-reference-based or higher-expectations-based education that eventually forces a clear articulation, K-16? And who starts the conversation? The conversation has already started politically, primarily by the states, through high-stakes testing. We admit that's problematic. We're finding that it's not only difficult to articulate what we expect out of K-12, but that it's very difficult to deliver it, once we define it. It's difficult to measure it once we define it, and it's difficult to pay for it once we define it. So, we're going through that revolution and we're not letting up because if we give up and just take what we get, our whole economic system goes to hell, not to mention citizenship. And if the K-12 system's already on the American agenda (The Nation at Risk was really the Greater Expectations report at the time), this report says the nation is still at risk. In fact, it's at even greater risk. Not only haven't we solved the K-12 problem, now we've got the exact same problem in higher education which nobody's been willing to acknowledge before this. It's just pushed itself up the chain because, in fact, K-12 is de facto K-16 now. So, the issue has only changed in degree, not in kind. This report says we think we understand the barriers to the change and we think that part of it is expectations, and the other parts are the politics and culture of higher education itself, and the incentive systems that we, as a culture, have created and higher education has perversely followed. Most public universities in this country are funded by body count. (You get so many dollars per student that's enrolled, and so you try to get in as many students as you can.) So, it is now the policy of governors and legislators to essentially fund based on body count. No one is saying they're going to fund on the basis of high-quality outcomes. They fund on input variables, not output variables. As long as you churn a lot of bodies through, you can keep getting funded. Until recently, no one's said, "What's the incentive and what's the payoff for turning out high-quality graduates?"

But isn't this attitude pervasive throughout American culture? "Just show us your bottom line"?

You got it. There's a market system, a capitalist market system behind this mentality in which there is this naive belief that you can create simple economic incentives without understanding their perverse consequences. But a small liberal arts college can be a "handcrafted" education. And the reason that a small liberal arts college costs $36,000 a year is because, in fact, we deny everything about learning mills, and we deny that the way to deliver a higher education is to give people a passive kind of education in which there's no student engagement. There are hidden costs to the "passive" university: One, people come out highly uneducated. Two, half the students never graduate--less than 50 percent of the students that start higher education in this country are not finishing. We're paying huge hidden costs. Our current incentive system is not about quality, but about quantity. Everyone now agrees that the most perverse short-term thinking in American society today is in the corporate bottom-line mentality and the way in which daily reports of earning are now structuring people's response to the market and to innovation. This is the last place we should be looking for educational quality.

How important is it to get this message to an American public that is now feeling pain about higher education on so many levels. Is the timing right?

We've got to get the public to understand this, because what we're saying in that report--maybe not as stridently as I would've liked--is that we are in a crisis; an American higher education--and therefore American cultural--crisis. We are the canaries. We are saying something that is normally unheard of. We have critiqued ourselves fairly severely. We haven't blamed anybody. We have said that we're part of the problem for going along with a culture in which we're embedded, and we're trying to explain how we ourselves have been hoodwinked into the perverse incentive systems. The question now is, do we and others have sufficient courage to not only educate people about this, but to begin to change the way in which some of these barriers to change are upon us? The report ought to lead to conversations on a variety of levels--corporate, legislative, and media levels--and people need to then say, "Well, if the people in higher education are claiming that it's out of control, not satisfactory, and the consequences are horrendous, then there must be something to it." If we're saying that some of the systems we're operating under have already done damage to K-12 and now we're seeing it's insidiously working its way through higher ed, then we don't need 40 more years to talk about higher education. Let's have that conversation and get it out.

Do we have the kind of time that higher education usually takes to accomplish change?

No, we don't, and it won't happen that way. There are already 18 to 22 states that have laws on the books asking their state schools to provide outcome assessment to give evidence that students are learning what the colleges claim they're learning. Now, none of that is done well. It's done even far worse than in K-12, but at least at the public policy level, that conversation has started. The whole accountability movement has been about this but it has not been as deep or as broadly conceived as the Greater Expectations report. And there's another project I've been working on, which we can't talk about yet--a valuated assessment process. We've done a field test; a pilot study, for $2 million. We're waiting to get the results of the assessments that we did with 1,200 students across the country in a variety of settings, to see if the kinds of measures and the kinds of outcomes we're talking about make any sense. Eventually, we'll follow them for four years or then six or eight years, depending.

Will the study be completed in time to save liberal arts education?

Yes, and here's why. Liberal arts is still liberal arts, and the best of liberal arts has a huge market at the moment. That is, the people who are willing to pay the most, the people who are trying to get their kids into the Trinitys and Ivies of the world and into honors colleges at the big universities, still realize that it is the best education.

But you're talking again about that elite group I referred to earlier. There is a group of people who have always understood the importance of a liberal arts education.

Yes, but everybody's got what used to be for the elite--college--and they're going to want the same thing that we're giving to the elite now. The whole thing is spiraling upwards. People are not going to be satisfied with anything less than the best for their kids, and so more and more, this country will become increasingly dissatisfied with the outcome of our education system because there are examples of excellence, and people are going to say that's what they want for their kids.

And that quality will be able to be sustained for the masses? Not diluted?

It's not unlike athletic records. That is, a world record is set today, and then tomorrow it's an old record. But if you raise everybody up to the old record, they're still better off than they were before, even though there's a new world record. There's always going to be an elite because knowledge is changing and because we set new standards. Not everybody gets the same standards at the same moment, but the standards keep changing by virtue of the fact that we never are satisfied. And the whole notion of a liberal education is, in fact, to be liberated from old standards. So yes, we'll constantly have a differentiated set of outcomes. But we can be far better in 20 years with most of the population than we are now. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Democracy doesn't argue for absolute equality. It means absolute equality for opportunity, and then, once we have opportunity, we differentiate ourselves in part by effort and by skill and so forth. We are at least trying to get rid of the impediments that prevent people from becoming the very best they can be.

Do you feel that we should be setting up a model whereby we perform self-analysis at intervals?

If higher education is following its own liberal education model, it has to be constant. The whole notion of dialectic, of dialogue, of new knowledge, of deconstruction of knowledge, of new research, is to replace inadequate knowledge with better. So, of all places, we should always be on the leading edge of our own critique, and I believe Greater Expectations is an attempt to make sure that's where we are.

Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College is the focus of more than 20 ongoing campus/community dialogues around the nation, which began this fall. For information, go to The full Greater Expectations National Panel Report is available online at
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Author:Grayson, Katherine
Publication:University Business
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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