I wrote a letter to the NY Times in response to Richard Arum and Mitchell Stevens’ “What is a College Education in the Time of Coronavirus?“. Unsurprisingly, the letter was not published, so I offer it here as a conversation-starter on lessons we should and shouldn’t learn from higher education’s current situation.
To the Editor:
Among the many people who have stepped up to the challenge posed by the pandemic, I’ve been proud of my colleagues in the academy who have adapted thousands of classes for millions of students. But I fear the lessons Drs. Arum and Stevens (“What is a College Education in the Time of Coronavirus?” March 18) suggest we draw from from this mobilization are wrong. We cannot allow this crisis response to become an excuse to shortchange quality and opportunity for a generation of college students.
The essence of American higher education is its combination of intensity and breadth. When it’s all working great, students from all walks of life join in intellectual communities to engage with ideas, arguments, knowledge, and evidence. They synthesize habits of mind not just from content delivered in isolated classes but also from a potent mixture of those classes and intentional curriculum as a guide to understanding activities, experiences, conversations, disagreements, and epiphanies. That synthesis prepares them well: not just for their careers but also to take on urgent, complicated tasks of citizenship, leadership, creativity, and innovation.
Colleges can indeed improve: most importantly by expanding access to all qualified students while sustaining and increasing the quality of education. We will learn valuable lessons from this spring’s mass migration online, but those lessons need to be about how to do a better job for more students, not how to cut corners and compromise quality.