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Review: College Disrupted

College DisruptedSummary: Higher education is in a season of change driven by costs, online technology and increasing concerns about competency and return on investment. Craig proposes a model of “unbundled” education that responds to and leverages these factors.

MOOCs, STEM, flipped classrooms, debt loads, for-profits and return on investment are among the “hot topics” in discussions of trends in higher education. What Ryan Craig, a venture capitalist with education services companies, proposes is that it is time to “unbundle” the traditional model of higher education — the four year degree on a residential campus with major investments in a variety of student services and amenities and an educational program focused around seat time with unclear learning outcomes.

The first chapters of his book argue that this model is increasingly costly and accessible to fewer students, it reflects a laissez faire model of academic governance, and a paucity of data measuring the effectiveness of the educational experience in preparing people for employment.

While MOOCs have already peaked and declined, what they point up is a need to shift from seat-time based to competency-based learning that identifies competencies needed for a particular area of education, and to clear and simple assessments and curriculum. He argues that the best curricula will involve a variety of immersive experiences with constant feedback that result in mastery of a competency.  He proposes that “competency management platforms” will be the key technology that will connect students, educational institutions and employers more seamlessly providing online portfolios and “competency badges” to employers, ongoing assessments and educational recommendations based on career goals.

Craig recommends that institutions take the following steps to prepare for what he sees as “the great unbundling”:

  1. Refocus academic programs on competencies employers care about.
  2. Avoid the pause (students withdrawing to work or for other reasons).
  3. Improve rigor (one study by Arum and Roksa indicates students devote only 27 hours a week to academic work).
  4. Make better connections with employers.
  5. End isomorphism (all following the same formulas to achieve higher rankings)

Another factor that can drive these changes are the increasing interest in American education by students from China and other countries and the answer may be exporting the education rather than importing the students. Craig points to Arizona State as an institution which has made the shift by reorganizing the university from the traditional departmental model, raising both enrollments (including minority enrollment) and quality, working with outside private vendors to provide core courses and non-academic online technology resources. All this came at a time of declining state support.

I think Craig is raising important questions and proposing interesting models. Rising college costs are making a college education out of reach for many students, even while a college education still makes a huge difference in lifetime incomes for most graduates. Also, the studies showing that in many degree programs students show no improvement in critical thinking or other competencies suggest that the current educational model may at time be delivering questionable value.

I still wonder if what Craig is proposing is simply a new version of trade schools with enhanced efficiencies. Also, he is not a disinterested observer. His business is funding the education companies providing the educational technologies and competency management tools he is recommending.

This approach also seems utterly contemptuous for any place in the university of exploring the good, the true, and the beautiful. College was once a place that explored the great questions and the best of what humanity has thought, written and created. Now it seems college is being conceived primarily in terms of training “human resources” for our economic machine.

It seems that one of the legitimate challenges in our STEM-oriented education is that there is precious little space for courses outside degree requirements.. I wonder whether some of the approaches Craig proposes might more effectively use the time devoted to education to both train more effectively for desired work and to provide the opportunity to explore the larger questions that answer why we work and what constitutes a life well-lived.

That would be a good educational outcome.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Holy Week

Entry Into Jerusalem by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1320.Assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro lorenzetti" by Pietro lorenzetti - http://www.aiwaz.net/panopticon/lorenzetti-pietro/gc58p0. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Entry Into Jerusalem by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1320.Assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro lorenzetti” by Pietro lorenzetti – http://www.aiwaz.net/panopticon/lorenzetti-pietro/gc58p0. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I write on the eve of Holy Week. And because Youngstown was a city of churches, I’m reminded that Holy Week observances shaped the growing up years of many of us, whether we continue to embrace the beliefs behind those observances or not.

Holy Week began with Palm Sunday. In many of our churches palm branches were distributed that celebrated the triumphal ride of Jesus into Jerusalem in which the crowds made a carpet of cloaks for him to ride on and everyone waved palm branches and threw them down before him crying “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” I often wondered (and still do) how a city could give him such acclaim and then crucify him five days later.

We lived in the tension between Palm Sunday and Good Friday throughout the week. My wife describes how each year, she would take the palm branch she received and plait it into a cross. Holy Week was the final week of Lent and the fasting of this forty day period continued. In my wife’s house, it was lots of pierogies and boiled cabbage, especially on Wednesday and Friday. In my Protestant household, we abstained from meat on Good Friday. My wife recounts taking time out from classes to walk the stations of the cross, remembering the events and encounters of the Via Dolorosa and the cross itself.


A Station of the Cross, Cenacle Retreat House, Houston, TX (c) 2015, Robert C Trube

Many of our churches had a Maundy Thursday service or Mass. Thursday evening was the night of the Last Supper. After the homily, some churches would have a foot washing. At the end of the Mass or service, the altars would be stripped to prepare for Good Friday.

Then came Good Friday. I often wondered at the name “Good”, considering the focal point of the day was the crucifixion of Jesus. The only thing that seemed good was that we had the day off from school. My mother commented that often the skies would cloud over during the afternoon of Good Friday, reminiscent of the darkness that descended over Jerusalem as Jesus died. Many churches had services at 3 pm commemorating the hour of Jesus death. I also attended services where “the seven last words” of the cross were remembered. In some churches, the cross was draped with a black cloth.

I think for many of us from Youngstown, this space between Palm Sunday and Good Friday reflected a tension in which we lived. We celebrated whenever we could because we were aware that life brought suffering (“crosses”). Lent ideally kept any of us from an inflated view of ourselves as we were reminded of our flawed and finite existence on this earth and that there was a hope of redemption for all of us. Even the criminal who died at Jesus side would be with him that day in Paradise.

As Good Friday came to an end, the waiting and anticipation of Holy Saturday began. As kids we looked forward to Easter baskets, but also to new clothes, and the celebration of Easter. More on this next week…

Interested in reading other posts in this “Growing Up in Working Class” series. Just go to my home page and click the “On Youngstown” link under “Categories”.

Review: A Glorious Dark

A Glorious DarkSummary: An exploration of living in the tension of the glorious hope of Christian faith and the dark, unsettling realities of our lives through reflections grouped around the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of the Triduum of Holy Week. A great book to read reflectively during Holy Week.

A. J. Swoboda opens this book with the image of a frozen river, apparently dead and still on the surface, but beneath the ice, flowing and alive–“a glorious dark”, he calls it, which he sees as an image for our faith, lived in the tension between our surprising and glorious hope and the struggles and questions and failures of our own lives.

The book is organized around the three days of the Triduum: Good Friday, Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Friday is the time when we are faced with the reality that “the monster at the end of the book” (reprising his childhood hero Scooby Doo is us. He explores our struggles with God’s “Fatherhood” and how Jesus discloses something of the kind of Father we have in God. He explores how God journeys with us in life, making the map as we go. Perhaps the most striking chapter in the Friday section is titled “Numb” where he describes his own struggle with alcoholism and the striking moment where Jesus refuses to numb the pain of the cross with alcohol and myrrh. And he concludes with the striking moment where God seems to forsake God on the cross.

Saturday is about waiting in uncertainty. We want to move right from suffering to triumph. In some sense, our whole lives right now are lived between Good Friday and Easter in Holy Saturday and it is there we must sit. Saturday tells us we can’t pick and choose our life in some kind of “faith boutique”. We must learn to rest in this day which for the Jews is “sabbath” before the Sunday of new creation.

And then there is Sunday–beginning for Swoboda with the amazing vindication of Mother Mary in the Resurrection–the woman who as a pregnant teen, claimed she was yet a virgin, visited only by an angel of the Lord. If resurrection is true, then all the other incredible things in the narratives of Jesus beginning with this virgin conception make sense and Mary can say, “told you so!” It confronts us with surprise, a different kind of super-hero, and gives us a community that eats together, even as Jesus ate with his disciples on the shore of Galilee before being taken from them.

What I so appreciated about Swoboda was his ability to “tell it slant” (in the words of Emily Dickinson)–to help us see afresh the surprising and wonderful character of the Christian story as it breaks into our flawed and sometimes dark existence. In place of stories that have become routine and seem not to have the power to keep us awake let alone raise the dead and transform life, his writing helps capture the startling character of what we call “the good news”. One example of this comes early in the book when he writes:

“Certainly God is holy–holy beyond all perceivable knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. But Hosea throws us a curveball in our understanding of how a holy God deals with unholiness. Perhaps in other religions the deities deal with evil through finger-pointing, shouting matches, or even the silencing of a perpetrator. But in Hosea, God not only looks upon evil–God takes evil on a honeymoon. How does God deal with evil?

He puts a ring on it” (pp. 19-20).

I found myself pausing again and again in thankful wonder at the glory that pierces our darkness that Swoboda explores in these reflections. It has helped prepare my heart for Holy Week and I wanted to post this review today so that others might find this resource for their own Holy Week reflections.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Learning Game

It’s the second time I came across this idea in a book on higher education. It was that instead of the traditional method of lecturing, assigning homework, and readings followed by an exam within a fixed timetable, education ought to provide students with a game-like experience that allows them to take as much time as they need to master material before “moving up to the next level”. The writer I was reading today in a book titled College Disrupted went so far as to suggest that we learn from gambling casinos and video games how to draw students into “flow” experiences that totally engage them.

College DisruptedThere was a part of this that really made sense. Our traditional model often seems to conclude that if the student did not master the material, it was of necessity the failing of the student. Often they were moved on to another course without really mastering the material in a given course. College in this model is often more a matter of surviving until one acquires a sufficient number of course to get a degree rather than really learning something. The new model seems to propose that failure is a lack in the curriculum rather than the student and that the ideal is that everyone masters the material, that all get “A’s”.

One of the forces driving this is a deepening concern that when a student or her parents are investing $100,000 or more in this process, there should be some measurable outcome besides lots of good (and hopefully few bad) college memories and growing up experiences.

Nevertheless, there are some fundamental questions I have about all this:

  • Is this model suggesting that all of life be structured as a game, where the goal is to “level up”?
  • Whose responsibility is it to create the “game” and if it is someone other than the learner, what does this say about personal agency? This seems a highly deterministic view of human beings.
  • What about the parts of learning that involve slogging through and tedium? A good amount of academic research involves the tenacity that runs an experiment 50 times, altering different variables.
  • What about the parts of life that don’t conform to the game model? What happens when you try everything and still have a colicky infant? What happens when you try to “level up” your physical condition only to come smack up against a chronic illness that no diet, exercise or yoga routine can remedy?
  • I’m also concerned with whether this will lead to a new kind of “common core” thinking where college must produce a certain number of deliverables and university teachers will also be compelled to become teaching technicians, adjuncts really, to the “game”.
  • Lastly, I wonder if it is not games per se’ that lead to learning, but the  “immersive experience”, whether that be an engaged class discussion, a passionate lecture, an internship that draws out unexplored capacities in a student, or a project that arouses a deep curiosity about the unknown.

That said, College Disrupted also observes that only about $1 billion a year goes into educational research, a paltry amount compared to what we are spending on other forms of research. In particular, it seems to me an interesting question to explore how it is that those transitioning from youth to adulthood learn. Educators clearly have found that adults learning is a very different thing from childhood learning. What about this “in between” space of the 18-22 year old?

The one thing that strikes me, whatever the answers to all this are, is that these people, and their futures are too important for us to play games with their lives.


Books I Read Too Soon

Book Riot recently posted an article titled Books We Read Too SoonThis reminded me of something I’ve often contended, that some of the books we read in high school were books for which we just did not have enough life experience. Four books came to mind as I reflected on what I would include in such a list.

Great GatsbyThe first was one mentioned by the Book Riot folks. The Great Gatsby just didn’t connect with its portrayal of rich decadence. As a working class kid, I just didn’t get what the problem was with these folks who had so much money. After the decadence of the Nineties, it might have made sense.

Tale of Two CitiesThe second was A Tale of Two Cities. At the time, reading it was “the worst of times”. It seemed to go on forever, through all the turmoil of the French Revolution, the rivalry of Darnay and Carton, and various labyrinthine maneuverings. By the end, I don’t think I really cared who got guillotined.

Anna KareninaThe third book was Anna Karenina. I knew it was about her illicit love affairs but I was probably as occupied as anything with keeping all the names straight. And it was even longer than A Tale of Two Cities! It did awaken me to the double standard between men and women at a time women of my generation were talking of women’s liberation.

Scarlet LetterThe last book was The Scarlet Letter. Again, there is a plot that explores the double standard of sexual dalliances. Hester Prynne bears her punishment in noble silence while Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale bears quite a different burden. I probably wondered at times in high school about all these books with messed up affections. Then I grew up and saw it in real life, and sadly saw numerous clergy scandals, and realized that Hawthorne knew what he was talking about.

Obviously I gained something from each of these books, yet I suspect far less than my English teachers were hoping for. What occurred to me as I considered this short list was that I’ve not re-read a single one of these books! I’ve read most of Dickens other works as well as much of Tolstoy. All of these I read after college, and most recently Tolstoy’s Resurrection. No one seems to write about sin and redemption like Tolstoy, and Dickens portrayals of the foibles and pretensions of human beings are a delight to explore.

I find myself wondering if I should go back and give my “books read too soon” a second chance. I suspect that it is those high school memories that cause me to hold back, and maybe all those comments of my peers who went through the same thing. The works like these that I discovered on my own did not let me down. Perhaps these won’t either.

Can you think of books you’ve read too soon? Have you gone back to them, and if so, what was your experience of re-reading?

[Note: These were the covers of the editions I read!]

Review: What Kind of Nation

What Kind of NationSummary: Simon’s book summarizes the struggle between John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson to define the character of American Federal government, focusing particularly on Marshall’s role in creating a strong judicial branch. A good book for anyone interested in post-Revolutionary War American history or in early constitutional law.

About the only thing John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson had in common was that both were Virginians. Jefferson was enamored of all things French while Marshall broke off talks with France following the XYZ Affair, in which French officials basically demanded bribes in order to enter into treaty negotiations with the young country. Marshall risked war rather than be party to this, although he characteristically stopped short of calling for war, showing the measured judgment that would characterize his career.

More than this Jefferson’s agrarian vision was for a limited federal government that allowed to states all power not expressly given the federal government. Likewise, Jefferson wanted to limit the Federalist dominated judiciary. Marshall had a very different vision of the needs of the country, and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court a very different vision for the place of the court as a co-equal branch of the government rather than the poor step-child he inherited.

James F. Simon gives us a vivid account of the tension between the Jefferson the Republican and Simon the Federalist. Unlike Adams and Jefferson, these two men would never be reconciled to one another. Perhaps the most famous encounter, which Simon covers in detail is that resulting in the Marbury v. Madison decision, that uphold the Jefferson administration’s refusal to deliver Marbury’s commission to serve as Justice of the Peace of the District of Columbia. This was one of a number of last minute appointments by John Adams. While this appeared to be a victory for Jefferson, Marshall based his decision on the ruling that the provision of the Judicial Act of 1789 under which Marbury brought his suit was in fact unconstitutional. What Marshall’s decision for the Court did was establish the principle of judicial review, which allowed the Supreme Court an expanded role in determining the constitutionality of legislation passed by Congress. No longer was the court the poor step-child or “least dangerous branch.”

The book goes on to describe further clashes between the two over attempts to impeach judges including fellow justice Chase, and in the treason trial of Aaron Burr. In each instance, Simon portrays a Jefferson who attempts to use political influence toward these ends only to be countered by the careful legal reasoning of Marshall. In the Burr trial, Marshall made a key ruling against Jefferson’s claim of executive privilege in withholding key evidence against Burr. Even after Jefferson was out of office, they continued to be on opposite sides of a series of states rights cases (Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee and McCulloch v. Maryland) that established precedence of federal over state law, nurturing the tensions that would eventually flare up in America’s Civil War.

In Simon’s account, Marshall comes out looking far better than Jefferson. I suspect some historians with a stronger states rights bias would see things quite differently. But what Simon makes clear is the distinctive contribution of Marshall to this day in the form of a strong federal government, limits on executive privilege and states rights, and a doctrine of judicial review which truly established the Supreme Court as a co-equal branch of government.

Review: Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods

Minds, BrainsSummary: A discussion, cast in the form of a conversation, of the latest findings in psychology and neuroscience, and their implications for what it means to be human and for what it means to believe in God. Written for the thoughtful undergraduate, it is helpful for students in these fields and others concerned about the implications of neuroscience research for faith.

Is there such a thing as free will or are all our thoughts and actions determined by chemical reactions within our neural networks? Do studies showing activity in specific centers of the brain when one is engaged in religious activity demonstrate that the quest for God is simply a genetically, physically determined activity. Given the increasingly close linkages between physical structures and processes in the brain, and our thoughts and actions, is there anything that makes me me apart from those structures? What about the soul?

Recent research in neuroscience and psychology raises all of these questions. In this book, Malcolm Jeeves discusses these as both a scientist and believing Christian. The book is cast as a conversation, an exchange of emails between Malcolm and a student named “Ben”, discussing a succession of questions that arise for Ben in the course of his studies in psychology. I found this a helpful form for presenting the latest research and exploring the Christian implications of that research. He explains the latest research findings in terms educated lay persons can grasp.

He begins with a discussion of how one should think of the field of psychology and notes that the Freudianism and behaviorism of prior generations (what I learned in my own psych courses) has given way to cognitive psychology heavily influenced by neuroscience research. He goes on to explore the question of the connection of mind and brain, arguing for the mind and consciousness as an emergent property of the brain that cannot simply be reduced to brain processes, allowing for “top down” influences. This leads to a discussion of free will, where he argues against the kind of determinism that makes all our actions, including writing books and proposing theories, as simply the “chattering of neurons.” He then discusses social influences on cognitive processes and this contributes to Jeeves contention that there are multiple levels of explanation for psychological processes.

Jeeves turns to a discussion of the soul and argues that the best understanding of this is to translate nefesh, the Hebrew for soul, as “living creature”. In Genesis, this is used of animals as well as humans.  What Jeeves would argue for, and where others, particularly dualists, will differ (and he acknowledges this) is for what he calls “dual aspect monism”–that mind or soul and body are two aspects of one being–we do not have souls, we are embodied souls. But for him, this allows him to see mental states as closely connected to physical processes without denying something essential to being human.

Succeeding chapters then explore various questions around the nature of being human from near death experiences to our moral sense and altruism, and our usage of language. In a number of these areas, Jeeves notes both similarities with animals, particularly chimpanzees, and the stark differences between us and them.

One thing to be noted is that in all of this, Jeeves is responding to research being done and its implications, a very helpful process. At the same time (and perhaps this could not be done in one book) I would have liked to see some thought given to how Christian premises might uniquely influence the research questions one asks in these fields–what does Christian thought contribute to psychological and neuroscience research?

The closing chapters explore questions of neuroscience and belief and whether belief can be reduced to the physical processes at play when persons engage in religious activity and that may be more prevalent in those of a religious nature. Jeeves is careful here to acknowledge the work being done in this area and that further research will likely yield an even fuller picture of these processes. At the same time he contends that the question of the reality of a God or gods is not something that can be proven or dismissed on the basis of this evidence. As a Christian, he would contend that these are matters that rest on the historical evidence for the acts of God in history including the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This last is one of the great values of the book. Jeeves both argues for the value of neuroscience research and against the hegemony of any particular area of science (levels of explanation) or of science as a whole over and against other ways of knowing. He provides a thoughtful model of measured conversation bringing both scientific research and the best of Christian thought together, free of neither sensationalistic claims or knee-jerk responses.


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