A very smart friend of mine working in education policy often said the road to education hell was paved with false dichotomies. As policy makers and practitioners we often trap ourselves in either/or discussions that encourage us to choose between two inadequate options and undercut our ability to fulfill college missions and serve students. Current education debates are rife with false dichotomies. I will outline a few here, suggesting alternate paths that take Jim Collin’s advice in his business best seller Built to Last to embrace “the genius of the and.” He contrasted that successful strategy with succumbing to the “tyranny of the or.” He argued that highly visionary organizations and leaders succeeded by liberating themselves from the tyranny of always thinking about choices between contradictory options and embracing the extremes of multiple options. The “genius of the and” produces better integrated, synthetic solutions to complex problems. More generally, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” There are many first rate minds in higher education and we should be able to find solutions to false dichotomies that trap us, if not in education hell, at least in ineffective policies and practices. Here are a few false dichotomies leading us down the wrong road.

Liberal arts education versus career-focused education. I have visited many liberal arts colleges that feel under attack by the increasing interest in career preparation. Better data is allowing us to hold colleges and even specific departments accountable for the salary and career outcomes of graduates. Some policy makers are ready to use this data to demean rather than improve higher education. Defensive reactions on the campus side cast careerists as trying to make college all about job preparation or even worse preparation for a particular job resulting in graduates who are “widget-makers.” On the flip side how many times have we heard political types berate useless majors (philosophy anyone?) taught by out of touch faculty. These debates speed us down the road to education hell.

Embracing the genius of the “and” produces something like the following type of thinking. Most surveys of business leaders and many HR professionals indicate they are looking for hires who can succeed in the long term.  Certainly, in many areas specific skills are needed. However, problem solving ability, analytic capacity, ability to engage multi-cultural perspectives, oral and written communication ability, strong ethical principles, and coping with change through big picture thinking are all called out in some combination as key qualities for a successful career. These constitute the core competencies of a liberally educated person. This argument for core learning has been reinforced recently by studies showing that trillions of dollars-worth of jobs will be eliminated or significantly transformed by 2030 as automation and AI take full hold of the global economy.

Norman Augustine argued in 2013 that producing more scientists and engineers is “Just the beginning: one cannot live by equations alone. The need is increasing for workers with greater foreign language skills and an expanded knowledge of economics, history and geography. And who wants a technology-driven economy when those who drive it are not grounded in such fields as ethics?”

Norman Augustine, former Chairperson and CEO of Lockheed Martin argued in 2013, that producing more scientists and engineers is “Just the beginning: one cannot live by equations alone. The need is increasing for workers with greater foreign language skills and an expanded knowledge of economics, history and geography. And who wants a technology-driven economy when those who drive it are not grounded in such fields as ethics?”
Recent news about Facebook, Google, and Twitter make CEO Augustine’s last comment seem particularly prescient.

Liberal arts faculty should throw open the doors and windows of the liberal arts and embrace strategies that teach their students how relevant their learning is to careers and life. They should communicate with external stakeholders to communicate that relevance to them and engage them to create experiential learning opportunities to apply their students’ competencies (internships for philosophy majors anyone?). This would be a giant step towards embracing the genius of the “and.” It might even motivate faculty in more “practical” majors to understand the importance of incorporating liberal learning outcomes in their curricula.

Policy makers also need to overcome narrow thinking that pits apprenticeship and “learn and earn” approaches against providing students with foundational abilities and degrees that will enable them to succeed long after the skills they master in targeted programs are outdated. All students deserve a complete postsecondary education that equips them for the future. Policy makers also need to understand, as studies at the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce have shown, that many majors in “non-practical” majors are actually preparing themselves for post graduate work. A very sensible strategy that treats undergraduate degrees as a step on a longer education path. These students should be a key part of any workforce development strategy that understands the elevating talent demands of the economy.

Short term certificates/apprenticeships versus degrees. A related false dichotomy is being played out in states across the nation as advocates for short term certification/certificate and apprenticeship programs couch their advocacy in terms like: “not everyone needs college;” “some students just aren’t college material;” “we need welders too;” or “a four-year college degree is unaffordable and unattainable-people need jobs now.” College educators counter that given the changing economy a four (or at least a two) year degree is needed to set the foundation for long term career success. The result of this either/or debate is that (a) we run the risk of creating a tracked system where many low income students and students of color are denied any path to a college degree, steered rather into an education cul de sac where the best they can ever hope for is a certificate level job for as long as those are available and (b) underserved students who do pursue the degree path are offered a system that drops them out in unacceptable numbers. Let’s try a better “and” strategy.

What if we created a degree granting system that embedded short term certificates and credited apprenticeships toward degrees?  What if that system were nimble enough to allow students to obtain the short-term victories certifications provide, take some time out if necessary to work at the jobs those certificates provided, and return when ready to continue down the path to now affordable degrees?  The results would be: curricula that more clearly identify and assess learning outcomes that can be cross-walked to certifications or bundled into badges; better retention of students, especially the underserved, by emphasizing relevance and providing short term victories through certificates, badges, and experiential learning; college graduates with both certifications and degrees with an advantage in the job market. Some universities are already well along in this embedding effort (e.g. Western Governor’s University), more need to follow, embracing the genius of the “and,” overthrowing the tyranny of the “or.”

These are just two of the many false dichotomies that drive us down the road to education hell. Here are few others that deserve to be overcome with smart thinking that embraces the genius of the “and”.  They deserve at least identification here:

  • Colleges can be nimble, innovative, and efficient OR they can sustain a strong commitment to shared governance allowing curmudgeonly faculty to slow progress.
  • The delivery of quality learning must occur in high touch, small class environments OR we can expand capacity/efficiency at the expense of quality through on-line programs.

Finally, there is the widely accepted and infamous “iron triangle” that bends the knee of practitioners and policy makers alike to the tyranny of the “or.” For those unfamiliar with the idea it looks something like this:

Triangle with cost, quality, access at each point

The tyrannical logic of the iron triangle tells us that these three characteristics are bound inextricably together such that:

  • We can increase access but that will invariably raise costs or threaten quality
  • We can reduce costs but that will negatively impact access or quality
  • We can improve quality but only if we either raise costs or reduce access
  • And so on…

The “tyranny of the or” is on full display here. Might we be able to increase access, improve quality (including better student learning and completion outcomes) AND reduce or at least maintain costs? I think we can at least come close with a bit of genius “and” thinking. Those who make policy, lead colleges, and serve students in the trenches must challenge the dichotomies that trap our thinking; ill serve our students; and propel us down the road to education hell.

One thought on “Avoiding the road to education hell

  1. Gregory Budzban says:

    Great article, Jim. Thanks for continuing to offer important ideas.