Arthur Levine

Generation On A Tightrope

VTR Date: November 23, 2013

GUEST: Dr. Arthur Levine


GUEST: Dr. Arthur Levine
AIR DATE: 11/23/2013
VTR: 09/13/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And today’s program is about Generation On A Tightrope, a Jossey-Bass book offering a portrait of today’s college student and written by Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean.

About Dr. Levine, who is President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and my guest today, Howard Gardner writes that “Over the last four decades” [he] “has become the premier analyst of continuities and changes in the American student population”.

Indeed, Arthur Levine has joined me here at this table many times over the years…mostly when he was the long-time President of Teachers College, Columbia University.

In one of our conversations he referred to Henry Adams’ famous “Education”, in which this son and grandson of Presidents bemoaned the fact that their and his Harvard had so ill-prepared him for his times with a curriculum that had not changed in decades.

Adams said that he had received an 18th century education when the world was plunging toward the 20th.

In turn, Dr. Levine has noted that in a space of just a few years, education has now fallen even further behind the time, particularly with today’s pace of economic, social, and above all, technological change.

And I would ask my guest – particularly in light of an extraordinary 2010 article of his titled “Digital Students, Industrial-Era Universities” – whether this is in part what accounts for our “Generation On A Tightrope”. How about it, Arthur?

LEVINE: First, it’s a pleasure to be with you.

HEFFNER: Thank you.

LEVINE: Ahemm, yeah, I think that’s an important part of what we’re seeing. To put it as well as I can put it … what the nation is doing now is making a transition from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital information economy and all of our social institutions, whether we’re talking about universities or schools or media or government were all built for the former.

HEFFNER: Okay, you way we’re making a transition and my question is, “How are we doing?”.

LEVINE: This is really hard stuff. And the reason it’s hard is that for people living through it, these are sort of Rip Van Winkle times in which you go to bed, you wake up the next morning and it’s as if 20 years have passed.

The pace is moving so quickly. I read a piece by Tom Friedman in which … of the New York Times … in which he said, he’d written this book … The World Is Flat … to enormous praise. And he said as he looked through it there were certain things that he realized were missing.

Facebook hadn’t been created yet. Twitter was a sound that was made at the time, 4G was a parking space, Skype would have been a typo for most people. The things that are entering our lives are just entering so quickly and what’s changing dramatically is demographics, economics, technology and globalization.

HEFFNER: And the schools?

LEVINE: And the schools are not moving as quickly. No social institution is moving as quickly and they all seem broken.

HEFFNER: Again, Generation On A Tightrrope … what do you mean by that?

LEVINE: This is a generation that is walking between two worlds. It’s a world in which their parents live and a world in which they’ve been brought up and they’re going to live. It’s a generation that’s trying to balance itself and not fall into a failing economy and it has all the dreams that every previous generation had. It’s a generation that doesn’t fit well into the politics of America and is trying to tread between the society that ideologically divided and a world in which they’re entirely issue-oriented.

So it’s a generation at a crossroads … could have been called that, too.

HEFFNER: So the smart people in our universe … the university people … the academics … are they at all clued in to this change?

LEVINE: I think they’re more disturbed by it, then clued into it. What we find now is … we have these digital natives … our students … attending analog universities and being taught by a faculty that are both … that are at best digital immigrants. It’s not a good match (laugh).

HEFFNER: So what do you do?

LEVINE: I think part of it is realizing the differences first. And so if you look at the universities, let’s see … they are fixed in terms of location … and our students operate in any location.

Universities have fixed hours. We have semesters, we have credits, we had advising hours. And students, who operate 24/7 and it’s a generation that can’t understand why, when you write you professor at 3 o’clock in the morning, you don’t have a response by 8 … Amazon does it, why shouldn’t my professor do it?

It’s a generation that tend to be concrete learners in a university that’s abstract. It’s a generation that tends to work together in a world in which, in an academic world, in which we really focus on the individual. And, in fact, when people work together we call it cheating. It’s a world in which universities focus on teaching … how long kids are taught at. And these kids are focused on learning.

I think the other major difference between these guys, universities and students is that universities tend to focus on depth … what they really care about, and we promote faculty based upon it … is how deep into your subject matter you go and the level at which you advance it at that depth. They’re sort of like hunters going after something.

In contrast we have students who are floating in a sea of data that’s an inch wide, or an inch deep …


LEVINE: … and so what they’re interested in is … they are floating in breadth and they don’t understand depth and they’re gatherers. So we’ve gatherers being taught by hunters. It really doesn’t fit very well. And there’s also the reality … we dealing with blackboards and lectures, with a generation that’s interactive and digital.

HEFFNER: You’re not just an observer, as you write this … you’re an educator … you’ve long been an educator … you were President of Teachers College for a long time. How are you adjusting to this type of situation?

LEVINE: Well I actually have it easy. I’m no longer at a university … but the reality for this is … it’s terribly, terribly confusing to universities about what they do. And we’re in a situation right now, if you look at it beyond the individual university.

Let me describe it historically and say that when America went from an agrarian to industrial society, we had these colleges that came out of the middle ages in the United States and they still taught the classical “trivium and quadrivium” and students were still learning things like Hebrew, Cyrillic Latin and Greek, which didn’t have a lot of currency in the industrial society.

So Connecticut went to Yale and said, “Your curriculum’s meaningless, we’re not going to give you any more financial support”. So what happened was we needed a new kind of higher education system. So we created universities which would do advanced study, specialized, offer preparation for things like business and engineering which were critical to the society. We created technical institutions like MIT that could advance an industrial society. We created normal schools because we needed teachers and we had … we started our first Junior Colleges because we want the stuff to be local and we created land-grant schools which straddled both worlds and it took about 80 years for this to all “jell” and create the modern system of higher education, which was ratified with the California Master Plan in 1960.

So … fast forward … we’re in a new era. What we found in the old era was that College Presidents and campuses fought desperately to hold on to what they had. And we’re finding the same thing now.

One, it’s confusing to universities … which of these changes do you want to grab on to? Should we respond to the demographics? How about the fact that kids need new skills in a new economy that focus on outcomes rather than process.

What about the fact that there’s all this new technology floating around. Should universities grab on to that? Or maybe they ought to grab on to globalization?

I don’t know a university that isn’t talking about becoming global. I also don’t know any university that knows what it means.

So universities have the problem of trying to figure out where to go. And the second issue is … it’s hard to change. We’ve always done things the way we’ve done them and it seemed to be good a few years ago. Why isn’t it good now?

Something must be wrong with the kids and that’s where most schools are. Majority of college professors now, according to our study are much more uncomfortable with their students than they were even a few years ago.

HEFFNER: It’s funny, Arthur, that you say that, but I know that this is a result of your studies. I find myself, as a college professor resolving … that I’ve got to do the opposite, I’ve got to become comfortable with them. I know they’re not going to live in my world. I’ve got to live in theirs.

How do … how does the Academy prepare to live in this new world? I know Adam said to Eve we’re in a period of transition …

LEVINE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … how do we do this successfully?

LEVINE: Keep away from apples. So that …


LEVINE: … for us it’s going to come by success for approximations.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

LEVINE: What happens is we’re not going to change all at once. We’re going to see our universities … universities have to get past this point at which we say “Our students are lazy, they only use Wikipedia” in which they say, “Our students expect us to be servants”, in which they say, “Our students don’t understand what it means to be an academic, they’re all engaged in cheating which is very often see as file sharing”. And you can see some small changes happening.

More and more faculty are explaining to students and putting in their syllabi what cheating means. We’re seeing more and more professors begin to use technology. Some not well, but they’re trying to use it. Power points are omnipresent in college classrooms. What’s going to happen is that digital natives are going to start entering the professoria … should this generation ever retire. So that …

HEFFNER: Now, now, now … please.

LEVINE: (Laughter) Well some people shouldn’t retire because they’re … they have such expertise to teach young people …

HEFFNER: Right. Right.

LEVINE: And what’s also going to happen is what’s happening now. We’re going to see massive changes, and this is what happened at the past at the periphery of higher education. What we’re going to see is new kinds of projects develop. We’re seeing new kinds of institutions develop. I think the model for the future of a university … and it doesn’t mean that we don’t’ need research universities, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t need liberal arts colleges … we going to see a new breed of higher education develop which is going to be open access or universal access. It’s going to be low cost, it’s going to be digital, it’s going to be outcome based and it’s going to focus on competencies rather than simply time to degree, it will also be time variable.

HEFFNER: I can understand why you say … we’ve got to … when we get rid of this older generation of teachers … and you mentioned before … the real estate involved here.

What’s the investment that higher education now has in its real estate? Has any one researched that?

LEVINE: No, I have no idea what the answer is, but it’s got to be huge. And look at New York City where we’re taping this. We have universities that dot the entire city. If those were changed into skyscrapers … what would that land be worth? We’re talking billions and billions … I wonder if we’re talking trillions.

HEFFNER: I was going to say to you that I think we’re talking trillions. You go across this nation, you think of the campuses that we’ve seen (laugh) and add the ones we haven’t seen …

LEVINE: And our study found something very, very interesting. The new … the traditional college student … 18 to 22 … full time, living on campus … sort of the image of a college student … constitutes less than a fifth of all college students. The new majority is over 25 … they are working, they’re part time … they have other lives … college isn’t their biggest interest and what they’re telling us is … we asked “What kind of a relationship do you want with your college?”.

And their answer was … “Sort of like I have with the utilities company, my Internet provider and the bank.” And you think to yourself, “What do I want from my bank?”. Well, let’s see I want an ATM on every corner, nobody in line when I get there and my check deposited immediately, maybe the day before it arrives and no mistakes unless they’re in my favor. They’re saying the same thing to college. Which is … I’m looking for convenience, give me classes 24 hours a day and unless you can do it more frequently … in-class parking wouldn’t be bad. What they’re saying beyond that is … I need service and I’m depending upon service … the Registrar and Financial Aid office should be there to help me … not to play “got’cha”. I want high quality instruction and I want low cost.

HEFFNER: Arthur, what about the possibility of the Academy saying “No dice. That’s the technical future, do what you want, but we maintain our … I was going to say “standards” … I won’t … our patterns”.


HEFFNER: … We be … maintain our ancient prejudices. That’s happening, isn’t it? To some extent?

LEVINE: To some extent. But you can also see reforms or attempts at reform. We’re seeing “MOOCs” begin to develop, which begin to look like what I described higher education becoming in the future. Are they going to be historically important? Who knows.

HEFFNER: Trans …

LEVINE: … experiments. Oh, MOOCs …


LEVINE: Massive Online Open enrollment, or high in whatever it stands for … Courses, which can have 100,000 students at a shot. Those kinds of things are coming out of places like Stanford and MIT and colleges around the country that are beginning to experiment … though facilities have been critical. What will happen to higher education is … there will be some movement, we’ll see some changes. What will push it is that demographics are bad for higher education on the East Coast … there are too many institutions for population in the Middle Atlantic states, New England and the Midwest and they can’t sustain all that higher education.

There’s also going to be competition from all kinds of organizations … knowledge organizations … publishers, media organizations, libraries, museums are all beginning to enter the world of education and offer courses.

So if higher education doesn’t adapt, there’ll be other people that do adapt. There are going to be demographic pressures and we’re going to see movement very quickly in the West by non-traditional providers … California’s experienced a title wave of 500,000 new students.

They can’t accommodate that with the public higher education system. And they can’t keep building plant … they’ve got to be something different which is going to be digital. And they … and it’s got to be something that will be open access and if they don’t do it, we’re going to see other organizations just spring into action.

HEFFNER: You know this … well, you do know, of course, not that you were around at the time, but you do know of because you’re a scholar. This is a repeat of another technological would-be revolution with television.

Television was going to replace the classroom, or if not replace it, it was going to be an addition that meant for teachers they were on their way out.

Also, at a time when the numbers of dollars that were being invested, after the war, right after the Second World War, were so great that television was going to be the savior. It didn’t work then and I gather you feel that the digital revolution is so thorough-going in our time that it will work now.

LEVINE: You were one of the people who played a very large role in television. And you’re going to be able to answer the question better than I can.

But my response would be … “it’s a different kind of medium”. This is a kind of medium … while television is a one-way communication …


LEVINE: … not so much different than sitting in a classroom. What we’re talking about now is a technology which is interactive, individualizable, and offers all kinds of other attributes that television couldn’t possibly touch.

Didn’t offer human contact and didn’t offer that much that was different. I think this one’s going to spread rapidly and we can see it already in terms of the new kinds of applications, the new kinds of organizations.

The new kinds of changes we’re seeing … media is probably the best place to look at what’s happened. Higher education is … it’s really provider driven … the colleges decide what it is they’re going to offer. In contrast media is consumer driven. Which is “I go buy what I want to buy”.

And what we’ve seen are dramatic changes in media … we’ve seen the traditional companies brought to their knees. Who could imagine that the Washington Post and the Boston Globe would be sold for a total of $325,000 thousand … $325 million dollars. Those are major companies. But they’re being replaced by all kinds of digital alternatives and people are gravitating toward them quickly.

There’s no reason to believe that that won’t happen in every other sector.

HEFFNER: All right. Now you’re talking about this new model. A commercial model to some important extent?

LEVINE: It, it’s going to depend. There are two options. There will certainly be a lot of commercial stuff.

HEFFNER: There is now.

LEVINE: Yeah. I mean Twitter is going public. So that we’re going to see a lot of it. There are a lot of ways to commercialize this. And we’re seeing for-profit higher education expand quickly.

On the other hand, there’s nothing intrinsic to this that requires that it be for-profit. There’s no reason why an organization can’t offer this kind of program … when we saw universities get created, they could have been for-profit. When we saw MIT get created, it could have been for-profit. They didn’t go that way.

I think with state support and other kinds of incentives we can still end up with a higher education system that’s not for profit. But we need policy that’s going to move us that way.

HEFFNER: Well, we also need to resist the temptation to make a lot … to make a bundle of dough out of universities, don’t we?

LEVINE: Many of the new providers …


LEVINE: … don’t see it that way. What they’re viewing higher education as is sort of the next healthcare. Which is to say it’s weak in leadership, low in technologies, high in cost and low in productivity.

HEFFNER: That’s a pretty picture, isn’t it?

LEVINE: It’s ripe for entrance of the for-profit community. And we’re seeing that. They’re entering into this sphere, because it looks like an incredible opportunity and it also has other attributes. Here’s an industry which is government subsidized. In which it’s counter-cyclical … and what that means is when the economy’s in trouble … this one booms, it’s a growth industry in an information economy. You pay up front, which means that there’s this huge cash flow at the start of this thing, when students enroll. The payments are dependable and they’re large. It’s not like selling milk every day. So, this is a great industry and the private sector see it.

HEFFNER: Does that disturb you?

LEVINE: Yeah. It does. I’ve spent my whole life in universities. And what’s painful to watch is the slowness with which they’re responding to the changing realities. And putting themselves at jeopardy … I saw a conversation between two Governors … Governor Hunt of North Carolina, former four term Governor and Governor Kean of New Jersey, who had been a two term Governor and university President and three college presidents.

And the two Governors said, “The system we have now is not sustainable given cost.” And they also said, “There’s no reason to believe that the public will continue to pay whatever you choose to charge in higher education, which is accelerating at a very quick pace”.

And the university presidents said, “You have the wrong question. What we need is quality’. And what they meant was quality as an indicator of everything they’re already doing. We need quality and the only question is not what it costs, because we need that to compete in an information economy, but who pays.”

“So whatever we charge is a reasonable price and it’s just that we’re forcing this on our students. Government ought to pay more.”

That’s not a sustainable argument. And listening to presidents make that argument is important. My big fear is that higher education does important things that nobody else does. It has … it engages in basic research. And no other organization does that. Not business, not the private sector … because it doesn’t lead to immediate cash.

HEFFNER: So you’re concerned that may go by the board.

LEVINE: Yeah. And what I’m also concerned about is … higher education has a function which is … it’s the conservator of our past. And one of the things that our education does is transmit that past to our students and to the world.

Another thing that’s terribly important and no other organization has the credibility to do this … is higher education is a critic of society. And what it does is, it raises large questions.

During the McCarthy era it raised questions. During other periods of stress, it raised questions. We need those questions asked and we need a non-par … an independent organization to raise those questions. So that I’d be horrified if we lost those things. I’d be horrified if we lost residential colleges in the way that we have them now.

It was once said that the best college … was said by President Garfield … that the best college, he would imagine was Mark Hopkins, 19th century President of Williams College on one end of a log and a student on the other. We stand to lose that.

Traditional higher education has watered it down greatly. But we still have it in some places. Fact of the matter is if you have 2,000 kids in the class that fills the log pretty well. (Laugh)

HEFFNER: I can’t figure out … and we have two few seconds left … whether I’m looking at an optimist or a pessimist about this whole business.

LEVINE: I’m incredibly optimistic. I think we’re moving toward a new world which will provide greater equity than what we’re seeing now … enormous opportunity and an extraordinary future.

I think we need this generation of young people to be part of that future. And colleges have the capacity … I love them … to make the changes that are necessary. We will end up with a vibrant higher education system. The only question is … how we do it. I’d like today’s universities to make the transition.

HEFFNER: That’s a good place to end. Arthur Levine, thank you for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

And do visit the Open Mind Website at to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s