Arthur Levine

How To Fix What’s Wrong with Education, Part I

VTR Date: December 20, 2000

Guest: Levine, Arthur


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Arthur E. Levine, Ph.D.
Title: “How To Make Right What’s Wrong With Education”, Part I
VTR: 12/20/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And our subject today is one that loomed large, though not decisively though, to be sure, in the first Presidential campaign of our new century. Large because both major party candidates spoke loudly and long about correcting what’s wrong with American education. Not decisively because in all likelihood, with some major exceptions, most voters probably failed to identify overwhelming educational policy differences between Al Gore and George W. Bush and to choose between them accordingly.

But America’s educational problems remain and what can be made right about what’s wrong with our schools must remain at the top of our national agenda, whether we are addressing kindergarten through high school or our colleges and universities. Which is why, of course, I’ve asked Arthur E. Levine to join us again today. For whenever The Open Mind needs an educational fix I think first of the innovative President of historic Teachers College at Columbia University. So that we ought to start today at surely not the end point, but perhaps the highest point of America’s educational system. And because one of my guest’s commentaries in The New York Times this past year was provocatively titled “The Soul of a New University”, it might be well for me to read Dr. Levine’s opening lines, and then ask him to elaborate.

He began this piece, called “The Soul of A University”, I have to work so hard to separate out Dr. Levine’s various articles in The Times. This one, “The Soul of A New University”, Arthur Levine begins by writing, “In the education Henry Adams describing his college experience under a curriculum that had not changed in several decades Adams said that he has received an 18th century education when the world was plunging toward the 20th. In a space of just a few years, education had fallen 200 years behind the time. Today’s pace of economic, social and above all, technological change has put higher education in danger of falling behind again. And this time pressures from outside are likely to force those of us who shape the academy not only to adapt our institutions, but to transform them.”

Now that’s the beginning of what you wrote, Dr. Levine. What did you mean by this?

LEVINE: What I was talking about was the fact that … by the way, it’s nice to be with you …what I was talking about …
HEFFNER: Welcome.

LEVINE: [Laughter] … was the fact that we’re going through a whole series of changes right now and the kinds of things that stand out are the change from one economy to another. We’ve gone from an industrial to an information society. And what that means is that people need more education, more often throughout their lives. And they need higher skill levels than they’ve ever needed before. We also demographically have undergone dramatic change. The U.S. doesn’t look the way it used to look. And, what that means for us is that if one looks at traditional college populations, we think of people who are 18 to 22 and full time and living on a campus. Those students now make up only 16% of the college population. The new majority are older, part-time, working, have different lives … and we have these new technologies and suddenly we’re the largest, the biggest megaphone higher education has ever had to which numbers they’ve never imagined … it’s the equivalent of a second G.I. Bill. And we’re living in a world in which the private sector is entering higher education, fueling this as the next health care, and thinking … here’s an industry of low productivity, high cost, bad management, and no use of technology. We’re going to eat their lunch. And finally, what we’re seeing is a convergence of every organization that produces knowledge. So whether it’s publishers or television or museums or libraries or universities, all of them have an arsenal of content and are trying to get that to more and more people, using newer and newer methods to do it. So that eventually, and if one asked me now who the biggest competitor for my institution is going to be, I would say, “Not Harvard. Not Stanford. I’m worried about Pearsons and McGraw Hill”.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s fascinating when I think of … I know this isn’t true of you … but it must be true of so many academics that that sense of change, radical change must be as terrifying as when Henry Adams wrote his “Education” and “The Machine”, “The Virgin and The Dynamo”, he was terrified by what “the Dynamo” would bring. You’re colleagues on the campus must be terrified.

LEVINE: It’s a mix. There are some who embrace the dynamo, they want the dynamo, they’re enthusiastic about, then there are a whole bunch … including me … for whom this is really frightening. It’s not why we entered the Academy. It’s not what we expect. And maybe, hope against hope, is a fad and maybe it will go away.

HEFFNER: You know darn well it’s not going to go away.

LEVINE: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: What does that mean then, in terms of … I’m fascinated by … you say that you sometimes feel that way, too. It must be frightening. But you’re, you’re more frightened by not facing up to these issues. Not facing up to these changes.

LEVINE: Absolutely. And the reasons I guess are three. The first is if one believes the mission of a college or university is teaching, research and services, we have a chance to reach larger numbers with the knowledge that we produce than every before in history. And that means the power of the universities to influence the way we think, the way we act. The policy that’s created by our nation is larger than ever before in history. And it would be a shame to miss that opportunity. But there are two more. One is defensive. If we don’t do this, the private sector will. And if the private sector does it, what they’re going to go after is not research or service, they’re going to go after instruction, which is the part of the operation which ends up floating the boat. It’s the only profitable part of any university. Research is like NCAA football, it’s only profitable for a very small number, and everybody else loses money on it. So that we’re living in a world of piranha economics, in which the private sector’s eating at … the for-profit sector is eating at universities and the activities in which they’re involved. And unless universities move into this realm, they stand to lose many of the activities in which they’re engaged. And finally, finally the other reason to do it is … colleges and universities are going to need an income stream in the years to come that goes beyond tuition. And this is the only thing that may produce that income stream.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but the answer … and I know the answer is given to you by many people. And this again is one of those things were you feel frightened by, but are more frightened by the thought of not meeting modernity and what the future is and brings. You talk about quantity, you talk about numbers. Where does the world “quality” come in when we’re dealing with education of … not of a technical kind, but what we used to consider basic college education. Now you say … what 18%? 16%? What’s the number?


HEFFNER: 16% … I can’t believe it.

LEVINE: Okay, would you believe 17%. No, it’s really 16%.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

LEVINE: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: What about the impact upon the quality of that education of this emphasis on numbers?

LEVINE: I don’t think that one excuses the other. I think they need to go hand in hand. We’ve watched higher education expand in the United States from 20% of the age group going to college just before World War II to 65% of the age group going. And the effect is that we see some very, very, very large classes. If you ask me about distance learning and what it means, when I’d tell you is, when I was still are Harvard, I was being a Professor, one of my friends on campus was Robert Coles. And we were meeting for lunch one day. And I went to meet him at his classroom and I stood in the back of this really, really large auditorium, there must have been 1,200 kids there. And up front was this itsy-bitsy little guy, who was Robert Coles. If that ain’t distance learning I don’t know what is. The ideal of a university was described by James Garfield, and he talked about it’s being Mark Hopkins, the 19th century President of Williams, on one end of a log and a student on the other. We haven’t had that log in a very, very long time. The world the college students meet today isn’t the world that we imagine colleges to be. There are large classes, little attention, too often, and for the student who is part-time, who is working, who has another life, all they do is drive to a campus, take a course, then leave. This may be a vehicle for providing more interaction, more participation than we’ve experienced in tradition higher education. Doesn’t make me like it, but it may be a vehicle for doing that.

HEFFNER: You know it’s, it’s funny … you say, “it doesn’t make me like it”. That doesn’t seem to be understood by those who are somewhat critical of the vision for the future that you set forth.

LEVINE: Oh, absolutely. I, I get viewed as an advocate all the time, as opposed to a descriptor.

HEFFNER: What do you do?

LEVINE: I keep talking.

HEFFNER: [Laughter] You keep talking …

LEVINE: It’s not going to go away if we don’t fact this issue. And what colleges and universities have is a very limited time frame. The window for acting on this is very small. And if they don’t do it, the private sector will do it. If they don’t do it, you’ll see it happened by other organizations that maybe non-profit, we’ll see international universities begin to form, that will offer instruction in this country. We’ll see corporate universities move into the fray. So that American higher education has to look at this issue. It doesn’t have to decide to do it, although some part of it will have to decide to do it. But each college and university needs to stop and ask “what are we about?”. In 1828 the faculty of Yale wrote a report about higher education at a time in which everything was changing as it is today. The Industrial Revolution was changing an agricultural society. And what happened was the state government in Connecticut went to Yale and said, “This curriculum you’re offering, these liberal arts, what a waste. Get something that’s valuable.”. So the faculty at Yale did a study and then concluded by asking “How much should we change? Should we change a lot? Should we change a little? The real question”, they said, “is none of these. The real question is ‘what’s the purpose of higher education’?”. That’s the question every college needs to ask. On the face of it technology is neutral. What do we want to be in the future given the fact that everything around us is changing. How do we want to change, if we want to change at all?

HEFFNER: But you see, Arthur, it seems to me that this notion of tarring you with the concept of being an advocate, rather than a descriptor, rather than saying “Hey, we must think about this”. I don’t know how people can avoid that because what you don’t say here, and maybe you mean it … is “I want you to understand that we can maintain the quality of education, that we all embraced so many years ago, but this is the price we’re going to pay. Or this is the price we’re going to have to pay to maintain that position at this institution”. Isn’t that what you’re saying now?

LEVINE: It’s a slightly different position, but they’re real close. We’re advocates for quality in universities and we don’t know if these kinds of new technologies, new students, new environments for education would produce quality. What we do know is the standards we believe in and the standards that are important, and let’s measure these experiences against those.

HEFFNER: Well, is it possible now … now is the question … can you maintain in higher education … can you maintain those standards that point of “why are we here?” and that’s the question you’re saying we must ask ourselves. And if we come up an answer that relates more to the classic answer that a Henry Adams might give, “can we maintain ourselves?” Is it possible physically to survive.

LEVINE: No. The fact of the matter is that maybe that was possible at the turn of the century, after Henry Adams, in which 4% of the population were going to college. With two out of every three high school graduates going to college, what it means is we’re preparing them for another world. And what they’re asking for is not simply the liberals arts curriculum that Henry Adams experiences. What they’re asking for is “prepare me for a job”.; “prepare me for civic responsibilities”, “prepare me for personal responsibilities”. So, yes. What’s I argue is the purpose of a college education has always been twofold. One intellectual; one pragmatic. The curriculum has been most successful when it’s met the needs of both. Periodically we’ve had disjunctions and the curriculum served one or the other … usually the intellectual without the pragmatic, without the practical. And what we’ve had to do is re-design the curriculum for the era in which we live. And that may well be what we have to do right.

HEFFNER: What will happen to the intellectual half or quarter or third or tenth that now survives?

LEVINE: it’s not … I don’t think it’s a choice. When one looks back …

HEFFNER: No, no, no … excuse me, Arthur, … I, I understand what you’re saying, you don’t think it’s a choice …

HEFFNER: What though will … what’s you description of what will happen to that intellectual tenth.

LEVINE: It will be preserved. My sense of what goes on in colleges and universities is to go back to the medieval university. My God, they were teaching the “trivium” and the “quadrivium”. The curriculum that came from the days of yore, the classical curriculum we speak of, dream of, conservatives drool over, was the curriculum that was used there. Why did students study it? Because we studied … you’d get a great job in the church. So that …

HEFFNER: Practical, huh?

LEVINE: [Laughter] Very practical. That’s why they slept on straw strewn, comfort-less mattresses in frigid rooms because they can get jobs. And what I’d argue is the two always go together. It’s not a matter of choosing one or the other or sacrificing one for the other. We’re going to end up doing both. But I may not look exactly like what we do now.

HEFFNER: Of course, look, we’ve both had this experience, I for many, many years have taught at a huge State university which was a small liberal arts college when I first went there in the 1940s … realize that … you’re talking to somebody who’s that old …

LEVINE: … yesterday …

HEFFNER: Yes. But I know that things have changed and I know that I had a young woman who came into my office during office hours once about two years ago, and was crying. And I said, “what in the world are you crying about?”. She said, “Well, the lecture you just gave, you mentioned this book and that book and the other book, or authors”. She said, “I haven’t ever heard of them before”, and she was a Senior. So things have changed, and in that regard they’ve changed for the worst. What happens at least to part of that liberal arts tradition? What happens to the educated person?

LEVINE: The definition of an educated person will evolve. It’s still going to be important to read Sophocles and Euripides and Aeschylus … I think so. I think those are part of the culture in which we live. But it won’t be necessary and sufficient. You will find is that the core, that the cannon will evolve to include works it’s never included before. One of the things I’d argue is that it would be a mistake to leave out the Koran. Our lives are daily affected by issues that come from the Koran, affected by countries in which this is an increasingly dominant force. And we ought to have our students read that. I think we’re in the midst of a large debate in our country about what it is that’s essential to being a human being. We’re debating, in a very real sense, the issues of commonality and difference. And how we balance the two. And the goal of history is never to balance the two of those things. And at the moment it’s having a profound effect upon the cannon. Whether we use technology of not would seem to be meaningless in terms of what the cannon is that students are expected to read.

HEFFNER: Arthur, you know that I am not a “canonist”; you know I am not a conservative. Expand the cannon, yes … but my concern and the concern of … I’m sure you’re concerned, too, is the degree to which the canon is reduced … in which the canon no longer includes some of the most basic, you talk about Euripides and Sophocles … forget it. Forget … look, The New York Times a summer ago, printed in a wag-ish mood that test that was given to Seniors and graduates of major Ivy League colleges, American history, short answers … I clipped that out, gave it to my students in September. I said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to mark you”, and it’s a good thing. Because they didn’t know the foggiest thing about our national past. And I still subscribe and I’m sure you do, to the old notion that those who do not know, or ignore the past are doomed to repeat it. Sure, increase the canon, expand it, but we’ve contracted it so, under the pressure of the practicum that you relate that I’m so much more pessimistic than you are. You’re, you’re congenially …

LEVINE: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Congenetically … I should …

LEVINE: [Laugher]

HEFFNER: Oh, congenially, too.

LEVINE: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: And congenitally an optimist. And …

LEVINE: I think you’ve got to be an optimist if you’re in education …

HEFFNER: [Laughter] You mean things are so bad?

LEVINE: No. I mean what you’re basically saying if you’re in education is that you think that this is the vehicle for making the world a better place. Well I know of no vehicle that slower in changing the world than education. Revolution is much faster. And I’ve chosen this area and said that this is going to be the tool, the weapon that I use to try to make this world a better place than the one I entered. And so have you. And I guess what I’d argue is there’s been progress in some realms. Could it be better? Absolutely, but if you look at the curriculum that students took when they entered Harvard in 1636, they were doing arithmetic. They were doing basic subjects that we would relegate to a middle school today. And if we look at the students who graduated, I don’t know if you took calculus when you were in grade school ….

HEFFNER: I wasn’t able too …

LEVINE: Right.

HEFFNER: … I was too dumb.

LEVINE: [Laughter] Did they offer it?

HEFFNER: Sure they offered it … in high school.

LEVINE: To a small segment … to a small segment of your class …

HEFFNER: Yeah, and I wasn’t …

LEVINE: …. it’s increasingly becoming the norm for lots of students to take that subject. So we’re seeing advances in the subjects students take in some areas. Does it mean that it’s adequate? Absolutely not. For this generation of young people in order to survive in this society … not even thrive, survive … they’re going to need a higher level of skills than any generation before them. If we could go back to the 1950s and say, “that was a glorious era”. Or the 1940s that you talked about. The fact of the matter is if we could get the same standardized test scores that we got during that period, we had people taking the same curriculum we had during that period, they would be inadequately prepared to survive in this society. We need to think about not what’s necessarily missing …”gee, I really wish they read more of”, we need to think about how we prepare our generation for a world that requires more knowledge and higher skills than ever before.

HEFFNER: Well, the trouble with a conversation with you is that I come away always partially convinced by your optimism …

LEVINE: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … by the fact that you are a real scholar and really are concerned with the well-being of our young people and of this nation. And I, I went to … I went to this piece in the “Chronicle of Higher Education”, “The Future of Colleges …Nine Inevitable Changes” and we only have about 9 minutes left … but running down, which, which do you think are the most important? “Higher education providers will become even more numerous and diverse?” … that you talk about three basic types of colleges and universities are emerging, the brick universities, the click universities, and the brick and click universities … what do you mean by that?

LEVINE: Oh, the notion was that we’re all used to physical campuses. And after World War II the U.S. made a commitment to building campuses all over the country as a result of something called the “Truman Commission Report” and we wanted to make colleges and universities accessible to every American. And we were all successful. We now have colleges and universities in easy reach of 90% of the population. But what’s happened now is we’ve started developing new on-line universities. Which aren’t tested, but they’re certainly coming into vogue. And what I argue is, those on-line universities that I refer to as “click”, the physical campuses that I refer to as “brick” are going to be two ways that we given education, but I guess I’d argue that the most powerful version of education is going to be “brick and click”. Universities that combine the strength of a campus with the capacity to use an electronic environment to bring things to the campus that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. And that was what I was talking about there. And I think we’re going to see real competition between traditional universities and for-profit organizations to see who moves into the “brick and click” environment first.

HEFFNER: What’s your bet? Honestly.

LEVINE: I’m betting on the private sector and I’m real sad about it.


LEVINE: Universities have been real slow in terms of governance and decision-making. And the private sector, while it doesn’t have the quality that universities have, doesn’t have the content that universities have, doesn’t have the reputation that universities have, has a lot of money right now … there’s a great deal of capital in this country and they move much more quickly and are far more entrepreneurial than universities. And I predict they get there first.

HEFFNER: With what consequence, Arthur?

LEVINE: What I really fear is that we’ll see a weakening in research, we’ll see a weakening in service. We’ll see a decoupling of teaching, research and service, the holy trinity in higher education. And we can’t support universities that only do instruction, which is what the “click” universities are doing. And we can’t support alone service and research, they don’t provide the financial capital. We’ve seen universities around the world engaged only in teaching, divorced from research in Central Europe and Eastern Europe and they weren’t very strong universities. It would be a dreadful mistake to allow that to happen in this country. And that’s my fear.

HEFFNER: Suppose it marches along, life marches along that way. How would you compensate for that, if the teaching goes to the private entrepreneurial groups?

LEVINE: I wouldn’t compensate for it. What I’d do is fight it. We’re going to need government support to keep them together. Government can’t allow those functions to be uncoupled. Bill Clinton when he was still Governor in Arkansas said the reason Arkansas hadn’t succeeded in attracting major industry to the state was that it didn’t have a first rate university. This country needs first rate universities not only for all the intellectual reasons you and I could articulate. We need them for all the economic reasons that aren’t typically articulated, but which universities are powerful dynamos in driving.

HEFFNER: Arthur Levine I’m having it indicated to me that with all the time in the world at our disposal because we’re just academics, our time is up. Will you promise to stay where you are. I want to go on with this, I want to go on with talking about schools from “K” through high school, too, but let’s focus here. Stay where you are, we’ll do another program.

LEVINE: I would love that. Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thanks for joining me today, on this program on The Open Mind. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

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

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.