Thinking Small in the Age of Greatness

Peter Wood

The academic Left thinks big when it comes to #TheResistance. It thinks big in mounting symbolic protests such as the 2018 March for Science, the 2017 Women’s March, or the 2014 People’s Climate March. Grandiosity is never too grand. But when it comes to the substance of teaching and learning, the academic left prefers to think small. Small courses on small topics are the trend. These are followed by small academic requirements for small intellectual goals.

The Left’s taste for intellectual smallness is a relatively new thing. No one would accuse Marx or his 20th-century followers of harboring small intellectual designs. What has happened to turn the revolutionary class to a preoccupation with paper bags and plastic water bottles? What turned the rightful heirs of the Great Terror into the apostles of microaggressions? Why has the vanguard of world history and multiculturalism suddenly settled into a fascination with the equivalent of collecting intellectual lint?

Partly this has happened because the academic Left is scared. Having completed its long march through the institutions, it has noticed that fewer and fewer people are accepting its rule. College enrollments peaked in 2011 at 21 million in 2011 and are now down to 18.8 million in fall 2017, and will drop again this fall. This has prompted colleges and universities to redouble their marketing. They are trying to entice more “adult learners,” more international students, more illegal immigrants, and more and more academically under-qualified students to enroll. Generally, that means pitching programs tailored to the interests and abilities of busy adults, nervous illegals, and bewildered blockheads.

Plummeting enrollments would be of concern to college administrators no matter their politics, but politics has exacerbated the problem. A large majority of conservatives now view the university as hostile to free speech and free inquiry. The traditional humanities are now so dominated by the race-class-gender-is-everything crowd that students shun their courses and elect instead to major in less polluted subjects, such as nursing and accounting.

The academic Left thunders that students are deserting the “liberal arts” in favor of “vocational training” because the business community and right-wing philistines have led them astray. But the real reason is that students are simply turned off by the Left’s incessant monologue about injustice and oppression. Is there nothing else?

Once there was something else: a curriculum organized around the concept of Western civilization, and built on a hierarchy of courses that led uphill to a challenging summit. That hill has been flattened into a pedestrian shopping mall. Prerequisites outside the sciences are few and weak. Survey courses are as scarce as tyrannosauruses. And Western civilization survives only as the carcass of the dog that post-colonial studies professors get to kick.

Small things naturally go unnoticed most of the time, so I thought it would be useful to take a look at some of the fashionable forms of intellectual downsizing.

A friend who teaches anthropology at the Northern Kentucky University recently shared a development in his department. Coming this fall, students at NKU can take several courses that count towards the anthropology department’s “micro-credentials.” The micro-credentials includes the “Cultural Resource Management Micro-credential,” the “Ethnographic Methods Micro-credential,” and the “Primatology Micro-Credential.” Each has a handful of courses to speed the credential-minded student on his way. In Primatology, for example, students can take ANT 202 “Biological Anthropology” and ANT 348 “Primate Sexuality.”

The courses themselves look like straightforward parts of a broad-spectrum undergraduate anthropology program, and the clustering makes thematic sense. But the term “micro-credential” signals something else: a readiness to repackage the curriculum into bite-sized pieces for those who cannot be expected to eat a whole apple.  

At Northern Kentucky University, micro-credentialism is in full flower. It started in October 2017, as a university-wide initiative, “to help people achieve professional development milestones while working toward a graduate degree.” The definition is straightforward:

“Micro-credentials are mini-certificates in a specific topic area that demonstrate an achievement in a particular skill or set of skills.”

No surprise there. The real question is whether this sort of spoon-feeding makes intellectual sense or practical difference to students? It looks an awful lot like a marketing gimmick aimed at students who lack a long-term view of their studies. The NKU micro-credentials bundle two to four courses and give the student who completes them “a digital credential.”

Credly Enough
To execute this, NKU “partnered with Credly, a secure platform for earning, distributing and displaying digital micro-credentials.” Credly makes sure the mico-credentialed student’s micro diploma is visible on various social media sites. Best of all, “There are no special fees for micro-credentials.” The university has a “Program Index” which at the moment has 27 options, including “Disaster Readiness,” “Leadership in the Public Sector,” “Navigating the Diverse Workplace,” “Fundamentals of Mindfulness,” “Environmental Education,” and “Sports Values and Cultural Impact.” That list suggests NKU has selected for micro-credentialing the bottom rungs of its curriculum, gathering into its micro-meals the intellectual equivalent of potato chips and soft drinks.

I started with Northern Kentucky University, but it is unfair to treat this particular educational folly as Kentucky’s own contribution to attention deficit disorder. It is, seemingly, everywhere. The Center for Digital Education explains, “Why Micro-Credentials Are taking Hold in Universities.” Why? Because “learning doesn’t always have to be packaged into multi-year chunks. It can also be broken up into less than 30-hour pieces, priced and awarded accordingly.” The crucial part of that explanation is the word “priced.” The Center for Digital Education sees micro-credentialing as the best way to market online courses. But to judge by the KSU example, the concept of micro-credentials plainly extends to the traditional classroom too.

So there is more to this than slick salesmanship of digital courses. Some of it looks like targeting of businesses that have specific training needs. Instead of helping employees get a broader-based education, they can work with universities to offer bundles of courses micro-targeted to the technical skills the business needs. In that sense, micro-credentialing can disaggregate the college degree. That cuts against the idea that students need a general education as well as specific skills, some cultural context and breadth as well as technical expertise.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badges
The Center for Digital Education relies on the testimony of David Schejbal, dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at University of Wisconsin-Extension, who is an enthusiast for the micro-credentialing approach, which is sometimes called “badging.” Think of the way that Boy Scouts set out criteria for merit badges in areas such as archery, canoeing, and radio.

Why not turn college into the same thing? The University of Wisconsin system and a bunch of other universities already have under the rubric “University Learning Store.” Want a credential in “Email Communication in the Global Workplace?” The Georgia Institute of Technology has one. Or if email isn’t your thing, you can take “Communicating Professionally Via Phone” at the University of Wisconsin Extension. There are other important communication skills in which to get versed, including “Creating Meeting Agenda & Announcements” at the University of Washington Continuum College.

I can testify as an employer that these seemingly trivial courses have ready applications in the contemporary workforce. But it says something that this is what American higher education has come to. In an effort to make college into a utility that serves all needs of all people at all times, we are forfeiting the idea that a “college education” means something in particular.

Micro-credentials or badges are not a bad thing in principle, but they are part of the continuing transformation of the university into a Walmart or Home Depot of learning. The parts are there, and they can be mass-produced cheaply. But to expect students, in the words of Dean Schejbal, “to build their professional portfolios,” out of these myriad parts, is to expect a level of discernment and vision that few of those students possess.

The Bowdoin Flea Market
Several years ago, when my colleagues and I at the National Association of Scholars plunged into our deep study What Does Bowdoin Teach? we came across the inaugural speech in 1969 of a Bowdoin president, Roger Howell, who declared an end to the liberal art’s college general education requirements. Howell’s new vision was embodied in Bowdoin’s 1970 Catalogue:

Bowdoin does not prescribe a pattern of required liberal arts courses for all students. Instead, each student determines, with the help and approval of his academic counselor, what pattern of courses is most ‘liberating’ for him.

The only safeguard Howell left in place against the possibility of students wandering off in aimless intellectual directions was that “help and approval” of an academic counselor. But the faculty had also been “liberated” from the old curriculum and proved to have very little interest in advising students to take any particular path. Anything was as good as anything else. An education was whatever students chose to make of it. What Howell seemed to expect was “emergent coherence.” One thing would lead to another, and in the end, the students would somehow make sense of it.

Micro-credentialing and badges represent the end-stage of that transformation begun in the 1960s, in which the rush to dismantle the older structures of academic authority and to “liberate” students began in earnest. At this end stage we have not a “marketplace of ideas,” but a kind of flea market of courses. Within it, there may be a Tiffany lamp or first edition Twain, but mostly it will be jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces, rusty tobacco cans, and moth-eaten furs.

Uneducating America
“Emergent coherence” is the sure path to post-modernism, where the controlling narrative of Western civilization gives way to a prevailing sense of randomness and disorder. We can hardly blame the students for that. It is what the universities offer. Sometimes they offer it straight up as part of a cultural studies course. Mostly it is conveyed in the form of curricular entropy: the lack of a comprehensive intellectual vision of what is worth learning, why, and in what order. The lack of such a vision is masked by the emphasis on such fatuities as “diversity,” “multiculturalism,” and “critical thinking,” and by the promise of small packages of useful skills, which is the substance of “micro-credentials.”

All of these together may seem to those who don’t know any better a perfectly good agenda for the American college or university. But they do not add up to an adult who understands much about history, civilization, or culture—which is to say, a liberally educated person.

That takes us some distance from the Northern Kentucky University’s anthropology department’s micro-credential in “Cultural Resource Management.” It isn’t that program or any other packaging of courses as “micro-credentials” that is worrisome. Rather, it is the increasing domination of the idea of credentials over the ideal of education. In 2015, The Chronicle of Higher Education devoted an issue to “The Credential Craze.” It raised some of the right questions (“But what do all these credentials prove? Who decides? And what don’t they show?”), but the contributors generally favored rolling out the welcome mat. (“Stack Those Credentials.” “Practical Tools for Success.” “Colleges Must Learn a New Role.” “Why Colleges Should Support Alternative Credentials.”)

I also know libertarian-leaning and conservative professors who welcome the age of badges as the beginning of the end of the old college and university system. Those institutions may be plowed under by the innovations not just in technology but in the structure of knowledge itself. The more a la carte knowledge becomes, after all, the less we need a university, which is founded on the now seemingly quaint idea that knowledge possesses a unity and order that must be respected.

Danger in Lilliput
Some factions on the Left keenly mourn the loss of a structured curriculum and the opportunity to present students with large and encompassing narratives. These factions, however, are old school. More up-to-date Leftists celebrate the freedom that comes with dissolving the bigger picture into a multitude of ever-shifting parts. In their view, as long as the business world can be persuaded that its needs are met with a badge here, a badge there, and a micro-credential or two, the postmodern Left’s happy dominance of higher education will continue with a minimum of inconvenience. The important thing is to avoid the large-scale confrontation that could shake that control. The bonsai curriculum does the job.

The only trouble on the horizon is for these Lilliputian Leftists is President Trump. He has no great love for the rule of political correctness on campus or elsewhere, though so far he had refrained from making higher education a priority. If his attention were to shift, the small-minded curriculum of the Left might well be in trouble.


This article was originally published on June 9, 2018, by American Greatness.

Photo: The Thinker in The Gates of Hell at the Musée Rodin by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra // CC BY 2.0

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