Harvard, creativity, and university reform

Posted in University life at 12:59 am by ducky

Jerome Dolittle recently reported via James Fallows that he had asked thirty Harvard first-year students to redesign universities from the ground up; 29 of 30 came up with, as the author put it, “something that looked very much like Harvard, except a little farther out of town”.  He seemed to take this as evidence that Harvard students were not very creative.

This was in response to an article by Randy Pollack talking about how uncreative Chinese MBA students were: when asked to come up with a the most original idea they could for a business, e.g. a restaurant chain, five of six groups came up with the idea of — a restaurant chain!  This was given as evidence of how the Chinese educational system did not foster creativity.

Dolittle seemed to think that the Harvard students were just as uncreative as the Chinese students, but I don’t think that comparison is fair.  I think that reforming education is a much more difficult problem for first-year students than thinking of a business would be for MBA students.

In addition to the age difference and the difference in academic focus, the MBAs had probably encountered hundreds if not thousands of businesses and products in their day-to-day life.  I would bet that the majority of the Harvard freshman had intimate knowledge of exactly one university.  It’s difficult to consider how you can change something if you don’t have an idea of the number of degrees of freedom you have.

Even faculty have difficulty being creative about reforming universities.  Recently there was a New York Times opinion piece End the University as we know it that got quite a bit of buzz in my circles, despite its recommendations being, in my opinion, not very creative:

  1. Restructure the curriculum to be more interdisciplinary.
  2. Abolish permanent departments, replacing them with problem-focused temporary departments (e.g. Water).
  3. Collaborate more across institutions.
  4. Allow dissertations in forms other than things that look like scholarly books.
  5. Give graduate students real-world skills.
  6. Abolish tenure.

Three recommendations (#1,# 3, and #5) are goals that institutions already aspire to.  They might not do it well, but they sure talk about it a lot.

I think people haven’t done #6 because it would lead to either a rise in cost or a decline in quality (or both), not because it wasn’t an obvious thing to try.

Aside from the increased administrative overhead and lack of departmental reputations that #2 would cause, project-based learning has been tried before to some extent.  (Hampshire College is highly individual-project based; Colorado College students take one compressed course at a time.)  One could also easily argue that each graduate student is supposed to create their “department of one”.  (When I got my first MS, I took classes in library science and intellectual property law because that’s what made sense for my area of interest.)

For #4, I believe that it already is possible to do a non-book thesis, particularly in the performing arts.   One friend’s “dissertation” was a symphony.  Another friend made a movie for her anthropology thesis.  While I have a copy of my thesis printed on dead trees, the important version of the thesis is the PDF available on-line.

Even though Taylor’s ideas are not that novel, they got buzz.  I think that means that it is really hard for most people to come up with ideas on how to reform university education.

In contrast to the inexperience of the Harvard freshmen, I have been downright promiscuous with universities.  (I have eight transcripts now, for examplet.) This familiarity helped me identify — fourteen years ago — some core functions of a university institution that I thought could be disaggregated: unidirectional information transfer, interactive learning experiences, caring/paying attention, and certification. I also showed how these pieces could be rearranged by private enterprise and social media. (In later blog posts, I showed how this disaggregation/disintermediation is already happening.)

Now, it is possible that it is a coincidence that I have both unusual intimacy with universities and was able to come up with creative insights about reform.  I suppose it’s also possible that I’m just amazingly brilliant. I don’t think so.  I think that if you see lots of X, then it becomes easier to think creatively about things you could do with X.

It might be that the Harvard students were in fact just as uncreative as the Chinese MBAs.   However, I don’t think Dolittle proved that.

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