The Secret of University Success…
… is prestige.
This morning I met with one of my new graduate students. This being August, he’d only just arrived for yesterday’s orientation, and this wasn’t our first introduction, but it was our first advising meeting.
He was recounting what he’d learned from a famous and successful faculty member in our college of Engineering during his Teaching Assistant orientation the day before, which included this excerpt from a well-known and success, which he had dutifully written down:
“Students are our product!” explained my faculty colleague.
What a dangerous bunch of nonsense that is.
Sir Ken Robinson explains the “factory” metaphor of education is motivated by the interests of industry, which demands a model of education that both serves its interests (the need for replaceable workers willing to conform to industrialized bureaucracy) and is designed in its image.
I believe we have a system of education that is modeled on the interests of industrialism and in the image of it.
I’ll give you a couple of examples.
Schools are still pretty much organized on factory lines: ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects. We still educate children by batches. You know, we put them through the system by age group.
Why do we do that? Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are? It’s like the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture?
I know kids who are much better than other kids are the same age in different disciplines, or at different times of the day, or better in smaller groups and in large groups or sometimes they want to be on their own.
If you’re interested in model of learning you don’t start from this production line mentality. It’s essentially about conformity, and increasingly it’s about that as you look at the growth of standardized testing and standardized curricula and it’s about standardization.
I believe we’ve got to go in the exact opposite direction. — Ken Robinson, Changing the Education Paradigm
According to the factory model, Faculty are replaceable, specialized factory workers. Students are the raw materials, and graduates are the product. The workers (i.e., teachers) perform specialized, standardized tasks to remake the raw materials conform to the specifications, and perform quality control by rejecting or reworking defects.
College admissions, according to this model, is an exercise is securing the best and purest raw materials to begin the manufacturing process with. In this case, those would be students with the highest grades (i.e., fewest blemishes on their academic records).
But it should be obvious to even a casual observer that this model is horribly, irreparably flawed.
Universities do not “sell” their graduates to employers, like intellectual pimps or slave traders. In fact, we charge our students! And in no “business” do the raw materials pay money to the factory for the privilege of being worked and assembled.
The fact is that Universities are in the knowledge business.
We create knowledge through research.
We share knowledge through teaching.
We organize, archive, and curate knowledge in books, journals and libraries.
Our product is knowledge, and our customers (if we should think of them in this way at all) are students, funding agencies, businesses, and anyone else that is willing to pay us for or to work with knowledge.
In a previous article called What I College For? I wrote that there are only two things that we are certain universities demonstrably good at: 1) training athletes, and 2) conferring social status. We don’t actually know how good the universities are are teaching, and there are indications that some universities are better at research than others, but assessing the quality (compared to quantity) of knowledge is an extraordinarily difficult problem.
So how is it that universities have become so good at training athletes and conferring social status, when the business that they’re really in is knowledge?
Joseph Henrich’s 2016 book The Secret of Our Success explained it to me.
In his text, he reasons that the proliferation of the human race to a population of nearly 7 billion is our “success,” and that our “secret” is cultural learning — i.e., imitating the behaviors that the most successful members of our tribes or communities display. Henrich’s view is that knowledge of how to build shelter, find and prepare food, who to marry… these are all scaffolded upon knowledge passed on by previous generations.
In particular, we learn by imitating those “models” (i.e., exemplars) that are most prestigious, according to whatever criteria by which our culture confers prestige. That could be money, number of children, political influence, or celebrity.
Because universities are considered the locus of higher learning, and we are biologically hard-wired to seek learning from those individuals that are most prestigious, it makes sense that students prefer to attend those universities that cultivate the most prestige.
Henrich himself is a professor at Harvard, which is one of the most prestigious universities in the world. And how does it cultivate such prestige?
- Publicizing an association with prestigious former students, even if they dropped out (such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates).
- Publicizing prestigious faculty, especially those who have won prestigious prizes.
- Fielding competitive sports teams and training successful athletes.
- Maintaining secretive exclusivity.
- Cultivating associations with other prestigious schools, clubs or institutions.
- Achieving high ranks in prestigious assessments.
What Henrich’s study reveals is that Universities, despite ostensibly being in the knowledge business, nevertheless compete on the basis of prestige, because prestige is how humans are hard-wired to assess the quality of knowledge.
I’m not saying this is how Universities should operate. I’m saying that they do.
Charles Chu calls it the ‘Greatest in the World’ Fallacy and it amounts to the the idea that what works for digitally amplified celebrity athletes, entrepreneurs, authors, or students, should be good for us, too.
Humans are not blank slates. We have different personalities, different strengths and weaknesses. You can’t run the same ‘success formula’ through each of us like you can run an algorithm through a computer. Sadly, most of the world still seems to think you can. — Charles Chu
Given that Universities operate in a world in which “most still seem to think” that they can imitate their way to success, our institutions of higher education can’t be blamed for their pre-occupation with prestige, can they?
Yes they can.
In my role as a University faculty member, it is my duty to equip my stidents with the skills to create, test, and adapt their own mental models of what works for them. Education should inoculate against the ‘greatest’ fallacy, so that we can discover pathways to our own success.