Barry Schwartz on the
Role of a College
Brooke Allen: Barry, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. I would like to use Q4Colleges as a way of getting higher education back on track on track with regard to the narrative. The questions I had when taking my kids around visiting colleges were, “Who is running these places?” “What are these people like?” “What are they trying to do?”
So let us get your reaction.
Barry Schwartz: Well look, I think it is a terrific idea. I do not think people who run academic institutions ask themselves the questions that you want them to answer. And that may be one reason they are reluctant to answer because they have not thought much about them. Increasingly, college education is a consumption decision, or an investment in future consumption. And partly the colleges are to blame for charging obscene amounts of money and begging parents to ask what return on investment is going to be.
Colleges are to blame for this for being summer camps with libraries…and we don not need libraries anymore so we should just turn those into giant gyms with climbing walls. When I came to Swarthmore 40 years ago, the place was shabby. I mean it is physically beautiful…but the buildings were in disrepair; there were leaks everywhere; nothing worked quite right; the dorms were holes. And I took the message they wanted to implicitly convey to be: “We spend money on things that are worth spending money on, namely maximizing opportunity for students to interact with one another and faculty. The rest is window dressing.”
And I was incredibly impressed, even though there were always leaks in my office and drafts in my window. But those days are gone at Swarthmore. Each time a building is renovated the standard for what counts as acceptable goes up. Students want amenities at various times, and since we are in this ridiculous competition with Amherst, Williams, Wesleyan and Pomona to see who can reject the most qualified applicants, every time they do something we feel like we have to match them.
So now it seems to me when you walk on the Swarthmore campus and they hold out their hands asking for money, my reaction would be: What are you, out of your damn mind? How can I give you money when you show you are willing to waste it on all these extravagances that have nothing to do with why kids should be here?
So I think it has become a consumption decision and I think it is particularly bad at places like Harvard. It is not an accident that most of their majors end up going into investment banking without doing something useful…no offense. [Brooke works as a trader in a securities firm. No offense taken.]
There was a very distinguished classics professor at Swarthmore who just died. He was 90, so he is from a different generation, and he simply loved the worlds of Ancient Rome andGreece. He was willing to study that for as long as someone would have him, and fully expected that at some point he would have to stop and make a living. It never occurred to him that someone would pay him to spend his life doing this work, but somebody did and he spent his life as a professor. But he was completely passionate.
Now I am wondering if there is anyone with that kind of love affair with a discipline these days at colleges, and that is another perfectly good reason to go to school. But you hardly hear that expressed and I think it is because it is too damn expensive and everyone is worried about the return on investment. It is uncool to be passionate about something that may not pay you a decent salary.
Brooke: I have been reading the speeches Harvard president Drew Faust gave at commencements and I think she would say what you are saying. In fact, the faculty at Harvard and the administration are leaning on their students to stop acting like this is a commercial endeavor but a place to find something to be passionate about or do something worthwhile.
Part of what we want to do with Q4Colleges is give a place to for people like her at Harvard and you at Swarthmore to say these things.
Barry: Corporate CEOs of very large enterprises – they reach a certain stage where they become public figures. And then they make all these speeches about conserving energy, saving the planet, this that and the other thing, and I think they make those speeches with complete sincerity. Meanwhile, the people who are actually doing the day-to-day work of the company know they have to produce 9% margins, and if they do not they lose their jobs. And so what happens is the CEOs make these great speeches that are completely disconnected from the actual day-to-day practices of the companies they run.
And I think the same sort of thing happens with college presidents. I know Drew Faust has made speeches exactly like that. She does not want Harvard to be sending 70% of its graduates out to wreck the economy. She has different, and higher, aspirations for them. The question is what is there in the structure of the institution that actually embodies what she articulates once a year at graduation? And I am not singling her out; I am sure she is not unique. Everything the institution does says one thing, and that thing is different from what college presidents say when they make commencement speeches. So if you are serious about it, you have to enact it in the day-to-day activities of the institution.
At the turn of the 20th century it was not uncommon for the president of the university to teach a class that seniors took on moral philosophy, which was basically a class on how to live your life. So the president was not only the intellectual leader of the institution but the moral leader. Nowadays I think it gives people hives to even contemplate the idea that they are a moral leader. In these times of ours nobody wants moral leaders, especially the super sophisticated people who work in academic institutions.
But I think harkening back to the time when everyone looked up to the president is not a bad thing. You are giving the people that lead these institutions the chance to be admirable.
Brooke: We have come sort of full circle on the questions I wanted to ask.
What we have come around to is the kind of questions colleges ask applicants. You do not ask, “How do you justify asking a teacher to change a grade when you disagree with it?” No, you ask them questions like the ones we want to ask professors and administrators: “Have you had a moral dilemma and what have you done about it?” “What are your values and how did you come by them?”
So Barry, what do you think about us having these questions?
Barry: Well Brooke I like the questions that you have formulated, particularly the “and how did you come by them?” It is less interesting having them give you a list of principles that will be predictable and everyone will say the same thing, but you will not know how they will answer the “and how did you come by them.” And the follow-up is, “And do you think your students can have experiences that will enable them to come by similar values?” Or what are you doing? What is your school doing, to make those kinds of experiences available to your students?
Brooke: I agree. There is something else happening, and I think it is that no one tells a story anymore. By the second sentence of a story about your life people start rolling their eyes, becoming bored. It used to be that was how you learned everything – at your parents or grandparents’ knees.
Barry: The problem with stories is they are particular, and what science has taught us is that you are not interested in particulars, you are interested in generalizations. You know, general laws, general principles, general something. So what you want to do is cut away all the irrelevance of my own life history, which should be of no interest to anyone else, and get to the chase. What is the core experience that has led me to want to discover new things about how people work? Or something like that.
Brooke: Let me quote Neil Postman from The End of Education: “The purpose of narrative is to give meaning to the world, not to describe it scientifically. The measure of a narrative’s truth or falsity is in its consequences. Does it provide people with a sense of personal identity, a sense of community life, a basis for moral conduct – explanations of which, for that which cannot be known.”
Barry: It takes judgment to know what to do with narrative, what to think of it, how to understand it. So I completely agree with Postman about the influence of narrative on people making sense of their own lives. And I will go further than that. I think narrative is important to make sense of lives collectively.
All I am cautioning is that we are so overwhelmed with the power of the story that we often give individual stories far more weight than they deserve when it comes to making decisions about what we are going to do with our own lives. So it takes judgment, it takes wisdom, to know the role that narrative needs to play in making sense of your own life and the lives of other people.
Brooke: I talked to, Chuck Middleton, who is the president of a place I had never heard of,RooseveltUniversity.
I was walking by their windows a couple weeks ago, and they had a sign outside their window that said, “Do words matter?”
So I called up the president and I talked to him about it. And I asked him the question, “What is the biggest problem facing colleges today?” So I will ask you the same question and tell you what he said after.
Barry: Well, from my very parochial perspective, it is to inspire students to do the right thing with the resources they have been given.
Brooke: What he said is the biggest problem colleges face today is survival. Now, I think that you are both right. While survival may not be a problem Swarthmore and Harvard’s, for many institutions survival is a problem, because value and price have gotten completely out of alignment. And just like the students are mortgaging their future, so are the colleges. They owe a lot of money and they signed agreements that require money in the future.
However, part of the problem they are not solving…the problem you are describing… is that students are not getting from the institution what they need. The institution sees their problem as survival and that is why we need to have a better gym than the next guy or no one will come here.
Barry: There is no question that there are a lot of institutions where survival is an issue, and we are not one of them. That is why I prefaced what I said as my perspective. Swarthmore is not going anywhere, and we want to make sure – I want to make sure – that we do not want it to go anywhere. That it is actually worthy of continuing to exist and get public support. And that is not a trivial problem to solve.