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A University President Defends Research Universities

Posted Sep 03 2010 12:00am

Steven Knapp is president of George Washington University in Washington, D. C. It was inevitable he wouldn’t like a book attacking the current structure of higher education but it wasn’t inevitable that he would write this :

A similar point could be made about the educational value of working at the frontier of discovery in one of the research centers that Mr. Hacker and Ms. Dreifus [the book authors] decry. Have they spoken with undergraduates who have enjoyed the privilege of assisting a top investigator in an active, federally financed laboratory? In my own anecdotal experience, the best of those students, far from shutting themselves away in a narrow specialization, are very likely spending their time outside the lab in life-expanding service activities that, again, were quite beyond the ken of undergraduates in earlier generations.

At UC Berkeley, I spoke to many undergraduates like that. Most of them, perhaps 90%, were working in a lab because they thought it would help them get into medical school. Almost none were interested in a research career. All of them were being supervised by graduate students and had little or no contact with the “top investigator”.  Because of the mismatch between what working in the lab could teach (what research was actually like) and what the students wanted to do (which wasn’t research) the “educational value” was slight. Knapp fails to understand this basic point about education: It matters what the student wants. Almost none of them, even at UC Berkeley, want to be scientists.

Yes, outside the lab they did do “life-expanding service activities” volunteer for the Red Cross, work on a suicide hotline, and so on. By making them take lots of classes in which they were assigned lots of homework, the university made such outside activities more difficult.

Before he became university president, Knapp was an English professor where he no doubt claimed he taught his students how to think. His thinking, in this review, consists of banalities that don’t bear examination. At least this is merely an unwittingly revealing book review instead of an entire delusional book .

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