Many New Ideas are Quite Old

Now that I’ve finished my dissertation, I finally feel free to turn my attention to other scholarly pursuits.  I feel an obligation to bring closure to the historical work I began a few years ago so I will be spending the next several months working with primary sources and reworking old drafts into publishable articles.  More than feeling an obligation to finish this work, I genuinely enjoy conducting historical research because I find it interesting and comforting to continually discover that many of today’s challenges and issues have been with us for decades or even centuries.

Below, I share some quotes from early-late 20th century sources that would be at home in an article, book, or blog post written in 2014.  After reading each quote, try to guess the year it was written before you continue reading.

It’s very common for us to worry about the effect of technology on our personal lives and psyches.  We’ve worried whether Google is making us stupid and we’ve often worried if Facebook is demeaning the value and meaning of friendship.  Faculty wonder if their jobs are being increasingly outsourced to MOOCs and learning analytics funded by the Gates Foundation.  Parents and teachers question the rise of standardized tests and their primacy in education.  Of course, the broad threads of these worries are quite old.  But how old?  When do you think this was this written?

“Today we have so surrounded ourselves with mechanical records that we may have ceased being personalities and have become machines…. In the present day of statistics and correlations, tests are given for everything except the things worth while.”

It comes from remarks given in 1929 by Dean Emeritus Stanley Coulter of Purdue University as recorded in the Secretarial Notes of the Tenth Annual Conferences of Deans and Advisers of Men. This quote reflects a recurring theme in national student affairs conferences throughout the twentieth century that education had become too mechanistic and we have become focused on only the things that are in standardized tests.  This is the same idea that is seen a quarter of a century later in student protests in Berkeley with some students wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate” printed on punch cards as they protested the alleged depersonalization of higher education (among many other grievances).

The creation myth of the student affairs profession is that the profession came into being as faculty became increasingly disinterested in student life outside of the classroom.  So it’s no surprise that student affairs professionals have long felt locked out of the central scholarly processes of the academy.  This judgment and related frustration are aptly expressed in this quote:

“The residence halls, the extra-curriculum, the sports programs, the publications, all should be an integral part of the educative process — but they are only a part, and let’s face it, the second part. The classroom remains the core of our enterprise. The college could go on without the extra-curriculum. The curriculum is indispensable.

The educational values of the extra-curriculum cannot be realized unless we understand, and are closely allied with the curriculum itself — unless the force of our work is felt and favorably received by the members of the academic community who are solely academic in their interests and pursuits.”

I could slip this into a student affairs article tomorrow and it would fit right in.  Who originally said it and when?  NASPA President Robert M. Strozier from the University of Chicago included this in his Presidential address at the 1954 NASPA national conference.  Even outside of student affairs, I echo these ideas on a regular basis as I work to bridge the curriculum and co-curriculum from my vantage point in faculty development.

I’ve just finished reading a historical overview of undergraduate student culture in the U.S. in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.  The book itself is on the fringes of becoming a historical publication since it’s a few years old.  One of the most interesting parts of the book is the final chapter in which the author tries to apply the historical material to form an understanding of the author’s current students.  In this synthesis, the author describes the students who “call the shots [and] provide the dominant model of how to be an undergraduate” (p. 288) and reverse the judgment of previous generations of students who held grades to be nearly meaningless. Instead, grades are

“the ultimate value [that] do not reflect innate differences in intelligence; rather they result from figuring out what their processors want, spending long hours in study, and currying favor with their instructors…. In the classroom, they accept all the terms that the professor sets. Privately they may grumble or criticize faculty eccentricities, but their words sound like the grousing of a monarch’s subjects, an indirect means of confirming his or her power” (p. 269)

In her 1987 book Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Helen Horowitz laments that “today’s” (1987’s) students are entirely focused on grades without having interest in knowledge or critical thinking.  That’s an incredibly familiar complaint among today’s faculty!

Finally, I return to technology and indeed to the core idea that motivated my selection of “” as the URL of this website.  For several years, I included a Stanley Katz quote in the header of this webpage: “technology is not something that happens to us. It is something we create. We must not confuse a tool with a goal. We must, therefore, be sure that technology serves the fundamental purposes of higher education.”  That quote comes from a 2001 Chronicle of Higher Education article but the thought has been expressed by many people.  One of my favorite formulations:

“Except in a very few disciplines, technology is not an end in and of itself – it is the means to achieve some other scholarly aim. Technology, however, has an allure and a seductiveness that occasionally catches all of us, and we forget the original goal as we become captivated with the process.” (p. 11)

This quote predates Katz’s article by 12 years and appears in Brian Hawkins’s introduction to the 1989 book Organizing and Managing Information Resources on Campus.  This is a timeless warning to which I continually return.  It’s as familiar an idea as the other thoughts that are expressed in these quotes and a reminder that many of today’s problems have always been with us.  These problems sometimes seem to be too big to conquer because they have deep roots in our culture and society.  Some people might be dispirited by that idea but I take comfort that we’re not alone and we stand alongside those who went before us as we fight these good fights.



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