Undergraduate education and the aura of expertise
Rufus, our rogue classicist, has written a smart response to that Chronicle of Higher Education article on a guy who makes his living writing students’ papers. In the original post, I kinda-sorta gestured at the distinction between acquiring practical knowledge and acquiring a patina of academic credibility, but Rufus nails it here:
So, here’s an inchoate theory: all large and hierarchical organizations produce both expertise and the aura of expertise separate from expertise itself. The college of medicine, for instance, both produces medical experts and maintains the aura of expertise that surrounds its members. Both expertise and the aura of expertise can correspond, of course, but they don’t have to. Corruption arises when the aura of expertise does not correspond to actual expertise, and is compounded when members of the organization believe themselves to have expertise that they lack. Such large, hierarchical organizations suffer other related problems, such as a lack of informational flow between levels- people lie to their superiors and vice-versa- and a tendency to circle the wagons to protect incompetent members and maintain the organizational aura of expertise. And I suspect that these problems pervade all such organizations, be they governmental, corporate, academic, religious, or other.
I think this highlights a real problem in undergraduate education: actual expertise no longer corresponds with the “aura of expertise” a college degree confers. A medical school or an auto repair class can’t coast on reputation alone – eventually, bad surgeons or bad mechanics will cost these institutions credibility with the public and prospective applicants. The baseline for the success of undergraduate institutions, however, is much less rigorous: enough graduates need to get decent jobs after they leave, but there’s no way to actually gauge their preparedness for careers in a given field.
I’m told that my undergraduate experience provides a framework for critical thinking that is readily applicable to just about any field, but of course this is impossible to quantify. If I was a cynic, I might suggest that perpetuating an amorphous “aura of expertise” in place of something more measurable is actually in these institutions’ interest – if there are no standards for success, there’s no way to actually hold colleges and universities accountable for what they’re teaching. And sure enough, some savvy administrators seem to have realized that perception and prestige are just as important as academic accomplishment:
For similarly shrewd reasons, in 2002 GW decided that it needed a varsity squash team. The only other colleges in the country with varsity squash programs for both men and women are Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale. A GW athletic director explained to the Washington Post that the whole point of the GW squash program was to attract students who wanted to attend an Ivy League college and couldn’t get in.