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Last week, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette published an opinion piece I wrote regarding liberal education. Since so many of the readers of this blog do not read the Worcester newspaper, I thought I would share it with you.

As always, your comments are welcome!

If Education is a Commodity … At Least Get the Facts Straight!

A few weeks ago, President Obama made headlines when he said, “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree….I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need." (January 30, 2014).

In this case, the President has widespread bi-partisan support. Similar disdain for majors in the liberal arts has been expressed by Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts and Republican presidential nominee, Rick Scott, Republican Governor of Florida, and Patrick McCrory, Republican Governor of North Carolina.

In every one of these cases, and somewhat prevalent throughout the current criticism of higher education by government and the media, a college degree is unfortunately being reduced to a commodity. It is being narrowly defined as a means to an end … a good job … higher pay. I hope all of our graduates find the employment of their choice and earn a living wage. But this narrow perspective both demeans the value of education and is factually incorrect.

The value of liberal education centers on the balance between open, free, and critical inquiry and research dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and learning. A college education provides intellectual hospitality through which we value and celebrate the compassionate community of learners, who passionately search for truth, in order to transform society and ourselves.

The goal of liberal education is to develop an understanding and appreciation for culture and society, our responsibilities as citizens of the world, and the value of lifelong learning. Quality liberal education is marked by the development of critical thinking and analytical skills, the ability to communicate effectively, and the formation of moral reasoning, value development, and decision-making. Do we need any more evidence of the critical need for values, morality and leadership in our society?

But even if you do not share this philosophy, there is ample evidence that a liberal arts degree does, in fact, result in high levels of employment and increased earning. A recent study entitled, “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment,” analyzes U.S. Census data from 2010 and 2011.

The report reveals that immediately after earning their four-year degree, majors in the humanities and the social sciences earn more on average than those who majored in science and mathematics, but less than other pre-professional degree programs. However, by the time they reach their peak earning ages, those graduates with social science and humanities degrees earn more annually than others with professional and pre-professional degrees. The report also reveals that those who earn a graduate degree outpace their less educated peers. Imagine that … more education contributes to high employment and increased earnings.

Despite the rhetoric from politicians, pundits and self-proclaimed experts, there is a high correlation between higher education and success … in whatever way you choose to define success.

In preparing his remarks, President Obama apparently neglected to read the May 2011 study conducted by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. With responses from over 13,500 arts majors from 154 institutions, over 90% were employed in the position of their choice and a vast majority reported high levels of satisfaction with their careers. Even those who did not pursue an arts related career expressed the value their degree had for both their lives and their careers.

Perhaps President Obama had a negative experience as an undergraduate. His alma mater, Columbia University, is one of the few institutions in America that requires all students to study art history. Of course, higher education served him well with both a bachelor’s and a law degree.

In the end, there is no denying that a college degree is expensive and not always the ticket to immediate success. It is also true that many students graduate with significant debt. But it seems to me that it is much more important that young people study what they love, pursue their dreams and be made aware that whatever program of study, their degree will provide a quality of life both personally and professionally that will bring satisfaction and fulfillment. After all, isn’t “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” fundamental to the American dream? I think I studied that in a social science class I took at college!

Posted by on in President's Blog

I last wrote about MOOCs well over a year ago … November 2012, to be exact. For those unfamiliar with the term, MOOC refers to Massive Open Online Courses. These are courses that are available to anyone who has an internet connection. Most MOOCs are offered free of charge, some for a nominal fee. More and more MOOCs can now be completed for certification or even some form of credit.

The concept of MOOC really began over a decade ago when MIT began its OpenCourseWare program. The idea then and now is to provide knowledge and information to the widest possible audience. Many institutions have joined this effort and the number of courses has grown exponentially. MIT, Harvard and the University of California Berkeley originally formed a collaborative called edX, which offers free online courses. Other institutions have joined this collaborative (e.g., University of Texas, Georgetown, McGill). Harvard offers its MOOCs through HarvardX, MIT through MITX.

MOOCs continue to be a topic of both interest and criticism. The interest comes from those who want to explore the best ways to use online education to reach the most people … and to do so effectively. Criticism typically points to the low completion rates and questions the efficacy if “students” only participate partially.

In late January, researchers at Harvard and MIT released a study in an important step towards moving the discussion of MOOCs from opinion to data based. Their premise is important. They contend that course certification and completion rates “are misleading and counterproductive indicators of the impact and potential of open online courses.” Here are some of their findings and their analyses.

Based on data drawn from the study of 17 MOOCs offered by MIT and Harvard in 2012 and 2013, here are some key findings:

  • 841,687 people registered for the 17 MOOCs from Harvard and MIT.
  • 5 percent of all registrants earned a certificate of completion.
  • 35 percent never viewed any of the course materials.
  • 54 percent of those who “explored” at least half of the course content earned a certificate of completion.
  • 66 percent of all registrants already held a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • 74 percent of those who earned a certificate of completion held a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • 29 percent of all registrants were female.
  • 3 percent of all registrants were from underdeveloped countries.

What the researchers contend is that MOOCs should not be assessed in the same way that we assess conventional courses either on ground or online. Further, they agree that MOOCs are not a replacement for a traditional college experience on ground or online. But, they argue that MOOCs are both important and valuable based on these data.

MOOCs are intended for an audience different than those interested in earning a degree. They provide an inexpensive, accessible and flexible way to learn something about some topic of interest. They provide a way for tens of thousands of people to gain valuable knowledge and information without spending large sums of money and without leaving their homes. For some, they may even serve as a precursor for enrolling in a degree program.

According to one of the researchers from Harvard, the best image for a MOOC is a “blank canvas.”  “It’s reaching a completely different set of students, with different intentions, perhaps, and different ways of seeing instructors and the content of the course.”

How MOOCs will be connected or even integrated into credit bearing and degree granting programs is yet to be determined. But access to knowledge and information is always a good thing. After all, isn’t that the fundamental definition of education?

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

Posted by on in Rick's View

When I was a senior in high school and looking at colleges, there were a number of factors that were important to me. The first, and one of the more important factors was that I wanted to go to a smaller school. I didn’t want to go to a college where I was just a number in a huge lecture hall. I wanted a school where my professor would know my name and face, and where I could get help if I needed it.

Another factor was the athletic department. I was a member of the golf team in high school and I wanted to play in college. Anna Maria College helped me achieve that goal, and I have had a great time with my fellow team members.

I was also looking for a school that had a variety of majors to choose from because I was unsure if a degree in business was a good choice for me. Because AMC offers so many choices, I was able to take business classes and criminal justice classes to see where I fit best. I decided that business was the right major for me.

Next week I will discuss why I think you should choose Anna Maria College.

You would have to know that an article entitled, The Decline of the American Book Lover, would catch my interest. Written by Jordan Weissman for The Atlantic (January 21, 2014), this article describes the erosion of book reading habits as delineated by a recent Pew Research Center Study. But Weissman also makes a case that this decline may be over. Quite frankly, these data were too depressing to me to be too hopeful from his analysis.

The study provides an interesting picture of how e-reading and the use of devices has increased. The study was conducted in early January, 2014 through telephone interviews with 1005 adults living in the continental United States. The report was released on January 16, 2014, and can be found on the Pew website ( But here are the results that got my attention.

Twenty-three percent of all Americans did not read a single book (in any format) last year. That percentage of non-readers has climbed over the past two decades and has tripled since 1978. Even more, those who read seem to be reading less. In 1978, 42% of adults had read 11 books or more in a year (about one book a month). Today, only 28% report that level of reading.

The profile of readers generated from this report is also interesting:

-       More women than men have read at least one book;

-       Blacks are more likely to have read a book than whites or Hispanics;

-       Younger adults (age 18-29) were more likely to have read a book than any other age group;

-       There is little difference in readership among urban, suburban and rural populations.

Weissmans somewhat optimistic prognosis is based on the fact that readership seems to correlate with education level. The more education a person has, the more s/he seems to read. If one believes that the level of education in this country is growing, one can hope that reading levels will increase.

What finally compelled me to address this issue in this weeks blog was an article by Charles Blow in the NY Times entitled, Reading Books is Fundamental. Reacting to this research, Blow shares a poignant story about the first significant purchase he ever made by himself with his own money it was a book, not a toy. It was the story of Job from the Bible.

I recall a similar experience. The first book I bought for myself was a world history with an atlas. This book allowed me to explore the world, to learn about geography, to become familiar with countries and cities and regions of the world unknown to most of us. It allowed me to escape into the mind of the author.

Blow writes more eloquently than I could ever state, Reading texts is not the same as reading a text. There is no intellectual equivalent to allowing oneself the time and space to get lost in another persons mind, because in doing so we find ourselves.

My wife, who is an accomplished librarian, argues that all reading is good when I bemoan the fact that children are not reading the classics. I think she is right. And whether on a Kindle, a Nook, on the computer, on an audiobook, or my personal favorite, a hardbound copy from the library, I hope that this generation will play video games less, talk and text less, share less on social media and read a good book!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

Posted by on in President's Blog

Two weeks ago I wrote about my views on the legalization of marijuana. I am against it for many reasons, but focused my comments on the research related to marijuana use and the lack of academic success and dangerous behaviors.

While I am never really sure how many people read my blog, I typically receive a good number of comments through emails and phone calls each week. But my blog on legalization of marijuana resulted in an exponential increase in responses. A majority of responders agreed with my position, some even providing additional data, research and anecdotal information supporting my view. But a good number disagreed and thought my view was unrealistic, archaic and a few words I can’t include in this blog.

In the week after my blog appeared, I received the results of the most recent survey conducted by Gallup regarding the “most important problem facing the U.S.”  As I read these results, it struck me that my priorities related to societal concerns are significantly different than most Americans. And this has been true for some time.

Gallup conducts this poll monthly. They use very credible research techniques … random sample, sufficient number of respondents, respondents from every state, unbiased questions. And for the past several years, the results have been consistent. While the rank order has changed slightly, the most important problems cited by Americans are:

-       “dissatisfaction with government/Congress/politicians/poor leadership/corruption/abuse of power”

-       “the economy in general”

-       “unemployment/jobs”

-       “poor healthcare/hospitals/high cost of healthcare”

-       “Federal budget deficit/Federal debt”

But in all of these studies, amongst the least important problems cited are:

-       “lack of respect for each other”

-       “poverty/hunger/homelessness”

-       “education/poor education/access to education”

-       “ethics/moral/religious/family decline”

-       “dishonesty”

While I understand the concern for economic issues, I believe that there are fundamental problems in culture and society that are eroding our sense of ethics, morality, civility, community, respect and the concern for the Common Good. In his Apostolic Exhortation entitled “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis writes, “The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges” (No. 218).

I agree with Pope Francis. But apparently, according to Gallup, more Americans do not. What do you think?

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)