Academic Values and Mass Education: The Early Years of Oakland and Monteith
reviewed by Esther Raushenbush - 1971
Title: Academic Values and Mass Education: The Early Years of Oakland and Monteith
Author(s): David Riesman, Joseph Gusfield, Zelda Gamson
Publisher: Doubleday, New York
ISBN: , Pages: 332, Year: 1970
Search for book at Amazon.com
This book should be read by anybody interested in, hopeful about, and willing to face truths about innovation in undergraduate education. People negative about the value of trying to discover new ways of education, or ways to educate new populations, should read it too; but finding in the book neither a story of unequivocal success plus a formula for how to do things right, nor even a tantalizing challenge to adventure, some readers may find in it a lot of reasons to say, "Let's not jump from this familiar frying pan of ours into that fire, which would lick away such comfort as we have."
Oakland University, set up by Michigan State University at Oakland, Michigan, and Monteith College on the campus of Wayne University in Detroit, were started in 1959. The mandates of these colleges were different, as they were "experimenting" colleges in different senses. Oakland was established to provide for commuting students, principally the children of working-class, noncollege parents—students who might otherwise not even have considered going to college—a liberal arts education of the kind that students in elite residential colleges were getting. Monteith, too, was committed to a liberal arts education for the same sort of students, but it undertook to make a deliberate effort, by its educational program, style of teaching, and pattern of associations, to engage the students in the intellectual enterprise as partners. The academic world has altered since 1959, and nobody needs to be reminded that traditional liberal arts education, and educational design generally, have come under the kind of unrelenting questioning nobody expected then; all of which makes the book the more useful. The story as these observers tell it is extraordinarily candid, and the teachers and administrators of the two colleges are to be thanked for their willingness to-have the observers see so much and say so much. It is certainly not a story of unclouded successes; but understanding frustration and failure is as important as understanding success. The authors point out:
The extraordinary expansion of facilities for higher education in the past decades has been aggregative at best, and few of the new state colleges that have been founded to meet the tide of students have sought to do more than mimic already established ways. Monteith's failures, as well as its successes, are a contribution to the small store of cumulative knowledge about educational innovation, its costs, and its benefits.
The story of Oakland's difficulties, its effort to provide a highly-structured, traditional education for students with no experience in home or school to prepare them for it, is equally illuminating. Many more state colleges have been created since 1959, and many people have begun to discover that to "mimic already established ways" will not do, and that knowledge about the experience of educational innovation is urgently needed.
It is not only of critical importance that efforts to rethink and recreate education continue to be supported, but that what such institutions as these seek, how they seek it, and how the students use the experience they have there, be widely known. For higher education has no choice for the immediate future. It must discover and live by new wisdom about how to educate undergraduates; if it does not, the ills we have, and have experienced increasingly in the past generation, will only grow greater. These two colleges illustrate the kind of commitment that goes into the creation of new institutions with new and defined goals, and the hazards and pitfalls as well.
In each case the parent institution encouraged the new college to discover its own road and develop its own educational program. One of the first lessons the story teaches is that, important as curriculum may be, it is the educational style of an institution that is the surest guide to the way it functions for its students.
The authors' knowledge of the style of these colleges has come primarily from their knowledge of the teachers and how they functioned—who they were, what attitudes they had toward their students, the teaching styles they created, their own development as teachers and scholars, the character of their concern with academic standards, their convictions about curriculum, the relations between students and faculty, and relations within the faculty.
Two institutions with apparently the same goal: a liberal education for commuting, working-class students. But the contrast between them on practically every important educational issue is dramatic; and the consequences to students and to the development of the institution are spelled out in great detail. The early attitude of Oakland suggested that if you are tough enough and flunk out enough students you will both maintain academic standards that you can respect and bring the students up to your expectations—"eliminating those who could not make the grade was one way of improving the breed." Monteith's view, on the other hand, was that the principal goal is to discover the possibilities for education in the students you have, to encourage motivation and the desire to learn, and to make every effort to accomplish these objectives. At Oakland the importance of maintaining a professional distance from the students; at Monteith the importance of communication at all levels. The continual interchange among faculty about their students and their teaching at Monteith; the absence of this at Oakland. The preoccupation of a large segment of the Oak and faculty with the claims of research and the need not to let teaching and the requirements of students occupy them too much, lest their scholarly life be endangered; and the willingness of the Monteith faculty to look on the educational process as a total experience, not limited to the classroom. Obviously, not all faculty at either place thought alike on these matters, but a prevailing attitude toward them quickly stamped each institution.
There are circumstantial accounts of the grading system as trauma, as spur, and as deterrent at Oakland; of dropouts at both places; of the persistence at Monteith of destructive behavior such as cheating, in spite of the effort of the faculty to inspire trust; of the quick creation of a sense of belonging at Monteith and the hindrances to this at Oakland. There is close discussion and documentation of the assets and liabilities of all these attitudes and experiences.
One further observation: In the second year over half of the Oakland students were planning to become teachers. A much smaller proportion of the Monteith students announced such plans, although the proportion rose from 7 percent in 1963 to 35 percent in 1969. One wonders whether exposure to either of these highly-charged educational enterprises made these students better elementary or high school teachers than they might otherwise have been. This book can't provide that kind of information, but it would be useful to have, especially for people who are interested in what happens to students long before they enter college.