How Scholars Trumped Teachers

Larry Cuban
New York: Columbia University Press, 1999
280 pp., $28.95 pb

Steve Lockwood

How Scholars Trumped Teachers fits in the category of historical review. Stanford Professor of Education Larry Cuban, by mining Stanford's archives, conducting interviews, and drawing on his prior research on American teaching over the last 100 years, makes a credible case to support the book's subtitle, "Change without Reform in University Curriculum, Teaching, and Research, 1890-1990.

Cuban presents his case through an introduction, six chapters, copious endnotes, and a 355-entry bibliography. In the introduction he outlines his argument and establishes Stanford as typical of quality Carnegie-defined Research I institutions in America. Chapter one traces Stanford's history from its beginning in 1891 to 1997, and explains the elective system, inherited from Cornell, that formed the basis of its curricular philosophy. It also explains the hybrid university-college compromise between the German university's ideal of value-free creation of knowledge and the medieval English university's ideal of value-laden instruction that shapes character and citizenship (178, 245 n.26). The tension between these competing ideals accounts for the still prominent stresses between research and teaching in the academy.

Chapter two attempts to explain "How Universities Tame Reform to Preserve the Research Imperative." Here Cuban distinguishes between incremental and fundamental change, and uses organizational theory to analyze universities as bureaucracies with describable structures (hierarchies of administrators, staff, and faculty, and policies that govern admission, funding, and so on), cultures ("beliefs, languages, rituals, and practices" 63) that direct the beliefs of the university community, and processes, those formal and informal communications, bargainings, and allocations of resources that control departmental and college practices, as well as actual teaching and advising. The rest of the chapter explains through several case studies how and why incremental changes occur without re-forming the structures, cultures, and processes of universities.

Chapter three traces curricular and instructional changes that developed in Stanford's History department from its inception; History is offered as a typical example of a humanities department. Chapter four does the same for the college of medicine at Stanford, which represents professional schools and the life sciences (especially anatomy, biology, chemistry). Chapter five compares and contrasts these two disciplines, noting that even though they differ considerably in size and funding, they share many more concerns, especially those about the amount of time and merit devoted to research and to teaching.

Chapter six then confronts how the tension generated by the academic work of research and teaching has influenced university structures and processes, and what possible changes might redress the imbalance that at present favors research heavily over teaching.

Cuban shows both why and how the "hybrid" higher education system in America has encouraged the unrealistic expectation for two different skills in one professor. When large public and private schools in America sought to join undergraduate and graduate education, they established what Cuban calls the hybrid university-college. This hybrid creates a tension between research as a pursuit that creates knowledge and teaching as a personalized craft that conveys it. Even though many faculty and administrators believe that research reinforces teaching, a good deal of evidence supports the contrary view (38, 184, 188, 247 n.51). For example, research is usually very narrow inquiry in a discipline; teaching, by comparison, usually requires a broad survey approach. Professors who gain knowledge from research don't always have the skill to transmit it, as anyone in the business of education can attest. But since no consistent standards exist for evaluating teaching (31), and since such standards for research do exist and have continued to develop over the last century, most schools count and reward publications and, beyond scattered teaching awards, place little weight on teaching (48, 186) For most of us the most revealing of Cuban's claims is that the endless tinkering with curriculum stems from the tensions between research and teaching. Faculty putter with the curriculum to find a compromise between the elective model (a product of the research imperative) and the didactic model for morality and citizenship (a prerogative of the teaching imperative).

Ultimately for Cuban, the tensions produced by the dual responsibilities of teaching and research are intractable, for the following reasons. If both values could routinely be fulfilled in one person, professors by now would have discovered some way to resolve them. This hasn't happened, and not because professors have no interest in teaching. Surveys of the professoriate, both early (1906) and later (1970s & 1980s) revealed that more than half believed their duties included shaping citizens--the moral imperative (246). And, most want to teach well (202). But even though most people realize that knowing one's subject and teaching it are distinctly different (171, 183), university systems continue to insist that professors be competent in both.

Another formidable barrier to adjusting the value disparity between research and teaching is the preference given to research by powerful social agents: "profit-driven corporations, all levels of government, and popular opinion" (199). Also, universities that achieve success with a current organizational plan have little incentive to change. And since universities imitate one another as a competitive tactic, they are very cautious about trying structural shifts that might place them at a disadvantage (81-82). To institute some lasting change takes several dedicated top administrators with the power to create it, and a faculty willing to adopt it; this generally entails a 5-10 year commitment. But the short tenure of most presidents and provosts reduces this possibility considerably (205).

As Cuban notes, the practical value of such historical studies as his is to reduce reformers' amnesia about what has been tried, so new initiatives may have a better chance of success (201). And he states emphatically that "this study is not a case of how the research imperative has ruined universities by ignoring teaching" (198, emphasis in original).

Could the study be worded more strongly? Yes; as Cuban says, others find that the official pronouncements concerning the compatibility between research and teaching are deliberate deceptions--as Cuban says in an endnote. Samuel Bloom, for example, also studied Stanford and concluded that the stance taken by many of the same persons cited by Cuban was concocted only to soothe the public, not to change university practices (242 n.75). Although Cuban does state that such controversy lies outside the scope of his historical review, omitting discussion in his text of these charges minimizes the extent to which administrators--often with faculty support--dissemble to the public. The tone of Cuban's study is pretty much the neutral, disinterested one most academics expect from a researcher studying the migratory patterns of crayfish. It's a tone that belies the unethical coverups that some campuses employ to downplay publicly the research-teaching tensions, which are often bitterly divisive.

One of the study's weaknesses is relegating important information to content endnotes instead of integrating it into the text. This editorial decision simply makes more work for a reader. And although Cuban carefully defines a number of terms at the outset, he doesn't define teaching until nearly the book's end when he ties it to one of his main assumptions about a university education, "that professors will inspire the young to use knowledge creatively and constructively" (201). Several times in the book Cuban calls teaching a craft, and states that pedagogy and content are intimately connected. Finally, like Robert Scholes in The Rise and Fall of English (1998), he defines teaching as modeling. "To teach is to model character as much as intelligence. To teach is to convey unveiled enthusiasm for ideas, for inquiry, as it is about the details of a lecture or a response to a student's question in a seminar. Too often, teaching has been stripped of its artistic and human dimensions and made into a series of technical moves that can be swiftly learned and put into practice by anyone of average intelligence" (202). One might wish a closer explicit association of this definition with Stanford's 1954 self study: "Students come, or should come, to a major university more to learn than to be taught" (40, emphasis in original).

Cuban's study serves as an admirable guide through historic responses that have worked and that haven't. In a final pronouncement Cuban says that universities are not mere extensions of society; they are different and they wield power. If enough of an institution's internal constituents agreed on a strategic course, they could, by incremental change, bring research and teaching into balance (206).

For those who wish to study this balance, Cuban's book serves as an admirable survey of initiatives that may work.

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