On the Connection Between Research and Undergraduate Teaching
Copyright © 2015 Bruce W. Hauptli
The ideal of a research university dominates the American higher educational scene today. Such institutions claim that they dedicate themselves to research, teaching, and service, but they truly devote themselves to extending and transmitting specialized domains of human knowledge. In such institutions undergraduate education is generally seen as preparatory—its aim to produce individuals who are capable of pursuing graduate work in one of the specialized scientific, scholarly, or professional fields. This is a noble goal, but it should not be the central goal of an undergraduate education.
Faculty members at research universities generally conceive of themselves as members of specialized national disciplinary research communities (as astronomers or zoologists). Such individuals will have only the most minimal sense of identity as undergraduate instructors. The effect of such a situation upon undergraduate education is readily apparent: the curriculum becomes a hodge-podge of offerings without overall coherence, and the students become “consumers” who must “shop” for their education—they are placed in a setting which young Americans know all too well:
they find themselves inside a large educational “shopping mall,” they are given minimal and impersonal “directions,” and they must “purchase” a disparate grab-bag of “credit hours” while visiting a large number of independent “professional boutiques.” Having purchased their allotment of credit hours, these consumers leave the “mall,” find their cars, and depart little wiser (and no richer) than when they entered.
It is not accidental, then, that much of the debate regarding undergraduate education in America today centers around the instructional performance of research universities. Legislatures, businesses, accrediting agencies, and the public at large often articulate demands which point toward the failure of such institutions to provide their students with an adequate undergraduate education.
While the external agents do much themselves to restrict the students’ undergraduate education, they also frequently criticize universities for failing to provide these students with the core components of a traditional liberal education. This sort of education endeavors to furnish students with a broad background of compositional, critical, cultural, aesthetic, humanistic, mathematical, and scientific skills and knowledge. Ideally, such an undergraduate education should facilitate the students’ transformation into critical thinkers. As Harvey Siegel notes, a critical thinker is someone who is “appropriately motivated by reasons: she has a propensity or disposition to believe and act in accordance with reasons; and she has the ability properly to assess the force of reasons in the many contexts in which reasons play a role.”[i] Critical thinkers must not simply understand how to critically assess a position, they must be moved by reason.
As Siegel notes, “when we take it upon ourselves to educate students so as to foster critical thinking, we are committing ourselves to nothing less than the development of a certain sort of person.”[ii] This activity requires that the faculty members themselves not only be such critical thinkers themselves, but that they incorporate critical thinking in their instructional activities. The transformation which should occur in the undergraduate student during both the “general education” and the “major” experiences requires an experienced and dedicated faculty composed of individuals with expertise which collectively spans the fields of human inquiry. These individuals can not effect this transformation simply by standing before the students and speaking. Like democracy, liberal education takes work—neither is something which individuals may create merely by coveting. Active endeavor is called for if individuals are to have these traits (rather than simply having the capacity to some day instantiate them in action).
If such an education is to be possible, the educational community itself must be committed to this ideal and it must provide models of critical thinking which the undergraduate student may observe and emulate. For this reason, teaching in such a community takes time and effort. Such teachers must adopt Israel Scheffler’s model of teaching which holds that:
to teach...is at some points at least to submit oneself to the understanding and independent judgment of the pupil, to his demand for reasons, to his sense of what constitutes an adequate explanation. To teach someone that such and such is the case is not merely to try to get him to believe it: deception, for example, is not a method or a mode of teaching. Teaching involves further that, if we try to get the student to believe that such and such is the case, we try also to get him to believe it for the reasons that, within the limits of his capacity to gasp, are our reasons.
Teaching, in this way, requires us to reveal our reasons to the student and, by so doing, to submit them to his evaluation and criticism....To teach is thus...to acknowledge the “reason” of the pupil, i.e., his demand for and judgment of reasons.[iii]
The research (or scholarly) activities of the faculty provide just such a model, and thus the teaching and research activities of the faculty in a true academic community are essentially intertwined. If the faculty are to foster the transformation of their students into critical thinkers, they must be (and remain) such thinkers themselves, and this is just what their research activities should ensure. The research activities of the faculty constitute their continuing activity as critical thinkers while also ensuring their continuing expertise in the areas of knowledge in which they will “instruct” their students. As Henry Rosovsky notes in his The University: An Owner’s Manual:
...reading and research are not the same thing. One can read merely for pleasure, or to keep up with a subject, or to learn a new skill; perhaps simply to acquire new information. None of these includes the aim of revising an accepted conclusion—of saying something “in the light of newly discovered facts.” Of course, reading (and experimentation) are indispensable research activities, but it is a special kind of reading: purposeful, planned, and goal-oriented....research and publishing, while not identical, are very closely related. For the “revision of an accepted conclusion” to be meaningful, it has to be announced, debated, and adopted or rejected, and that means some form of publication.[iv]
Research may be engaged in for a diverse list of reasons, and similarly the inculcation of critical attitudes may serve a variety of ends. Within institutions of higher education, however, both goals should be pursued for their own sakes. What separates higher education from indoctrination is just the fact that the instructional goal is the development of the critical attitude, and what separates scholarly research from industrial development, government planning, medical treatment, legal representation, or the management of a businesses, is the fact that scholarly research is directed at achieving the truth rather than at achieving economic, political, or legal advantage. Of course, multiple motivations are quite possible (critically trained citizens may be necessary for democracy, and the scholarly pursuit of truth may engender economic, political, and legal vitality), but if a college or university is to be an institution of higher education (rather than a business enterprise or a branch of government), the primary rationale for the pursuit of the constitutive goals must be that they are themselves valuable.
Behind many of the critiques of contemporary higher education is the complaint that the faculty are too involved in “research” when they should be doing more teaching. This is a continuing complaint of state legislators and of many of the critics of higher education in America. This lament is encouraged by the “industrial” model of higher education, and by talk of “productivity” which is construed only in terms of hours spent (by faculty and by students) in the classroom. Higher education is not an immersion program, however, and “research” is not an extraneous activity conducted by faculty members in an effort to avoid spending time in the classrooms. If the university faculty are to foster the transformation of their students into critical thinkers, they must remain such thinkers themselves, and this is just what their research activities should ensure. Their researches constitute their continuing activity as critical thinkers while also ensuring their continuing expertise in the areas of knowledge in which they will “instruct” their students. A university without research is a fraud.
Of course, a research university which is not committed to undergraduate instruction is also a fraud. As noted above, not all forms of “instruction” are appropriate—higher education is not indoctrination, and, institutions of higher learning must be committed to the instructional goal of fostering the development of habits of critical thinking. As I noted, if such instruction is to be possible, the academic community itself must be committed to this instructional ideal, and this requires that it constitute an academic community which encourages the development and transformation of its students.
[i] Harvey Siegel, Educating Reason (New York: Routledge, 1988), p.23.
[ii] Ibid., p. 41.
[iii] Israel Scheffler, The Language of Education (Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1960), p. 57.