Book Notes & Thoughts: How Scholars Trumped Teachers, by Larry Cuban

phd082508sThis summer I had a long reading list… but my writing list had better deadlines. Inadvertently, I did manage to read this book, How Scholars Trumped Teachers, by Larry Cuban.

Larry Cuban is a Professor Emeritus of Education from Stanford University and very well known for his book (along with David Tyack) called Tinkering toward Utopia on school reform (or lack thereof). I found out that he had been posting on his blog about Personalized Learning, which we’ve also been studying. So I looked up his books and found this one and requested it from the library. But instead of sitting on my desk with all the other books from the library, I started reading it, even when I didn’t really have the time. (Sometimes I call this “productive procrastination.”)

In his book, he examines two questions:

  1. “Over the last century, how have university structures and processes, including curricular reform, influenced the academic work of research and teaching?”
  2. “Why has scholarship trumped teaching in universities?” (p.2)

He uses Stanford University as a case study to examine the university-college model, though he regularly draws comparisons to University of Chicago, Harvard, University of California – Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Clark University, among others.

Cuban begins with the contradiction between the statements of two scholars, Irving Kristol and Jacques Barzun, respectively, that the university is the “least inventive” institution and that the university does “nothing but innovate” (p.1). Kristol points out, as an example, the “durability of research eclipsing teaching within the university” (p.1), whereas Barzun can point to the numerous attempts at reform. In order to explore this contradiction, Cuban uses the tension between teaching and research. While some try to cast the duties of teaching and research as reinforcing and symbiotic, other professors feel that teaching takes too much time (see the comic above).  I found this piqued my curiosity as to how Cuban would resolve these two statements, which (spoiler alert) he doesn’t. In fact he ends the book on a realistic (though not fatalistic) note, that universities (like the K-12 system) tend to tame reforms and that solutions are not likely to work.

History that I learned: The “stunning resilience” of universities and the German influences. “Since the mid-1500s in the Western world, there have been 66 institutions that have survived and can be easily recognized today. They are the Catholic and Lutheran Churches, the Parliaments of Iceland and the Isle of Man, and 62 universities” (p.191). Our university-college system was designed in the mid to late 1800s. It drew on principles of the pursuit of knowledge through the scientific method, now separated from the church. “The ideal of unfettered faculty freedom of inquiry was embedded in the 19th century German university.” (p.13) The “Ph.D.” is an “import from Germany, … Americanized in the late 19th century but [it has] retained its distinct gatekeeping mission of certifying that freshly minted professors had discovered new knowledge through investigation.” (p.57) I had read previously about the German “bildung” and the approach of education, where learning is about cultivating a “life’s work,” developing an identity, and making meaning. The opposite, of course, would be the more industrial, efficiency-based ideal of education as the training for the work force. These two contrasting educational goals come up time and again in K-12 reforms. I think I like the bildung model better. Hmmm, might be time for some Hegel.

The most interesting thing that I pulled from this book was his model for diagramming how reforms change over time. He creates a graph with the breadth of a reform along the x-axis and the depth of a reform along the y-axis, then he is able to locate particular reforms on the graph and draw arrows as to what happens to it over time. (p.67, 75)


I then tried to apply this to our work with Personalized Learning programs:


A couple observations: the five programs that I used are in three different quadrants, highlighting that they were really different from each other. This might be a nice way to show that our phenomenological survey of programs represents a variety of programs. The large arrow for Anderson shows that what started as a small program has now grown and impacted the school much more broadly to the point. I suspect, however, that that arrow will begin to curve upwards back into the incremental area. This graphic representation does not show the level at which these changes are happening. In the case of our PL schools, these are all at the teacher-student level, but you could do this equally for changes at the discipline/division/department level or school/district/institutional level.

Finally, for me, this book brought out the historical, sociocultural, and political forces shaping my current experience in graduate school and hopefully future work as a professor. As Michael Apple would say, schools do reproduce society but they are also sites of struggle, and in our study of them, we can find spaces for interruption, for change.

It is easy to let these forces fade into the background, ignoring their influence. But they were designed: they are the result of decisions people made. Cuban proposes “strategic incrementalism,” or a “short-term tinkering toward a defined long-term purpose” (p.205). Not that everything always comes back to improvement science, but tinkering, designing, starting small, learning fast… it sounds familiar.

After finishing this book and reading many more of Cuban’s blog posts, I have reenergized excitement for the History of Education seminar that I will take this fall and beginning my new research assistant work. Sometimes I end up reading the right book at the right time – glad this one made it on my desk!


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