I could not agree more with everything Clare Potter, the “Tenured Radical,” has to say in her in recent post, “A New Deal for Higher Education: Start With Small Classes for Everyone.” She makes a compelling argument for small classes.
A commitment to smaller classes could transform higher education, not just by creating a better classroom experience for learners and teachers, but because it would require an enhanced commitment to the hiring of more faculty rather than more technicians, tutors and administrators to cope with the problems and dissatisfactions that large, alienating classes produce. There are many reasons why the job market is glutted with well-educated Ph.D.’s who are dying to teach, but one of them is that over time our tolerance for large classes has grown dramatically over time, even at elite liberal arts colleges that have the resources to do better. Currently, colleges want to have it all: they want the option of growing class sizes even further and lay claim to a spirit of innovation that promises individual attention to each of 19 — no, 25 — no, 50 — no 150 — students. That individual attention is often actually delivered, not by faculty, but by tutors, math centers, writing centers, teaching assistants, learning centers, computing centers, academic deans — many of which come at a significant cost, in personnel, in new buildings, and in an ongoing commitment to maintaining infrastructure and technology.
But does Tenured Radical really believe that this is possible, especially in this economic climate? Perhaps such a proposal of reform might have a chance of getting a hearing at a highbrow liberal arts college like Wesleyan, but it will have very little traction at the hundreds of schools with smaller endowments who rely on tuition dollars to pay the bills. Small classes might open up more jobs and improve education, but from the perspective of colleges that have had to make serious cut-backs of late, such a proposal seems outrageously impractical.
Don’t get me wrong. I share the Tenured Radical’s idealism about how to reform higher education. I love most of her ideas about classroom size. Who wouldn’t? I encourage you to read her post. But not all of us teach at Wesleyan. In a recession this kind of idealism, I am afraid, carries little weight.