bridging the gap between what universities can offer and what students can do

At its best, a college education offers students–regardless of their career plans–opportunities to participate as apprentices in real research that addresses unanswered and pressing questions. That experience is good for the mind and the character. I think people understand the value of such work in a scientific context; they realize that they (or their children) would benefit from a summer’s work in a biology lab. The humanities, the arts, and the social sciences offer comparable benefits.

It is largely in order to create such opportunities that we train college teachers in PhD programs that emphasize research; that we grant them tenure in return for a record of active scholarship; and that we expect them to publish in peer-reviewed journals.

But the fact is that most students never experience actual research. Most do not come to college with the skills and knowledge necessary to take advantage of such opportunities. Many would not willingly choose to participate in research. A majority of American professors are not actually and currently involved in scholarship. And some of the most prolific and talented scientists and scholars are uninterested in teaching of any kind. The combination of those factors reduces the set of students and faculty who work together on real research problems to a very small number.

I’d resist any reforms that would reduce the size of that set or that would limit such experiences to elite institutions. Thus I’d resist efforts to move professors away from scholarship. But I also reject the status quo. We can’t be satisfied if most students miss the intended benefits of higher education–benefits that are supposed to derive from tenure, peer-review, and graduate education. Nor can we simply wring our hands in despair or blame other institutions, such as high schools, if there is a gap between students’ backgrounds and the best opportunities we offer at our institutions. We have to take responsibility for the gap.

Some of the most promising answers, such as the Gemstone Program at my university, pull together teams of students to conduct ambitious collaborative projects over more than one semester. This is a different model from the individual student in the lab or seminar room. The research is student-led, hence not really at the frontier of an academic discipline. In some cases, students pursue questions that have already been answered; they reinvent the wheel. But their projects are challenging, and the professors who coach them can draw on their expertise.

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