A cult of smartness

In higher education, being smart is greatly prized. But over-valuing smartness has downsides.

Alexander Astin is a US academic with vast experience with higher education in the country. During his career, he visited hundreds of campuses and talked with thousands of students, academics and administrators. He became convinced that there is a fundamental malady in the system: an obsession with smartness.  

Astin summarises his concerns in a readable book titled Are you smart enough? How colleges’ obsession with smartness shortchanges students, published in 2016. His focus is entirely on the US but many of his assessments apply to Australia too.

Is your university prestigious?

University leaders greatly prize the status of their institutions. No surprise here. There is a widely known pecking order. Astin says that if you ask people in the US to name the best universities, they regularly come up with the same ones: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley and so forth. The exact rankings might shift a bit over time, but the same ones appear in the top group. What is remarkable is that this order has hardly varied in half a century.

Would you like to be a Harvard graduate?

            In Australia, the same thing applies: those commonly considered the best are the Australian National University, Melbourne, Sydney and so on down the list. The stability of the priority order is remarkable when you compare it to corporations. Apple, Amazon and Google are near the top of the pile but didn’t exist decades ago. Not a single new university has shot into the top group.

            Next consider students. Most of them want to go to a prestigious university. They would rather go to Harvard than Idaho State, at least if they can get into Harvard. In Australia, students are attracted by the status of a university but also by the exclusiveness of a faculty. It’s higher status to study medicine or law than nursing or chemistry. Many high school students want to undertake the most exclusive degree they can. Why “waste” an ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) of 99.9 on studying visual arts when you can do medicine?

            Student preferences are driven mostly by status, with very little attention to the quality of the education provided. The student quest for status is misguided in several ways. One misapprehension is that a high-status university provides a better education. Because status is built mostly on research performance, it does not necessarily correlate with the quality of teaching and the richness of the university experience.

            A second misapprehension is that getting a degree from a high-status university is a worthwhile investment. Universities regularly tout figures showing that graduates earn more over their lifetime than non-graduates. However, this is not a valid comparison, because if those who graduated had chosen a different path, they might have been just as successful. The point is that the qualities of the student may do more to determine their career success than the status of the university they attended or the advantages of the learning that it provided. The pay-off for attending a more selective university or undertaking a more exclusive degree may not be much at all.

            The message for students is straightforward: instead of pursuing status, develop your skills and productive habits.

Are you attracting the best students?

Every university seeks to recruit the best students it can. At the University of Wollongong, this is obvious enough. The prestige of degrees accords with how restrictive they are. Faculties makes special pitches to students with high ATARs. They can become a “Dean’s Scholar” with special advantages. Universities with more money offer undergraduate scholarships to top performing students. Astin summarises the collective experience: “Every college and university, no matter its size or research emphasis, seeks out smart students.” 

            So what? Astin has three responses. First, he notes that the mad scramble to recruit top students is silly from a system point of view. If the students are going to go somewhere, why not just allocate them randomly? The reason is that a university’s status depends on the perception that its students are smart.

A school touts having smart students

            Astin’s second response is that universities have become so obsessed with smartness that they pay more attention to recruiting top students than educating them. As he puts it, “if you look at our higher education system from an educational perspective, this preoccupation with enrolling smart students makes little sense, because the emphasis seems to be more on acquiring smart students than on educating them well …” He provides many telling examples. More on this later.

            His third response is to provide an analogy with the health system. If you are ill and go to a hospital’s emergency department, you will encounter a triage process. Your health problem will be assessed. If it is serious and urgent, you will be taken straight in for treatment. If it is not serious and not urgent, you will have to wait until the urgent cases have been dealt with. If it is nothing to worry about, you’ll be sent home. The health system puts most of its resources towards helping those with the worst health.

            This orientation can be criticised by arguing that far more should be spent on preventive health measures, for example addressing pollution and unhealthy diets. But even in preventive health areas, the emphasis is on measures that help the greatest number of people at lowest cost.

            In contrast, in higher education, most resources are directed towards those who are the highest performing, which means those who need the least support for learning. This is true in university entry, in provision of scholarships and in higher degrees. It is also true in classrooms where teachers give more attention and encouragement to the best students. 

            Astin points out that most teachers give more attention to what students know than to how much they have improved. Few teachers give tests at both the beginning and conclusion of courses in order to see what students have learned. Instead, they give tests to rank students, with the emphasis on seeing who is superior rather than focusing on improvement.

            He notes that giving grades on assignments “is of limited usefulness in helping students improve their performance.” Many of my colleagues give extensive comments on assignments, not just grades. But I’ve also noted that many students focus on the grades, not on using comments to improve. 

            Another shortcoming of most classes is that teachers do not require students to keep working on the same assignment. When students are assigned to write an essay, usually it is marked and then the student moves on to the next assignment. There is more learning when students are expected to consider feedback and work on improving the essay, submitting it again and, if needed, yet again. On the few occasions when I used this approach, I could see its great value. But alas, this requires more time and effort by the teacher and is more challenging when class sizes expand.

Are you a smart academic?

Among academics too, there is a cult of smartness. Those researchers who bring in loads of external money and build up empires of research students and postdocs are highly prized. There is no such glorification of outstanding teachers.

            The emphasis on being smart manifests itself in various ways. Astin says some academics are “maximisers” who seek to display how smart they are. Their questions at seminars are designed to show off their knowledge. Maximisers, when on committees, may become blockers. It’s easier to show your critical acumen by attacking someone else’s proposal than by presenting one’s own.

            Other academics, Astin’s “minimisers,” put a priority on hiding any suggestion that they lack intelligence. This is related to the “imposter syndrome,” in which individuals feel they are faking it and don’t really deserve to be among all those other brilliant colleagues. 

            How nice it would be if it were easier to acknowledge weaknesses and lack of knowledge, to say “I don’t know” and “I need to improve my skills.” 

            Astin lists a whole range of ways that the obsession with smartness affects academic work. It:

• “limits prospects for educational equity
• limits social welfare
• hinders academic governance 
• limits recognition of different forms of intelligence
• limits development of creativity, leadership, empathy, social responsibility, citizenship, self-understanding
• limits finding better methods of assessment” (pp. 100-101)

What to do?

For getting away from the obsession with smartness and helping students who need help the most, Astin offers four principles for helping “underprepared students.”

            The first is to promote engagement with learning, so students are motivated to study. Second is to foster peer interaction, so students learn from each other, including from more advanced students. Third is to have more interaction with academics. The fourth is to emphasise writing skills.

            All these are worthwhile. It’s possible to imagine a university that pioneers systematic peer learning, with students in classes helping each other learn, students in upper-level classes assisting those in lower-level classes, and all spending time assisting disadvantaged students in the community. There are elements of each of these in some places, but shifting universities in this sort of direction seems a mammoth task. As Astin shows all too well, the prestige ranking of US universities is built on and helps perpetuate the obsession with smartness, an obsession that affects students, academics and administrators.

            As critics have argued for decades, the education system serves not just to promote learning but to provide a rationale for social stratification. In other words, it justifies inequality: if you don’t succeed, it’s because you’re not smart enough. The implication of this critique is that changing the role of universities has to go hand in hand with challenging economic inequality. That’s a big task!

            It is still possible to innovate in small ways within universities, and there are options for individuals. Students can choose to attend less prestigious institutions or to undertake less exclusive degrees, thereby questioning the smartness hierarchy. Academics can introduce peer learning in their classes, expand outcomes beyond cognitive tasks and measure learning before and after teaching.

            Then there is the wider issue of the role of universities in society. If learning is the goal, why are degrees needed for certification? The radical alternative of de-schooling — learning by being part of a community designed for that purpose — can be reintroduced and updated for the digital age, in which access to abundant information is possible, and sorting through it and making sense of it are the greater challenges.

            In a way, the biggest indictment of higher education is that it is so difficult to promote educational alternatives, to test out different ways of organising learning and to imagine different ways of pursuing greater knowledge for social benefit. Nevertheless, there remains hope for change when critics like Astin offer the insights of a lifetime and encourage the rest of us to see what is all too familiar with different eyes.

Alexander Astin

Brian Martin