In Defense of the Credit Hour

January 21, 2013

I like the credit hour. There, I said it. After attending many higher-education conferences, I know that I should embrace an educational structure that measures learning, not time. A standard that embraces self-paced learning, experiential learning, and competency-based tools, many people argue, is better than one that marks the time students have endured in a class. Furthermore, the credit-hour standard seems expensive to deliver and inefficient in linking "seat time" to actual learning, and makes it impossible for institutions to realize the productivity gains associated with technological advances.

Granting agencies, the federal government, accrediting bodies, and many higher-education critics believe that the path to educational reform, from MOOCs to life-experience credits, should begin with reimagining the credit hour. In December the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching—the very people who created the credit hour, in 1906—received a grant to rethink this fundamental element of higher education.

But I find myself being quite conservative and traditional on the subject. I want to save the image, if not the reality, of a teacher and class meeting together over a semester, quarter, or trimester to explore a set of questions. Education takes time and must happen in a particular space, either physical or virtual.

I believe, perhaps foolishly, that education is a process, not a destination. Education is not reducible to a set of facts or skills. Rather, it is about a way of being in the world, a set of habits, which help develop curiosity and wonder. Good teachers motivate and build relationships. Good teachers sit and talk with their students about their hopes, dreams, questions, and anxieties. An education is a beginning, not an end.

My paradigm for teaching comes from Socrates. What is interesting about Socrates is that he doubted his wisdom, so he interrogated those who claimed to possess competency, experience, and knowledge. What he frequently learned was that those who claimed to have the answers rarely did. Plato deployed Socrates to offer a model for attaining wisdom, through his impassioned questioning of his peers. That very form of writing, the Socratic dialogue, imitates what should be happening in the classroom, with its give and take between student and teacher.

I know that the critics of the credit hour will point out how the example of Socrates illustrates precisely what is wrong with the existing model. First, Socrates did not have clear learning objectives for his students; his dialogues meander all over the place. Second, there was no outcome assessment, so we are not sure what, if anything, his interlocutors actually learned from these sessions. Third, this would be a very costly model to implement, especially with all the feasting and drinking. Fourth, this kind of education seems to privilege a life of luxury and wealth, which does not match the backgrounds of today's students. Last but certainly not least, it is not clear that any of Socrates' students ever got jobs, probably violating the "gainful employment" rule.

Despite those clear problems, the Socratic dialogues have remained a core humanities text. If we read Socrates carefully, we understand that it is not learning that he valued, but wisdom and virtue—knowing when to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason. Having the time to think and reflect is not the luxury that many of the critics of the credit hour claim it is. From the perspective of the classic liberal-arts tradition, taking the time for deep thought and reflection is what makes us human. To deny our students that experience is to diminish their humanity.

One of the tenets of postmodernism is that time and space have gotten compressed because of technological, economic, environmental, political, social, and cultural forces. The critics of the credit-hour system seek, I believe, to complete that transition and eradicate how time and space affect and shape the educations of our students. It is the hubris of our era to think that through technology and increased productivity, we can create an equivalent to experiencing a set of texts or ideas over a semester, or that we can replace the special time in college that allows people to explore ideas, people, culture, and themselves.

I realize that this ideal does not match the reality of many classes or even the experiences of many students during their college years. The problem, however, is not the failure of the ideal, but our all-too-human limitations in delivering it. Plato would not counsel us to forget the ideal just because so many people are stuck in a cave of illusion. He would implore us to work harder to liberate people from those caves. I believe the call to end the "tyranny" of the credit hour diverts our attention from just how hard it is to teach wisdom.

Forty-five hours, over a semester, is enough time to have conversation, work on building student habits, develop relationships, and to try to make students into good citizens. Is the arrangement perfect? No. What it represents is not necessarily accomplishment or learning, but taking a block of time to try to become wise and virtuous. That is an ideal that I will not trade for the promise of efficiency or increased productivity, or to become an educational banker who stuffs heads full of precious data.

Richard Schur is an associate professor of English at Drury University and co-editor of African American Culture and Legal Discourse (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).