The New York Review of Books recently published an article entitled “Our Universities: How Bad? How Good”, where Peter Brooks addresses many of the leading criticisms of our Higher Education system. Like so many recent critiques, the piece offers not one but many ideals against which to judge our current system, even though some of those different ideals conflict with one another.
The central question comes down to what we believe to be the purpose of higher education. Should it be focus on producing educated citizens for our society or turning young people into economic producers by focusing instead on job skills. This question couldn't be more important for parents of college age students today when the generations-old assumption that a classical, knowledge focused, education will lead naturally to higher lifetime earnings seems to be losing some of its validity.
I find this topic to be extremely compelling. In my 23 years spent working in higher education, I have seen the issue continue to grow. Even in top-ranked colleges, major tension is caused by the debate over the relative importance of critical thinking vs. skills education. The traditional Liberal Arts curriculum is intended to create well-rounded individuals who can leverage the accumulated knowledge of the ages to creatively solve the problems of today. Of course, it is also intended to create well-spoken, well-written individuals who can add to that knowledge base and improve our civilization.
That all sounds pretty high-flown and maybe even a bit impractical. It isn’t. We need well-educated citizens. We need those who can create, build, inspire and lead. People who can take us to the next level culturally and professionally are crucial to our society’s growth and continued existence. It can certainly be argued that such an education IS creating job skills.
Maybe that isn’t good enough. Certainly, students have a right to expect that they can function in the real world once they graduate from college. Obviously, they need to know more than just the classics. It seems to me that balance is the answer. Today, undergraduate business programs are required to have a certain percentage of their curriculum dedicated to liberal arts. Without that, they cannot be certified by the official accreditation agency, AACSB. Other majors like mathematics and the sciences generally require courses that help to establish a balance. Colleges of engineering must also provide and require courses in other disciplines.
There is a tendency, these days, to want to upset that balance. One important factor in this is the trend toward consumerism in all aspects of our society. The parent who is paying for this education wants measurable results. Jobs preparation is a major selling point with both parents and children. A classic education designed to encourage intellectual curiosity is all well and good but it is not any sort of easy sell. Not only does critical thinking not seem to be of interest, but also many students treat it like medicine to be endured, not enjoyed. They want formulas to memorize and use. Parents who are spending huge amounts of money want to know what skills their children will gain, the job placement rates and salary ranges of recent graduates. Outside agencies demand proof of “outcomes”.
So, it's all well and good for outsiders to try to dictate what colleges should be doing, but colleges and universities are not entities that are capable of standing apart from the culture in which they exist. Nor should they. The goal of becoming all things to all people may be impossible, but striving for that goal may also keep our colleges and universities striving for and maintaining the right balance.