October 21, 2013

The word “Education,” like the word “Peace,” conjures up a positive response in our minds. Yet, I would maintain that, today, higher education is destructively flawed.

American colleges and universities are no longer as dedicated to the liberation of human potential. They are no longer as interested in challenging the young minds they encounter. Rather, American higher education has turned inwards on itself in an attempt to quantify — trivialize — and, formulize — the human intellect.

One aspect of this decline was addressed by Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, in THE NEW YORK TIMES Opinionator, “What is College For?” (December, 2011):

. . . Professors have ceased to expect genuine engagement from students and often give good grades (B or better) to work that is at best minimally adequate.

This lack of academic engagement is real . . . it results from a basic misunderstanding — by both students and teachers — of what colleges are for.

First of all, they are not simply for the education of students. This is an essential function, but the raison d’être of a college is to nourish a world of intellectual culture; that is, a world of ideas, dedicated to what we can know scientifically, understand humanistically, or express artistically. In our society, this world is mainly populated by members of college faculties: scientists, humanists, social scientists (who straddle the humanities and the sciences properly speaking), and those who study the fine arts. Law, medicine and engineering are included to the extent that they are still understood as “learned professions,” deploying practical skills that are nonetheless deeply rooted in scientific knowledge or humanistic understanding. When, as is often the case in business education and teacher training, practical skills far outweigh theoretical understanding, we are moving beyond the intellectual culture that defines higher education.

Our support for higher education makes sense only if we regard this intellectual culture as essential to our society. Otherwise, we could provide job-training and basic social and moral formation for young adults far more efficiently and cheaply, through, say, a combination of professional and trade schools, and public service programs. There would be no need to support, at great expense, the highly specialized interests of, for example, physicists, philosophers, anthropologists and art historians. Colleges and universities have no point if we do not value the knowledge and understanding to which their faculties are dedicated.

Informed passionate advocacy has historically characterized America’s well-educated college graduates. Unfortunately, today’s typical college graduate can only communicate by reciting a meaningless litany of quotations and numbers.

And yet, truly educated women and men know that the preponderance of facts are temporal — and, that human reasoning is empty when it has no cause at its center.

Today’s undereducated society has embraced the antiquated principles of “uniformity” and “conformity.” Our young people are being taught to rely on “rules of conduct,” “guidelines,” “statistical probability,” and “list making” as safe substitutes for thought and informed passion. Our own “Age of Reason” will only breed its own historical share of mediocrity — and, it is our colleges and universities that have dropped the ball. They have embarked on a disastrous path to “graduate all” — while, “educating few.”

Certainly the most recent actions of many BBA and MBA degree holders have ignored the very precepts of any purposeful business: “The building and fostering of an ever-increasing customer base combined with the continued opportunity for growing employment.”

But it is not just in business that we have moved toward narcissistic goals. Law schools and medical schools are becoming more concerned with their professional practices than with their roles as protectors and healers.

Schools of journalism are emphasizing the fame associated with the role of “investigative reporter” rather than with their responsibilities for full, fair, and accurate reporting.

Even liberal arts colleges have assumed a defensive posture. They believe today that if knowledge cannot be subjected to an objective and measurable test, it cannot be valid. Today’s students no longer have to understand Sophocles, Aristotle and Thoreau — they only have to be able to memorize them.

In short, too many of our college and university programs are moving away from “education” and, instead, adopting “skills training” as their almost sole reason to exist. Both have a valid place in our society. Training, of course, gives us skills and a pathway to a more secure future while Education should exist to open the doors in an individual’s mind in order that society can continue its slow but steady advance.

More on Wednesday – – –

— Bill Walton, Founder
ITC Learning

www.itclearning.com/blog/ (Mondays & Wednesdays)
e-Mail: bwalton@itclearning.com