HIGHER EDUCATION: raison d’être

January 28, 2015

As I’ve posted many times, higher education is, unfortunately, crossing over into traditional training objectives — and, away from its historical goals.

We see the movement away from a liberal arts exposure (with its attendant focus on thinking) and toward an almost exclusive emphasis on “skills training” in a specific academic discipline where the almost-sole intent of preparing students for professional labor becomes the norm — the historical province of skills training.

With that thought in mind, let’s look at some other opinions on the subject, “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. “ (“What Is College For?” by Gary Gutting (American philosopher and endowed chair in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame), published in THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Ex-congresswoman (R-New Mexico) and former Rhodes Scholar, Heather Wilson, in her THE WASHINGTON POST article, “Our Superficial Scholars,” offered similar opinions:

“I have, however, become increasingly concerned in recent years — not about the talent of the applicants (for Rhodes Scholarships) but about the education American universities are providing. Even from America’s great liberal arts colleges, transcripts reflect an undergraduate specialization that would have been unthinkably narrow just a generation ago. (It is not unusual today for a “professional major” to include nearly half of the total number of hours required for graduation!)

As a result, high-achieving students seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.

. . . Our great universities seem to have redefined what it means to be an exceptional student. They are producing top students who have given very little thought to what matters beyond their impressive grasp of an intense area of study.

This narrowing has resulted in a curiously unprepared and superficial pre-professionalism.

. . . We are blessed to live in a country that values education. Many of our young people spend four years getting very expensive college degrees. But our universities fail them and the nation if they continue to graduate students with expertise in biochemistry, mathematics or history without teaching them to think about what problems are important and why.”

Coupled with the current obsession for standardized testing in our public schools, we should be concerned. History is written by individuals who were informed, pondered, explored and led when either circumstances or education liberated their imaginations and creative talents.

More on Monday – – –

— Bill Walton: co-Founder, ITC Learning
(Mondays & Wednesdays)