February 8, 2016

“Colleges and universities in the West derive from medieval bodies established primarily for teaching and training (principally in law and medicine). Their purposes were established by reference to a common culture, common goals, and a common source of normative authority. By stages, things changed with the reformation and the development of civic universities.

The first colleges in North America, however, were again religious foundations based on the liberal arts. The 19th century saw serious questioning about the purposes and nature of higher education giving rise to some important debates and reforms. In the 20th century the trend has been to mass participation; and now in the 21st a number serious questions again arise about the current purposes and future viability of universities. . . .
(from “Have Universities Lost Their Way,” a lecture by Professor of Philosophy John Haldane, from the University of St. Andrews)

In this country we see the movement away from a liberal arts exposure (with its attendant focus on thinking as exemplified by the great ideas and achievements made by history’s giants of thought and contribution). Instead, we are encountering an almost-exclusive emphasis on “skills training” in a specific academic discipline with the sole intent of preparing an individual for professional labor — the historical province of skills training.

An insightful column by former New Mexico republican representative in the U.S. House, Heather Wilson, entitled, “Our Superficial Scholars,” (The Washington Post ) relates to this unfortunate shift in higher education.

“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 (and, away from the traditional principles of learning) in our public school system, 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 Wednesday – – –

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

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