What Is the Purpose of Higher Education? (Part 2)

Higher Education Strikes Back (Weakly)

In Part 1 of this series, “Attack of the Politicians,” I pointed out just how pervasive has become the branding of higher education by politicians and media pundits as being primarily – even exclusively – a mechanism for job preparation. And this idea is apparently not a passing fad. The idea that the value of college is to provide the training young people need to “get a good job” is being treated as a truism among a number of probable candidates for the Republican nomination for president in the 2016 election. In Part 1, I quoted Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin as a specific example.

Because the proposition that the purpose of higher education is job preparation is likely to become even more prominent in the coming months, it is important that we consider the origins and merits of this idea.

I briefly reviewed the complex and ever-changing history of higher education in America in my last post, wherein I noted that the original liberal arts colleges were largely decoupled from anything to do with job training (teaching and the ministry excepted). However, with the expansion of higher education into professional and applied fields beginning in the latter half of the 19th century, a link between higher education and specific areas of employment was quickly established, and it exists to this day. Beginning with agricultural science and engineering, and then expanding into professional fields such as medicine and law (it is no longer possible to enter these professions by apprenticing with practicing doctors and lawyers, as was once the case), there are many well-marked pathways from certain college majors to specific career fields.

Moreover, the rapid expansion of what are now generally called “community colleges” from the 1950s through the 1970s dramatically increased the number of two-year schools having two distinct educational tracks, leading to the associate of arts or the associate of science degrees, respectively. Students in the associate of arts track are able to transfer their work to a four-year college or university, and (at least in theory) obtain their baccalaureate with two additional years of study. Students in the associate of science track generally do not have that option, inasmuch as their track is intended to lead to a terminal degree in applied fields ranging from nursing to electronics technician to auto mechanic.

This expansion of what constituted post-secondary education in America was alarming to faculty in the liberal arts, because they saw their fundamental belief in the virtue of education for education’s sake – the broadening and deepening of understanding, the ethical and social growth of the individual, the commitment to lifelong learning – being corrupted by a focus on specific learning for a specific field of endeavor.

On the other hand, expansion into graduate education and research in fields within the liberal arts, and the shift from an almost exclusive focus on the classics to a continually expanding set of disciplines known as “majors” was, for the most part, accepted much more readily.

The result has been an uneasy truce, wherein faculty from the liberal arts and faculty from applied and professional fields exist side-by-side on many campuses, separated by curricular boundaries that are generally accepted and rarely challenged. The liberal arts faculty claim exclusive jurisdiction over the courses that are included in the “General Education” portion of the curriculum, and typically oppose faculty members in applied fields should they argue for reducing the number of credit hours required in General Education, or for including an introductory course in an applied field within the course options available in the General Education curriculum.

At the same time, the liberal arts faculty at four-year schools acknowledge that students in the associate of science track in community colleges exist, but since these students rarely attempt to transfer to a four-year college or university, they are seen as being “trained,” rather than “educated.” Training is fine, just as long as it doesn’t creep into baccalaureate curricula.

So the mental picture I am trying to create is of a growing landmass, called “higher education,” the boundaries of which are expanding as the ocean levels recede. The high point of this landmass represents the liberal arts and sciences, fields of study that have been present from the time when, in my metaphor, the ocean levels were much higher. As long as the liberal arts, through its program of General Education, can inform the rest of the higher education landmass without being tainted by it, all will be well in the kingdom.

But all is not well today. Especially since the Great Recession of 2008, the liberal arts have been besieged. Many politicians, pundits, parents and even “heretics” from within the higher education establishment see a liberal arts education as an expensive frill, an anachronism and an impediment that stands in the way of the need to streamline, modernize and make less expensive the entire notion of higher education.

The consequence is that the battle lines have been drawn. On one side stand the liberal arts adherents, armed with tradition, history and moral outrage. Everything in which they believe – and their very way of life – are imperiled by the forces of evil and ignorance that oppose them.

On the other side are those who believe higher education must be made more affordable, more accessible, more efficient and more relevant to the needs of America today. They do not see themselves as “forces of evil,” but as realists who are astonished at the recalcitrance of the other side to face reality, and to agree on the need to modernize our system of higher education.

It is not an equal fight. The liberal arts adherents are armed with little more than a voice with which to make thoughtful and well-reasoned arguments, accompanied by (as happened at the University of Wisconsin, in response to Gov. Walker’s expressed desire to reduce state appropriations to higher education and to change the university’s mission) statements of disapproval and condemnation (The New York Times, “Walker’s Wisconsin Budget Has a National Message,” Feb. 4, 2015) or letters to the editor (The New York Times, April 8, 2013, letter to the editor, “What Is the Mission of a University?,” in response to a column by David Brooks, The New York Times, “The Practical University,” April 4, 2013).

Facing what amounts to a few catapults and an occasional vat of hot oil, the other side has tanks, artillery and jet fighters. They have the purse strings, a majority of the political and economic will, and the ear of a public anxious to have access to a less expensive college education that leads to a good job.

The liberal arts are attempting to fend off an overwhelming force. People of good will exist on both sides, but the conversation is becoming increasingly shrill and contentious – and a forum does not seem to exist in which can be had a rational discussion of the pros and cons of the views of each side. Increasingly, the sides are becoming entrenched, and there is no question in my mind that traditional liberal arts education is, as a consequence, in extreme peril.

It is both ironic and tragic that there exists, at this very moment, new and objective data that demonstrate a middle ground exists, one that would, if recognized, allow this destructive war of ideology to be brought to an end. Such an outcome is not just desirable. It is absolutely necessary if we are to preserve the American economy and our way of life.

Next week: Part 3: A New Hope.