Monday, August 23, 2010

The Purpose of Higher Education

One of the continuing debates is what higher education's ultimate purpose is. For many, education is a mere conduit to obtaining a good job and getting paid well. In that case, universities become glorified trade schools for the businesses and corporations they serve. This, sadly is much evident today, as students scurry about taking the right course to better secure a good education and, ultimately, a good well-paying job.

Universities have responded to the business world with open arms, receiving "badly needed" grants, endowed chairs and new buildings emblazoned with the names of their benefactors. It seems like a quid pro quid arrangement. Universities get what they need, and corporations get trained students who are ready, willing and able to work at their businesses, be it finance, marketing or technology companies. But one wonders if it is a Faustian bargain. For the sake of expediency and pragmatism, are we selling our children's future short? Case in point: does society need any more financial engineers? Unlikely.

We do need, however, more students with education in non-specialized fields, like art, history, literature and philosophy. Countless books have warned about this trend toward factory education, which started in the 1960s and has become more noticeable with each passing decade. Some of the noted works include Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, Derek Bok's Higher Learning  and, most recently, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus' Higher Education: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It.

Back in the 1930s, Robert Hutchins, one of the first presidents at University of Chicago, held different views, ones that many would find anachronistic, certainly misplaced in time.  Hutchins, for one, believed in the Great Books series. He also believed in the value of a Liberal Arts education, of the old school. I can hear the many critics now. How would that help prepare students for the Real World? to use one university's moniker.

But that in itself might speak of the problem with today's universities. They have become, in so many respects, farm teams to large businesses. Sure, the students are bright, articulate, tech savvy and full of knowledge of technology and business. But are they well-read? Are they thinking independently? Do they have an adequate knowledge of history, philosophy and English literature? And I am not talking about something they have necessarily read on the Web or Wikipedia. I am talking about in-depth knowledge that comes from assiduous study of the classics.

Hutchins advocated a need for the reading of the Great Books, a list of 100 books that every student ought to read and understand. Such a view was that the emphasis on narrow specialization in American colleges had harmed the quality of higher education, chiefly by failing to expose students to the important products of Western civilization and thought.

He touched the field of journalism, helping to make it more responsible. Hutchins was a proponent of the Social Responsibility Theory (1947), which was recommended by the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press.In countries without freedom of the press, messages are filtered through the government, allowing only what is considered acceptable information to be released to the public.

The Theory acted as a countervailing force against interference from large corporations and governments. In elegant terms, it stated that the media should serve the public, and in order to do so, should remain free of government interference. It defined guidelines that the media should follow in order to fulfill its obligation of serving the public.

I put forth a similar argument for education in general, and higher education in particular. Students ought to become citizens of society, not only to Big Business. If we don't want our students to become mere corporate drones, acting like sheep to their corporate masters, higher education has to incorporate more courses that do not have so-called real world applications. Students have enough courses in technology, business, and so-called business ethics and law etc.

Students and the younger generation require a breath of fresh air, to clear their minds of so much business and technology jargon and cant. If we want to instill a love of learning, universities have to make learning socially responsible. And thoughtful and life-long learners. As Hutchins says: “It must be remembered that the purpose of education is not to fill the minds of students with facts…it is to teach them to think.”


Students need dignity as much as anyone else.

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