Before We Reform, We Must Know What College is For

This is an age of reform. New model institutions, especially online ones, are offering degrees to students who never interact with professors or step on college campuses. Whereas the heart of collegiate education had long been the liberal arts and sciences, today business is America’s largest major. Increasingly, the liberal ideal of science is being replaced by the technical, vocational language of “STEM.” Fewer and fewer students are spending hours lost in libraries and labs. More and more students are seeking degrees, not an education, because they believe a college degree is necessary to achieve a middle-class life.

Colleges have long served multiple purposes and diverse stakeholders. There’s nothing new about that. What is new, however, is just how much the most touted reforms today threaten the intellectual purposes of college education. It’s as if the pursuit of intellectual goods—knowledge—is wasteful and unnecessary. Students learn these lessons from their parents, from their teachers and counselors in high school, and ultimately from policymakers.

The number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers who have questioned the value of the liberal arts and sciences is too large to list here. They want college to be practical, and their definition of practical is too narrow to encompass thinking as a worthwhile activity that merits public support. Their criticism applies not just to students, but to professors too. What use is all that basic research if it does not yield marketable products?

In other words, colleges and universities are not being asked to make themselves better, but to abandon their reasons for being. Nowhere is this clearer than in the rhetoric around disruptive innovation. Advocates of disruption—which included President Barack Obama—argue that the problem facing America’s colleges and universities is that they are focused on incremental improvements when we need fundamental change. President Donald Trump might agree; he, after all, was the titular head of an online for-profit university, one of the leading sectors for disruption. The problem, we are told, is that traditional schools cannot think outside the box.

I disagree. The problem is that the box has been too porous; our colleges have been too eager to embrace every new trend. Today’s universities are curricular food courts, but the very diversity of today’s multiversity reflects not capaciousness but an empty core. There is no there there. We can hide the absence by using shared metrics: graduation rates, graduates’ salaries, student credit hours, etc., as if it matters little what students attend to during their time in college. In short, I’d argue, we do not need to think outside the box, but remember what the box is supposed to hold inside it.

What’s the Point of College? seeks to do just that. At a time when most reformers are pushing colleges and universities to abandon their core commitments to liberal education and basic research in the arts and sciences, I want to articulate clearly the content of this core and the kinds of practices that will sustain them. The book’s goal is to help us understand why so many of the most prominent innovations—from online education to competency-based education—risk undermining the kinds of activities that students and professors should be undertaking during their time on campus. My hope is that the book makes a case for what we need to do to make our colleges places for intellectual exploration. Developing students’ intellects is no simple task. It takes the right kind of subject matter and the right kind of pedagogy. It requires repetition so that students develop intellectual habits that they may not have had before college. In short, it takes time, and that time must be devoted to intellectual activities.

Is this useless? Of course not. Whether one evaluates the benefits of education in terms of personal growth, civic value, or economic gain, study after study suggests that students who study the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences are well equipped to do well. Employers agree. They want people who think, and who have the background knowledge to ask the right kinds of questions. Learning the arts and sciences in order to gain insight into the world is extremely practical. It is not the only way to be educated, but it is certainly a useful way.

None of this is to deny that we need reform. But before we can reform our colleges and universities, we need to remind ourselves what they are for. We must evaluate reform proposals not just in terms of whether they increase access to degrees, but whether they increase access to the right kind of education. When we speak about reforming how colleges are financed or evaluated or accredited, we must be sure we are helping them become what they ought to be. When we ask about the public value of our investment in research, we must do so in terms that reflect colleges’ and universities’ commitment to the pursuit of truth. And when we ask ourselves how professors can teach better, we must also care about what they are teaching.

Reform is necessary, but reform needs to help colleges and universities serve their mission, not every mission. We must ask ourselves how to make a meaningful college education in the arts and sciences available to any American who seeks it, whether they be younger or older, poorer or richer, first-generation or legacy. We can and must improve our schools, but we must reject reforms that make them worse. Only then can we have the next necessary conversation: how can we make them better?

Johann N. Neem is a professor of history at Western Washington University. He is the author of What's the Point of College?: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform, Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts, and Democracy's Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America.

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