Roles and Purposes of Higher Education

This year my school worked with the Policy Center on the First Year of College, now known as the Gardner Institute. Campus leadership used Gardner’s guidance to scrutinize our first year students’ experience. Gardner recommends organizing the work around nine committees, one committee for each of the “dimensions” they have identified. One of the dimensions is called Roles and Purposes. That committee’s central question was “what are the roles and purposes of higher education for our students?”

I was glad not to be assigned to that committee because I was skeptical that meaningful responses to that question exist. We have over 25,000 undergraduates. To distill a shared purpose for them would leave us with statements bland to the point of meaningless. The most common such meaningless answer is that the purpose of higher education is “learning to think” (see the second letter here) or its evil cousin, “developing critical thinking skills.” That answer makes me cringe. What does that even mean? As one Wall Street Journal headline put it, “Maybe College Is Too Late to Learn to Think.”

I teach in our business school. The business undergraduates are relatively (and delightfully) untortured by the roles-and-purposes question. The easy answer for most of them, and their families, is “to help me get a great job.”

My fellow committee members in the Gardner work resisted that answer as the primary purpose of higher ed, and even, I suspect, look down on that answer. I have some empathy for the nobler roles and purposes, like nurturing curiosity, becoming an informed citizen, learning to appreciate beauty in its many forms. But I also accept the “help me get a great job” answer as one-hundred percent legitimate, with no apology needed. That answer has the added benefit of being authentic, a pretty accurate reflection of many students’ goals. The nobler roles and purposes represent the faculty’s aspirations for the students’ goals.

The “get a great job” framing has something else going for it. I think it has more depth to it than some give it credit for. Embedded in that goal is figuring out what a “great job” is, what that means for the individual student. It represents finding one’s place. It represents a future where one is a productive contributor, a more evolved state than an on-demand term-paper writer and scantron-bubbler. It represents learning how one will serve other people and purposes larger than one’s GPA and oneself.

Still, there is resistance to the “get a great job” framing as unrefined, crass.

I applaud the work of our Roles and Purposes Committee. In the end, there were some pretty satisfying articulations of roles and purposes, way beyond “learning to think.” Here’s one of the statements I especially liked: “Encourage Intellectual Exploration & Inquiry….[Our programs should] encourag[e] students to grow beyond their previous academic experience by helping them to adapt to college-level academic standards and higher levels of personal responsibility for learning.” I like the personal responsibility for learning. Or just personal responsibility, and growing up, period.

I offer a few stockpiled nuggets, expressions of the lofty goals we have for the enterprise of higher education.

  1. In the 100 Semesters, William Chace writes, “a university lives amid the precious things of a culture…. [I]ts teachers preserve them, and…its students are witnesses to the moments when that protection takes place” (p. 104). I love how this captures the interplay of teaching and research. This statement is a little sappy, but I love it.
  2. An echo of that Chace statement comes from a surprising source, a businessman-turned-high-school-teacher, Rod Baird. Baird wrote a book called Counterfeit Kids: Why They Can’t Think and How to Save Them. The title can be read with bluster and arrogance or with care and concern. The book has both. Baird writes “when teachers aren’t knowledgeable and passionate to the point of being borderline fanatical, how will they be able to transfer that knowledge and passion and compulsive purposefulness to their students?” (p. 229, emphasis added). While Chace is a romantic about education and the consummate insider, Baird is a frustrated, critical outsider who sees so many problems with society’s patterns of educating our young. But the romantic and the critic agree on something, that the teacher’s own passion for learning is a powerful model.
  3. In his Experts column in the Wall Street Journal, Karl Ulrich writes that optimal educational environments “[i]nstill a greater desire to learn.” This column covers why business schools should support their students in starting businesses. He recognizes the power of intrinsic motivation. How better to generate “personal responsibility for learning”?
  4. In Building a Better Teacher, Elizabeth Green elaborates on rigor and critical thinking. She explains that rigor is being able to talk about an idea using the appropriate vocabulary of a discipline. Using that vocabulary isn’t just to sound smart. The specialized vocabulary allows for depth of thought. Further, rigor is knowing what appropriate evidence is in a context (or discipline, if there is one) and how to marshal it. These all sounds like “roles and purposes of higher education” to me.

We faculty need to make peace with the fact that the students’ conceptions of the roles and purposes of higher education will not match ours. Students want to figure out what’s next, to make new friends, to have some fun, to experience life on their own. They want to launch great careers. And most of them want to learn something, too. Let’s meet them where they are. Let’s look for the common ground, to show them, through our passionate devotion to our disciplines and to them, how what they want to get out of the experience of college and what we want for them aren’t so different.

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