Today’s recognized value of higher education

Seuss_Could it be, that dear old Dr. Seuss said it best…learning how to learn is better than knowing!

When we talk about topics in higher education, words like MOOC, DQP, Assessment, Retention, Common Core, Accountability, and Accreditation swirl around us with ever-increasing velocity – each one carries with it either an explicit or implicit commercial purpose. I propose we stand back and take a deep breath before we let these words over-complicate the concept of education.

It was Albert Einstein who once said, “the sole function of education is to open the way to thinking and knowing…” Does education, as it is today, achieve this?

If we think it does, why are we being told to prove more than ever that students are learning?

We learn from feedback…sometimes self-generated feedback from self-assessment, sometimes from the feelings of success or failure at what was attempted. Sometimes the feedback comes from the environment; and sometimes the feedback comes from another person or a group. From wherever the feedback originates, we use it to modify our future actions to either reinforce our previous behavior or change it. This is true of all learning, from motor skills, to self-reflection, to cognition of the world around us.

Education is thus a subset of learning. To learn something, such as chemistry or sociology, is to learn within a framework as prescribed by practitioners or institutions. One has to learn a vocabulary, a lot of facts, and theories that give structure to those facts. But we should also learn how to discover new facts, reorganize the facts, and to create new theories of explanation/argument/questions/perspectives. The real problem, it seems to be, is that our students aren’t learning how to learn. They aren’t developing academic and self identities, discovering how to live independently, solving problems and making decisions, or altering their perspectives – and in the end, isn’t that what a higher education is suppose to be?

If you’re intent on just knowing, then you’ve put yourself in a holding pattern with very limited ability to be able to grow. If you learn how to learn, you open yourself up to possibility.

Consider the perspective of the following author, writer and professor, William Deresiewicz, in his August 2015 essay, The Neoliberal Arts: How college sold its soul to the market:

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership

service

integrity

creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

A spatial structure, the sentence also suggests a temporal sequence. Thinking clearly, it wants us to recognize, leads to thinking independently. Thinking independently leads to living confidently. Living confidently leads to living courageously. Living courageously leads to living hopefully. And the entire chain begins with a college that recognizes it has an obligation to its students, an obligation to develop their abilities to think and live.

Finally, the sentence is attributed to an individual. It expresses her convictions and ideals. It announces that she is prepared to hold herself accountable for certain responsibilities.

The second text is not a sentence. It is four words floating in space, unconnected to one another or to any other concept. Four words — four slogans, really — whose meaning and function are left undefined, open to whatever interpretation the reader cares to project on them.

Four words, three of which — “leadership,” “service,” and “creativity” — are the loudest buzzwords in contemporary higher education. (“Integrity” is presumably intended as a synonym for the more familiar “character,” which for colleges at this point means nothing more than not cheating.) The text is not the statement of an individual; it is the emanation of a bureaucracy. In this case, a literally anonymous bureaucracy: no one could tell me when this version of the institution’s mission statement was formulated, or by whom. No one could even tell me who had decided to hang those banners all over campus. The sentence from the founder has also long been mounted on the college walls. The other words had just appeared, as if enunciated by the zeitgeist.

But the most important thing to note about the second text is what it doesn’t talk about: thinking or learning. In what it both does and doesn’t say, it therefore constitutes an apt reflection of the current state of higher education. College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.

Call it Reaganism or Thatcherism, economism or market fundamentalism, neoliberalism is an ideology that reduces all values to money values. The worth of a thing is the price of the thing. The worth of a person is the wealth of the person. Neoliberalism tells you that you are valuable exclusively in terms of your activity in the marketplace — in Wordsworth’s phrase, your getting and spending.

The purpose of education in a neoliberal age is to produce producers. I published a book last year that said that, by and large, elite American universities no longer provide their students with a real education, one that addresses them as complete human beings rather than as future specialists — that enables them, as I put it, to build a self or (following Keats) to become a soul. Of all the responses the book aroused, the most dismaying was this: that so many individuals associated with those institutions said not, “Of course we provide our students with a real education,” but rather, “What is this ‘real education’ nonsense, anyway?”

A representative example came from Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist:

Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it.

Pinker is correct. He is emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education. David Brooks, responding to both Pinker and myself, laid out the matter very clearly. College, he noted, has three potential purposes: the commercial (preparing to start a career), the cognitive (learning stuff, or better, learning how to think), and the moral (the purpose that is so mysterious to Pinker and his ilk). “Moral,” here, does not mean learning right from wrong. It means developing the ability to make autonomous choices — to determine your own beliefs, independent of parents, peers, and society. To live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

Only the commercial purpose now survives as a recognized value. Even the cognitive purpose, which one would think should be the center of a college education, is tolerated only insofar as it contributes to the commercial. Everybody knows that the percentage of students majoring in English has plummeted since the 1960s. But the percentage majoring in the physical sciences — physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and so forth — has fallen even more, by some 60 percent. As of 2013, only 1.5 percent of students graduated with a degree in one of those subjects, and only 1.1 percent in math. At most colleges, the lion’s share of undergraduates majors in vocational fields: business, communications, education, health. But even at elite institutions, the most popular majors are the practical, or, as Brooks might say, the commercial ones: economics, biology, engineering, and computer science.

It is not the humanities per se that are under attack. It is learning: learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake, ideas for their own sake. It is the liberal arts, but understood in their true meaning, as all of those fields in which knowledge is pursued as an end in itself, the sciences and social sciences included. History, sociology, and political-science majors endure the same kind of ritual hazing (“Oh, so you decided to go for the big bucks”) as do people who major in French or philosophy. Governor Rick Scott of Florida has singled out anthropology majors as something that his state does not need more of. Everybody talks about the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math — but no one’s really interested in science, and no one’s really interested in math: interested in funding them, interested in having their kids or their constituents pursue careers in them. That leaves technology and engineering, which means (since the second is a subset of the first) it leaves technology.

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Article source: Harper’s Magazine Online, August 2015

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