Higher ed should aspire to higher purpose

  • Article by: CHARLES NEERLAND
  • Updated: April 12, 2009 - 8:33 AM

Graduates need to calculate and compute. But let's make sure they can ponder and dream, too.

Education reform, whatever it is, is high on the Obama agenda and on the to-do lists of state and local leaders across the country. Deliberations have generated hundreds of task forces and much high-level handwringing about how we are slipping behind foreign competitors. Business leaders in particular offer their expertise and insights, always sincere but often narrowly focused.

Recently, the reform-minded have zeroed in on higher education for raising tuition, saying colleges and universities are pricing their wares to the detriment of everyone except the well-to-do. Never mind that the recession has decimated private donations and public investment.

The business community laments that new knowledge gets bottled up in academic bureaucracy instead of being transferred to commercial applications, producing jobs to sustain our economy.

Higher education is faulted for being inefficient, clinging to its old ways of pedagogy, not shaping curricula to meet the demands of global realpolitik. Every day there is an article in some respected publication decrying our poor record in producing engineers or computer whizzes, while India and China mass-produce such commodities by the thousands every year.

All true, I suppose. We want to graduate the best and brightest, those able to keep us on top. The Flat Earth requires it.

My own experience in higher education as a member of a state oversight board and a trustee of a private liberal arts college was dominated by two issues: finance and relevancy. How do we broaden access, and how do we align course offerings with workplace needs?

Once in a while we talked about increasing cultural understanding and appreciation. Over wine and cheese, we dignified our roles as keepers of the canon of Western thought and tradition, promoting the essential values of the classical, regardless of their immediate application to earning and winning. Then it was back to increasing enrollment and raising capital for the new athletic facility.

Readers might say I am only beating the dead horse of the liberal arts, and I admit the failing. It's in my genes. But I also believe that establishing the connection between that kind of education, the humane, and the doing of all we must do in the real world is the basis of any kind of higher-education reform.

One leads to another, and back again. One informs the other, and improves our decisions to act as good citizens of the world. They are the two peas in the educational pod.

Education reform, in the grand scheme, is necessary and should be perpetual. Each generation must rethink its wants and needs in this ever-changing, speed-filled, dangerous world. Some constants are likewise necessary. For justice, we surely need to break down the barriers to entry. For leadership and national security, we need to generate more and more information, fashion it into knowledge and apply it rigorously for our benefit.

But we also need to renew our sense of higher education. Colleges and universities are not factories, subject to input and output measures alone. They must certainly be places to learn to do, but also to learn to assimilate and nurture and re-create ideas in order for us to continue to be good stewards of the past, skeptics of the comfortable and pat, and devotees of pondering.

Such considerations are unfashionable in this time of repackaging and single-focus reform. I would submit, however, that our country's economic well-being and its standing as a champion of equality and social justice will benefit from a higher-education system that is, on the most fundamental level, inefficient.

That is, a system that values dreams and ambiguity, that competes for the good and the beautiful as well as for the applied invention and global rankings. To be civilized is to be educated, and to be educated is to be moral and happy citizens.

Reform should begin with colleges and universities living up to the mottoes etched (usually in Latin, naturally) on their ivy-covered walls. Cut away some of the ivy and read them.

Charles Neerland, Minneapolis, is a communications consultant.

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