'More precious than rubies': The purposes of higher education

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This "Household Words" column appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Macalester Today.

By Brian Rosenberg

It is a deep pleasure for me to share in the ceremonies of Macalester Sunday at House of Hope, an annual recognition of the conjoined histories of two institutions founded by the Rev. Edward Duffield Neill, one of the pioneering leaders of education and worship in the Twin Cities.

Like most of us, I imagined as a child--in my case as a child growing up in the suburbs of New York City--a panoply of future situations and challenges for myself: some more far-fetched than others, particularly those involving center field, Yankee Stadium and the World Series. I will confess that figuring as the featured speaker on a Sunday morning before a large and distinguished Presbyterian congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota, was never one of these.

The subject of my remarks is "education," or more precisely the "purposes of higher education," a subject to which I naturally devote a good deal of whatever thought remains after I perform the rest of my daily job.

We find in even the most ancient and venerable writings about education no agreement about its goals, purposes and desired outcomes. In the Book of Proverbs we are told that "Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. / Though it cost you all you have, get understanding" (4:7), and we are advised by wisdom to "Choose my instruction instead of silver, / knowledge rather than choice gold, / for wisdom is more precious than rubies, / and nothing you desire can compare with her" (8:10-11). At the same time we are told that "A wise man has great power, / and a man of knowledge increases strength" (24:5), allowing for a most interesting discussion about whether education should be seen as an alternative or as a means to worldly wealth and accomplishment. Should education be designed to carry us away from the practicalities of life toward some higher set of values or should it prepare us for those practicalities and therefore for security and even riches? Is education about wisdom and the formation of character or is it about vocation and the development of abilities and skills? And to what extent are these different goals contradictory or compatible?

Among the great thinkers of American history we see similar tensions animating deliberations on how best to educate young people. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, the founders respectively of the Universities of Virginia and Pennsylvania, shared a sense of the importance of higher education but differed somewhat in emphasis: Jefferson focusing more on the relations between education and democratic citizenship and Franklin on what he termed "useful" things such as mathematics, accounting and science. This tension was perpetuated through much of the 19th century as youthful American universities and liberal arts colleges, most of them church founded or related, wrestled with the question of whether their purpose was to form particular kinds of people or to inculcate useful knowledge and critical and practical skills.

We see some of these same conflicts being played out today, perhaps most visibly through what has become known as the Spellings Commission Report, a document on the future of American higher learning prepared by a group under the direction of the Secretary of Education. The report opens with a statement entitled "The Value of Higher Education," which reads:

In an era when intellectual capital is increasingly prized both for individuals and for the nation, postsecondary education has never been more important. Ninety percent of the fastest-growing jobs in the new knowledge-driven economy will require some postsecondary education. Already, the median earnings of a U.S. worker with only a high school diploma are 37 percent less than those of a worker with a bachelor's degree. Colleges and universities must continue to be the major route for new generations of Americans to achieve social mobility. And for the country as a whole, future economic growth will depend on our ability to sustain excellence, innovation, and leadership in higher education. But even the economic benefits of a college degree could diminish if students don't acquire the appropriate skills.

We are in this statement a long way from the Book of Proverbs. Indeed, if the report of the Spellings Commission is to be believed, the debate over the purposes of higher education has been settled once and for all and the answer is, to paraphrase an earlier presidential campaign, "it's the economy, stupid."

Education in the report of the Spellings Commission, education in most of the public discourse in our state houses and in Washington, D.C., education in most of the meetings of chambers of commerce, education as discussed in most of our newspapers and on most of our talk shows, is conceived of chiefly in material and vocational terms: as an engine of personal and communal economic growth, as a tool for workforce development and as a means of maintaining American competitiveness in an increasingly interconnected world. More and more often, educational systems such as the one now emerging in China are held up by policymakers as models of efficiency and national single-mindedness to which we should aspire.

Now, let me be absolutely clear about the fact that I believe this goal to be a good and important one. To educate students without providing the requisite tools for vocational and economic success and security is to abdicate a critical ethical and social responsibility. There is a difference, however, between being a worthy goal and being the only goal, and I fear that we are increasingly in danger of defining education, and especially higher education, entirely in terms of its vocational and economic role: in terms, as it were, of its ability to help us get and spend silver, rubies and gold. Certainly this is and has been true in many parts of the world, including China, where hundreds and even thousands of new universities are being created, almost all of which emphasize career training in engineering, accounting and other subjects that are seen as crucial to economic growth. Given the recent rate of expansion of China's economy, it would be difficult to argue with the near-term effectiveness of this strategy.

In the United States, by contrast, vocational preparation has historically been joined by at least two other central and interrelated goals for higher education: individual enlightenment and self-understanding, or what might idealistically be called the getting of wisdom, and preparation for engaged citizenship in a democratic society. From these other goals have developed the rich diversity and distinctive character of American colleges and universities: the range of public and private institutions, with their many different access points into post-secondary education; the liberal arts curriculum, with its focus on breadth as well as depth of knowledge; the residential college, with its encouragement of instructional opportunities both inside and outside the classroom; the commitment to civic engagement among students and faculty. And from these developments, in turn, have sprung so many of the economic, technological and social accomplishments of this country and its longstanding (if newly threatened and precarious) position of global leadership. I would contend, that is, that our less narrowly focused, more diffuse and in utilitarian terms more "inefficient" form of higher education in America has engendered the flexibility, creativity and sense of collective responsibility that have been the drivers of the most successful and longest-lived experiment in democratic governance in the world.

My fear is that in our quest to redefine education as efficient vocational training and to emulate other educational systems around the world, we will willingly devalue or even abandon these other, more complex and ultimately more challenging goals. Efficiency narrowly understood may come at the expense of effectiveness broadly conceived as the shaping of characters, cultures and values. I do not believe that when Jefferson made his famous comment that "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be," he was thinking merely about the state of the economy.

What does it mean to educate students for citizenship in a free society? Some answers to that question remain unchanged since the days of Jefferson: it means to provide them with the skills, habits of mind and breadth of knowledge that allow for informed participation in democracy; it means inculcating an abiding respect for the humanity of others; it means teaching the nature and importance of the civil exchange of ideas, particularly around difficult issues; it means exposure to and analysis of the best and most beautiful--as well as the worst and most terrifying--that humankind has produced. Some answers to the question have changed: today, and more than ever, it means preparing students to engage with diverse communities and cultures within our cities and our country and around the world and equipping them to use and not be overwhelmed by the opportunities of new technologies. It means readying them to live on a planet whose population is increasingly urban, whose environment is increasingly at risk, and whose distribution of wealth and resources is increasingly uneven. It means doing more than encouraging them to think about the economic benefits of a college degree.

Of the three chief purposes of higher education--career training, self-enlightenment and preparation for citizenship--it may ultimately be the third that is both the most difficult and the most important. It is the most difficult because it is the one goal of education that is not chiefly about the betterment of the self, to which we might naturally be inclined, but about the betterment of and service to others, toward which we might need to be encouraged and around which advanced civilizations must be built; it is the most important for precisely that same reason. If higher education can do one single thing well, I would have it be to teach us, in the words of Yale law Professor Stephen L. Carter, to "come into the presence of our fellow human beings with a sense of awe and gratitude" and to "listen to others with knowledge of the possibility that they are right and we are wrong."

I am convinced that if colleges do this they will ineluctably be educating the people who will work to quell the conflicts and lessen the inequities and reverse the environmental disasters of today because those people will not only know enough but care enough to do so. Perhaps not all of higher education, perhaps not even most of higher education, but some segment of higher education in America had better be pursuing this particular goal--a goal that is indeed in my view infinitely "more precious than rubies" and that truly makes higher education a higher calling--or we will be failing in our responsibility to ourselves, our children and the world they will inherit.